Category: Landscaping

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos from a Morning Walk in Mid-Fall

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





Hamamelis x intermedia glows a deep orange.




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









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


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



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






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


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

Tree frog in my plastic greenhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would vote for patience over parsimony in most any case for which herbicide offers a quick solution. I mow and pull the reed canary grass on my land, and have considered deploying black plastic to kill back other populations long enough to use interplanting to shade it out. Agencies with short fiscal timelines will often advocate broad-use applications of herbicides to get more immediate results. Many will argue the long-term effects are minimal. Yet I would argue that there is plenty we don’t know about the comprehensive impacts of the chemicals that we use. Studies of biodiversity and chemical controls suggest that we may be altering our ecosystems in ways we don’t completely understand (e.g. 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

A New Start

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

How Do You Move a Greenhouse?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Design Possibilities

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

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




How to Move a Greenhouse

Gardening activities in a single day

Clockwise top left:

Edging a wall

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

Jackson cat oversees the work

Planting a fern

Pruning the orchard

Limbs for burning

Trusty wheelbarrow with fern for the backyard woodland garden.

A Day in the Life (February 24, 2013)

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


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

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


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

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


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


Ongoing projects –


The plants

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

The space










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


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

New ideas in fencing –

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



» Continue Reading…

Creating a Theme

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

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

Other finds include a stand of tall Oregon grape:



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


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






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


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

A Vision of the Lake

  • January 19th, 2013
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My previous accomplishments lead the way for another new mound garden in the style of the one I built in 2010 (winter 2009 top, summer 2010 bottom):


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

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

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

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

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

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

The plan – (click to enlarge)

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

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

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



New Challenges for 2013

  • December 22nd, 2012
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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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I study Buddhism, and perhaps some of my ideas about the worth of valuing the present time has driven me to my choice of working almost entirely with hand.  On the other hand, I retain a healthy fear of moving blades and flying balls, which is why I excelled in neither woodworking nor sports.  Anyway, I’m a bit of a hermit and enjoy passing successive days in comparative silence working on my endless list of landscape tasks, aware of the subtleties of the world around me while I saw down small trees with a double-toothed hand saw. Me and my handsaw, pruners, and poler cutter manage most of the vegetation on the property. I do rely increasingly upon motorized wheeled vehicles, such as my power wheelbarrow, rototiller, and two mowers to save my back. However, I still posses a push mower and I am not above edging with shears. The cheap electric string trimmer that I bought last summer has a 10-to-1 ratio of time spent fixing the line feet to time actually trimming something. Its failure seemed almost to prove something to me about the implicit value of work done by hand.

So I work in peace and quiet most of the time. I am, remember, surrounded by 20 acres in a rural community with only a partial view of one neighbor, so isolation is easy.  I work in the rain, in the freezing cold, and in the rare instances of hot sun. I don’t mind at all. I like the feel of my body heating up on a cold day as I take my hand saw to a small sapling. I like clipping blackberry canes with my hand shears. I’ve leveled entire swaths of the nasty vines this way; it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I patiently cut limbs from a ladder, then carve them into pieces to decompose in piles on the ground, or place them on the fall burn pile.

Anyone who has known me is aware of my signature lack of patience for most of life’s impositions. Yet for this work, I find both patience and peace.

The men in my life seem to have little understanding for this curious approach to otherwise boring tasks. My father’s excavator is a favorite tool for accomplishing most anything, including tree removal that a chain saw could just as easily accomplish. I spend much of my time here attempting to re-educate my father and his associates, showing them how to avoid tearing up the soil, explaining why heavy equipment under tree roots is not advisable, describing how to prune properly even with an electric pole saw (which later died in action while my hand saw keeps going), and emphasizing the reasons why it is important to leave native vegetation intact. I have been called crazy, and had men shake their heads at me as I refuse the help of heavy power equipment. Whether or not they respect me, the well-trained among them now know to inquire as to whether ‘something is planted in there’ before falling a tree or taking on a mowing project. I know this place in detail now; I know what natives grow where, where the rock piles are, the nurse logs, the remnant yews and hemlocks. I protect them all.


My next project:  revitalizing the orchard. My father planted three plum and two apple trees in the late 70’s in an area that was once open but has now grown over with Douglas firs. All are now decrepit, poor produces, and two of the plums are over 30 feet tall.  Besides contemplating their replacements, the recent removal of two firs for firewood has now opened up space for about seven new trees. With this has come the realization that I now have an excuse to buy more plants. I can hardly wait.


Taking the high road: manual labor with hand tools as a path to Tao

Forest for the Trees

Winter is the time to plant and prune. I love pruning, cutting, hacking, and trimming as much as anyone, and it comprises a large part of what I do here. I seek to transform the thickets of tangled vegetation that surrounds the house into an open forest. I’d like to grow herbaceous species such as twinflower, false lily-of-the-Valley, Oregon oxalis (wood sorrel), and bunchberry, and introduce a wider variety of mid-story shrubs such as witchhazel and Viburnum sp. (e.g. high-bush cranberry) to add color in fall.  Herbaceous  understory species are almost non-existent here in part because the forest here has had no natural disturbance, such as fire, that would create open patches where smaller plants could grow.  Instead, the huckleberries have grown to small-tree proportions and along with the blackberries, blocked out anything that might have grown on the forest floor.


In pictoral terms, this is what I have:PICT7111



And this is what I want:


Connecticut deciduous forest in fall - I love the openness of this forest, with its multistory composition of both large and small trees and large shrubs. Here, fothergilla and witchhazel make up the middle story. I wish to introduce these species for color.



Chase - bear grass and berry

Chase Garden in Orting - here the Douglas fir forest has been opened up to allow for trails and a lush undergrowth of natives including bear grass, kinnikinnick, and sword fern. Rhododendrons comprise a middle layer that on my place is occupied by blackberry, huckleberry, and salal.























It all starts with a hand saw and pruners.  In an hour I can clear out an area of about 400 sq ft.  10 acre – 5 acres open area =  5 acres x 43,560 sq ft per acre  = 217,800 sq ft/ 400 sq ft  per hour = 544.5 hours/8 hrs per day = 68 days.  No problem!

Seeing the forest among the trees

  • December 11th, 2011
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