Spring has arrived at last, ripe with tulips and other flowering plant that I tended while I was gone from November 2015 through July 2017.
I missed this place so much. I love California, where I now work half-time, but this is home. How to resolve the two, I do not yet know. Still, I stay on here, recouping what was lost during those years I was gone. I came up on the occasional weekend, and on the week of my 50th birthday last year to put up a deer-proof fence.
As my developed areas have grown, so has my ability to observe the vast array of arthropods and vertebrates with which I share my acreage. Perhaps this is because my plantings are diverse, offering a wide variety of seeds, fruits and flowers. Perhaps it is because much of what I plant is understory vegetation that lets me move freely among plants in a way that I cannot with the overgrown forest understory that occupies much of the rest of the property. Certainly I’ve added more surface structure (wood, rock, metal, glass) than was here before. And there is more sunlight from the removal of trees behind the shed and barn.
All told, I tentatively put forth the idea that I have increased habitat diversity by planting far more native and non-native (PNW) species than were ever here before (by 100 fold I would guess based on my plant list), increased the amount of forest edges, improved lighting, and provided more habitat structure, both living and non-living.
My efforts have certainly brought forth a host of birds that enjoy the yard in front of the barn, but invertebrates are easier for me to photography, and have been a life-long interest of mine.
Among the more interesting vertebrates I’ve encountered this summer are reptiles, which are comparatively rare in Western WA:
When I visited Gig Harbor’s open gardens in June, what I saw was what money could buy. Lots of money went into those beautiful landscapes, but they are not what I do. When I build gardens on my sprawling, mostly wooded property, I use very little imported rock, gravel, or soil so I can’t ‘start over’ with vast raised beds to overcome my hard clay soils. Some things grow, some don’t depending up how durable they are. I buy all of my plants on sale, and yet they wouldn’t begin to fill one of the gardens that I saw, which displayed hundreds upon hundreds of plants, including many expensive, sought-after varieties I read about in my gardening magazines. Complex irrigation systems are beyond my reach, so I haul hoses and measure off how far from the house my tenderest plantings should go.
My garden is defined by the terms of my income and the size of the place that I have chose to modify. When I realized that I can no longer compare to what the gardening community models as ideal, I felt alone and out matched. I am more of a botanist trying to remodel the woods. I plant in native soils and tame the wilderness around me, but it isn’t the garden celebrated by Monrovia Nurseries or photographed in Sunset.
Then I opened up my recent copy of Fremontia, the magazine of the California Native Plant Society which I recently rejoined while seeking employment down there. In it I found a name for my passion: Found Landscapes.
Photographer Suzanne Schettler writes that ‘it may not be necessary clear the land and start from scratch to create a welcoming home site. The existing vegetation may contain a beautiful landscape design waiting to be discovered but simply hidden from view. This is the “The Found Landscape’.
In the context of the article, beautiful, twisted manzanitas emerge from thickets cleared of undergrowth and weeds. In the context of my garden, leggy evergreen huckleberry gets reshaped into more shapely, productive shrubs, Douglas fir are limbed up as far as I can reach to give light to the understory, and salal are trimmed to form a low, more formalized ground cover that allows entrance into the forest. In other cases, such as those shown here, I need merely to clear away the tangled jungle to make interesting features such as mossy limbs, graceful trunks, or nurse stumps more visible.
When money is tight, I take my machete, pruners, and hand saw and head out for the backwoods to limb and trim. It is highly satisfying in many ways, like cleaning a cluttered closet. It also generates a large amount of woody material for burning. I’d rather chip it, but the economics have not yet worked for this approach. The madrone limbs are beautiful enough anyway to be laquered and used in more formal landscapes.
In May 2014, I had several acres logged to open up the high parts of the property to light and earn a bit of income. The hope was that I could expand my non-native plantings into the newly opened areas and increase the diversity of native plantings. Mature Douglas fir forests on the property are usually closed canopy with a middle layer of tall evergreen huckleberry – in excess of 10 ft high in some instances – and salal beneath which nothing grows. In the absence of a natural disturbance regime (e.g. fire), selective harvest is the most effective way to increase habitat for local understory species such as sword fern, wood fern, lady fern in damp areas, Oregon grape, Indian plum, ocean spray, and thimble berry.
The results were unpleasantly messy:
I got more light, but was left with large debris piles, not necessarily a bad thing in terms of hiding places for small animals and birds, but quite unsightly.
All of the top soil got scraped up into the debris piles. This was really disturbing and not anticipated. However, the loggers that I worked with were not particularly sensitive to environmental issues, so I likely wouldn’t have gotten too far with trying to prevent this.
The coral root transplants failed: plantings in both established populations and a single new area of similar soil type. However, I did note that even established patches did poorly this year.
I opened up large areas to weeds, including Himalayan blackberry and reed canary grass.
On the positive side, I have a new place in which to create paths and blend natives of other US regions, such as witch hazel and corylopsis, with Japanese maples and rhododendrons to establish a transition between landscaped areas and natural areas.
To control weeds and reduce erosion, I planted a mix of grasses native to western rangelands, including fescue, bluebunch wheatgrass, and Indian rice grass. I’ve not mowed them this year as their flopping habitat seems to deter weed growth.
Since I’ve no large equipment and only myself as labor, the restoration of this area is a long, difficult task. I began by burning debris piles, although the largest one is about 10′ high x 50′ long and a tangle of limbs, small trees, soil, and a twisted scrap of metal roofing. I have been hauling scraped-off top soil from the pile to fill in around areas where I’m planting. I pull weeds by hand, and transplant small forbs such as foam flower, piggyback plant, bullrush and ferns around damp areas and old stumps (from logging many decades previous) where they will be sheltered and require less water. Despite proximity to a large shed with a faucet, it would be difficult and time consuming to extend hoses and water. In some cases I haul water buckets. I’ve also planted mint in two low areas where water collects in winter, a long-ago result of an unintentional underground fire from debris my father burned.
The low areas are difficult to manage as the top soil was lost years ago leaving several hundred square feet of clay pan that fills with several inches of water each year. In summer, the clay dries and cracks, making it difficult to keep anything living there. I have been encroaching on these areas with loads of soil and plants such as yellow iris that appear to be tolerant to wide variations in water levels. I transplanted these from a large clump in the lake.
With large sums of money, I’d have dirt hauled in, but I must work at this slowly by hand. Without a full time job now, it has become a meditation to go out there each day to weed and water. I see more this way: the birds, insects, and small plants and the cycles of the recovering landscape. It is a healing of both land and soul.
As I continue to landscape small areas around the house and barn, I’ve increasingly included places for vegetables, and vegetables, of course, require pollinators. Last year we opened up a grassy hillside to tomato production and I realized how few flowers I had in the area to attract bees. Up by the patio, we are flush with penstemon, viburnum, asters, iris, and an enormous Kolkwitzia amabilis (beauty bush) lush with pink flowers in May. We enjoy visits from all manner of pollinators, from several kinds of bumblebees to mason bees, wool carder bees, wasps, and an assortment of flies, some of which mimic the bees. However, the vegetable garden has always been traditionally that – vegetables.
Sequestering vegetables from the more floral elements of the landscape denies them the benefits of the various pollinators available to us. Furthermore, living on a mostly wooded island, we seldom see honeybees and are dependent upon native bees and flies for pollination.
Intent on bringing the show down to the tomatoes and the vegetable garden behind the barn, I’ve begun to plant strips of flowers and herbs. I started with weedy oregano, which grows anywhere, spreads voraciously, and produces clumps of tiny white flowers irresistable to bees and flies. Calendula is another easily-grown plant enjoyed by pollinators, as is the ubiquitous California poppy, which I’ve noticed is favored by yellow-faced bumblebees. I also favor tall purple mallow, daylily, and fox glove for ease of growth. Certainly there are many other less weedy species to consider, but my soil conditions often dictate what I can grow without too much amendment. Catmint, asters, and zinnias are other less rangy choices. I also love my exotic-looking Erigeron yuccifolia (sea holly) which produces little balls of white flowers on tall stalks, and seems to attract the smaller bees and flies.
The Xerces Society website provides lots of information on planting for pollinators, and has a site for submitting photos of bees for identification and mapping. Having once thought that bumblebee referred to a single species, I am now pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of species and have taken to noting which plants attract what species.
I’ve even applied my rudimentary carpentry skills to the construction of a mason bee nest from 2x4s. It looks a bit like Trump Tower for bees.
Plant a few fuzzy plants such as Lamb’s ears and campion to bring in the wool carder bees, whose dutiful collection of plant hairs to form little cotton balls for nesting are far more entertaining than most reality tv shows.
I worked for years as an ecologist surveying for plants and animals that were listed as threatened or endangered either under the federal Endangered Species Act, or the California equivalent. I saw a lot of good habitat about to be replaced by permanent structures, but I also saw a lot of decent habitat degraded simply by soil compaction, garbage dumping, and alien weeds.
These places might never have supported listed species with narrow habitat needs, but they could have sustained more common species with broader distributions that could not withstand the damages done to the soil, nor compete against aggressive, weedy invaders. Once eliminated, they could not come back unless there were nearby seed sources. And if a particular species is not a ‘pioneer’, e.g. able to grow on bare soil in bright light, they likely would never return to pummeled areas anyway. As good habitat becomes increasingly rare, or fragmented, the loss of only a few of the remaining populations can spell the end for the species in an area. Add these areas up over a county, state, or region, and the species becomes rare.
In WA, weather and geology means that habitats are more homogenous, and we have far fewer unique and rare species as a result. Most of our rare plants occupy scarce places such as rocky cliffs or remnant oak woodlands where humans do not usually tread. However, there are lots of not-rare but not-common plants that occupy more widespread, undisturbed habitats such as mature Douglas fir forest or seeps that feed wetlands. These include perennial forbs such as piggy-back plant (Tolmiea menziesii) and miterwort (Mitella sp.), as well as less-common trees such as Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia).
Two species that I am fortunate to have discovered on my property are foam flower (Tiarella trifoliata), and pathfinder (Adenocaulon bicolor), the latter known for the white undersides of its leaves that turnover when disturbed. These are not rare by any means, but nor are they extremely common in lowland Puget Sound. Both occupy relatively common habitats – moist shady sites and dry forest floor in Douglas fir dominated forest, respectively – but neither can survive an area graded and logged, as my own experience in May with coral root revealed.
Since much of lowland Puget Sound is ripe for development, and because development not only destroys habitats occupied by less-common plants but also introduces invasives that exclude natives, we stand to lose a lot. In my last job, I had to listen to a client and another biologist speak casually about how a relatively pristine riparian area on a major river had no listed species and therefore disturbance was of no concern. And yet as we hiked along it, I could see many species of plants (neither of these individuals were botantists), that were common only to this type of riparian area. There were no plans to site the planned structure where disturbance would have minimal impact to springs and seeps, or to salvage and replant natives. Most companies would want to avoid the additional costs associated with mitigations that were not required. Yet it is precisely for that reason that plants become rare in the first place.
Think of the first passenger pigeon to fall by a gunshot, and then the last to die only a few decades later. I stand by the ESA, but it is only a last-ditch effort. If only our conservation minded volunteer groups (e.g. the Native Plant Societies of many states) would step forward to provide salvage and restoration services for projects that involve temporary habitat disturbance, we could at least ensure that some plant populations could receive additional protections.
Since the sale of my father’s excavator heralded (for the most part) and era of relatively limited disturbance, my mission for my Personal Jungle incorporates habitat restoration and the reintroduction of species that would be expected to occur (we won’t go into the debate behind that assertion) in Puget Sound lowland habitats.
To this end, I have developed my own restoration plan based in part upon my readings and observations of species diversity here:
1. Remove invasives I have several acres of mature Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), about 1/4 acre of reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) scattered about, and patches of English ivy (Hedera helix) and scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius). I believe that with diligence I can eradicate all but the ivy, which reseeds freely from mature plants on adjacent properties. I am always finding new seedlings or young vines which I diligently pull only to find more somewhere else. However, I keep them from climbing trees and reseeding.
The blackberry removal follows a three-part plan: a. cut back with clippers or machete b. cut back next season and, if not in a restoration area, dig some roots OR c. if in a restoration, dig roots
Cutting eventually kills them as the thick tubers cannot keep up with leaf loss, but it takes several seasons. I like to cut when its cold and dry and I’ve little else that I can accomplish. Its also good exercise and even an emotional vent too!
2. Collect or buy native seed for restoration. This year I’ve collected and planted foam flower and pathfinder seed from this property, both in the greenhouse and in cleared habitats that match the soil and light conditions of the donor plants.
I also collect seed in the wild where permitted. In the logged are by the shed, I purchased a native seed mix for wet areas that I hope will assist in securing the soil and outcompeting the weeds. Native plant societies are also good sources for seed.
3. Propagate cuttings I have an indoor greenhouse with light and heating pads for this purpose. Armed with my booklet ‘Cuttings through the Year‘ published by the Arboretum Foundation of the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, I take soft and hardwood cuttings of both natives and ornamentals and attempt to grow them. I have about a 10% success rate so far, but I keep trying. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, willow (Salix sp.), deutzia (Deutzia gracilis), and beauty berry (Callicarpasp.) do well. I hope to have success with cuttings from one of my old-growth nine bark (Physocarpus capitatus).
4. Transplant mature plants I have several fern ‘nurseries’ around the property with sufficiently moist conditions to allow for propagation. I use these plants, and those from along areas where I mow, or in roadside ditches that are mowed, for replanting the logged areas or as borders to developed gardens.
I also have permission to collect on a property I used to own by the Cowlitz River, and purchase natives online or from local nurseries. Besides sword fern ( Polystichum munitum , lady fern ( Anthyrium filix-femina), sedges (Carex sp.), bulrush
(Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani), piggy-back plant, and miterwort are plentiful on the property and transplant well. The retention pond and wet areas on the logged unit behind the shed have benefited from my redistribution. I don’t always adhere to the use of local natives, such being the case with the four bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) I purchased and planted last spring. A native to the Southeast, they grow in wetlands and offer up a gorgeous gold color in fall. I couldn’t resist.
My observations on this property while I’m out pruning, transplanting, and cutting have served me well in my restoration efforts. Besides becoming increasingly aware of microhabitats, I have also learned the value of rotten wood as fertilize. My greatest success to this end is the giant Viburnum opulus (aka high-bush cranberry, now 15 ft in 4 years) in front of the barn. In the recently logged area, I am now planting old, rotting stumps left from logging many decades ago with licorice and sword fern. I am also seeking to add red huckleberry, which in my observations grow almost exclusively on stumps and logs.
According to Amphiaweb.com, Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla) are usually the most common frog species where they occur in the Pacific Northwest. This summer in particular, I have observed them nearly everywhere I go on the property, clinging to leaves, logs, walls, and windows, leaping frantically from the mower blades and dangling from my raspberry vines. It seems to be a takeover of sorts.
They breed in the wetland I refer to as the lake, which consistently fills up each winter, then mostly dries out in the summer as feeder streams bring sediment and vegetation gradually builds up. Apparently they enjoy ephemeral wetlands as they like calm, shallow waters. They usually begin their breeding chorus in February when sheer numbers create a wall of noise within which individual frogs are nearly undetectable.
During the summer, they leave aquatic habitats and migrate upland where they can be found nearly everywhere. Meanwhile, their breeding songs have been reduced to occasional dry ‘craaaaks’, as though to locate each other during their wanderings.
They can be found in a wide range of unexpected places. A little frog I named ‘Sir Splat’ liked to tuck up at the top of an outside door I use frequently. As I opened it, it would fall to the tile floor with a moist ‘splat’, then crawl away as though the equivalent of a human jump off of the Brooklyn Bridge had meant nothing to it.
Before I noticed the frog, I had seen small black droppings on the door and around the recessed knob. I blamed the cats for failing to catch house mice, wondering nevertheless how a mouse could scale a vertical surface and leave pellets. Turns out it was frog scat I was seeing, a substance that comes in an array of sizes, the largest of which reveals the cast-off chitin of their insectivorous diet.
Other frogs inhabit window sills, where they press into corners with feet drawn up under them to conserve water.
Curiously, even during hot, sunny days, I would find the on the tops of leaves several feet above ground, exposed but pressed closely to the surface to stay moist.
Others preferred hiding under the bark of logs I intended to move. One log yielded three little green faces with black stripes peeping out at me as I carefully replaced the loose bark and left them alone. Mowing yielded an abundance of frogs frantically hopping to escape the blades like porpoises cresting a bow wave. While picking raspberries, a favorite froggy hangout, one fellow landed upon my arm so that I could feel his cool, sticky belly for the moment it took it to realize that I was too warm and hairy for a perch.
The Pacific tree frog has genetic variants in the population that are capable of changing color. Those I see here range from basic green to a pure, bright copper color with variations in between.
A rare few displayed a dark green tint that looked like the result of mixing brown and green. According to a paper by Wente and Phillips published in Animal Behavior (2005), some frogs maintain their color while others change from green to brown according to substrate. Frogs that do not change stick to background colors that match their own, but color-changing frogs do not.
As esoteric a substance as frog manure is, I may be able to collect enough to sell small samples for high prices if I convince fellow gardeners of the value of chitin for plant growth. Regardless, I enjoy the company of the little amphibians even though I’ve got to pay more attention to washing my salad greens.
I am still in the clean up phase after the first round of logging. This amounts to piling up limbs in various locations where I can burn them after the ban is lifted in fall. Damaged huckleberry limbs grow brown along the edges, small trees lean at odd angles, and shrubs have been deprived of most of their branches. It looks a bit like a few explosions took place as I look up at the remaining trees and see scraped bark and dangling limbs. Some I expect will go down this fall. I really need someone with a chainsaw to help me with cleanup but have yet to figure out who that might be. I’ve also got log piles ready to cut for firewood and I’ve but a handsaw.
My other task is to plan for planting this fall. I’ve already begun putting a few plants into the ground, but I need a lot of cover this winter to keep the weeds back and begin civilizing the open spaces.
I plan to use restoration grass seed in many areas just to act as a placeholder against weeds and as a soil cover during the heavy rainfall of winter. As I obtain material, including shrubs trees and ground covers, I’ll add them in with individualized fencing against deer. The large numbers of plants that will take to make the place look like how I want it will necessitate years of work, but by using short-term species such as flowering perennials and grasses to fill in among the more expensive woody plants, I hope to accomplish my goal: an attractive woodland garden replete with benches and pathways. No more slogging through wet grass and blackberry.
Of the two logged areas, the one behind the shed is the largest.
This location has a heavy clay layer (left in this photo) where my father punched a road through along the property boundary line decades ago. I believe that he may have used fill as the road is raised. To the right is the road bulldozed during logging. In contrast, the topsoil here is loamy with a high percentage of decayed wood. When I attempted to initiate a burn pile a few months previous, small deposits of decaying wood in the soil around the pile began catching fire, necessitating that I relocate my operations. This, by the way, is the place where I dug out the population of coral root. Rotten logs half buried were also serving as sword fern ‘nurseries’ here as well, providing food and moisture for fern prothalli. I hope to use the nutrients inherent in the soil to grow a mid-story of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) of different varieties, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, witch hazel, and winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora).
Below is a rough schematic depicting where some of these shrubs might go with a log bench for perspective. I also want to introduce large masses of native ground covers such as sword fern (the low growing dark green stuff in the photo), wood sorrel, and false-lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum), which is rumored to spread rapidly. I have been attempting to cultivate other native groundcovers such as bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) and winterberry (Gaultheria procumbens) but both grow so slowly that they are usually overcome by weeds before they make much progress.
Closer to the buildings, I may rely on showier ground covers to create a transition between grass and forest. These are few with which I’ve already had some success:
Creeping phlox (possibly Phlox sublata), which covers ground slowly but thoroughly with thin, pointed leaves and pink flowers in spring. Very drought-tolerant.
Periwinkle (Vinca sp.) – I borrowed cuttings from a large mat growing along the shoulder of the road across from the driveway. It roots quickly and seems to form a relatively impervious ground cover.
Point Reyes ceanothus (Ceanothus gloriousus) – Evergreen shrub. Once it gets going after about a season, it seems to persevere nicely even in dry soil. Purportedly a rapidly-growing ground cover. Mine are but a year old but are doubled in size. Shiny leaves and purple flowers make it sufficiently attractive to warrant edging of more formal beds. I think it may be a candidate for the edge of the cut area below the barn.
Taiwan creeper (Rubus pentalobus) – Tough plant that grows in full sun and clayey soil. Spreads rapidly and deters most weeds. Edible golden berries although mine seem so stressed they never produce.
Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri) - Another tough plant with bright evergreen leaves and red berries suitable for more formal situations. In four years approximately 3 plants have taken over an area of about 200 sq ft . It climbs rocks as well as other plants.
I also have autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), a popular choice in this area, which does a good job of surviving drier situations, but needs some shade and moisture through summer. Those I planted by the oil tank are frying and will need to be replanted.
I’ve created a new art form born of functionality and a tendency towards the use of metal as an art form.
Last year, I created a piece I call ‘Deer-Deterence’. It consists simply of two pieces of four-foot rebaror pipe and some barbed wire.
I intended it to protect my Western redbud, but it was after-the-fact as the local buck got to the lower limbs before I figured it need protecting. The bucks use small trees to rub the velvet from their antlers. Around here, the process begins around September. Native trees fall victim too; I have found alders badly gouged with ragged strings of bark hanging from their trunks. My pyrocantha shrubs along the driveway were badly mauled, and a beautiful dark blue flowered ceanothus lost several large limbs.
Taking a page from the Bloedel Reserve, which uses two metal fence posts driven into the ground at an angle to protect tree trunks, I’ve employed materials that I have on hand, namely rebar, steel pipe, and barbed wire. In some instances, I’ve also wrapped pieces of woven wire fencing around the trunks of larger trees. In other cases, I’ve placed a single pipe at angle.
Time will tell which will work the best, or if I will need to default to more extensive fencing measures. As of today, October 14, I’ve seen no evidence of fresh buck damage anywhere, although a summer herd of four does continue to hang out around the gardens.
The last of about 50 logs were picked up by truck last week, and I am left with about ten burn piles (I’ve already leveled 4) and a lot of understory to replant. In addition, there is the collateral damage to address: ragged, broken branches to trim, torn up soil to drag and smooth, a retention pond to re-dig (it ended up under a log pile), and a restoration seeding to slow the advance of weeds.
Other than the coralroot orchids, I don’t believe that I lost much in the way of locally rare native species. This grove was heavily disturbed years ago when my father built a series of roads and fields through what was then a 40 acre parcel. It doesn’t take much, I’ve found, to effectively eliminate small populations of native plants that don’t fair well in disturbed areas. However, there are places on the property that will remain off-limits. Between the house and the property boundary where my father limited his incursions, I’ve found Indian peace pipe, foam flower, and gooseberry, vanilla leaf, phacelia, and trillium. My experience as a professional ecologist and my observations as a land owner have led me to believe that even the more common (i.e. not listed as rare) native forbs are threatened by any type of ground disturbance that destroys and separates localized populations. Huckleberry, sword fern, and salal can endure a wide range of conditions and are nearly indomitable, but it is the specialists, the delicate species that are soil-dependent, or that require moist habitats free of invasive species that are lost. It is a major reason why the natural habitats of the Northwest are becoming increasingly homogenous. On my own property, I have only one natural population of foam flower, one of trillium, and several of vanilla leaf. In natural areas that have been protected, these plants are much more populous.
I will restore natives to the extent possible with seed and transplants, but cost and difficulty of acquisition makes restoration an expensive proposition, and success is limited by the amount of soil disturbance and compaction. This puts a premium on preservation.
My primary objective in both logged areas (about 2 acres total) will be to create an understory of colorful, flowering shrubs and trees with areas of ground cover where benches, rocks, and other points of interest will make an interesting place to stroll.
Adventures in creating a 10-acre garden from scratch