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‘You just saved $125’ the cashier at a local nursery told me the other week. I’d been making the rounds of the plant sales, checking in on those nurseries that I know have discount plant areas. Those that have often discount up to 50%, but one Gig Harbor nursery offered plants at up to 75% off. I took home armloads of bergenias, bridal wreath spirea, hosta, Azalea ‘Orchid Lights’, and several other perennials. I also cruise the discounts at Home Depot, Lowe’s. The other day I netted seven large trees – a river birch, two Eastern red buds, a red maple, and two coral-bark willows – averaging 15 feet tall for less than $150.  The maple was only $5.


Many nurseries have a discount section throughout the year which I regularly check during the growing season, but the largest reductions can be found in mid-fall when most nurseries are clearing out the summer stock and getting rid of items that didn’t sell.

I’ll grant you that these cast offs are not always in great condition. I look carefully for signs of disease before I take them home, and usually I can assume that after a season of mild neglect my finds will be pot-bound, water deficient, water logged, or just plain ratty. Still, if you accept the challenges of adopting strays, the bargains aren’t bad.

I will buy showpiece plants for a price. I love colorful witchhazels and novel conifers that cannot normally be found on sale. But since my goals are focused upon the established of large groups of plants of a given color or texture, and less upon the pedigree, my approach works well for my budget.

A little knowledge of plant disease, plant care, and the lifespan of the average seed can assist with making intelligent selections.

My bargain shopping is also supplemented by propagation through cuttings taking from my property and those of willing donors, from seeds I’ve collected, and from freebies I encounter now and then through gardening groups or plant salvage programs. Once, I encountered a basket of free seed packages at an indoor plant store in Seattle. No one noticed them until I pounced upon the prize, whereupon I was quickly joined by a small group plowing eagerly through packages of herb and vegetable seeds from that season that were set to expire. Nevertheless, most of them sprouted.

In January, I’m ready to begin ordering bunches of bareroot stock from the local conservation district for about $1 a stem and grow them up in pots for later planting.

Photos from a Morning Walk in Mid-Fall

Acer palmatum, one of my sale plants, lights up an otherwise dark conifer grove off the deck.





Hamamelis x intermedia glows a deep orange.




Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’ grows opposite the driveway from ‘Janela’ and offers bright yellow leaves and flowers in addition to a fragrant scent that carries a long way.









Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) leaves and berries behind the rich green of heath (Erica sp.)


Bright jewel-like berries of the aptly-named beauty berry (Callicarpa sp.)



Reddish leaves of Viburnum opulus L. var. americanum (American highbush cranberry) in the foreground beneath yellow-leaved cherries imported by my father as seed from North Carolina 40 years ago.






I refuse to use herbicides for weed control, and here is why.


Pacific Chorus Frog, aka Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) stuck to a window

Tree frog in my plastic greenhouse.

As a master gardener trainee, and as a student of horticulture at a local community college, I was consistently presented with the idea of Integrated Pest Management. The IPM approach does not eschew the use of pesticides and herbicides, but it encourages alternative approaches to their use. This implicitly acknowledges the dangers of improper use or overuse, and reading between the lines, may be some acknowledgement of the dangers of even proper use.

I admit to using pesticides in the case of treating buildings for termites and carpenter ants. But then, with proper maintenance, this would not be so much of an issue. In the garden, I may use Deadline for slugs although I am considering quitting this habit as well.

I’ve never felt the need to use herbicides because in my previous small urban garden plots, I never needed them.

Now, I face a weed control issue of magnanimous proportions. I’ve got everything here: reed canary grass,  English ivy, scotch broom, and various grasses and weeds that invade my new beds and exponentially increase my maintenance work.

My place is also a home for hundreds if not thousands of tree frogs. These tiny amphibians start out life in lake and surrounding wetlands, but during the summer, the explore the upland areas as well, and can be found hundreds of feet from water on the warmest days. Mowing and weed-whacking become a challenge as I attempt to dodge the little green hoppers that fly out of the grass before me.

Herbicides are often used in the PNW for reed canary grass control. This invasive grass is generally found in moist areas and can destroy entire wetlands by distributing its creeping rhizomes to form a nearly impermeable mat. I’ve seen the damage myself, and seen small water courses otherwise useful for fish completely filled by this introduced grass. Yet several studies have found that at least one common herbicide has the potential to kill tadpoles on contact and may affect other elements of aquatic ecosystems, including oxygen levels and even predator-prey interactions.

I would vote for patience over parsimony in most any case for which herbicide offers a quick solution. I mow and pull the reed canary grass on my land, and have considered deploying black plastic to kill back other populations long enough to use interplanting to shade it out. Agencies with short fiscal timelines will often advocate broad-use applications of herbicides to get more immediate results. Many will argue the long-term effects are minimal. Yet I would argue that there is plenty we don’t know about the comprehensive impacts of the chemicals that we use. Studies of biodiversity and chemical controls suggest that we may be altering our ecosystems in ways we don’t completely understand (e.g. http://www.moraybeedinosaurs.co.uk/neonicotinoid/Pesticides_and_the_loss_of_biodiversity.pdf). Instead, we are left wondering why our frog populations are disappearing. One species may not have an effect noticeable to us, but that is because we usually aren’t looking.

The Pacific tree frog is, in my years of observations, the most common frog out here. In fact, I don’t see any other frog species on the island and usually only tree frogs elsewhere around the Puget Sound. What will fill its place?

Casual use of herbicides by homeowners, or even as a primary tool for habitat restoration, may not be worth the cost. The stakes aren’t high enough if the goal is to save time and reduce labor.  I’d rather keep the frogs.


Why I don’t use herbicides

But first, a maternal scene of deer in my field from earlier this spring. The doe had twins and they have been terrorizing my planting beds ever since. They are small enough to fit through most anything, including my experiment fishing line and parallel wire fencing. Only the netting will keep the little plant munchers out and even then they can crawl underneath anything not fixed at the bottom. But they are cute.




The mushrooms were Tom’s idea – why not use a few rotten logs my father left lying about to grow Chicken-of-the-Woods?  So here we are, dragging the log, drilling the log, and installing the plugs which are presumably inoculated with spores. They should produce in a year or two we hope. These are edible mushrooms found in Pacific Northwest most commonly on conifer logs and snags.



Growing your own ‘shrooms

A New Start

I’ll take the moving of the green house May 2013 as the time that begin my drive to firm up my finances so that I could once again support my father and I without my having to work at my tedious job. It also symbolized a new willingness to take chances and make greater efforts to find my place in life, four years to the month that I returned from California and began this blog to document my efforts to create a 10 acre garden. I finally quit my job in early September, and found a new peace with myself and my search for fulfillment that remains somehow grounded with this territory that is now mine.

How Do You Move a Greenhouse?

This glass monument to new beginnings was originally erected behind the main house beneath towering Douglas firs. Over the 30 + years that the thing sat there, essentially unused, the trees grew to completely shade it. When I returned, I built planters and grew seedlings that, in the absence of enhanced light, grew tall and spindly. Basement tenants used it to store junk.


On the eve of the arrival of new tenants and my renovation of the entire house, I hired the same contractor that redid the deck to move the greenhouse. None of us knew quite what we were doing. The original idea was to jack up the 10′ x 17′ structure and move it, glass and all, on a low trailer.  This was later abandoned when we concurred that the twisting of the aluminum frame would shatter the glass. That, and the sheer weight of the glass would have made it unmanageable.

After a day spent removing glass, the contractor – a very lively 79-year-0ld – and his co-worker son used ladders and plastic pipe to alternately lift and roll the structure up onto a flatbed trailer.  The frame tended to twist and bend, in addition to being heavier than we’d imagined. Furthermore, the wheel wells of the trailer prevented the frame from sliding all the way to the front. The front end of the greenhouse began to sag down to the ground, door flapping, as we descended the first hill.

At the time, I had two real estate agents looking at the house. Together they, plus myself, jumped onto the tongue of the trailer while the son walked behind to hold up the end. We proceeded this way at about 3 mph over the 1,000 ft distance to the top of the hill and the sunniest place on the property.

The old foundation was a brick patio with low cement walls. The new one is made of 4×4’s upon which the frame now sits. I am now in the process of installing a brick floor over sand. Most of the brick was free; the rest I had to buy at a local used materials yard for .50 each. Most of the glass survived the removal, but quite a bit of it did not survive my clumsy efforts to relocate it by wheelbarrow (you’d be amazed how much the stuff weighs – I’d say the glass alone was at least 1,000 lbs).

The contractor loves this greenhouse! He figured it was cheaper to move it (about $1,800 including replacement glass, 4×4’s and brick) than to buy a new one of the same quality. It appears to have been custom made, which has proven to make reconstruction slow as we hunt about for the correct size of aluminum strip to fit over the edge of each glass panel. The son started out labeling the glass panes with tape, but it turns out that all of the panels are interchangeable and have been merciful cut to even sizes with no fractions of an inch.

I’ve got about 15 panels left to replace, some of which I will attempt to cut on my own.

The electrical system once powered fans and a heater, but my father abandoned these long ago and they have rusted beyond repair. I’m looking into the possibility of solar fans, and a cheaper way to heat it than electricity.




The Design Possibilities

This is my new start at marketing landscape designs. I want to integrate the greenhouse into a larger scale design that compliments its straight, clean lines. In other words, the structure demands a level of uniformity that I’ve not yet achieved in my free-flowing, more naturalistic designs. Plus I’m seeking more enduring solutions to reducing weeds, which take up much of my time to control at the moment.  Considerations include cement or brick extensions along the sides that will reduce mud and weeds, and allow the placement of outside planters. Grass strips and a more formal pathway to the barn will also create a sense of formality and organized progression from one part of the garden to the other.

And the frame over the oil tank will have to go. Sorry Dad. They call it progress.




How to Move a Greenhouse

Gardening activities in a single day

Clockwise top left:

Edging a wall

Newly planted Hino Crimson azaleas to add color to a an old Douglas fir stump

Jackson cat oversees the work

Planting a fern

Pruning the orchard

Limbs for burning

Trusty wheelbarrow with fern for the backyard woodland garden.

A Day in the Life (February 24, 2013)

  • April 19th, 2013
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A colleague told me the other day something that I knew to be true of my own efforts, but didn’t really want to hear: his landscape lacked a theme. I suppose there are underlying similarities among my creations: a lack of ‘sophistication’ and polish that would be easily solved with lots of money for cement trim, manufactured fences, and immaculate beds with no weeds. Or, perhaps, the fact that all most are draped with fine black mesh netting. Or that I obviously follow an unmanicured, natural style formed by loose groupings of a few species, mostly perennials herbs and low shrubs.


I’m fine with all of that, I just want a landscape-level theme. Something that impels movement from bed to bed, or from one part of the property to the other. Call if ebb and flow if you will.

I have begun to solve the problem by eliminating briars and underbrush and creating trails that invite movement. Previously, my father’s network of driveways were the only way to really move through the property. Now, I am reworking deer trails to form alternate routes. But they aren’t advertised. You see first one bed, then another, with no follow-through. Frighteningly, the same could be said for my own life.


I’d rather have it the other way, paths with a series of destinations along the way. The deer fencing has unfortunately inhibited movement around my premier upper garden, with its quadrant shrouded in netting. Better fencing with gates would solve that problem, as would clearly marked paths that lead around.

I am also working to clear out and enhance open areas that would otherwise appear sterile and unappealing. A picnic bench, here, a sculpture there, an intriguing group of colorful shrubs to capture the eye.


Still, I work moving from place to place with no connection in mind. Maybe my next mission should be a safari through which I use ribbons to mark the point where the eye should next draw you in. Start at garden for instance, and turning north see a low hedge beyond which lies a glimmer of green trail and red maples that make you want to see more. I already find myself standing in parks or on hiking trails asking myself, what is it I see that compels me to go there?


Ongoing projects –


The plants

The new mound garden by the shed is now populated by a yellow witch hazel (Arnold’s Promise) that mirrors the orange Hammemelis x intermedia by the barn, a Cornus floridawith quite a few years to reach full size, lily turf, Japanese forest grass, deutzia from shoots I cut, and ajuga. It replaces my bark pile and is the start of what I hope to develop into a more formal area. I’m even contemplating hedges to introduce a degree of structural integrity my landscapes lack.

The space










Wire art – I’ve got about 300 feet of barbed wire and a blow torch. Now I just need mold to create intriguing balls, columns, or whatever else might add a touch of interest. For now, the stuff lays out by the garden with pink flagging so I don’t forget it’s there.


Picnic area – I’m proving that I can grub blackberry briars for permanent removal, transforming a thicket into a lovely glade under an old growth alder beneath which I’m planting sword fern and selected natives, and maybe even a blueberry hedge to partition the area into discrete units.

New ideas in fencing –

Madrone branches make lovely fence posts. Later I’ll shellac them so they retain the reddish color of the outer bark.



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Creating a Theme

  • February 22nd, 2013
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This is a photo of the riparian zone that surrounds my five acre lake. Now with winter upon us and the ground either 1. hopelessly muddy for planting or (like today) 2. frozen hard as iron, I while away the hours cutting back blackberry tangles by hand. The photo above is a shot of an area recently relieved of blackberry.  Armed with my new Xmas gift, the book ‘The Natural Habitat Garden’ by Ken Druse, I’m ready to create a vision of a lake surrounded by beautifully colored dogwood stems in red and yellow. But first, I must remove the non-natives: ivy, reed canary grass, blackberry. And I must sculpt the view with my hand saw, removing dead or leaning trees but being cautious to leave snags of habitat benefit. I see a vision, nuturted by the wetland photos in Druse’s excellent book, of a lake that one can walk around and see all manner of wildlife through the drapery of beautiful, colorful natives. As I cut away vines and cut up downed and leaning willow and alder, I find glimpses of the lake through which we one day might be able to walk.

In the process, I’m finding my niche:  I do everything by hand.  And the rewards are many: not only have I found pockets of invasives, but samll groups of struggling natives including wood fern, which I’ve never been seen here, and the saprophytic Indian peace pipe, which I will fence to keep oblivious visitors from parking on them.  I’ve now found diversity threefold from what I’d previously believed.

Other finds include a stand of tall Oregon grape:



Somehow, this survived, protected from my father’s bulldozer.


This spring, I will establish plots with native seeds and plantings, each carefully cleared, staked, and evaluated. I hope to bring diversity to this ravaged property, and create an environment conducive to walking and viewing. I will, furthermore, accomplish this by hand, using only clippers, hand saw, pole saw, and machete.






Imagine the bench? See the trail?  This March, I will pick up birch trees to add to the lakeside flora, and plant more red osier dogwood. Other plantings will come from a native seed site I’ve found in Seattle.


In the meantime, it’s me and my handtools versus 20 acres of weeds.

A Vision of the Lake

  • January 19th, 2013
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Grizzly (and deer) protection for the garden

As I spend increasingly more time in my garden, driven in part by dissatisfactions with other areas of my life as I approach middle age, I rack up quite a list of ideas. On some days, they spill over and surround me with their chatter for attention, and if they are good enough, they stay with me. I write much but draw little,  a misfortune for me as my designs remain largely in my head and are therefore often experimental, and implemented through seat-of-the-pants methods.  Other ideas of lesser magnitude or lacking in spatial coordinates may dissipate before I can reach a sheet of paper.Therefore, I set forth this list, which came to me as I raked alder leaves yesterday in the rain, for later benefit:

Eight Landscape Maintenance Ideas I’ve Learned Through the Years

1. Leaves make great mulch – alder and maple on this property in particular. It is well worth the effort to rake under wild trees as the leaves provide both nutrients in the form of N and C as well as soil texture and weed control.  I still need to do research on the nitrogen (N) content of red alder (Alnus rubra) leaves. I have read that the soil around alders, which fix nitrogen just like legumes, have locally high N levels that will benefit the plants that grow there. This is something to consider as I plan interplantings along the edge of the native forest.

2. Himalayan blackberries can be controlled organically – It is not necessary to hire workers or spray the heck out of blackberries. The trend towards using herbicides, however fast they may breakdown, to solve problems disturbs me deeply. I have 20 acres of blackberries and I derive considerable mental relaxation and physical conditioning from their removal. In large swaths, I use a machete. In places where they are mixed with desirable plants, I use clippers. In winter, even the larger blackberries can be pulled. I’ve been doing that quite a bit lately. The ground here gets so sodden just about anything pulls up easily. Blackberry roots have a large nodule that forms just below the ground; if nothing else, clip this free. I don’t yet know if the remaining roots will resprout, but removing the storage organ will set it back a while. In this manner, I have cleared many large areas of blackberries enough so that light annual maintenance is all that is required to prevent thickets from forming.

3. Get to know the ground – while I’m rooting about in the bushes killing blackberries, I have also found invasives creeping in – English ivy, Scots broom, and reed canary grass in particular – and have made mental notes of their locations for future eradication. I’ve also found a myriad of curious mushrooms and colorful liverworts with orange tips.  I take inventory of the plants that I see and where they grow, and have noticed a distinct lack of herbaceous diversity.  I use my observations to develop ways to reintroduce native groundcover to areas smothered by years of unmanaged overstory.  It pays to walk every tangled inch of property to know what is there.

4. The benefits of stick piles – As I trim trees and pick up fallen branches, I typically leave them in piles ranging from 1′ to 4′ high. Usually I’ll cut large branches into 3′ sections. If left long enough, the woods will reclaim the piles as trumpet vine, grass, and other creepers take over. The finer materials will rot, and small birds and rodents may enjoy the cover.  Later, I’ll burn the pile, liberating nutrients as ash, which can be left in place or put on the garden where the annuals prefer alkaline soil. I used to pick up piles and move them to a central location to burn as my father once did, but increasingly I’m tending to leave the piles in place, putting them out in the open to avoid torching the canopy.  It saves time and provides local soil conditioning.  However, keeping in mind the issues of carbon release and global warming, I also recommend leaving some piles in place back in the shrubbery where they are not visually unappealing in the more cultivated areas. I’ll also leaving rotting limbs on the ground out of sight, or cut up smaller materials and throw them into the forest to decay. I have decided after much consideration that I want to manage the woods closer to the living spaces for visual appeal with few downed branches and trees, but also maintain a natural forest floor with rotting material that will nuture the soil and provide habitat for smaller animals and microorganisms.  Despite the appearance of many managed landscapes I’ve seen, a clean forest floor is not sustainable.

5. Plant to emulate nature  – Use multistory plantings. Avoid long runs of nothing but bark with a few plants stuck in here and there. Even highly educated people tend to view this as appealing, but it is unnatural and unsustainable. My barked areas eventually teem with plants that cover the ground and reach into vertically and horizontally into the intermediate spaces above the ground. In other areas, I thin out the overstory of old-growth huckleberry and salal and plant underneath to soften and color the edges of the natural forest.  Groundcover – understory – canopy; no matter the scale, using this as a baseline will generally yield appealing results, maximize habitat potential, and benefit the soil while sparing a lot of maintenance. Except for the highly cultured look, most western-style landscapes are riffs on this theme.

6. Rotting logs make good planters – Red huckleberry and licorice fern in particular. If properly placed, they are visually appealing and provide a natural container garden.

7. Madrone logs are just too good to waste – I’m still trying to figure out how to preserve the red bark, which eventually turns black and peels off.  The branches make great pea trellises and structural additions to pots. The trunks and larger branches can be sawed back to form the structure of a low fence. I’m planning one now with madrone branches for posts and sapling poles for rails.

8. Don’t worry about what the deer will and won’t eat – It doesn’t matter. There is little that they won’t eat at some time of the year if desperate enough. Even the fawns have to sample the supposedly unpalatable plants to learn otherwise. Plant what you want and protect it. Or consider the placement of deer trails and landscape accordingly. Here we have deer interstates that can either be avoided to some degree or blocked with fencing.  Unfortunately, I did not consider this when planning my garden at the top of the hill, which intersected a major deer trail. Everytime the fence is down, the deer get in and feast.

I’m not sure where this ongoing saga will lead me. My energy seems boundless, and my devotion deep. I continue to follow my heart and spend most of spare time here ploughing my way to whatever the end product will be. I see it in my mind, without drawings or plans. I’ll know when I reach the point where it looks the way I wish it to be, or at least I  hope it will. It may well turn out to be a never-ending process. Somewhere along the way though, I need to carve out a place where I can learn to just sit and enjoy it.








Managing a large landscape – thoughts for the coming year

  • December 24th, 2012
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My previous accomplishments lead the way for another new mound garden in the style of the one I built in 2010 (winter 2009 top, summer 2010 bottom):


Based on my previous successes, there is hope, then, that I can pull this one off as well, even without the excavator to haul my soil and rock.

My next new garden is at present a 20′ x 50′  spot between the shed and the barn with a 2-year pile of rotting bark and weedy mistreated grass. The ground beneath has a long history as a Doug fir forest, horse arena, and later parking and storage location for friends keeping everything from trailers to hot tubs.

At present, a mess of bark and compacted soil flanking an unappealing aluminum shed.

Over years, the clayey soil has been compacted and no organic material allowed to form. Even the rotting bark pile which at one time was about five feet high probably did the spot little good.

Tired of looking over my existing gardens at this mess, I’ve made it the next project on my 2013 list. First, I’ve begun hauling away the bark.  Fortunately, there are plenty of places for its use: garden paths, mulch for beds, weed suppression around the blueberries and so forth.

Since the soil is now hardpan, I need to add a few yards of good soil if I don’t want to drill planting holes. Experience suggests that a two foot high mound will eventually mellow into something flatter. I’ve begun excavating from other areas of the property a wheelbarrow at a time, but it’s getting exhausting. However, the rain here has been epic, and my last attempt to buy compost from a local soil supplier resulted in a sloppy load of mud resembling cow dung. Yet every day I look at that pile and gamely find ways to work on it even as the water puddles upon the ground. It is my new obsession.

The plan – (click to enlarge)

The plant palette includes plants that I’ve been growing from cuttings, seeds, and sprouts, some from my own gardens, some from others. In addition, I have stock from my donations to the Arbor Day Foundation, which is an excellent source of relatively low-cost quality bareroot stock and the money goes to a good cause. My intent is to create fall color which is sorely lacking here, in addition to a screen for the less-than-gorgeous shed. The grass around will be improved and maintained.  Lush ground covers and low shrubs will provide a multistory effect that mimics the natural forest. I eschew plain bark groundcover with a few trees stuck here and there as wholly unnatural. My landscapes reflect natural patterns and in so doing minimize the maintenance.

I’ve yet to choose a delineation feature such as a bed border or fence. I am contemplating a fence comprise of pieces of treated madrone branches pegged together, but need to figure out how best to accomplish this.

More to follow….step-by-step progress on how to build a new mound garden from scratch.



New Challenges for 2013

  • December 22nd, 2012
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