When I first arrived in late May, progress was easy because there was everything to do and anything that I did looked good relative to the way that it was. The front yard was re-established with an attractive perennial garden on one side, and a burgeoning woodland garden on the other. I rebuilt the retaining wall by hand using a two-tiered approach to add planting space for ferns. A nasty weedy area by the garage has become a perennial garden fronted by large red dahlias I got for free from a local garden giveaway. I built pond and waterfall, and oversaw the construction of a detention basin (below) for controlling runoff such as what flooded the basement last year.
Now, as it turns September here and the fall rains begin, I look upon what I have done and realize that it is no longer so easy to prioritize. I’ve gotten to the easy stuff and left the trickier elements for last. For instance, the crumbling walls of stone along a weed-filled planter with rock-hard clay soil which greets the visitor long before the gorgeous new perennial garden. Then there are the other elements of the larger plan, the back 20, including the 2,500 square foot vegetable garden that required tilling and mulching, and I realize that 1. I need a plan that will best use my resources to complete the creation of my 10-acre garden, and 2. I need a business plan to earn some money at this rather than watching my recession-tattered savings drain.
There are some rays of hope. I am applying for a Master Gardner class that will provide me with opportunities for volunteer work and networking. I will start two community college classes this month, one in business and another in executing landscape design drawings. I also plan to get a business license and begin advertising.
Ultimately, I see myself being a landscape designer and writer, but also the conservator of an amazing 20-acre preserve that includes gardens and natural areas accessible by modest trails flanked with a diversity of native plants from throughout the region. The task before me seems so overwhelming at times, though, I almost don’t know where to begin. Each day, I step outside my door and think of the thousands of things that I could be doing and wonder which is the most important. And even this question has two parts:
which is most important for bringing me to the point of being fiscally sustainable, and which is the best for my heart. For in the end, it is not the money, but the creation of a dream, a garden of my own, that draws my heart. For that I would work endlessly without pay, at least in an ideal world.
The rainy season has come early it seems. Usually, the Northwest rainy season is heralded by a sudden tranisition from Indian summer to a week of steady downpour, just to get you accustomed to what’s to come. This year, it began with a series of rainy, cloudy days in August backed up by harder rains in early September.
I had a friend here once who had been raised in LA and moved to Olympia. When he returned to LA a decade later, he spoke of having to put away the pills and sharp objects to make it through the winters here. I was born here, but forays to other places have reinforced the fact that much of my depression over the years was probably enhanced by the grey winters here. This time, living in the midst of 20 acres of lots to do, I hope that it won’t hit me so yard. Anyway, the rain brings an enforced respite from my grueling landscaping schedule. Now I have time to draw, to write, and to generate the landscape designs that I hope to use in my future business. Classes start again in late September, and there is antique refinishing and crafts that I want to do.
No matter how I face it, though, I miss the sun, the heat, and the long days spent doing nothing but work. After so many years behind a desk, it is all that I want to do. Intellectually, I read fanatically and enjoy writing, but there is a freedom in wielding the hoe, hauling the wood, replanting one thousand day lilies, taking on a blackberry thicket with pruners. It is a relaxing rhythm for me. The grey days ahead will be a challenge.
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.
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.
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 (http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/thoracic/thoracic.htm). 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.
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.
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.
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”.
Eons ago before I could remember when or why, my parents built a house on Fox Island with an associated retaining wall of basalt about five feet tall and thirty feet long. I played on it, over it, ignored it, generally, except as an impediment between the front and side yards. Mom’s creeping phlox poured over it, ferns sprouted forth from its crevices.
The wall lasted for 30 years until the day last January when my father called me at my home in sunny Pasadena to tell me that the house was ‘flooded’. From where? From the outside, of course.
But Dad, it’s on an island, and a small dry one at that with no rivers to be had. Wetlands, granted, and lots of them, but none near his house.
He insisted that the water currently cascading down the basement steps was real, and that he had gone so far as to take his personal excavator and dig up much of the front yard next to the house to find the source. His hydrologic exploration was unsuccessful, but he was able to locate the electrical trunk line feeding the house although not before he dug. I put my head in my hands and said a silent prayer for my mother’s once beautiful garden. My preview of it in February proved the site to be nearly as bad as I had thought. The wall had been decimated, a chunk was missing from the brick trim on the house, the yard pavers had been cracked, and the place was knee deep in mud. There was no sign of grass or flowers, or any of the place’s former grandeur.
By May, I had quit my job moved in for good. Hence, the beginning of my story. The front yard became my proof of point for developing a landscaping portfolio and I was going nowhere with it until that wall went back up.
It was black and white thinking at its best. My first challenge, and I never saw it coming. My tendency to fix things back the way that they were so that I could sleep easy overwhelmed any thinking that may have occurred outside of the box. In two weeks, I proceeded through all of the stages of the self-created problem: acknowledgement, choosing a course of action, instant frustration at how long it is taking, seeking alternatives to achieve the goal despite cost, personal trauma (in my case physical), and feelings of hopelessness.
By the first week, I had reopened an old shoulder injury and could no longer sleep for the pain. I had stood and watched my father run the excavator above and below the wall attempting to create the 2:1 grade that I had assigned him and struggling against physical exhaustion, mental fraility, and diabetes to work the giant machine for more than an hour at a time. The rocks that went into the original wall exceeding two hundred pounds in some instances and were impossible to lift into place without mechanical leverage. Rocks were placed, removed, dirt shifted about and compacted. I wept for the cedar tree whose roots reached out under the wall and were being torn up by the tracks.
Seven days later, I was willing to call a truce. A hydraulic line had broken spilling a pool over the cedar roots. I hired a kid to move rock, but he proved less than up to the task, so I rented a bobcat. Finally, at 3 am the night before the delivery of said bobcat, I sat up in bed with pain shooting through the inflamed nerves of my hands and concluded that I was missing a critical point in all of this.
Why must we use large machinery to move mountain when the very winds and waters around us can move more than we humans can ever dream to move, one grain at a time.
Well, that’s the point – time. And time is money, as I was constantly reminded during my wage-earning life. But this is just time, and time that I have set aside for doing the different thing. So I may not get it done this week or even this month. This season will do. So I go out every evening and I stare at it. Soon, I have imagined it into two courses of rock, reducing the need for the structural integrity that might demand larger rocks and more demanding techniques. Still, I persist in the use of the excavator and spend a morning in a light mist with my father setting rock until his patience runs thin with yelling at me to quit moving them myself. He wants the bobcat; this is taking too long. I am losing patience with his losing patience, but more than that, I don’t want this to be dependent upon outside forces like machines with nuts, bolts, fluids that leak, tanks to be filled, and tracks that compact the earth until it is hard and barren as cement.
A few cedar branches drift over where the excavator sits as I stare down at the wall. This is not about a wall, an end point. It is about the way in which I approach it. I consider my mother, who rolled rocks as large as these by herself using leverage. My father was amazed, but when you have nothing but your two hands, you find a way. The Egyptians and the Aztecs both lacked excavators. They made up for it with sheer numbers and brains. On this scale, I could possibly shun the sheer numbers but I had to use my head. This is about learning patience, and working within my own bounds. If noisy machinery and my father’s impatience took the fun out of it, then I had to find my own way to reclaim the process as my own.
I’d climb down to the bottom and begin twisting and rolling a rock that exceeded my own weight at least one time over. When I considered the rock’s pivot point, and moved it around that, it was suddenly not so difficult to move it ten feet to the wall and shift it into place. A rock a day. I can do that.
So each evening, I began slipping out after my father had gone to bed early and worked in the northern twilight literally under his second story bedroom window to set rock. I preferred to do it clandestinely to avoid argument. I considered each two-man chunk of basalt, viewing its flat sides and rounded points upon which it might pivot. I would prop them up, placing a smaller rock beneath to hold it steady until I could angle it the way that I wanted it and roll it back over. One by one, the larger stones were set. The first morning, my father commented on bringing the excavator back over to start work but I demurred. The next day, the excavator already sat in position under the tree where he’d apparently moved it while I was away. I moved three large rocks that evening, under his window. I wondered when he would notice, what he would say. After begging shamelessly for him to help me, my sudden change of direction might seem odd. That was, after all, a common complaint from my various ex partners. Internally, it made sense to me even if the rest of the world refused to acknowledge it. It didn’t matter anyway so long as I honored my own needs and let my father know honestly why I preferred to do it this way.
Adventures in creating a 10-acre garden from scratch