The Evolution of a Garden Bed

Warning: long post.

When we first started gardening here, in 2014, the initial intention was something along the  lines of “food forest” and/or to grow as much edible stuff as possible.  I still love doing that and always will (I think?) but the more I get into botany and climate-adapted plants and cool stuff from Australia, the more I find myself edging toward “sustainable” rather than “edible” — and those two are often (but don’t have to be) mutually exclusive.  I also just like growing weird plants.

My fellow garden blogger Lance has some really wonderful essays on what “sustainable” really means.  I’ve been reading Lance’s writing for years and his impact on me is immeasurable.  For any gardener in the west coast of North America, understanding of sustainability, as well as the distinction between “drought-tolerant” and “climate-adapted” are really important, notably because of summer drought, which, while it’s normal here, is a thing that can severely impact us and can and should influence our plant selections and garden designs.

In my northern Willamette Valley garden, growing vegetables in a home garden is generally terrifically unsustainable but also really fun because we have a long frost-free season and mostly excellent soil.  Still, it’s a lot of work and uses a lot of water to grow plants that are not at all climate-adapted to a dry-summer Pacific Northwest climate (ok some are better than others, but it also depends on how you work with the seasons).  I do it all anyway because I enjoy it, but I fully understand that this isn’t by any means about saving money, time, or water. It’s about my sanity, it’s about botanical experiments, and it’s very much about the immense joy that David and I get out of eating seasonally, preserving, and having our meals dictated at least in some part by what is available to eat in the garden on any given day.

All that said, my own focus in gardening has definitely shifted from “food forest.” I still want to grow things we can eat, but not only edibles.  In 2015 we established two 4′ x 10′ vegetable gardening beds in the front yard, in areas that were previously lawn grass.  We edged them with 2×6 cedar as we did with the 9 similar beds we have in the back.  Mind you these are not, for the most part, raised beds.  I’d call them “edged beds” because most of them aren’t raised at all – the cedar edging merely helps to keep grass and clover out.   It works.

This year I decided to convert one of the beds in the front from an edged edible garden bed to an ornamental bed.  A lot went into that, and now I want to show the whole entire process.

In August 2015, we began by making these two “edged” beds:

After this picture was taken, we sunk the 2x6s down a bit

The first year we planted brassicas and leeks. I recall some of those being collards – evidently before I realized you don’t need to grow collards if you grow all the others because you can use the leaves of any of them.  Also apparently I thought you had to blanch leeks by planting them deep and backfilling.  You don’t.

Cabbage and leeks. The board looks bent but it’s not.

One of those seedlings did this, the following March:

Good job, purple broccoli!

Eventually we also started the process of grass removal and establishing some paths through the front yard.  That was done with a lot of wood chips and these ridiculous bricks to temporarily mark the paths (temporarily meaning, for like a year). In 2016 I also started planting non-grass plants in the front.  May of 2017:

garlic on the right, planted the previous fall. Peppers will go in the middle. How did those chickens get out there?!
Another angle, same work session: leek in front, garlic, peppers added.  All those bamboo sticks are to prevent our gigantic horse-dog from smashing through there.

A couple weeks later, same area:

Mulched the beds with wood chips, added more peppers

August 2017, and that leek is flowering and the peppers are going well:

Typical jumble of various edibles at different stages

Then, I found this at Pomarius Nursery while visiting with my friend Larienne who came down from Seattle for a day of nursery-hopping:

Agave parryi var. truncata

And did not plant it into the ground.  Instead, I started to slowly re-imagine this scene with a more silver-blue-gray color scheme while the agave spent the winter in its pot under the eave, not getting much sun, nor water.

needs more silver-blue

My color fetish caused me to take a trip to Xera Plants for Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’, which you can see here auditioning its spot, along with several other plants you can’t really make out.  I also got a Caesalpinia gilliesii which ended up spending the winter in a big pot under the eave with the agave.

Caesalpinia gilliesii on left, Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’ in little pot to the right behind the big cabbage

In late fall of 2017, Robb Sloan of NoName Nursery handed me a whole flat of Pulsatilla vulgaris ‘Rubra’ or is it var. rubra? Joy Creek calls it ‘Rubra’ and Far Reaches calls it var. rubra.  Joy Creek is closer so we’ll go with ‘Rubra’.  I briefly considered planting some of them here, and in this pic showing February 2018 snow dusting on my mess of a front yard you can see the flat in the lower left.  That is one tough plant and I really put them to the test by leaving them out there all winter.  None of the 50 of them died.

Pot ghetto begins

Pot ghettos at my house happen when I end up with plants I’m not sure what to do with yet, such as those Pulsatillas, or when I can’t plant them because I have to prepare the area (remove grass, usually).  And that’s exactly what started accumulating here.  I hated it.  This is the most prominent part of my entire garden for us, it should be the most beautiful and interesting, not a stupid eyesore! I’m an idiot sometimes.

Finally after much thinking I decided to at least remove the wood bed edges.  I did it to both beds but apparently only took a photo of this one.  At this point I’d finally made the decision to keep the bed below for vegetables, but convert the other to ornamental.

cedar removed, March 2018.  Here I’m about to put in a flat of lettuce and onions.

Still I wasn’t sure what to plant there. Sometimes I guess you just have to wait for inspiration.  One day in about April of this year, it finally came, in the form of a small tree from Paul Bonine of Xera.  It was labeled as Nothofagus antarctica ‘Variegata’, which apparently is synonymous with the cultivar ‘Chillan’.  I immediately knew exactly what to do with it and planted it out right in the middle of the south end of that bed.

Turns out I took a picture from the roof.  You can see the Nothofagus, barely, in the lower left near a big green blob which is a volunteer lemon balm I’ve since removed:

Now the pot ghetto starts to migrate, there are two agaves there

The brilliant chartreuse of the Nothofagus is just what’s needed to balance a bunch of silvery-blue desert plants.  And I’m a sucker for microscopic leaves.  This is the perfect specimen plant to anchor this area and get me to plant the rest of it.  Nothofagus casts so little shade, I don’t think it will be a problem even when it gets taller.

Initially I wanted to plant the agaves (yeah I ended up with another one, from Little Prince) just to the south of the Nothofagus but that would be too close to the driveway.  Rudy the dog would inevitably spear himself on them as he spills out of the car on that side usually.  They need to be further away from heavily trafficked areas.

Once I decided on the spot, more plants materialized to accompany agaves.  Euphorbia rigida and Euphorbia myrsinites which came from Amy Campion at the swap, a Hesperaloe parviflora from Xera, an Opuntia macrocentra which – don’t hate me – came from Home Depot, and a couple of Stipa barbata which also came from the swap but I’m not sure who brought them (please LMK if it was you!).

finally, a plan

In the above picture I’ve gathered up the two agaves and the various other plants that I think will compliment them and I’m about to dig in a couple bags of pumice which I got from Concentrates, Inc. I get my potting soil, fertilizer, and bird food there too.  I love Concentrates!

First, though, a detour: directly under the Nothofagus, I threw down some Angelina sedum when I planted the tree, and I want this area to evolve and for plants to shift around a bit.  So far, I have this combination which is a bit of an ode to Evan Bean of The Practical Plant Geek:

Papaver nudicaule, Angelina sedum, Plantago major ‘Rubrifolia’, and Cerinthe major.

I planted 6 Plantago major ‘Rubrifolia’ around here and I love them.  They are a wonderful contrast to the sedum and the bright orange poppy.  Evan grew the Plantago from seed, and I grew the poppy and the Cerinthe from seed (found Cerinthe seeds at Garden Fever).  I also blame Evan for the poppy because the inspiration to grow them was sparked by a conversation with him about poppies back in March.

In addition to the above, I also sowed (whyyy?) Nicotiana sylvestris and after agonizing about where to put them for a long time, a few ended up here too.  Here is the whole area:

Oh, hey, a california poppy ended up in here too. That is fine.

You can’t see it well, but in the above photo, flanked by two red plantains to the left of the poppy is a Grevillea australis.  I’m hoping it will be a better choice than agaves for this area – dense, painless, floral scent can be experienced up close easily, etc.  I’ll probably end up with more stuff like that along the driveway eventually.  The rest of these I will allow to do whatever they want and just edit as needed.  My favorite kind of gardening is these kinds of naturalization experiments.

I wish I’d taken this from the same angle as the previous photo – I was focusing on the tree.  Too sunny today for a better pic!
The very beginnings of my little desert berm

Just to the right of this scene there is more chartreuse.  It just ends up happening: the foliage color scheme in the front yard is decidedly silver/gray, chartreuse, and red/purple, and an even mix of all three. I can live with that.

Here is the very chartreuse little scene is just to the right of the view above of the newly planted “desert berm”:

Cupressus glabra ‘Suphurea’, Alchemilla mollis, Sisyrinchium striatum

Let’s see how long it takes that Cupressus to become a problem.  Should be fun!

And just to the left:

Now that I think about it, it occurs to me that the way I seem to design the front garden is reactionary.  These two plants absolutely a reaction to the Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ behind them – I find the color of the Santolina especially, and also the flowers of the x Halimiocistus, help me deal with the gaudiness of the red and white Salvia.  Instead of removing the Salvia, I’m planting things around it to make it work. You can’t see it well but there’s a Callistemon viridiflorus in there too, to help satisfy my craving for light yellow/chartreuse next to red.

I’m doing that with the big red Japanese maple too.  I may change my mind eventually and take it out, but for now, it’s really helping drive some design decisions.  In fact, that tree dominates the entire front yard and affects almost every decision I make, whether it’s about foliage color, plant form, or plant placement.  The venerable maple demands to be part of the conversation. For someone new to garden design such as myself, this isn’t just helpful but necessary.

This has been a “before” and “during” post for this part of the garden, formerly vegetable bed #10, and now it’s basically two zones – the immediate surrounds of the Nothofagus, and the desert berm. Hopefully they’ll mush together a bit as the reseeders migrate around and I’ll end up with something interesting that relates to the rest of the front yard at least somewhat.  I should probably mulch the berm or add rocks? What would you do? Cram some more plants in there? All these plants are brand-new to me so I’m very interested in suggestions!




‘Winterwunder’ and ‘Arctic King’ sowed indoors January 8

I probably sowed these seeds way earlier than I needed to, because look, they’re two months old and still babies.  Whatever.  They’re fully hardened off – they’ve been outside in their flat along with various alliums and I only brought them in one or two nights when it dipped well below freezing.  Basically, I’ve been dragging my feet on preparing this bed for them.  I needed to rake off all the wood chip mulch that was here, then level the soil a bit and actually add some soil to bring the level up above the rest of the wood chips surrounding it, and I didn’t want to do any of that while the soil was super heavy sticky wet.  So after a couple dry days, I finally did it.

Here’s the bed.  It used to have a 2×6 wood edge around it like all my vegetable beds, and (it took me forever) I finally decided to remove the wood and allow this bed to become a more natural shape which will feel a lot better in the front yard.  This is actually the sunniest bed of all, but it’s also the most visible, and since it’s part of the front yard I like to grow things that look pretty here, like brassicas and eggplants and alliums.

I stood on a car for this

Eventually I’ll move some of those rocks around and shoot for something more kidney-shaped.

One thing that’s good about having a couple of vegetable beds out front is that the ducks don’t come to the front yard unless I’m with them.  So I can safely plant seedlings and not have to fence them off to prevent them getting trampled or eaten.

Oh you’re wondering about all those gallon nursery pots? Hostas, every single one of them.  This is the ridiculous horde of hostas I got at Fred Meyer last summer because they were $2 each and I apparently had $50 burning a hole in my pocket.  These will all go over to Wichita Ave, because she loves hostas, and the north side of her house just begs for a whole bed of them.  Okay I might keep one ‘Sum & Substance’ just because it’s insane and chartreuse.

Other fun tasks for the day included cutting last year’s (mostly) dead stems of Gaura and no I’m not calling it Oenothera yet.

I leave them in place as long as I can stand it because I love this

Grassing.  There is no “weeding” in my front garden.  The only “weed” is grass.  So I grassed.

Bye grass. That’s Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ and and artichoke which I just adore

The moles, the moles are here.  Hi moles!

I found about 15 of these

But you know what? I’ve decided I’m going to work with the moles, not against them.  I’ve managed to convince myself that they’re the primary reason the lavenders are so happy in this area which has very dense, hard, clay soil.  Moles as soil aerators and creators of better drainage. Sure, why not?

I also took some of that mass of Angelina sedum and threw them around a bit.

sorry bout that thumb

And lastly my neighbor’s Kanzan cherry is about to burst open.  I love this bud phase!


That’s it for today. Stay tuned for some REALLY fun stuff upcoming at Wichita Ave!!

Fall Planting: Part 1

(Of however many parts it takes)

This is my third year gardening at my current house. The first year, the focus was on establishing vegetable gardening beds.  The second year, we did a little more of that, and started the process of eliminating lawn.  Now we have a total of 11 rectangular vegetable beds (4′ x 10′) which are edged with cedar to keep the clover and creepy grass out.  This year the focus is ornamental plants.

When we first moved here, I had “food forest” ideas – for a time, we wanted every single plant to produce something edible.  My, how experience changes things! After living in an apartment building for 10 years with only a tiny garden space, we were delusional in our enthusiasm.  It’s not that we can’t eat all the things that come out of the garden, it’s that we run out of time to prepare and preserve.

Besides, I want to grow cool stuff. So here are a few of the plants that went in the ground today, all front yard.

Cupressus glabra ‘Sulphurea’ – sooo excited to find this at Xera Plants the other day

The idea with the cypress here is to be a color/form contrast to the Japanese maple, which wants to be a blob. This spot was begging me for something light-colored and upright in form.  I tried a Lomatia myricoides first, but it died quickly because I planted it into some imported soil that turned out to be really high in every nutrient – Lomatia, like all members of the family Proteaceae, can’t tolerate excessive phosphorus in the soil.  Hopefully the cypress will enjoy it (and, it’s next to that soil but not exactly in it).

I’ve known for a while that Proteaceae members don’t like extra phosphorus, and presumed this is simply because Australian soils tend to be very low in it.  I came across a very interesting publication that detailed what is actually going on.  Rather than try to distill it, I’ll quote:

Many Proteaceae, including Banksia and Hakea species, but not Embothrium coccineum , are readily killed by phosphorus fertilisation; they are highly sensitive to slightly enhanced soil phosphorus levels. They tend to accumulate phosphorus in their leaves, to concentrations that would be severely toxic to any plant (typically ≥ 1% of the dry mass). However, other plants rarely achieve such high concentrations in their leaves, even when heavily fertilised with phosphorus. That is because most plants reduce their phosphorus-uptake capacity when supplied with high phosphorus concentrations in the soil or nutrient solution. They close the doors through which phosphorus enters the roots when a big crowd of phosphorus molecules is waiting to move in. We discovered that the extreme sensitivity of H. prostrata and other Proteaceae is due to a very low capacity to reduce their phosphorus-uptake systems when elevated phosphorus levels are present in the soil. Some time, during the course of millions of years of evolution on severely phosphorus-impoverished soils, for many Proteaceae this trait disappeared.

Right right, millions of years.  Not gonna undo that, now are we? But wait, there’s more:

Having discovered the physiological cause of the phosphorus sensitivity of some Proteaceae, we made a wider survey of related species. Interestingly, some plants that are closely related to hakeas, e.g. , Grevillea crithmifolia , also belonging to the Proteaceae, do not suffer from phosphorus toxicity, even when exposed to phosphorus levels that are much higher than those that kill some Hakea or Banksia species. This grevillea closes its doors through which phosphorus moves in when supplied with a lot of phosphorus. We have also discovered that these traits apply to various species of South African Proteaceae. Relatively P-insensitive Proteaceae species are typically associated with soils that contain more plan-available phosphorus, e.g. , those derived from more nutrient-rich parent material. The sheer diversity of traits adopted by various Proteaceae from Australia, South America and South Africa offers enormous potential for breeders who are keen to develop new cultivars in the Proteaceae. It should not be too difficult to cross phosphorus insensitivity into new cultivars, which could then be grown without the risk of phosphorus poisoning in our gardens.

Well how do you like that? So now all we need to do is find Proteaceae species that have this door-closing ability that are also cold-tolerant, and breed away.  Great! I’m on it! Just kidding.  Anyway I thought it was interesting, and it does give me some hope that someone someday will come up with a P-tolerant river lomatia.

A couple of manzanitas:

Arctostaphylos mewukka ‘Motley Crue’, from Cistus Nursery. The Origanum is from Xera, I think I got it last year.


Arctostaphylos silvicola ‘Ghostly’, from Xera

By the way, the stakes on this manzanita and the cypress are because I tend to try to wash all the container medium off the roots (or most of it anyway) for two reasons: one, roots almost always end up getting all twisted and tangled, which just goes with the territory of container life.  I like to spread them out like a fan when planting, rather than digging a deep hole and having them all go down-ish.  Reason two is that I want the plant to have native soil around all its roots.  Too many times I’ve found weird pockets of some kind of peat-and-perlite in the ground, the size of some poor plant’s pot, where the plant was long dead because the peat got hydrophobic and the plant never got a chance to move its roots into the surrounding soil… I hate that. Anyway when you spread roots out like a fan, generally they’ll need a stake for a while.


Amsonia ciliata ‘Halfway to Arkansas’ , from Pomarius Nursery

This is out front by the street, an area which is supposed to be a no-summer-water zone.  I’m curious to see how this Amsonia handles it.  The plant with green leaves on the left is indeed a calla, one with shockingly black flowers that came with the house, and it does quite well, believe it or not.  I’ll move the Amsonia if I have to, I just liked this texture for this spot.

Helichrysum tianshanicum, from Xera

Have you ever bought a plant and almost immediately realized you should have bought three of them? This is one of those, for me.  I love this plant and I’d like to repeat it a few times.

Callistemon viridiflorus ‘Shamrock’, from Xera

I am really looking forward to seeing this thing make a bunch of gatorade-colored bottlebrush flowers against the house.  By the way can you guess what my favorite plant nursery is?

Now let’s go out to the hot/dry zone, by the street.  My favorite area…

Sempervivum, from Pomarius

I picked up 4 of these cuties a few weeks ago because they were absolutely irresistible. I already had some right here by the curb and the’re really happy and don’t care about moles, so I’m just going to sort of line the curb with them.  They are rather shocking in flower, in a good way. This next one is my favorite.


Sempervivum, also from Pomarius

As I was planting these, I started noticing that there is an awful lot of silvery-blue foliage happening in my front yard and I LOVE IT.  So I took some pictures of that.

Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’, came with the house. I like this next to that chartreuse Santolina


Cabbage ‘January King’, seeds from Territorial

Lest you forget I am one of those front-yard vegetable gardeners.  This is probably my favorite cabbage right now.  I start these from seed indoors in June, set them out in August, and they mature January-March.  Although last year we had one that got really huge and we ended up harvesting it in July – I think that was because I started them too late, in July rather than June, and it didn’t get enough growing done before the winter to mature in the cool months.  The result was a somewhat bitter taste, so it went into the slow cooker rather than becoming slaw or salad.

NOID lavender and Liriodendron and dogwood leaves

My neighbor’s Liriodendron is a great tree.  Gives us many leaves and nice things to look at, like this.

Lastly, I felt the need to record what Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is doing.  I have wanted one of these, specifically this cultivar, for a very long time and when I was up at Cistus in May of this year, I think it was the day after my birthday, I found one with a really nice tall, open, arching form.  It’s 8′ tall now.  I’d show you the whole tree but it’s sunny now so absolutely impossible to photograph.  And it was super windy this morning, which also makes for challenging photgraphy! Anyway, the point is the leaf color:

Weird, no? This tree had a lot of mole activity around/under it this year, and of course I filled in those mole tunnels with that same super-rich soil that killed the Lomatia.  I wonder if that is why the leaf color is still so very green?

That’s all the pictures I took but I planted a lot more stuff, including:

Santolina virens ‘Lemon Fizz’ from Ace Hardware on Woodstock, great garden store in the back!
Geranium cinererum ‘Lawrence Flatman’, Geranium phaeum ‘Lily Lovell’, Garrya elliptica, and Crithmum maritimum, all from Xera Plants
Oxalis oregana ‘Klamath Ruby’ and Vancouveria hexandra, from Cistus Nursery tough love sale

Happy fall planting! The weather is off-the-charts awesome for it.