Category: Landscaping

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

  • August 20th, 2015
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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
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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

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. 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


Yes, that’s one botanical garden in Anchorage for the entire state of Alaska, which could perhaps be argued to be so beautiful as to not need one.  But I was working in Alaska for weeks at a time and needed something to do on the weekend, so I went and was pleasantly surprised. I’d not seen much in the way of unique plants or landscaping in my forays about town, nor had I found the High North to exhibit much in the way of plant diversity, for obvious reasons. Yet I found a host of new plants to consider for my own garden, and considering that translating foward a zone or two (from cold to warm) couldn’t be that difficult, I took away quite a few photos and ideas.  Plus I’ve a new garden to add to my botanical garden ‘life list’.

I was also looking for the legendary AK Very Large Vegetables, and found a few of moderate size in a mixed planting that emphasizes the new fruit-and-flowers movement.

In the northern regions, small is a survival strategy, and I was particularly impressed with the minature willows as a groundcover (Salix phlebophylla in this photo). Now to find them locally.

I love the naturalistic look of this raised bed rock garden that mirrors the low impact, low cost approach I use.

I love the naturalistic look of this raised bed rock garden that mirrors the low impact, low cost approach I use.







A great idea for an easy path border of native materials. I could use my abundant willows.  The posts are cement, the sides woven twigs. Several hundred feet worth.















The blue arctic poppies were among my favorite flowers.









A reminder that a Shieldleaf Rodgersia would look great around the lake.













This what I’d like the forest floor around the buildings to look more like. I’m contemplating purchases of native seeds.







Wish I could do this but maybe in a few years with more skills and $


Ideas from the Alaska Botanical Garden

  • December 12th, 2012
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A delicious edible landscape for deer

A delicious edible landscape for deer

My peace with the deer came to an end this year, when the twins borne to a local doe began exploiting a territory that expanded beyond the lakebed to include the uplands where my fledgling barn garden was located.  Starting out naïve to the ways of deer and how to manage them, I went through the standard stages of grief:  anger, denial, sorrow, etc. Then I decided to get even.

Tomato plant browsed by deer

Tomato plant browsed by deer

I learned a bit about deer from my goats, which I sold in May for many of the same reasons as to why I combat the deer. Both are artiodactyls, members of a group of cloven-hooved mammals that include horses, deer, hippos, and peccaries. Deer are in the family Cervidae, while goats are members of the Bovidae. Both families consist of multi-stomached ruminants, which chew cud as part of their daily regime. Neither deer nor goats have no upper incisors, so they tear at vegetation leaving tell-tale evidence as to who ate your flowers.

Both the goats and deer act like garden dilettantes, never delving into one item but rather flitting from one place to another, nipping fresh growth. In that sense, they are somewhat useful for controlling meadows of creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) and Himalayan blackberry by nipping back new growth. Continuing attacks on the new growth of more sensitive ornamentals, however, can severely stunt their growth. Both goats and deer delighted in my plantings far more than the lush growth on the rest of the acreage. Perhaps the concentration of edible delights was an attractant.

Research suggested that PlantSkydd(, initially developed in Sweden for commercial forest applications, works well against deer, and having tried it a few times I would concur. First, I tried it on the goats, and was satisfied with the vehemence of their reaction, stepping back from the offending substance as though it was threatening their very lives.  Consisting of a mixture of blood and sticking agents, the stuff smells horrendous but is relatively easy to apply from a spray bottle and is said to last for several months. However, I would recommend it only for small areas or specimen plants given the cost. A gardener at my local nursery suggested blood meal, a somewhat less-expensive though still pricey fertilize which I can only find locally in 3 lb bags. I sprinkle it liberally on the soil and leaves, and have thus far found no evidence of damage on treated plants.

For the garden, which is about 0.1 acre, I spent the summer trying a variety of fencing methods, from a mesh work of electric polytape to barbed wire jutting three feet away from the top strand. After watching my peas and beans disappear and my currents, raspberries and gooseberries loose their leaves, I determined that deer, like goats, are more than willing to step through fences. The goats were even able to break the welds on the mesh fence of their pen through sheer force of boredom and determination.

At last, I sunk the money into a five-foot high, 1”x2” mesh fence on top of the existing three feet of wide mesh field fencing for a total of 8’ of mesh to overcome. So far, so good; one month into it and my raspberries have new growth and I can harvest my chard and turnips. Sections of the five-foot fencing also make secure cages for fruit trees and bushesProtective plant cage, and cheap plastic bird mesh has saved my ravaged witch hazel from further damageHamamelis x intermedia .

However, as the growing season has waned, the eating rampage has grown less even on unprotected crops, so I cannot discern if it is my efforts or the declining palatability of aging plants that is affecting deer foraging choices.

The most recent addition to my anti-deer arsenal is the Scarecrow™ motion-activated sprinkler from Contech Electronics (  The device gives a short burst of water when an animal is detected, frightening it away.  I’ve not had the pleasure of witnessing deer being deterred (see YouTube for that sort of entertainment), but I have two Scarecrows which I set up in various locations at different times so as to add to the element of surprise. I suspect the real test will come with this winter’s tender vegetable crop.

After I had spent the spring and summer months fighting for my right to grow vegetables and ornamentals, a fellow master gardener recommended the book Deer Resistant Landscaping by Neil Soderstrom.  This is an excellent resource not only for the control of deer but other pest mammals as well such as gophers, mice, rats, and, yes, armadillos. The author has done his homework interviewing numerous experts in the field, and delving into the life histories and habits of deer and other animals to help gardeners understand why they behave as they do. For instance, detailed information on how deer choose plants make it easier to select appropriate deterrents.  The book also features a comprehensive list of deer-resistant plants compiled based upon the experience of garden designers and growers. Take note, though, that plants can change in toxicity and palatability with the season, and that during periods of drought when natural food choices dwindle, plants that otherwise would be ignored become choice fodder. Or, as another local master gardener put it, “deer don’t read books on deer-resistant plants”.

Anything beats chasing deer around the garden at 4:00 am in bathrobe and slippers (true story), although I think my ‘crazy lady’ act has added to the deterrent effect. I can only hope.

A sampling of my personal list of what deer will and won’t eat:


  • Acanthus mollis – Acanthus
  • Acer circinaum – Vine maple (young tree)
  • Cercidiphyllum japonicum  – Katsura (young tree)
  • Cercis occidentalis – Western redbud
  • Cornus kousa  – Kousa dogwood (young tree)
  • Geum ‘Chiloense Red’
  • Hamamelis x intermedia   – Witch Hazel
  • Hemerocallis – Daylily
  • Penstemon ‘Garnet’ (young plants only)
  • Pyracantha koidzumii  ‘Victory’  – Firethorn
  • Prunella laciniata  – Self-Heal

DO NOT EAT (Not mine anyway)

  • Kniphofia uvaria – Redhot poker
  • Lavendula spp.  – Lavendar
  • Origanum vulgare – Oregano
  • Rosemarinus officinalis – Rosemary
  • Salvia officinalis – Sage
  • Senecio greyi – Senecio
  • Tagetes spp. – Marigold
  • Thymus spp. – Thyme
  • Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’
  • Yucca spp. – Yucca (green and variegated)


Resisting Deer

OK, we’re not Vermont, but if you squint your eyes on a gloomy day in Western Washington, you can find color out there besides green. Anyway, with some artistic contributions to the garden, you can certainly make the best of it.

witch hazel

Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’)

cherry leaves

Cherry leaves

garden cherry trees

Eastern cherry trees in the garden


Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)



himalayan blackberry

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) 

red dahlia

Red dahlias


pyrocanthaPyracantha koidzumii ‘Victory’

Japanese blood grassJapanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron)

maple leaf

Big leaf maple (Acer macrophylla)Campanula and maple leaves

Campanula and Japanese maple leaves

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.

Season of rain

  • September 6th, 2009
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