Archive for the ‘Plants’ category

Fragile Armor

April 19, 2011

The dog and I frequently send birds flying for cover when we return from our walks. The other morning it was tiny Black-capped Chickadees. I stood on the sidewalk and watched one disappear into the tall Oregon Grape beside the porch and the skin on my arms began to itch in sympathy.

Just a few months ago, that plant was bent to the ground under a thick coat of icy snow. I grabbed on to the various branches to shake them off freeing the plant of its burden so it stood upright again. For my  pains, I ended up with a itchy welts that lasted into the next day.

Pojar’s description of the plant includes the phrase “several prominent spiny teeth” in the section on the foliage. What they don’t say is that those are puppy teeth. They easily penetrated winter jacket, fleece and the leather palms of my gloves. Yet now this little bird flitted about within the branches of the same plant, it’s fragile feathers a better match for the prickly leaves than all my heavy winter clothing.

Trees and shrubs are a vital part of wildlife habitat. The larger trees provide nest sites for birds and perches with a view. Vines, shrubs and lower tree branches provide quick cover. Deciduous trees make adequate places to raise young because they are leafed during the breeding seasons, but only evergreen plants provide cover year round.

If you are lucky someone planted a Cedar or Douglas-fir decades ago either on your property or in close proximity. Two large cedars tower over the alley behind my yard and  two more evergreens stand sentinel out front. All of them grew tall enough to provide adequate space for modern fences and driveways or parking beneath them. Planting such a tree today would be virtually impossible.

None of these trees are close enough to provide immediate cover for birds feeding in my yard. One of the reasons I selected Oregon grape to plant is to serve this purpose. My labrador, who has stuck her nose into the entry of the bee hives more than once, only attempted to get up close to this plant once. It deters typical urban predators such as cats and raccoons as well as the larger birds. I have never seen a crow perched on the plant.

For its benefit to the little birds, for its cheery spring color and for its fruit it is one of my favorite native plants. I just dread the chore of weeding near it. I had been thinking that only armor would protect me but maybe what I need is a suit of feathers.


Cool Summer

August 8, 2010

Last summer at this time I was writing the Crispy reports. The days were scorching by any standard, the nights still sticky and uncomfortable. It was a repeat of the summer before and by mid-July the garden dirt was hard, the edges of leaves brown and curling.

In contrast, today I wore a sweatshirt to walk the dog in the early morning. Now it’s early afternoon and a blanket of grey, half fog, half cloud muffles the sound of the Blue Angels flying off to the southeast. The weather report is for rain.

Despite its reputation in other parts of the country for unceasing rain, the Pacific Northwest is typically dry the later part of the summer. It may be gloomy, it may even feel like rain, but if you go to bed counting on an overnight rain to water your garden you are likely to wake to thirsty plants.

Over the past few years there has been a surge in interest in urban farming. It’s been blamed on the economy. I doubt there would be the same fervor had the past few summers had more typical weather. The unseasonable sun and heat favored so many of the agricultural imports. This year stalls at the Farmer’s markets have fewer tables, some farmers didn’t show up until mid-summer. There are more beets, fewer haricots verts and strawberries.

My own yard tells a similar story. The honeybees produced almost no honey early in the season. Like so many hives in the city they swarmed instead. Only now that there have been some sunny afternoons are they producing. The strawberry pot yielded only enough fruit for the dog and I to have a small appetizer before breakfast after a walk one morning. In the vegetable beds, only the hardy greens are doing really well.

The native plants tell a different story. The serviceberry bore more fruit this year than any other. Birds still pick through the tangle of native strawberry, ignoring the cherries above for the tiny red fruits hidden beneath serrated leaves below.  On the zoo grounds rich balls of berries on the Oregon Grape are mistaken for blueberries by children. At the ends of the native rose branches, hips are already forming and the snowberry continues to produce a constant supply of nectar flowers for the hummingbirds and bees.

While the early vegetables and fruits suffered, the perennials which come in later are doing better this year. Without the early drought and heat we experienced last summer flowers are coming in more lushly. Since I don’t do supplemental water until is is really necessary those blooms suffered last summer. This summer the shasta daisies are as tall as I am. Newly planted dahlias and gladiolas produced spectacular large flowers on healthy green plants.

Year after year, no matter which type of summer we have, I can count on the native plants to thrive with minimal support.

Plant Problems

October 15, 2009

Anyone who has spent any time looking up plants, online or in books, is used to finding information about the problems you might experience with them. Roses, for example,  are notorious for the long list of problems gardeners have to be prepared to manage including black spot and aphids.

Not red-flowering current. Look up Ribes sanguineum. All the native plant sites practically wax poetic about how easy the plant is, how universally lovely it will be, how it loves sun and is drought tolerant. A suggestion to plant them in a sunny location with well-drained soil is the only advise on how to care for them.

Over the years I planted three of them in my yard. The first currant, one of the first native plants I put in the yard,  I planted in full southern sun in the back yard. A few years later a second went into a partially sunny location in my front yard. The final one I planted in the back but shaded for the later part of the day by a large ceanothus. That one receives the least amount of direct sunlight of the three.

All three leaf out and then bloom profusely in spring. The hummingbirds visit morning and evening moving from one to the next. Come summer, it’s a different story. As summer progresses, more and more of their leaves brown along the edges giving the shrubs a worn look. Up until this summer it was limited to the outer edges of the leaves. Then this summer, the oldest one died. When some leaves turned completely brown and fell off, I tried several things to save the shrub. More water, less water, fertilizer. Nothing worked.

The remaining ones are holding their own but I am worried. Ribes is supposed to be a long-lived plant. I would like to know what is causing such stress each summer before I lose another. Searching on Ribes yields nothing but expositions on how care-free these shrubs are. Put the word “problem” in the search query and you will get a page describing how some other plants has problems while currant has none.

I am not the only one experiencing trouble. I power walk the hills in the neighborhood a few times a week and as I do so, I inventory the native plants along the way. Ribes is a popular plant locally because it is one of the native species that is easy to obtain. Every specimen along my route has the same brown-tinged leaves by mid-summer. Not one resembles the verdant images in Pojar or on the King County Native Plant site.

It is interesting that the two survivors are not in the sunny spots the plants are supposed to love. Both get sun but are shaded for the hottest part of the day. However the one that died is probably in the best drained soil of the three. The back yard has a high quantity of sand in the soil whereas the front yard has a lot of clay. Yet the one in clay survives.

Over the winter I will continue my research in the hopes of finding a solution. Meanwhile I am happy that there are two left as those red flowers are the first to lure the hummingbirds into the yard in the spring.

Favorite Non-Native Plant

September 26, 2009
Myrtle blooms against the sky by Julie Webster

Myrtle blooms against the sky by Julie Webster

The Backyard Habitat workshop dedicates a lot of time to plants and much of that time is focused on native species. About three-quarters of the way through the class a woman raised her hand to ask a question. She asked, with some trepidation, if she was going to have to get rid of a plant she really liked.

Heads nodded around the room. Were we going to have sad little funerals as we consigned beloved plants to compost in the name of habitat? I thought of the combination of sadness and righteousness I had felt taking out the butterfly bush in my yard, thinking how I would miss its perfume in August and those royal blue plumes.

The instructors laughed and one stepped forward to say that creating habitat didn’t mean we were restricted to native plants. The only proscription is on invasive species that are detrimental to native habitat. To convince the skeptics, each of the instructors offered up their own favorite non-native plant.

I have several that I like my hands-down favorite is Crape Myrtle. This is a perfect little tree for the urban garden. Mine is in my backyard inside the chain-link fence near the gate. It’s vase-shape mirrors that of the nearby vine maple creating a nice continuity of shape. It sits in full southern sun for most of the day and since its first year has never needed supplemental water.

The leaves are oblong, dark and glossy. In the fall they turn a vibrant red providing even more cohesiveness with the maple. In late summer and early autumn each upper branch is extended by a fuchsia flower head similar in shape to those on lilacs. The
flowers last for weeks and are visited by hummingbirds and bees.

Close-up of Crape Myrtle bloom and leaves by Julie Webster

Close-up of Crape Myrtle bloom and leaves by Julie Webster

In the winter, barren of leaves, the bark becomes the focus. Smooth cream bark peels regularly to reveal a rough olive color layer that peels again to display the deepest layer of smooth khaki. Like the coat of a painted pony, it invites you to look for pictures in the mottled surface.

Myrtle bark in the sun by Julie Webster

Myrtle bark in the sun by Julie Webster

As with all the best of plants, it is interesting enough to take a stand-out place in the yard and is equally useful in a collection.

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.


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.

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.