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.
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.
Adventures in creating a 10-acre garden from scratch