Archive for August 2009

Feed the Plants, Feed the Wildlife

August 29, 2009

When I got my dog, the woman I got her from grilled me about my yard [was it securely fenced], Veterinarian and plans for training the puppy. Then she talked about what I needed to feed the puppy, how much and how often. When I bought my outdoor plants, each came with a little tag on the pot. The tags describe the plant, its ultimate size, how much light and water it needs. Not one of the tags in my files mentions feeding the plant.

Up until now I fertilized sporadically. I would add compost around new plantings and then spot mulch in the fall. When I thought of it I add some rose food to the roses or vitamin B to tired looking plants.

The one thing I have done regularly, I did out of laziness. In one of the gardening classes that I took, one of the experts told a story about a South Seattle gardener who was originally from Japan. The man had a lovely garden. When asked how he managed that in a neighborhood known for its dense clay soil, he said that his secret was simply leaves. Each fall when the leaves fell from the deciduous trees, he would rake them into a mulch cover over his garden. Then in the spring he would turn the rotting leaves into the surface of the soil. The gardener said that when he started the soil was so hard that he could only get a trowel in about an inch. He demonstrated that after ten years he could easily push a trowel in to its handle.

The garden expert explained that the composting leaves would attract worms and other soil composters to the surface and as they tunneled up the soil loosened. The leaves became food for the plants and the soil was improved at the same time. Over the years this activity loosens the soil allowing easier penetration by water and compost.

It’s been a few years since I began doing the same thing in the front yard. I can only dig a trowel two inches in some places, deeper in others. In every location that is deeper than it would go when I first started the garden. It is also way easier than raking up more than a dozen paper bags of leaves and schlepping them out back for the yard waste truck to pick up. I turn the leaves into the soil when I do the first weeding in the spring.

This week I began to think about fertilizer more seriously because of my columnar apple tree. It is planted in a pot on the patio and has been doing poorly since it flowered. I thought it was because of the early heat. Then, on a whim a week ago, I got out a box of Dr. Earth® All-Purpose Fertilizer, read the instructions and applied it to the soil around the trunk of the apple tree. I went out to check on it after work tonight and the plant is definitely doing better.

So today I resolve to work out a regular schedule of feeding the plants starting this weekend. I am also going to keep up the thing with the leaves in the front because in addition to being east, the robins love the extra worms.

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Shapes

August 16, 2009

When I first started my garden I didn’t think too much about the shapes of plants. I selected plants for location and size. For a beginner that was more than enough to consider. Later I began to think about wildlife. When did a plant flower, did it produce fruit, was it larval food. It was only recently that I began to consider architecture.

Unlike those gardeners who use architecture to create some impression, I began to use it mostly as a convenience. Certain shapes of plants are easier to work around. Grouping similar shapes at appropriate distances results in fewer rescue operations where overgrown plants crushing together have to be separated, roots untangled and emergency first-aid supplied to support damaged plants. Columnar plants that don’t get appreciably wider are best near the house to keep the siding clear. As trees and shrubs matured I discovered that a variety of shapes supports wildlife in interesting ways.

For ease of maintenance you can’t beat vase-shaped trees. These grow up from one to three closely coupled trunks that begin to separate at waist level or higher spreading slowly until, overhead, they branch out into a fuller shade producing canopy. Mowers slide beneath without damaging branches and you can walk around them without contorting knees and back.

The back corner of my yard has three such trees: a vine maple, a crape myrtle and a serviceberry. A purple smoke bush maintains a bushier version of the look against the west fence line. With the maple, it effectively bars human access to the back corner, creating a bird safe sanctuary.

The one place I used shape to solve an aesthetic problem was in the front yard beside the porch. The main floor of the house sits almost one story up leaving a plain expanse of siding beneath the window. Filling the space in required something that would achieve a height of eight to ten feet at maturity. To protect the siding, I needed a plant that would remain compact in width. Several columnar Oregon grape plants fit the bill nicely. They provide a backdrop for progressively smaller evergreen huckleberry, vanilla bush, hosta, salal, frinegcup and solomon’s seal. All can tolerate shade and many stay green year round.

Another shape in my garden is fountain-shaped. These are plants that grow up from the center and then, staying lower than trees, arc over to the ground again. Two obvious ones are ceanothus and the Japanese maple. Getting beneath the ceanothus is a challenge because the branches are strong and rough. I always end up with scratches and little dark green leaves in my hair. By contrast the Japanese maple has bendable branches that can be swept aside to reach underneath.

Some shrubs are pyramidal, staying wider at the base than the top. Lacking the precise shape of the pyramidal conifers, these shrubs sprawl, but like the trees they take up more space at the base as they grow. Inevitably one or more perennial will have to be extracted from beneath these as they grow and take up more space. The Snowberry, Mock Orange and Oceanspray are all of this type.

So how has the variety of shapes benefitted wildlife? It turns out that different species of birds like to perch at different heights. Many of the smaller birds prefer to hide amidst foliage when not moving. The different sizes and shapes I planted provide cover from the ground level to mid-canopy level. Augmented by the tall cedars across the alley in the back and the Douglas firs on the neighbor’s median out front, the winged ones can all find a comfortable place to rest.

Unlike birds, butterflies and bees mostly prefer to stay in the warmth of the sun. The fountain and pyramid shaped shrubs that keep their flowers in the light are where I am most likely to see these insects. One exception is a bumble bee who visits the lavender on the east side of the house consistently in the late afternoon when the sun has finally passed far enough to the west to leave the herb in the shade of the house.

Planting various shapes of plants in various sizes has provided a rich habitat for the wildlife. I think letting the plants retain a natural aspect with minimal pruning makes my yard more appealing to them. It’s a balance between slightly messy natural and cleaned up enough that the neighbors won’t complain. Sure it requires pruning with a hand tool instead of a power tool, but that is more peaceful and better for the environment. Best of all, the birds keep me company.

Memorial – Wallace W Hansen

August 4, 2009

I just learned that Wallace W Hansen, the founder of the Northwest Native Plant Nursery that has his name, passed away. The news was in a note attached to the monthly newsletter announcement. I knew that Mr. Hansen was ill but the news is still a shock and makes me sad.

I never met him and I never visited his nursery but still he has had more influence on my love of native plants than anyone else. His site was such a wonderful mix of scientific information, real world discovery and ethnobotany. The lovely hand drawings of the plants that he provided often made identification much easier than photographs do because they capture the variability of the plants.

If the garden and web site weren’ enough, evey month he published a newsletter. Each month came a cornucopia of plant information, wildlife news, photos, drawings, recipes and poetry. It put the home and garden magazines to shame and resonated with a true love for the outdoors and the beings we share our world with.

I am happy to know that there are people who continue his legacy, both the nursery and the newsletter.  Do visit the site and maybe order a plant to honor an amazing man. The nursery site is in the links on this site.

Crispy Report – 2

August 4, 2009

Today I continued with my inventory of native plants that are managing the heat without assistance from me.

I missed three that should have, by rights, gone in the report on trees and shrubs. The first is my Beaked hazelnut. Because it is still barely two feet tall I don’t yet think of it as a shrub. Hazelnut is one of those natives that is usually beneath taller trees but is reported to still do well in the sun and mine is living up to that.

The second plant I missed is really three varieties of native roses. I have Nootka planted in the back yard, woods rose and Bald- hip in the front. The Nootka has been in the longest. I planted it next to the little ceramic table and bench where I go to write in late afternoon when the Red-twig dogwood shades it. It was covered in blooms earlier in the summer. Now it is a lovely mass of green shielding the table from the parking spot and alley. The woods rose and Bald-hip are planted around the bird bath in the front yard. They get less morning sun but more in the afternoon. I put both in last year and neither has bloomed yet but they grew considerably this spring and have healthy foliage.

Third is my Sitka Mountain Ash. Apparently this is a very slow growing shrub. Mine was a bare-root specimen with two four-inch stems when I planted it the winter before last. It now spreads about a foot across. Last summer, its first, it required extra water. This year it is doing well without, the feather-like green foliage is lovely. I can’t wait for it to flower. Maybe it will next spring.

Moving on to the real perennials, the Nodding onion, planted in the east bed in the back is doing well. It definitely smells like an onion and has bloom spilling off the center on arching stems. All the books list the flowers as pink but to my eyes they have a lavender tint.

Next to the stairs leading down to the parking strip I planted broad-leaved stonecrop. It seemed an obvious choice for a sunny spot with lots of drainage and sandy soil. It was a good choice and now it flowers and is spreading to fill in the spot quickly.
In two locations in the front yard I have planted Salal. When I planted it the front yard got very little afternoon sun. Since then a neighbor has taken down a large pine tree exposing a broad swath of my front yard to the hot afternoon sun. Despite being listed as a mostly shade plant, all the Salal is doing well.

Behind the Salal, next to the porch, is  fringecup. By happy coincidence, the salal is shading the base of the plant while its flower stalks arch up over the salal creating a lovely effect. I wish I could say that I did that on purpose! Anyway the extra cover for the foliage is helping the plant with the additional sun it gets now in the afternoon.

That covers the native plants that haven’t required extra water. It doesn’t surprise me that there are fewer small plants that can take this heat. It is impossible to duplicate forest conditions with thick growth and long water retention in a city garden. So the upper soil will inevitably dry out faster here than in the wild places. The smaller plants with correspondingly smaller root systems are likely to need supplemental water.