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Originally published June 27, 2013 at 5:05 AM | Page modified June 27, 2013 at 9:43 AM

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Aucuba is one tough customer; how good is your soil?

Garden writer Ciscoe Morris recommends hardy, attractive Aucuba japonica, and announces King Conservation District’s free soil-quality tests.

Special to The Seattle Times

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In the Garden

If you’re having difficulty finding a shrub that will survive in dry shade, especially underneath giant evergreens that suck up every inch of available moisture, give Aucuba japonica a try. Hardy to about zero degrees, these tough shrubs grow deep within the canopy of thick conifer forests in Asia, so it’s not surprising that they thrive in similar conditions here in the Pacific Northwest. Aucubas normally grow from 6 to 10 feet tall, but can easily be pruned to keep them much smaller. The name Aucuba means “blue tree” and the species has attractive, glossy bluish-green leaves and, as long as there is a male plant in the vicinity, they produce showy red berries. The green varieties tend to get lost in the shade, but fortunately, there are some spectacularly attractive cultivars with golden variegation that really brighten up a shady nook. Two favorites are ‘Mr. Goldstrike’ with leaves so heavily spotted with gold, it lights up even heavy shade, and ‘Picturata,’ featuring dark-green leaves, the center of each heavily blotched in bright yellow, surrounded by yellow freckles. The most popular variety of Aucuba is ‘Goldspot.’ I’ve never been partial to this one because to me, the pattern of yellow spots on the leaves makes it look like a dragon threw up on it. Variegated Aucubas must be located in shade and will scorch in sun. As is true of all drought-tolerant plants, Aucuba needs to be irrigated regularly for the first few months to allow it to grow a deep enough root system to compete. After that, Aucubas rarely need to be watered, even if they’re growing under giant conifers.

How healthy is your soil?

Requesting a soil test is a great way to see if soil acidity is in balance and nutrients are available in the right amounts for optimum plant growth in your garden. Each type of garden has different nutrient requirements, and having the right balance will help increase the yield and quality of vegetables, improve vigor of plants in a mixed border and maintain healthier, more vigorous grass for a more attractive lawn. The King Conservation District is offering free soil tests for homeowners and professional farmers within the district boundaries. The soil is tested in a lab for the major nutrients N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), micronutrients, pH and organic matter. Based on the results, conservation staff members will send recommendations regarding the kind and amount of nutrients and amendments needed for optimal plant growth. In addition to improving the health and appearance of your plants, following the recommendations will save you money because you’ll know exactly how much fertilizer and other products to apply. It will also help the environment because it will reduce surface and ground water contamination caused by excess fertilizer. Each homeowner can send up to five samples per year. Visit for information.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV.

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About Ciscoe Morris

Ciscoe Morris' column runs Thursdays. His show "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. on Saturdays on King 5.

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