August, 2009 Archives

The little waterfall and pool are already proving a welcome habitat augmentation for the local bird community that visits my two feeders.  Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) and chesnut-backed chickadees (Parus rufescens) regularly compete for space for drinking and bathing. An adjacent mature Douglas fir tree and a lilac bush provide perches for the birds to wait their turns or to dry themselves.  The chickadees in particular seem to take considerable pleasure in getting throughly soaked in the shallow end below the falls. A seldom-seen brown creeper (Certhia americana) even joined in one day.  As the summer progresses, the rocks of the pool have become coated with green algae, but any method that I can contemplate beyond draining and scrubbing would likely harm the creatures that enjoy it, so I let it be for now (for pond construction and maintenance, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent primer at Backyard Wildlife Program ).  Rather, I have chosen the long-range approach of planting shading vegetation around the edges, including horsetail (Equisetum hymale), Sword fern (Polystichum munitum), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Spirea (Spiraea prunifolia?? – last winter’s purchase from a local nursery, but I cannot recall the species), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophyllum ‘Jack Frost’), and container-bound Japanese bloodgrass (Imperator cylindrical). Four-inch pots of Alaskan fern (Polystichum setiferum) have been tucked into moss within the rocks the hope that they will provide large fronds that will shade and soften the edges of the pond. My intention is to create a leafy corridor that will shade the water and create the feeling of a small stream emerging from the woods, and a pleasant surprise for those approaching the deck. This area had been formerly overrun with St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) originally planted by my mother, and later razed in an attempt to create a succulent garden.  However, the  St John’s wort stubbornly reemerged and was dueling with a resprouting hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) stump for dominance of the 15′ x 30′ area when I arrived upon the scene.  I am still battling both of them in hopes that sheer tenacity will succeed.

The hummingbirds here are not readily drawn to my artistic glass feeder with brown wood base and red-metal flower petals, plus the ants usually get to it first. So I have contented myself with growing two baskets of fushcias and several nascent salvias in the front yard that seem to attract an Anna’s (Calypte anna) on occasion.  Meanwhile,  profusions of dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and robins dominate the fringe habitats, the Juncos chipping with fury when the cat emerges for a stretch. I imagine that they might enjoy the additional structure provided by the now 9-foot tall pole beans that curl about bamboo props in what this winter will become the front yard.  The beans, content with the rich mix of rotted horse manure and sawdust applied to the area, are doing little more than producing a profusion of green leaves. The cukes and yellow squash, in contrast, are durable producers, already overwhelming our ability to keep up with them.

A rare find the other day was the appearance of a barred owl with 200 feet of the house late one sunny afternoon. Indeed, it flew over the heads of my father and I and perched in a nearby alder where it sat imperiously for quite some time while I examined it with binoculars.  Later that night, I heard several hooting ‘who cooks for you all’ in the woods out back of the house.
My most favorite of the avian visitors are the Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) that have lived and even nested on the property for as long as I can remember.  My newly instigated gardens are of little interest to them, but they roam the back twenty, where numerous alder and Douglas fir snags of varying heights provide them with feeding stations, and I often hear their cries through the forest.  Continuing to perpetuate their devotion to this place will be on of my primary goals in the creation of natural gardens and viewing areas elsewhere on the property.

For the birds

A moss covered rock wall built by my mother in the 70's or 80's.

A moss covered rock wall built by my mother in the 70's or 80's.

This old stump was cut back during the days of springboards and whipsaws. A 8" x 3" rectangular mark indicates where the end of a board was inserted to allow a man to stand further up the trunk to make the cut. Many of these old stumps remain on the property. They serve as 'nurse stumps' and make great garden centerpieces.

This old stump was cut back during the days of springboards and whipsaws. A 8" x 3" rectangular mark indicates where the end of a board was inserted to allow a man to stand further up the trunk to make the cut. Many of these old stumps remain on the property. They serve as 'nurse stumps' and make great garden centerpieces.

The yard upon which I have started is but a small piece of the larger 20, which consists mostly of disturbed Douglas fir forest mixed with Pacific madrone, redcedar, red alder, the occasional dying hemlock, and an understory of mostly huckleberry and salal.

The place was logged over back when they used springboards, and a stump in back of the house bears its marks.

My father purchased it as part of a 40 acre spread in the early 70’s when it was undeveloped. A large wetland area occupied the northeastern side; he still retains full ownership of this 3-acre area. I used to skate on it in winter and paddle it in my rubber raft in summer, but it is now gradually filling in. As a kid, I kept up to three horses on the property, riding them through trails and field that my father made. It was the reason I loved the outdoors, and precipitated my decision to become a biologist.

My mother, a former librarian and later full-time homemaker, landscaped the three acres surrounding the house with rocks that she personally grubbed from the property, and plants ‘borrowed’ from many places, including a mountain laurel from her home state of North Carolina. I still find her many rock walls hidden under the encroaching native shrubbery, covered in moss, encircling the places that she loved best. It feels like finding the remnants of some forgotten civilization.

Within this context, I arrive to try and turn the place into the botanical garden that I truly believe that it can be. The front yard was the easy part, a warm up to give myself something to admire each day so that I can begin the long effort of convincing myself that I am up to this. It is, really, a dream of mine that never came through with the postage stamp yards of the houses that I could afford, or the rentals that I had to leave in California.

I approach it with the zest of the suppressed artist that I never became, and the analytical scientist that I was trained to be. Before I even left SoCal, back when this was just my notes during long management meetings or weekends when I was totally fed up with work in general, I prepared sketches and management plants. Arriving in late May, I already had the plans for the front yard in my head. But that is only about 1% of what I really want to do.

To create a garden of this size, you need a plan, a theme, a feeling of unity and continuity. I want to enjoy this but I also want to make it my own personal legacy. The mulling, dreaming, planning and scheming are the best part of this, my own tabla rasa.

Focus is critical. The front yard is nearly done but for the grass, but there is so much more. Here is what we fondly used to call ‘the center thing’, a circular planter of rock surrounding a 100 ft+ Douglas fir in the center of the driveway between the house and garage. A patch of weedy daylily fills an area between the planter and the driveway split. The peonies, heather, and other flowers that my mother planted there 30 years ago area long gone, and the place used as a holding area for logging chains and boxes of nails.

Then there is a cove in the woods above that where the driveway splits*, a weedy disaster harboring the property’s first known incidence (quickly eradicated with snips and motor oil to finish the job) of poison oak. Once home to roses, redhot poker, purple bearded iris and pinks, the place has been overtaken and the domestics have long died.

Beyond that is an area that my mother designed as a little creek for winter runoff that is now a lumpy mess of bulldozed soil, weeds, and a 100’ x 5’ ditch ripped last winter to abate the flood that resulted in the destruction of the front yard.

Surrounding the once domesticated areas are woods full of blackberries, English ivy, and Scotch broom deserving to be tamed and turned into placid places to stroll amidst ferns while gazing at the remnants of the lake.

Historical musings

Due to the technical difficulties posed by not being a website designer, I missed a month or two on updates. Still, I when I did get back on, I was pleased to see comments (thank you all!). I hope to be more diligent now in my postings.

In the interim, I completed the wall using scrap rock from the original wall plus whatever else was lying about.  The rock-a-day technique worked well, and without the Bobcat I might add, which, while desperately needed for other projects around here likely would not have worked so well.  Hand-placing the rock was the key, and over the course of about 3 weeks, I was able to create a two-tiered wall now planted with fern and a creeping evening primrose. Money saved on equipment rentals, however, was money spent on massages to relieve the re-emergence of my long-running thoracic outlet syndrome  (  One saving grace has been my father’s motorized dumping wheelbarrow with an 800 lb capacity. With it, I have already moved several thousand pounds of rock around the yard for a variety of smaller projects. Although I am normally adverse to loud, motorized equipment, it has made my life much easier and saved me many sleepless nights with shooting nerve pain.


When I was not moving rocks, I began preparing the front yard.  [At this point, those in the know may feel free to comment upon my methods, which are derived from a combination of experience, book-learning, and educated guesswork.]  From a local farm, I obtained 10 yards of heat-treated horse manure/chips/sand and rototilled it six inches into the sandy clay soil that represents the efforts of one of my father’s past wives. I also reconstructed the walk from the pavers not broken by my father’s excavator excursions to lead visitors through the gazebo and to the front door.  The plan, based upon reading my landscape design books, is to draw visitors away from the kitchen door, which is misplaced on the front of the house, and to the more formal ‘front’ door which leads directly into the living room. The yellow gazebo will be reinforced and painted a warm grey and the cement overlain with tiles. Cement planters with benches will be installed to the right to cordon off a part of the patio for entertaining. A perennial garden in purple and violet tones will grow between the walk and the patio, a lawn to left flanked by a Japanese maple and the neon blue hydrangea. Foundation plantings of red pygmy barberry will flank the reddish brick wall, while to the right of the door, a white azalea and small rhodoendron will provide a visual draw toward the door.a view from the driveway

To the right in the overview photo  is the nascent perennial garden featuring several types of Salvia (my fav genus), Miscanthus, Dianthus, Penstemon, and Hosta in the shade. To the left will be a narrow strip of grass sweeping around the cedar, beneath which will grow a selection of NW natives and shade-tolerant plants, including a grove of sword fern, woodfern, bunchberry, Oregon oxalis, Hellebore, salal, Mitella, and others. I have even added half of a Douglas fir log behind the neon blue hydrangea in which I hope to cultivate licorice fern. (I will be adding a plant list here shortly from the Excel file that I am keeping).

The beans, squash, peas, cucumbers and potatoes, however, are not a part of the long-term plan. Reading about the best time to seed a northwest lawn, I have elected to wait until September to further till and refine the soil for planting grass seed. Meanwhile, I have planted a sward of leguminous crops along with a few other tasty species to add nitrogen and out-compete the weeds. So far, the growth from my early June plantings has exceeded my expectations and yields of snow peas and yellow squash are beginning to outstrip our capacity to eat them. The notable exception is the pole beans, which dominate the scene on tall bamboo frames at seven feet and growing. I believe that the high-nitrogen mix that I applied has encouraged them to grow only leaves, for I am still awaiting the beans to emerge from the lush vegetation.

beans to the left squash to the right

As a break from all of that, I also constructed a modest pool with a foot-high falls.  Ferns and large-leaved plants yet to be chosen will grace the now arid borders. The climbing rose will be leaving the scene too, perhaps to be espaliered on a wall. For now, I have a few Spirea, Japanese blood grass (in pots, so they stay put), Ribes sanguinum, horsetail, Alaska fern, lady fern, sword fern, and a lonely bog rosemary. The story of the pool will follow later, including my experimentation with building techniques for those who might want to try this at home.

eventual overgrowth of veg should cure the green

Now, as the July sun wanes and the August sky is cloudy and threatening rain, I stand back and feel a mixture of pride and concern. It still doesn’t look quite as I’d hoped; I have a substantial budget, but not enough to spend on large numbers of expensive plants. My shopping techniques range from Lowe’s and Home Depot bargains, local nursery 50% off sales, natives from other parts of the property, freebies from volunteer work that I am doing in my horticulture class, and a few splurges for nice, full-price selections.  There are most definitely gaps. Materials are hauled in pickup truck, and the work is solely my own.  I  am beginning to explore the limits of my own 42-year-old body, seasoned as it may be from years of running and hiking, and the natural impatience that I have also exhibited towards things that take more than one year to complete.  I realize once again, that this is an exercise in how things are done, a lesson in the patience of time. Soon enough, September will come and I will be taking two more horticulture classes, and maybe,  just maybe, taking the time to care of myself. I miss yoga, I miss my art, there is a meditation group I want to join.  The rains will buy me time to slow down and savor the slow passage of time as the things that I have begun mature, and new ideas emerge.


For additional reading on the progress of the back 10 acres, see “Hinterlands”.

Yard as Vegetable Garden