Category: Landscaping

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.



Kerria japonica on a wooden ladder


Pink Darwin tulip


Darwin tulips

tulips and magnolia

Redbreasted sapsucker_2

red-breasted sapsucker uses a ladder to broadcast for mates

My first winter back

  • April 29th, 2018
  • Posted in Landscaping
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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.


The raspberry crown borer, a mere 3/4″ in length, resembles a wasp but the ‘fuzz’ on the first few segments of its abdomen and feathery antennae give it away. As the name implies, the larvae feed on raspberry roots and may explain the sudden death of some of my red raspberries.


This flower spider (likely Misumena vatia), blends in almost perfectly with late-summer blackberry flowers, bearing the same white and pink coloration.


A pale swallowtail just leaving my globe thistle. I love these plants, and hope my avian foragers will too.

The yellow-faced bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenskii) is relatively common in my garden, and particularly enjoys crocus and California poppies.


Eggs on my deer fencing are a common occurrence in late summer. I am assuming they are butterfly eggs, but I've never seen the parent organism.

Eggs on my deer fencing are a common occurrence in late summer. I am assuming they are butterfly eggs, but I’ve never seen the parent organism.


Among the more interesting vertebrates I’ve encountered this summer are reptiles, which are comparatively rare in Western WA:



Milo, my little male tabby, shows of the live garter snake he brought into the house. I released it and Milo quickly forgot about the whole incident.

The relatively dull dorsal view of a male Western fence lizard, courtesy of Milo the cat. It lived, and I released it to a small rockery. It is interesting to note that these lizards are comparatively rare in Western WA, occuring primarily in coastal areas, including Fox, McNeil, and Ketron Islands. In SoCal, these animals are much lighter in color as is typical of species in southern vs northern latitudes.

The relatively dull dorsal view of a male Western fence lizard, courtesy of Milo the cat. It lived, and I released it to a small rockery. It is interesting to note that these lizards are comparatively rare in Western WA, occurring primarily in coastal areas, including Fox, McNeil, and Ketron Islands. In SoCal, these animals are much lighter in color as is typical of species in southern vs northern latitudes.

The brilliant indigo underparts of the male Western Fence Lizard.

The brilliant indigo underparts of the male Western fence lizard.



A ring of Pacific madrone.

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’.


Moss on huckleberry limbs

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.

Fern and root on rotted stumpe

Fern and root on rotted stumpe

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.

Old willow below the lake. It was the largest of its kind of seen, but it later split in half.

Old willow below the lake. It was the largest of its kind I’ve seen, but it later split in half.

Found Landscapes is the term I’ve been seeking

  • August 20th, 2015
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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:

Coral root habitat - after

Logged area behind shed.


Logged area by the barn

  1. 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.

    Debris pile (background)

    Debris pile (background)

  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Corallorhiza maculata

    Corallorhiza maculata

  4. I opened up large areas to weeds, including Himalayan blackberry and reed canary grass.

    A tarp used to reduce reed canary grass.

    A tarp used to reduce 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.

native grasses

Native grasses planted in areas scraped by logging equipment.

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.

One of two low areas that flood in winter and dry out in summer. A clump of yellow iris is visible to the right. These were under several inches of water but are now dry.

Pieces of an old dock my father dismantled and partly buried visible in front of a newly-planted maple. Cleaning up buried junk is another task I often face.

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.

The Finer Points of Forest Restoration

Earthen lake dam recently cleared. I hope to put a viewing platform here.

Earthen lake dam recently cleared. I hope to put a viewing platform here.

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 menziesiiand 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.

Corallorhiza maculata

Corallorhiza maculata (coral root) – dependence on soil mycorrhizae associated with conifers render this species exceptionally sensitive to soil disturbance.

Pathfinder habitat below the lake

An area by the lake cleared of Himalayan blackberry.

An area by the lake cleared of Himalayan blackberry.

Blackberry thickets effectively block other species from thriving.

Blackberry thickets effectively block other species from thriving.

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 arundinaceascattered 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.

A tarp used to reduce reed canary grass.

A tarp works well to kill or at least slow the growth of reed canary grass until I can excavate the roots.

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

A blackberry tuber. These give the plant energy to regrow after cutting.

A blackberry tuber. These give the plant energy to regrow after cutting.

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.

foam flower seed collected from a single population on the property

foam flower seed collected from a single population on the property

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.

Recently logged area (May 2014) seeded with native bunch grasses.

Recently logged area (May 2014) seeded with native bunch grasses.

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 (Callicarpa sp.) do well.  I hope to have success with cuttings from one of my old-growth nine bark (Physocarpus capitatus).

A propagation chamber made from tupperware and a plastic nut container.

A propagation chamber made from tupperware and a plastic nut container.

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.

Abundant sword fern and sedges above the lake dam

Abundant sword fern and sedges above the lake dam where I’ve cleared blackberry.

Mitella sp.

Mitella sp.

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.

Bald cypress in a field below the barn. Gold is its winter color.

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.

Licorice fern (Polystichum glycyrrhiza) planted on a stump in the newly logged area

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.

June 2014 post-logging

June 2014 post-logging


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.

Proposed design

Proposed design




















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.




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.


protected areas


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.


Japanese maples, dogwood, and other mid-level trees and shrubs from my own collection will replace dense huckleberry and salal undergrowth.










My own personal jungle:  five years later, dogwood, tall Oregon grape, and bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis) form an impenetrable mass of foilage by the barn where there was once a ragged hole. I hope that my forest garden plantings can be as successful.

My own personal jungle: five years later, dogwood, tall Oregon grape, and bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) form an impenetrable mass of foilage by the barn where there was once a ragged hole. I hope that my forest garden plantings can be as successful.




Post-logging Planning: Designing the Woodland Garden


The harvest

I have to admit that I am a lot ‘greener’ than I would like to admit, and it is a fact that I’ve had to hide for a long time as I’ve worked in jobs with employers that would not have tolerated any expression of my true self. In fact, I don’t work now in part to recover my principles after a job that asked me to work for projects that my conscious would never approve. In a sense, this time is for healing my wounds as I seek new directions for myself more in tune with my real feelings and interests. Of course, you can’t always eat your morality at the end of the day, but for now I’ve other means to stay afloat.


My sun chart for May 1

Having put that out there, I’ve opted to log my property to: 1. create more light in a forest that has grown up considerably in the 41 years that my family has held the property; and 2. provide some income. It’s tough for me though. The patches I selected to log include the area around the barn and shed, which are located in the sunniest place on the property and would stand to benefit the most. Removing trees in this area would also reduce shade on the garden and extend the sunlight hours to about 6 per day according to my calcs. Using a sun chart, I figured out where the sun fell at certain times of the day during the beginning of the growing season, and which trees where creating the most shade at a given time.


Logging between barn and vegetable garden.

The logging began the last week of May and actually took the form of selective thinning. The result has been stunning: trees removed from the south side of the barn has sent light flooding into a perennial shady area where I can now plant maples to create a multi-story woodland garden not shadowed by huge Douglas fir. Removal of most of the large (150′) Douglas fir south of the shed has brought more light to the green house and the vegetable garden as well. I’d several more trees marked for removal below the garden, but decided to leave them in favor of a nesting flicker and the fact that the cherry trees block most of the evening sun anyway.

grove before

the grove behind the shed – before

The grove - after

The grove – after

Four alders below the house were removed, bringing more light into my nacent rhododendron garden and planned water garden. Two of the trees were of quite an advanced age (about 36″ diameter at breast height if not more) and one was rotten through the trunk. I know the pileated woodpeckers will miss the latter, which was how I noticed the tree was about to topple into the garage, but I’ve taken care to leave snags wherever I can.


The rhododendron garden on the far side right of the photo will now extend into what was once a heavily shaded area beneath four large alders

Once I get the mess cleaned up, I hope to add even more maples and sun-loving azaleas to the mix. The house still remains in a shadowed bowl, hemmed in by some very aged Douglas fir that have grown so close to the house that I’m too nervous to have them removed. With the tradeoff of sun elsewhere on the property, I’ll continue to nurture shade gardens in the damp forests around the front and back yards, removing tall huckleberry as necessary to create open spaces. While I welcome the light, I admit to flinching everytime a tree crashed to the ground. Some where 60 to 80 inches dbh. It became almost physically painful to watch, but the hardest part was finding a large patch of coralroot (orchids) in an area of the fir grove behind the shed where I’d never before seen any. Despite having done many, many property surveys for sensitive plants and animals prior to disturbance as part of my career, I’d not done the same for my own property. Thus, while my logging contractor (an old friend of my father’s and very familiar with the property having cleared it 40 years ago) went to get his equipment set up the first day, I found myself frantically digging an replanting coral root (Corallorhiza maculata).

These plants lack chlorophyll and do not have the ability to photosynthesize. They are instead parasitic on soil fungi (mycorrhizae) which they depend on for food. After a quick bit of research on the mycorrhizal fungi requirements of coral root,I chose an area where the plants did occur and another where they did not to replant. I therefore hoped to avoid banking on the success or failure of a single site. Both sites were similar in regards to vegetation (open conifer forest) and the presence of decayed wood in the soil, although neither were as rich as the soil in the original site, which had an abundance of rotting material that also nurtured small fern. My review of published articles online suggested that my species (C. maculata) was somewhat more closely associated with the occurrence of particular ectomycorrhizal fungi than another congener (C. mertensiana) that occurs in the same type of habitat. It therefore seemed important to take as much of the original soil as possible to transfer the soil fungi with the plants. I discovered as I dug that these orchids have nothing resembling a root, just a straight white stem with a series of nodules. Working as quickly as I could, I transferred about 25 plants, roughly dividing them between the two sites. The plants at the occupied site were already post-bloom, while the transferred plants were still in full bloom. About a week later, they were still in bloom. I watered one site but not the other, yet the plants at both sites appeared alive. Time will tell the success of this venture. I cringed when the trees fell. I often got up from my writing to get away from the sound, or drove around to avoid returning home.  I learned after the first sites were harvested that the logs will be exported overseas. I am opposed to this for various economic reasons, but also for more emotional ones:  I grew up with these trees and I don’t want to see them leave the country. I just bury the feelings, as I always have, so I can move forward with reason as my motive. Still, it hurts in some strange, almost physical way to lose them. Maybe that is a part of me I should still hold onto.

Responsible thinning of a well-managed forest

Tomorrow (May 17), I will have been here for 5 years. For 2 of those years, I was employed as an environmental consultant until I left last year. The rest of the time has been spent gardening, volunteering, taking care of my father and managing his assets, writing, and drawing.

Now, finally, it seems that things have settled with my father in assisted living and his health stabilized, but I am here still, despite the temptations to return to California and work again as a field biologist. If I go, I make good money and enjoy the beauty of California, but I spend my life renting. If I stay, I must endure the emotional hardships of self employment and the miserable winter weather, but I get to live on property that I own and spend my days with what were once only hobbies.

Five years have aged me, and left me sometimes with the feeling that I’ve not accomplished much. I once measured my worth in terms of my career, and in the number of years of experience that I had. Now, I’m losing ground. When I look at job postings, I wonder if I could ever return to my field.

I have no children, no close relatives, and no marriage by which to measure time, only my partner who now lives with me, and my aging father who can no longer remember anything but the distant past.

The measure of my days has become my garden. It is more than years on paper.
It is an achievement that I see everyday. When I look at my flower beds painted in color, I remember the barren landscape this once was. I took a mound of mud and turned it into a garden. I’ve eradicated several acres of blackberries and transformed a weedy hillside into a rhododendron garden. I’ve planted trees and shrubs the size of which show me how time has passed.

I smile at the size of the viburnum that graces the front of the barn, and the Japanese maple in a rockery I built by the front lawn of the house. The front lawn looked like a bomb crater when I got here (my father had dug it up with his excavator to find the source of the basement flooding, pulling his main electric line up with it. Peninsula Light crews still laugh about it). Now it bears flowers and elegant ground covers that create the floor of my ever-changing woodland garden. I’ve solved the drainage problem that probably caused the flooding with a simple rock channel. A detention pond now holds back some of the runoff from the upper field.

Every part of this property now bears my touch. I have a long, long way to go though and with my father gone, it is now just me and whomever I might hire to assist.

Now, as the sole supporter of my father, I am making my estate plans and have asked others in the community to join me. I hope to someday pass this property on to become a park that others can enjoy. So far, there are no takers. Perhaps a conservation easement will as least ensure it is never developed, but my hope for creating a community space may lie with my ability to build a place that can be identified as a garden of sufficient value that others will want to keep it as such. I can only dream. I do need help, and by trading access to parts of the lake for volunteer work restoration work, I may yet succeed. Either that or I’ll have to buy bigger tools. As I age, I realize that I can’t work like this for too many more years.

However it turns out, I will enjoy sharing the journey. It can get lonely out here, and seeing this place through the eyes of others will be a pleasure.

The measure of my days

  • May 16th, 2014
  • Posted in Landscaping
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I live on a pile of glacial till that was scraped from northern Canada and ingloriously deposited here during the Pleistocene glaciation that shaped Puget Sound. Some areas are gravelly/sand topped with rich forest loam, but much of the property is heavy clay loam or even pure clay. I’ve no lush Puyallup Valley riverine loess here, just clay and clay and more clay.
But the pity party is over: In the developed areas around the buildings, I’ve been diligently working to renew the soil through mulching with mushroom compost and decomposed horse manure where I can afford it. I buy soil and create piles where the soil is too compacted to manage, and I just mow the rest.

I’ve killed a lot of plants, many of which I bought on the cheap as is my custom. Here are a few that have stuck with me for the duration and the places where they’ve survived:

Beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) – grows in full sun on a mound of heavy clay soil with little amendment


Weigela, before its show of tubular pink flowers













Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’) – grows in full sun on sandy loam mixed with some decent topsoil. Slow growing but appears healthy.

Hamamelis x intermedia glows a deep orange.

Hamamelis x intermedia glows a deep orange.










Double-file Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) – grows in full sun on a mound of heavy clay soil with little amendment. Gorgeous plant that has grown to over 6 ft from a one gallon pot in four years.

Dble file Viburnum

Double-file viburnum, so-named for its two rows of brilliant white flowers





Penstemon sp.  – I’ve lost track of which species I now posess, although Penstemon  ‘Blue Midnight’ is among them. They have all done very well in full sun/clay soil with one achieving a height of three feet.


Butterflies and hummingbirds love penstemon





Blue holly (Ilex meserveae) – full sun and heavy clay soil right next to the Weigela. Slow growing and still wider than tall but a survivor with about zero maintenance. And the deer won’t touch it.

Blue holly

Blue holly









Day lilies (Hemerocallis sp.) – a rather common looking sister with yellow flowers that I inherited from my mother. Give it sun and it will grow anywhere. Without sun, it will survive in a grass – like state but not bloom. Get large fast and easily transplanted.

Highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus)  – needs damp, organic soils and absolutely loves nurse logs/stumps.
The viburnum in front of the barn has done spectacularly with full sun and a cedar stump for a base. In shade or hard, rocky soils that dry out in summer, it survives but grows so slowly as to be nearly unnoticeable. I’ve some that have remained the same height for three years.


High bush cranberry













Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) – grows anywhere with a bit of sun. Invasive in my garden, it freely reseeds. I am actually trying to find places where it won’t grow.
Situationally dependent –

These things appear to detest rich soils even if the sunlight is good. The thymes thrive for one year, then die the next, while the rosemary and lavender languish with half of their branches bare. My amendments may have to include more rock and sand than organics.


What not to put in a damp, shady area with clay soils:
Monkey flower (Mimulus sp.)

These have all been complete and utter failures in the ditch that was hoping to transform into a water garden. It was dug down to the clay level, and the banks are sodden in winter. None of these plants lasted a season. Even the red osier dogwood has declined to grow more than an inch or so in the three years after placement on a damp bank.
I’m considering a load of gravel topped with an organic soil.



Plant selections that work for tough areas