Check-in: why am I doing this, again?

My gardening motives over the last 5 years:

Five years ago: Food Forest omg omg grow all the foods eat the plants!! And native plants, grow all the natives!!!1!

Four years ago: I’m not really sure I want to grow kiwis. Tomatoes are not very pretty plants. Oh well, have to grow em. Watering is hard; maybe I’ll set up rainwater catchment. Wow Rosa nutkana is 12′ tall already. Hm.

Three years ago: Jesus CHRIST this is a hell of a lot of work. I do NOT want to have to build a kiwi arbor. It’s hot out here. I need to plant some shade trees and I do not need any more pears. Damn, rainwater catchment really does not work in a dry summer climate unless you have 18,0000,00000 gallons of water storage volume. How little can I water the tomatoes?

Two years ago: Oh heyyyyy xeriscaping (bats eyelashes). God it’s hot out here. Ima plant me some more trees.

Last year: I want nothing but manzanitas, weird Australian shrubbery, anything silvery, and everything also must have microscopic leaves. Oh and if there are flowers in peach/orange/pink tones, bring it.

Also last year: I finally came to a realization that cannot stand all the rectangular garden beds (not really raised; more like edged with wood) that I’d built in years prior. I hated the right angle turns I was constantly making. I hated wrestling with the hose around corners and too-narrow paths. And I started to not like the extremely variable overall form of the garden – tall plants over here one year, over there the next; vines here then there… I was craving more consistency.

Typical raised beds with wide paths all perfectly graveled, vegetables growing way up off the ground and nowhere near native soil is NOT the direction I wanted to go. I have GREAT soil – it is deficient in nothing and beautifully textured Latourell loam. So ixnay on the idea of wider paths and taller beds; though that would certainly help with the hose struggle, I just don’t want to garden that way. What I really want is curving paths and organic shapes for beds; foliar screens and room dividers; deliberate and artistic contrasts in texture and form. Not ready to completely rip everything out and start from scratch, I set about removing all the 2×6 cedar edges as beds which I had been growing vegetables became available over the course of the season.

Paths have started to form; I’ve lined some with bricks and others with old hoses, which I prefer, but old hoses are in limited quantity while bricks are abundant. I started thinking even more in terms of water-use zones, and considered automatic irrigation in some key areas. At this point I have given up at least half of the space that was formerly allocated to vegetable gardening and I’m preparing to lose even more.

new garden path marked by hoses
Look, hoses AND bricks here

As one who sees herself as an avid vegetable grower, this is a big and somewhat challenging adjustment. I never thought I’d be one of those gardeners who says, “yeah, I used to grow tomatoes….” But here I am. Priorities change and I guess gardens change along with.

Now, lest you think I’m done yet, I assure you I am not. Under these lovely (ahem) covered wagons are a dozen tomatoes (most grafted), about 40 peppers and a whole bunch of melons of various types.

Irony.

It’s totally ironic that I’ve always disliked that white shed roof, and I’ve been pretty vocal in my complaints about it, but then I go and make all these ugly-ass hoop houses. Do I really want to look at this? The honest truth is that no, I don’t. But I still love growing the plants that are under them, and I’m not yet ready to say this is the last time I’ll do this.

On top of, and in the midst of all that, as of April I have a new housemate. I want to incorporate her ideas about gardening and what she wants to grow, and perhaps satisfy her ideas about aesthetics as well, even when they differ from mine.

This is all potentially a lot of pretty quick change for me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I can take a long time to adjust to change, especially the type that feels like it reshapes my trajectory, I guess because clear trajectory feels hard for me to come by in the first place!

That said, I DID manage a project along the lines of a trajectory that I’d already started playing with in the front yard: a dry garden area; in this case a bit of a berm. This was where I grew tomatoes last year:

ducks help dig a new garden bed
Debug team is helping. So helpful. And housemate’s foot (she IS helpful for real!).

We raked the wood chips off, broke up the clods, and into that went about 5 bags of pumice (1 cu. ft. each). These bags are about $5 each from Concentrates which is right down the road from me. Easy.

plant placement in garden
Almost all are treasures from plant swaps and friends

It doesn’t look very berm-y in the above photo, but the next one might give a better idea. I had amassed quite a collection of plants that like things on the dry side and love good drainage.

ducks in new garden bed
Almost done.
Another view, two weeks later. Lots of new growth on Bulbine frutescens (the green thing this side of the poppies).

It really doesn’t look like much, but such is the nature of new plantings. I don’t love the look of the pumice but I’m willing to put up with it while I figure out a mulch; I’m not ready to commit to gravel so it’s probably wood chips or nothing. I’ve added some bits of fencing and a big pot shard to protect little plants from the ravages of dogs and hoses.

Speaking of the ravages of dogs, do you have ANY idea how hard it is to establish new shrubs when you have two large-to-giant male dogs who get into pee wars? The damage is very real. After four or five outright deaths, I’m finally coming to grips with having to just fence around plants. I’ve been reluctant in the past because if I fence off one plant, the focus will simply shift to another. While that is true, it is also true that some plants can take more pee than others.

I finally did this, in addition to multiple other fences around individual plants:

garden fence to keep dogs out
Fenced off are a young Eucryphia (among native blackcaps) and a couple of Carpenterias. Yes those are potatoes from 2 years ago at front right. Shut up.

I know, it’s gross and it seems silly; why even let your dogs back there at all, you may wonder. I’ll tell you: I want to have my cake and eat it too in getting these shrubs established, while allowing the dogs their backyard pee breaks since apparently it’s too hard to take them on walks out front so they can pee on the neighbors’ shrubbery. Besides, even if we made that a habit, these dudes would still have to mark, and mark on top, and on top, ad nauseam. Even just marking, when the dogs are 70lbs and 100lbs, is significant.

Anyway. I’ll conclude with a list of what I put in that new bed, and a photo of my favorite of all of them.

  • Two Agaves maybe salmiana or havardiana
  • Three Sphaeralcea ‘Newleaze Coral’
  • Three Anaphalis margaritacea
  • Bulbine frutescens
  • Sinningia tubiflora
  • Hesperaloe parviflora
  • Eryngium ‘Neptune’s Gold’
  • Penstemon pinifolius
  • Dasylirion wheeleri from Cistus, couldn’t resist it at Hortlandia
  • Callistemon pallidus ‘Eleanor’ from The Desert Northwest (also a Hortlandia purchase)
  • Aquilegia chrysantha var chaplinii from Xera Plants – really cool blue-purple foliage, this one is from New Mexico/Texas.
  • Arctostaphylos pumila ‘Gray Form’ also from Xera.

Thank you to my crazy fun gardening friends for the unsourced plants listed above, and to our stalwart local nurseries as well. These are all plants I could look at for days, months, years. And yes, I’ve answered my own question, haven’t I? THIS is why I am doing this.

Sigh… here’s my favorite, the Arctostaphylos pumila naturally. I didn’t get a great photo so you’ll just have to trust me that this plant is incredibly charming and very, very pretty.

This. THIS is why I’m doing this.

Thanks for reading!

Shrub moving

We’re having such a mild December and yesterday was pretty glorious so I decided to finally make a couple of moves I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I didn’t take a “before” picture of Stachyurus salicifolius in place but if you look at my last post, you’ll see it in my list of “losers” in the game of summer drought tolerance.  In this pic, I am pointing to where it was:

Way out by the street, where the hose doesn’t reach… and I hadn’t really noticed until my friend Paul Bonine (of Xera Plants, which is where I got this plant) pointed out that it’s been getting chomped by root weevils.

Here’s the plant after I dug it:

All those notches in the leaves are from adult root weevils feeding.

I read up a bit.  From PNW Extension: 

Adult weevils are night feeders that mostly remain in the soil or in debris at the base of the plant during the day, then climb up to feed on leaves at night. Look for ragged notches on the edges of leaves, or flower petals. Twigs of plants may die beyond where weevils have girdled the twig (salal, rockrose, yew, juniper, etc.). Larvae, found around roots, are C-shaped, legless, and white, or slightly reddish, with tan heads, up to 0.5 inch in size. All species are quite similar in appearance and habits of feeding on root hairs, larger roots and root crown.

Sounds like a job for some ducks, eh? To start, they help me dig the hole.

I put the plant near the chicken coop, but the chickens themselves actually don’t currently have access to the area (I can change that). Lots of benefits for Ms. Stachyurus in this location: WAY more water, higher soil nutrition, and ducks who will hopefully eradicate those weevils.  It’s also in a spot where I will see it every day, and there’s plenty of room there for it to get ginormous.

In the spot where the Stachyurus was, I moved (yikes, I know) a young Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Roundtree.”  

I had wanted a nice big evergreen shrub here, and this is definitely a better choice overall.  The spot I had this plant in is right in the middle of the front yard and I had been feeling uneasy about that placement almost from the minute I planted it there.  The new spot might be a bit shady, so I expect it to reach for the sun and get weird.  I love it when they do that.  We’ll see…

Here’s where the manzanita was: 

Disturbed soil in foreground marks the spot.

This is a small berm which I intend to enlarge and use for things that really love good drainage.  I was concerned that the smaller plants here would get overtaken by the manzanita.  What’s in there is Helichrysum thianschanicum, Stipa barbata, some Dierama seedlings that probably won’t make it (I’ll plant more), a couple Agaves, Euphorbias and Hesperaloe parviflora, among other things.

What should I put here? I was thinking another Agave… I really love the contrast of fine-textured plants like Stipa and Helichrysum against the stoutness of Agaves. 

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!