New house, new to gardening

Portland, OR

Hey all,
I am entirely new to gardening, and haven't had much luck growing anything (including houseplants) in the past. The good news is that I did not ruin the garden and yard at my new house. The bad news is that it's already in decline.
The front garden is terraced with stone, with tons of Hen and Chicks, some ferns, a few rose bushes, and several plants and shrubs I can't identify. I am in Oregon, in zone 8A.

Here are links to photos of the front:[email protected]/7945669110/[email protected]/7945670794/

I know that the three largest bushes are the same, but I don't know what they are. I can tell that they need to be trimmed back, and it also seems like they are dying. There are flies swarming everywhere around them, and when I walk up the steps, I can smell a rotting smell. However, it could also be some of the other plants that are rotting. Several of the Hen and Chicks are dying, and some other plants that I can't identify.

So I guess my main questions right now are:

Should I pull out the dying/dead Hen and Chicks, or can I revive them by watering them?

Do I need to do anything with those three big shrubs besides trim them back and water them?

How/when should I trim back the roses? I've heard that you trim them after they blossom, and that you can trim them down very small, but I don't know if that is true.

Is there anything that I am overlooking that I need to take care of with this part of the yard?

There are more photos of the front yard and plants in that same Flickr photostream as the pictures posted above. Thanks in advance for any advise and help! Looking forward to reviving this yard and starting a vegetable garden in the back!

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

AlysiaJ, looking at your photos sent me back to Memory Lane. I was born and raised in Portland, OR. I'm also a beginner gardener and I don't know much about plant species, but I recommend showing your photo album to the folks over at Plant Identification and they will give you excellent advice on how to care for individual species and how to identify the exact species so you can research it on the Internet and find care guides:

My first year of gardening I mostly weeded and removed plants, so I recommend you simplify and organize you garden. Once that's done then I recommend installing a watering system such as soaker hoses or an inexpensive plastic water bottle system:

I got some for about $1 per spike at and have had mixed results. The one I put in my tomato pot works great and my tomato has produced a bumper crop. Even though I hose water the tomato plant daily sometimes that's not enough and when I check my plant I discover that the 2-liter water bottle has completely emptied in 24 hours. However, other bottles I installed never drain even when I didn't add a filter, so you could try putting the entire bottle in the ground (without a spike), which I heard recommended on this site, but I guess that would require a shovel.

The best advice other than regular watering I can offer is to use a fertilizer. Fertilizer spikes are easy to use and basically you just put them in the ground a few times a year. Miracle-Gro is inexpensive and has produced great results for me, but I have to mix it in a watering can or put it in a dispenser bottle that's attached to a garden hose. My final advice is to consider how much time you have to spend on gardening and make a plan that's produces the maximum results from the minimum time.


This message was edited Sep 6, 2012 7:23 PM

Portland, OR

Thanks DoGooder,

My first priority will definitely be to weed and organize. I like the idea of a soaker hose or the bottles for watering. I'm planning on building my compost bin soon, and hope to use the fresh compost in place of fertilizer. I know that it takes a while to get the compost going, though, so I might look into some alternatives until then.

Thanks again!

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

AlysiaJ, I was very motivated to compost this year but I've decided against it because it's less expensive to enrich the soil with fertilizer or just buy compost. I've heard stories of people saying they bought a $100-plus compost bin, added food scraps & plants all year, turned the composter every week, etc. and after one year they got a quart of compost. For less than $18 I can get a cubic foot of compost shipped to me in 2 days. I'm not against composting but I'm saying that one should think about what their goal is in composting whether it's saving money, saving the environment, or producing healthy plants.

If it's a money issue then I recommend calculating how much you will spend on a compost bin, compost starter, compost bags, kitchen scrap container, etc. compared to how much compost you will get from that process and compare if it's less expensive than the $18 per cubic foot you could have bought from the store. If it's an environment issue then consider that compost bins are almost always large plastic containers that wreak havoc on the environment, and Mother Nature will use your kitchen scraps, etc. to compost naturally whether they go to the landfill or a compost bin so it's still a natural process even if you put the scraps in the garbage. If it's a bountiful garden issue then consider if you can get better results with much less expensive fertilizers and store-bought compost that can be purchased whenever you need them instead of waiting for the compost to form. During my first full year of gardening (2011) I used mostly composted manure and potting mix with manure (Moo Mix) and to my surprise the plants in the bargain price Schultz potting soil were bigger, healthier, and had more flowers.

Also, wouldn't a bed of flowers be prettier than looking at a plastic box sitting in your yard? And then there's the possible odor and flies that sometimes collect near composters which decrease the enjoyment of our gardens. Again, I'm not against composting, but I think one should consider whether a particular composting process fits our vision of what our gardens should be and whether it's really saving money or saving the environment. I applaud people who can actually save money composting while using eco-friendly materials (not plastic), and I know there are folks who are successful at that but most of the composting stories I've read seem to be a lot of work, money, and toxic plastic with little reward compared to getting ready-made compost, fertilizers, etc. - DoGooder

This message was edited Sep 6, 2012 11:46 PM

Arroyo Grande, CA(Zone 9a)

Have you been watering? The rotting smell is pretty weird, that could be over-watering. If you haven't been watering alot I'd look under the bushes and see what died under there, LOL. Plants won't smell like rot unless they are rotting. Take a branch to your local nursery and ask what it is so you can learn how to care for it. They could be azaleas or camelias or some other wonderful Oregon bushy plant, you will want to save them. The hens and chicks are LOVELY. They could be also dying from too much or too little water. My suggestion on the compost heap . . . don't do it. They are alot of trouble and you should focus yourself on learning how to deal with what you have. Be wary of commercial fertilizers, they are easy to over do. If you want to fertilize use things like bonemeal, bloodmeal, ash, and bagged manure is a good safe alternative to chemical fertilizer. Take it from the woman who fertilized her daffodils and they developed three foot leaves for the next five years and stopped blooming completely! Have fun with your yard, it is a pretty one and looks like a good one to work on.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

Domehomedee, thanks for the advice on avoiding over-fertilizing! I will take care to use the minimum amount. I had success last year adding an organic fertilizer spike to an azalea so I decided to use more spikes this year. The organic ones release nutrients very slowly so I guess there's less chance of problems.


Portland, OR

DoGooder, my plan was to build a compost bin from materials I already have rather than buying one, so I'm not very concerned about the financial aspect. Portland has a composting program and provides kitchen scrap containers to all houses, so I can just use that. But I what you are saying about it taking a long time for maybe not that much return. And I see what Domehomedee is saying about them being a lot of work. It's something I've been wanting to try for a while, but I will really think about what it will require before I decide.
I'm pretty confident that the yard hasn't been watered in at least 2 weeks (with mostly hot temperatures and no rain), so I'm not sure that it is overwatering, but I could be wrong. I plan to start weeding and doing some trimming soon, so I will check for anything dead under those bushes!
Thank you Domehomedee for the info on fertilizer as well. I will try one of those alternatives if I use fertilizer.

Burien, WA(Zone 7b)

I think composting can be as much or as little work as you want. I guess I'm a 'relaxed' composter? (Lazy!) I'm lucky to have an out of the way corner for the compost, that's out of sight. I don't even have bins, just piles and I don't bother with turning it, too much work. It takes longer to finish, but I don't mind. I usually have a couple going, using from one that's finished while building a new one or two.

I'm sure the hens and chicks will survive. It looks like the hens and chicks have gone without water too long. It's been very dry in the Northwest this summer. I'm guessing they weren't being cared for prior to your moving in recently. Water them a little bit now, then when the fall rain comes they should be fine.

I don't know a lot about roses but I think in this area folks do the bulk of the pruning in March-ish.

Portland, OR

Thanks for the info! That has been my impression of composting as well. As far as the Hen and Chicks go, I was able to get over to do some watering today (we aren't moved in yet--painting and refinishing the floors!) and will see how that goes. Some of them look like they may be beyond repair, though. As you said, they probably haven't been cared for before. I don't think anything has been done with this garden in a few years.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

shune, I'm glad you've found an easy and effective way to compost! However, I wanted you to know you've been given wrong information that composting takes longer if it's not turned. Joseph Jenkins who wrote The Humanure Handbook found that:

* compost self-aerates, so it's not necessary to turn the pile to add air

* unturned piles destroy bad bacteria the same as turned piles

* the more piles are turned, the more nutrients they lose

* turning piles emits toxic substances like certain fungi that are dangerous to people

* turning piles in the cold causes the pile to lose heat, slowing down the composting process

* thermophilic activity is a kind of composting process and turning the pile interrupts thermophilic activity

Unturned compost piles benefit from big chunks of stuff that trap air inside the pile. Composting can be very easy if done the natural way. For example, forests are constantly composting by one layer of leaves, etc. being added onto the layer below, and no turning is necessary to make the rich forest floor compost.


This message was edited Sep 8, 2012 3:14 AM

Burien, WA(Zone 7b)

Wow, I've been doing a good thing and didn't know it. I had the impression that without turning, it takes longer, but I never pay that much attention to how long, I just pile stuff on. After awhile, I peek underneath and find compost. The top layer doesn't compost, I suppose because it's exposed to light and air, I just use the 'un' composted part to start a new pile! Thanks for the link, I will go check it out.

Alysia, I wouldn't mind seeing your garden as it progresses.

This message was edited Sep 8, 2012 7:13 PM

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

shune, glad I was able to help!


chandigarh, India

Before actually starting on your flower gardening project, keep aside a book as a gardening journal. This is what seasoned veterans do, and recording their earlier mistakes have helped them to do better the next time round.

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

Yes, a journal can be a wonderful thing... Next year when you're trying to remember when you did what that was successful, and also how you killed the ones that disappeared, you'll be grateful to yourself that you went to the trouble of doing it. Sometimes in the depths of winter, when the house has been closed for months and I'm far away, and I'm beginning to get the catalogs, or, more likely, the emails with spring sales, I suddenly wonder, 'Didn't I buy that last year? Where oh where did I put it?!' Anyway, you get the drift. It's worth the effort.

Good luck!


Casper, WY(Zone 4a)

Alysia, As far as your dying hen and chicks (Sempervivums) their death is natural. Hens and Chicks live only 3 years. They bloom the 3rd year, then die. It is natures way of assuring space for the many chicks they produce. I have grown them for years and have 95+ cultivars.

Dispose of the older ones and save only the young chicks. As far as a compost pile, my daughter have an old oil drum that she puts kitchen and garden scraps with chicken and horse manure in. She turns it during summer, keeps it moist and the product is used when she plants. By the way, they are drought resistant plants (low moister needs)

Dogooder, the turning of compost is necessary to speed up rotting. In the woods there are no one tu turn the leaves over, but it takes years for it to rot. I would not go by what Joseph Jenkins wrote in his book. I have garden for 50 years and still do and never heard of such nonsence.

Hopkinton, MA(Zone 5b)

blomma, it's not just Joseph Jenkins but the lasagna gardeners who have success making compost without turning. The lasagna method layers compostable items in separate layers by category, for example, a layer of cut grass, a layer of newsprint, a layer of kitchen scraps, a layer of cardboard, etc. Although some things take longer than a season to compost, lots of plants in my yard turn their top green growth into compost over winter. I live next to a forest and see things quickly rotting all the time.


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