The measure of my days

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.

Plant selections that work for tough areas

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
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.

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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.

DSC_0379
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 -
Thyme
Rosemary
Lavender

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:
Iris
Brunnera
Monkey flower (Mimulus sp.)
Rogersia

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.

 

 

Landscaping for a Cool Climate Greenhouse

It has been nearly a year since the 30-year-0ld greenhouse was relocated to its current, sunnier location, and it has taken me that long to get even halfway finished with the landscaping. Last year, employment took time away from my favorite hobby, but this year the limiting factor is my back, which is beginning to resent the grind of casting 42 sq ft of concrete path. I work about two squares at a time, working to wrap the walkway around the far side of the greenhouse past the oil tank.

The April 2014 photos show the addition of a sand/gravel path with water-worn bluestone. At .47 a lb and about 40 lbs each, the cost adds up fast, but it adds so much to the look. The clusters of rock on either side hold soil for the thyme and other creeping perennials that I’ve planted there. My goal is to have it look something like this:


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My intent is to create a hardscape around the greenhouse that will absorb heat and reflect light. I purchased several large basalt rocks with unique shapes to stand at the end by the driveway; these have provided nice sitting places for the cats.

I’ve softened the look with a spreading privet honeysuckle that is durable and easy to grow, and marked the path entrance with a mugo pine. DSC_0450

A bell on a post will mark the other side.  On the barn end, a small green lawn will separate the concrete patio from the gate, which fits into a trellis structure I’ll show later when it looks more presentable. A fence will connect the trellis with the deck and inhibit deer movement.

 

The deck will snuggle up against a huge Douglas fir to provide a shady place to sit and overlook the adjacent field.

DSC_0426The ugly oil tank is here to stay, but I’ve left a gravel pad for easy access and removal should that ever come to pass. I hope to get my Virginia creeper to hang from a wire trellis over the thing to hide at least some of the color. Otherwise, I may try to paint it.

 

 

 

A gate will lead down through our new terrace garden, still in the planning stages but soon to be built if the RAIN EVER STOPS.

My goal is to complete both the greenhouse landscape and terracing by August if not sooner.

The guiding plan for the greenhouse portion:

Greenhouse plan, now about 75% complete

Plant selections for wetlands

My life here December through March is one of slogging through mud of varying viscosity, and as I work upon the few ongoing projects that I can when the ground is saturated, I realize how restrictive my environment can be.

My island paradise is built upon a mound of glacial till, dumped here during the Pleistocene glaciation that carved out Puget Sound. A rubble pile is essentially what it is that includes alternating layers of hard clay ‘hardpan’ and unconsolidated gravels. Years ago my mother found a few choice remnants of life from Northern Canada, from which the island partially originated: these included a chunk of sandy rock full of fossil shells and an agate the size of an adult fist.

Alas, the gardening opportunities here are much more limited. My father bought this property cheap – $800 an acre in 1971 – for a reason. Its biggest feature is a central wetland that drains a substantial area of land around it. A series of seeps, intermittent streams, and small wetlands surrounds the larger basin and in winter, everything flows. The partial schematic shows the major drainages in blue, dark green areas are forests, and light green areas are open and  generally represent civilized territories. Excised at the bottom is another wetland complex that flows towards the lake (large blue area) from neighboring properties.

In summer, I can convince myself that lots of things will grow here, but winter inundation quickly changes my mind. Heavy rainfall (18 inches since December 21 with a 5.1 inch ‘surplus’) has turned even what I’d perceived as solid ground into slick mud. It has also allowed me to delineate all of the partially inundated areas where I cannot plant anything not tolerant of flooded, anaerobic conditions.

What then, do I plant?

Willows, rushes, reeds, and iris top the list of course. While my goal is native wetland restoration in the hinterlands, I would like to see a wider variety of plants with color and interest closer to the house and driveway.

Soil will play a large role in this determination. In most of the wet areas on the property, the soils are comprised of heavy clay. In other areas, the soil composition is more of a sandy loam. Often I can dig below a layer of compacted clay to encounter many feet of sandy gravel and reddish mineral soil. These areas drain rapidly, unlike the others that may continue to remain moist all year.

The heavy clay rules out many plant choices, such as the quaking aspen that I recently purchased from my local conservation districts. Wet and well-drained are terms that apply to many plant species, so I have to probe the soil around the wettest areas to find the edges of the more well-drained soils. Sun is another condition that many wetland species prefer, yet I must deal with shade in many areas.

The sketch shows a proposed planting plan for the wetland area beyond the vegetable garden in the photo.

Expanding the local native plant diversity on the property, expanding regional native plant diversity, and introducing wetland-tolerant ornamentals are the goals that I used to generate the following list:

Quaking aspen – I got these for color, but found out after the fact that they need full sun, and moist, well-drained soils and generally prefer higher altitudes. I chose to put them in a woodland opening in a sandy, loamy forest soil at the edge of a wetland where facultative upland species such as alder and willow suggested a higher water table. I think they may end up needing a lot of supplemental water.

Blue elderberry – Sambucus cerulea; This is a regional native plant choice as they seem to occur more often in the drier areas of the state. I know them well from drainage ditches in Central California. Here we have mostly red elderberry, but I wanted to make jam from the blue fruits. These can take a drier soil than the red species, which I have found growing at the edge of the lake. I will likely put them along the drier edges of a wetland adjacent to the garden where the soil stays moist most of the year.

Bald cypress – Taxodium distichum ; This deciduous conifer can take continuous moisture and periodic flooding, plus it provides beautiful fall color in shades of gold.  I will put three along the boggy edge of the wetland where the gold will contrast with the Douglas fir forest backdrop.

Douglas spirea -  Spirea douglasi; These take inundation well, and I am scavenging them from other areas of the property. They have lovely, pink foamy flower clusters that smell wonderful and spread vegetatively.

Red Chokeberry – Aronia arbutifolia; tolerates moist soils but not wet; may be on the property already, but I’m still trying to identify it. Has beautiful orange-red fall foliage and red berries.

Buttonbush – Cephalanthus occidentalis; a Southeastern US native used here as an ornamental; purportedly can tolerate heavy clay soils which would make it a good candidate. Very attractive.

Summersweet - Clethra alnifolia; a Southeastern US nativethat purportedly prefers organic, acidic soils such as found in bogs; may only do well on the loamy soil surrounding the wetlands. Also very attractive. I’d plant this and buttonbush closer to landscaped areas for effect.

Highbush cranberry – Viburnum opulus; I’ve planted lots of these around the garden and found that they prefer moist, organic soil. Otherwise, they take forever to grow and the deer just mow them down to nubs. I plan to move some of those languishing in drier areas to moister places along the edge.

I want to keep most of the wetland open, and will fill in with soft-stemmed bulrush and maybe skunk cabbage already present in abundance elsewhere on the property. I’m also introducing various sedges to replace the ragged field grasses currently present. Ultimately, I want an area with no blackberry, a pleasing succession of color scheme from spring through fall, and a consistent texture throughout the lowest, wettest areas.

 

Sedges (Carex spp.) grow naturally in large clumps on either side of the lake

 

 

 

 

Solving driveway runoff

 

Once again, it is saturation time in Western Washington, when the ground has absorbed all that it can and every rainfall runs off into some other place. Despite my best intentions, the work that I did on the front yard wasn’t quite enough to counter the massive amount of water that collects on the driveway and runs off beside the house.

                                           Runoff from driveway, 2010.

I am increasingly convinced that the addition of two additional driveway extensions has contributed to the basement flooding that never existing when I was growing up there.

This stretch of driveway was wooded during the 70′s and 80′s.  Native vegetation, including salal, huckleberry, and sword fern, was sufficient to capture runoff coming down the steeper slope from to the right. Now, this is the lowest point of the driveway by the house and collects rainfall as well as runoff that converges at a point by the cedar tree and pours over a rock wall and down to the lower portion of the house foundation. Water in the basement flows in a direction consistent with this theory.

At first, I considered simply decommissioning this section of driveway by bringing in topsoil, logs and rock to recreate a forest. There were issues however of temporary and longterm erosion, and how to landscape the area so that it would fit into the rest of the garden.

Research into drain systems showed another solution:  a trench drain. Except my version would follow the edge of the driveway rather than crossing it. Therefore, a plastic gutter would be sufficient to carry the runoff. I plan to implement this as soon as I can get my other projects a bit further along.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the topic of experiments with drainage is a reroute of driveway drainage into the lake.

This ditch once carried water from the driveway ditchline and a neighbor’s wetland out to the county road ditchline. A few hours of slinging mud and I was able to dig out a trench to reroute the flow – at times in excess of 5 cfs – into the lake. My ultimate goal is to correct drainage issues such as this to keep the lake as full as possible throughout the year.

The above photo was taken at the lower end of this 5 acre open water wetland. The dam that maintains it is in the foreground. Most of the water that flows over the property reaches this basin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landscaping in a Northwest Winter

This winter has been an exceptional one for much of the country, with sub-zero temperatures and heavy snows. Here in the PNW, however, we have had a rather typical winter of rain and wind with occasional dips into the 20′s. Now, as February creeps slowly by, the rain has increased and the ground has become so saturated that stepping off of the beaten path results in sinking up to the ankles in mud. Up until January, I have been diligently toiling at my greenhouse landscaping project, but now the weather has driven me indoors to ponder my landscape design business restart. The next major element – paving stones – must wait for higher temperatures and less rain, hopefully in March.

Before and after shots from September and December are encouraging:

  September -  bare ground with weeds    January – stone path completed with some plantings

I am waiting until March, when I anticipate the chance of a deep freeze to be much less, to put out the ground covers and grasses that will border the path. Selections include red thyme, woolly thyme, winter savory, and California fuschia (Zauschneria california). The piece of square metal visible just past the Mugo pine will hold one of several cordylines that will add a directional emphasis to the scene.  In the background is my revised deer fence, intended for beauty as much as functionality.

Below the greenhouse, the plan is for a terrace garden that will put to use a barren hillslope where my horses once roamed:

Using the rototiller, I’ll break about eight five-foot wide terraces into the slope, and line each with a 12″ wall of stone laid over landscape fabric so I can avoid the weedy disaster that plagued my earlier work.  Another stone wall will line either side to create a contained area for growing flowers, strawberries, and tomatoes, leaving a path to the side for access between greenhouse and garden.

The idea is consistent with my desire to apply permaculture principles to my landscaping by putting most of the open areas into production. The area between the barn and garden, though shady in the mornings, may provide enough light for some shrubs and dwarf fruit trees. The garden will produce most of our vegetables.  I’ve also added cherry and plum trees to the existing orchard and hope to add a few medlars as well. The key to success, and to some extent the bulk of the entire effort, will be keeping the deer away with hundreds of feet of fencing.

 

 

 

 

Women on the homestead

Close one. A windstorm brought down a Douglas fir within 20 feet of this truck.

Now that my father is in assisted living, and the small-engine mechanic tenant has left, I’ve no one left to run a chainsaw, man-handle the 200 pound brush mower, start the gas-powered trimmer, or fix the riding mower that always seems to have intractable problems. I’m on my own now.

Thus, when a large tree fell across the driveway the other day, I felt frustratingly helpless. I have a small Stihl chainsaw that belonged to my father, and I’ve had lessons in filing the chain, starting it, and even running it. But I cannot start it alone (it requires more strength and weight than I have), and, frankly, I’m scared of the thing. I’ve a poor track record with knifes and saw blades, so imagine what I could do to myself with a chainsaw (my father told me I’d probably cut my head off).

I’m therefore left to solicit help from others in exchange for firewood. Such is the arrangement that I have made with a neighbor to cut up the fallen fir.  However, I wanted to do something while waiting for him besides feeling the helpless maiden, so yesterday I limbed and topped the entire tree with my pruning saw and piled the branches into a towering heap. I know a guy with a chainsaw could have done it in minutes, but it was good exercise and made me feel that I was at least putting forth the effort.

It is truly amazing what I can do with my pruning saw.

In fact, I accomplish all of my brush cutting with a pruning saw and a machete. It’s just the big trees that I can’t manage. And the thick grass where I can’t get the regular lawnmowers. For those areas, I use a scythe.

Since my father modified the dam, what is a lake in winter requires mowing in summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I explain to people that I almost exclusively use hand tools, they seem to presume that I am intentionally pursuing a ‘green’ lifestyle, but it is really more out of necessity. Still, I appreciate the quiet of a handsaw over the roar of a chainsaw, and the machete is much less destructive than a gas-powered brush blade by allowing me to selectively remove some plants and leave others rather than leveling everything.  Slow can be good.

 

Things I learned in 2013

I’ve been here four years now, going on five, the longest that I’ve ever lived in one place since I left here as a teen to go to college.  The result is that I’m finally witnessing the long-term results of my landscaping efforts. Many of my installations are at least three years along, and I’ve had plenty of time to see what works and what doesn’t.

1. Use landscape fabric for walkways, and any other place that shouldn’t become a weedy mess.

Above  - looks nice at first (left), but later becomes a weed-infested mess (right). I am now taking up all of the stone (about 1 yard), all of the gravel (2 yds) and replacing with landscape fabric, bark, and pole timber.

2. Deer fencing should keep out the bucks that jump as well as the fawns that crawl beneath. Therefore, it must be a solid barrier at least 6 ft high. And a frightened deer can run through plastic mesh like it wasn’t there so a few rounds of wire are necessary too.

 Cute, but they can get through anything.

3. Absolutely every stick of native plant that I buy from Pierce Conservation District must be protected from deer with fencing or mesh. To do otherwise means that all of my red-osier dogwood, red-flowering currant, cedar, and other plants will be browsed down to maintain a permanent stature of about 2 feet.

Protected willow cutting I propagated over the summer.

4. For many shrubs, fast results require soil enrichment. American highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus  var. americanum), for instance, will remain three feet tall unless planted in an enriched soil environment. The difference is about four feet in two years.

Above left – Viburnum growing in a cedar stump that acts like a nurse log; Above right - plants of the same age in more compacted soil along the driveway.

5. My favorite shrubs are the ones that have fall and winter color – they carry me through the grey northwest winters.

Cherry trees from North Carolina – planted from seed 38 years ago. They now freely reseed themselves.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) - everyone should have this plant.

6. When in doubt, plant fern. Here, they are freely available (I speak of the native sword fern), grow about anywhere that is not too wet, and give year ’round green cover.

 Native sword fern fills in where I have removed blackberry vines.

 

Accessorize with colored ferns like Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn fern) which take on a yellow-orange color in winter.

Not  my yard, but wish it was.

7. Improved soil = improved growth = fewer weeds. I now buy mulch for trees and shrubs.  Also starting with larger stock helps save a few years. My gardening resolution for the year is to purchase more large trees and shrubs of the sort that I acquired in December (15 ft plus). However, I will expand my propagation efforts too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greenhouse Landscaping

en

The moving of the greenhouse has given me impetus for landscaping the scrappy area surrounding it. About 10 feet to the north was a functional but quite unbeautiful shed my father built flanking a 300 gallon diesel tank.  The site upon which the green house now sits was once as a parking area for his excavator. Now, I wanted to create a space that no longer required mowing (increasing the likelihood for a rock to go through the greenhouse glass),  and that was also low-maintenance and did not block the windows. Cost is always a consideration as well, and when I inventoried the materials that I could acquire most readily and cheaply, stone and logs were high on the list.

 

 My choice of a rock garden also serves another purpose. Light-colored rocks and gravel reflect sunlight back into the green house and absorb heat that can be re-radiated back after dark.

 

The area immediately adjacent to the greenhouse proved easiest to envision.

On the south side, I am planning a slate path surrounded by fine gravel and larger rocks arranged to form pockets within which grasses and creeping plants like thyme and phlox can be planted for texture and color. I particularly look forward to the addition of Zauschneria californica (formerly Epilobium cana) or California fuschia, a personal favorite of mine from my days in Southern California that I’d acquired on the cheap at a recent fall plant sale.

 

 

I wanted to create an attractive centerpiece within a compacted strip of soil about 10 ft x 10 ft between the east end of the greenhouse and the driveway. On a lark, I selected three flat basalt rocks and one taller, sharply angled stone from my local landscape supplier and arranged them in a group to invite sitting.  I lined the work with pieces of flat slate as a transition to the driveway, and to hold back the pea gravel I hauled in to surround the rock.  However, I needed a transition to the rock garden on the south side. As I pondered what it would look like, I began to consider the story that Asian-themed gardens tell using rocks and plants to simulate mountains and forests. Using the large basalt pieces as mountains, I used smaller, but similarly sharp rocks to emulate a tumble of jagged hills that would lead into the rounded river stones that I was using for the rock garden on the south side. A low conifer on the corner will suggest a forest, and provide a secondary focal point for entry into the path.

 

Transitioning from one flat open area to another has been difficult. Dividing space where there are currently no divisions has been difficult, particularly where the hard, compacted soil makes planting either fence or shrub nearly impossible. This has been the greatest challenge, in part because setting sills at ground level requires digging into soil that is like concrete.

 

The diesel tank and former shed are/were adjacent to a small grove of Douglas fir and madrone. I wanted to separate this area from the greenhouse and derived the idea of a dry stack stone wall from time spent in New England observing aged rock walls winding through the forest. I also visualized scenes of natural rock falls in the Cascade Mountains and Sierras, and environmental artist Andrew Goldsworthy’s ‘Storm King Wall’, which winds through a forest in the Hudson River Valley.  My wall, which is currently in the construction phases, is designed to emulate a roughly-stacked pile of rock and will be planted with brightly-hued autumn fern, lined with moss, and flanked with shiny masses of Oregon grape  (Mahonia aquifolium). Originally planned to be about 12 feet long, I am now considering its extension back into the Douglas fir grove as a way to draw the eye into the trees and invite exploration.

 

The front (west end) of the greenhouse will feature, for ease of maintenance, a hardscape walkway leading back to the driveway.  The serenity of the Douglas fir grove suggests a sitting area, so I will construct a small (12’ x 10’) deck that extends from the level of the diesel tank north. The diesel tank, at present unused, may one day be removed, so I’ll keep the area immediately around it as a gravel pad. Between that and the deck will be an area of bark and stone with low conifers and shrubs flanking a gate and fence that will transition into the agricultural areas, to be discussed later.

 

Adventures in creating a 10-acre garden from scratch