For Winter Color, Bring in the Birds

When flora takes more of a backseat in winter, encourage the fauna to liven up your yard.  For the birds, a little seed goes a long ways.  Your reward will be their colorful plumage, euphonious sounds and entertaining behavior.  Of course, an ideal bird-friendly yard will seek to meet all of their needs, but I’ve been surprised at how many birds have been flocking to my yard with the simple addition of cheap seed and suet.  I feel as though I now have the bird-summoning power of Mary Poppins (still trying to find out where I can buy seed for only tuppence a bag though).  Although I must admit, even though I’ve only provided some additional food, I am very fortunate to live adjacent to a park with wetlands and natural areas, where water is always available and the forests and thickets allow for their protection and shelter.  That probably (definitely) has something to do with it…

Just keep in mind that if you decide to feed the birds in winter, it’s recommended that you continue to do so through the remainder of the season, at least through the particularly cold, icy or snowy times, when natural food sources may be hard for them to get to.  This is particularly true if you have hummingbirds that have decided to stick out the winter with you.  Keep an eye on any nectar feeders to be sure they haven’t frozen over, and keep the nectar fresh.  A simple mixture of one part sugar to four parts water (boiled then cooled) will work nicely.

As part of my developing avian avocation I’ve been trying to improve my photography skills.  I think sometimes it’s easy to underestimate the refinement of skill (and patience) needed in any given activity when you have yet to fully delve into it.  However, as it often goes, the more you know about something, the more you realize you don’t know.  I keep learning this lesson in gardening, and such is the case with bird photography.  I never realized it would be such a challenge getting those little guys in focus, even after having multiple photography classes in the past.  I thought getting great shots of birds would be somewhat comparable to getting great shots of plants.  It turns out plants are a bit easier to sneak up on.  I may need to move the feeders a little closer to the house, but they are right at the forest edge where the birds feel comfortable.  I still managed to get a few good shots though which I saved for you.

This last weekend I had the big, winter-time three in my yard all at once – the Northern Flicker, the Scrub Jay and the Varied Thrush.  For my specific habitat these are the largest birds that will somewhat regularly show up in my yard this time of year.  I’ve heard of Scrub Jays referred to as nuisance birds, but I enjoy their company and great coloring.  They normally scare off the other birds when they show up but this Varied Thrush didn’t seem intimidated (the Scrub Jay’s bill is pointing at him if you have a hard time finding him).

And what a beautiful bird the Varied Thrush is, with their great orange coloring and unique markings.  This is a bird that loves to rummage through the leaf litter, looking for little critters or other treats on the ground to eat.  The females have more muted coloring, but are also beautiful.  It’s funny though, as I’ve noticed the male Varied Thrush gets along fine with the other birds, but when that female Thrush comes along, he’ll chase her away in no time.  Maybe there was a bad breakup in their past.

Ixoreus naeviusMy favorite backyard bird though is the Northern Flicker.  What a beautiful woodpecker, especially when in flight, when you can more easily see the reddish-orange coloring on the undersides of their wings and tail.  Here’s a red-shafted one performing some acrobatics on the suet feeder.

Northern Flicker doing some acrobatics

Colaptes auratusWe tend to like yards manicured and tidy.  Not the birds.  We keep our yards “clean” to their detriment.  Though I can’t say I would blame anyone for not wanting a decaying, broken-down tree in their yard (and one could pose a valid safety concern), it sure would make a great home, and food source, for one of these cavity-nesting Flickers.  It’s just a shame that there are not more areas that are able to be left in their natural state, where nature can take its course uninterrupted.  Even our parks are all too often overly domesticated, with large expanses of sod consuming them, which are also regularly mowed.  One thing we can easily control, however, is our use of pesticides and herbicides.  When we use herbicides we actually destroy not just the unwanted weedy plants, but also some of the microbial life in our soil, which ultimately can have an affect on that which is connected to it, including the birds.  Also, when we use pesticides we may be successful in killing the insects, but we should also be aware that this will not only deplete the amount of them available for birds to feed on, but this can also lead to the poisoning of birds if these sprayed insects are later consumed.  Keep in mind that most insects are beneficial or neutral to your yard’s well-being.  Experts who study insect populations estimate that more than 90 percent of insects are either harmless or actually help control other pests.  Some may be more of a nuisance one year if they have had favorable weather conditions, but it is normal to see an ebb and flow in insect populations from year to year.  I’ve learned though that many insect “problems” will naturally work themselves out over time, without lasting or serious damage to the infested plants, but if in fact control methods are needed, there are plenty of environmentally no- or low-impact solutions available to employ.

As I finish typing this a new-to-our-yard woodpecker just jumped on the back of the suet feeder.  It’s hard to tell, but it looks like it may be a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker.  I’m thankful for the excitement and joy that comes when new birds stop by to visit.  It’s great to be rewarded with their beauty and antics for just a small amount of planning and work.


Great Willow Bark!

There is a magical place that comes alive every winter, not far from Portland.  And, fortunately for any local sightseers it is conveniently located right off of I-5, just southeast of Ridgefield Exit 14.  It’s hard to build mystery and anticipation for your reader when your creative subject line is so telling, but yes, I’m talking about a stand of willow trees.  Not your idea of exciting?  Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to get excited about willows, but this beautiful bark just amazes me, and I’m sure all can appreciate it:

Salix lasiandra bark

Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra)

Look how much this tree stands out against the drab backdrop of alders:

Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra

Pacific Willow, disguising as a smokeless flame

As best as I can tell (without being able to examine one up-close, being on private property), these are Pacific Willows (Salix lasiandra), or a type of one.  The bright, yellow-orange stems really helped aid in identification, or supposition, to be accurate.  Since there are around 400 species from the genus Salix, (200+ in cultivation, not counting cultivars), it’s hard to know if you’ve narrowed down that list enough for a definitive answer when trying to identify one, especially since they are cross-fertile plants, often creating hybrids.  I like what OSU’s site has to say about willows:

“As a group, willows are easy to identify – in fact, pussy willows are one of the first trees that many of us learn.  But distinguishing between different types of willows, is a different story.  The reason is that there are so many willows – North America has approximately 90 different types – and that many of the species interbreed, with the offspring having characteristics of both parents.  As a result, most people are satisfied knowing that a tree is a willow, and leave it at that.”

Even with all that family competition, these willow trees really stand out from most others that I’ve seen.  Just imagine this below stand of willows planted with large drifts of our native Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. Cornus stolonifera), shown here in a previous post.  Red-twig, or Red Osier, Dogwoods share very similar cultural requirements (loving themselves a riparian area) and would not only provide striking bark contrast, but they would also work great proportionately as a foreground plant to these willows, only coming up to about half of their height.

Stand of Salix lasiandra

Willow woods

In general, willows are rather susceptible to pests and diseases, and branch breakage can also be a relatively common occurrence (however, they also re-sprout and re-root easily), but they also come with many benefits which I believe easily outweigh the negatives if you have a large, moist to wet, natural area for them.  Native, riparian willows like these can help provide soil/waterway stabilization with their extensive, fibrous root systems, improve shoreline and aquatic habitat by offering food, shelter and shade (the shade helps reduce temperatures in nearby waterways improving the conditions for many fish), improve water quality, grow quickly to establish a natural screen, and lend a relatively fine texture and movement to a landscape.  Also, the early spring flowers not only add interest to the garden, but are also a great early nectar source for our bees.

I wish we had the room for a few of these willows in our yard, but 6,000 square feet is not going to cut it.  Better add a larger yard to the Christmas list…

Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Vine Maple

Acer circinatum fall color

Vine Maple fall color in full sun

Acer circinatum; it may be a somewhat ubiquitous plant here in the Pacific Northwest but this versatile plant is popular for good reason.  Commonly known as the Vine Maple, it derives its name from its wild, sprawling growth habit when in shaded conditions, and the sinuous, multiple stems it often has.  Some of the most desirable features of this small tree (approximately 15 to 20 feet tall and wide) are its multiple trunks, and its long-lasting parade of colors in the fall, which range from red to yellow and sometimes includes purple.

Vine Maple Flowers

Vine Maple Flowers (Photo credit: wolfnowl)

In early spring Vine Maples sport tiny groups of red and white flowers which develop into attractive red-winged seedpods, or samara, by mid to late spring.  Vine Maples also add some interest to the winter landscape with their unique skeletons and reddish coloring found on the younger branches.

Vine Maples exhibit rather different personalities dependent on the amount of sunlight they receive (boy, can I relate to that).  In more sun, the growth habit will be more upright and dense, and fall color will be stronger, displaying more red and orange hues.  In a shady location growth can be wide, open and sprawling, sometimes even having stems that arch back to the ground which can sprout new growth and roots, creating thickets.  Fall color will be more yellow in this environment, or not noteworthy at all if in deep shade.  I like their traits best in a site that receives just a little afternoon shade, so the leaves have less of a chance of burning, the growth habit is still largely upright and so they still display good fall color.

Acer circinatum fall color in part shade

Vine Maple fall color in part shade, at St. James Church in Vancouver

Thicket of Acer circinatum

Mossy mess of Vine Maples in full shade, creating a thicket

Another thing I really love about vine maples is that you can prune them in many different ways to fill just about any spot in your garden, and they are adaptable, strong growers.  For a taller and more upright habit, completely remove some of the lowest side branches, cutting them off near the trunk, just above the collar; this will also help expose the beautiful base of multiple trunks.  You can also do some cutback pruning on the outer part of the side branches.  This method is recommended if you have one sited close to a structure.  Or you can cut back at the top of the tree which will promote more lateral growth.  Vine Maples can also even be coppiced successfully.

Acer circinatum pruned

I’m not sure what I think about this, but this shows the flexibility you have when designing with Vine Maples. These two trees are in a fair amount of shade, being under an overhang on the north side of a building. It appears they have received pruning from the bottom up, to highlight the multiple trunks, and also regular cutback pruning on top to restrict height and create a low, wide canopy.

When so much in the natural northwest landscape turns yellow this time of year, if any strong color at all, it’s nice to see a plant that’s not afraid to do its own thing.  Enjoy the show while you still can, those remaining tenacious leaves can’t hold much longer.

A Million Leaves a Leavin’

These native Cottonwood and Red-Twig Dogwood trees will soon be putting me to work…

It’s that time of year again when my hopes start to rise thinking the more mundane chores of gardening will soon diminish.  And then the sky starts to fall.  With many of us having yards blanketed by leafy litter this time of year, what’s the best way to deal with it all?   Do you leave it?  Bag and trash it?  Move it to your borders and garden beds?  Add it to the compost pile?

Successful gardening is a lot of trial and error as you discover what works best in your yard, region and for your purposes.  I learned that you should not assume all gardening and landscaping advice is widely applicable, even for the seemingly innocuous.  In certain areas of the country one method may be useful and in other areas it may deliver much different results or come with additional unwanted consequences.  Seek local advice.

Quite a few years back I was reading an article in a national gardening magazine about a California gardener who took a more natural approach to gardening.   She recommended just moving any fallen leaves to the nearby garden beds and borders so they could decompose back into the soil, feeding the nearby plants and temporarily acting as a mulch, keeping plants warmer over the winter time and also reducing weeds and heaving.  Yes, fuel the soil web, reduce weeding, less work…  I’m sold!  I didn’t mind so much that my borders weren’t that “clean” or clutter-free.  When spring came though I soon discovered why this may have worked better in California than here in the Pacific Northwest.  Slugs were in a surprising abundance that next year.  It turns out those leafy layers acted as great slug habitat, for cover and for laying their eggs in (which look like small pearls).  My young, evergreen Solomon’s Seal clumps (Disporopsis pernyi) did not stand a chance.  Even putting slug controls around these plants once I noticed was not enough to stop their onslaught, and the plants met their demise.  My hostas and false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) also suffered a bit, among some others.  If you happen to have a more slug-proof garden and want to go this route just be sure to rake away any leaves over your perennials before they sprout in spring to avoid any chance of disease being spread.

However, even with the unwanted company of all those goopy gastropods, this is still a method I use, I’ve just restricted this practice to one portion of our yard now, because for that particular area the pros seem to outweigh the cons.  It’s the area behind our house near the forest edge, which in spots is a seasonal wetland.  I’ve pulled out many of the invasive blackberries that were back there, but without new plants to replace them, and not enough money for mulching the whole area just yet, I’ve decided it would be best to leave the soil covered from fall ’til spring so the leaves can act as a mulch, protecting the integrity of the soil texture from the pounding rains.  Another big deciding factor for this was the birds.  There are lots of birds, including the American Robin, Varied Thrush, and Northern Flicker, that love to rummage through the leaves on the ground looking for insects or other goodies, even slugs, to eat.

Japanese Maple leaves and Lysimachia paridiformis

One leaf containment method I would recommend avoiding altogether is bagging the leaves up and throwing them in the trash can.  That’s removing them from the life cycle at the time when they are ready to give back.  I think we should garden more responsibly than that.  If you don’t yet have one, check with your local waste management company about getting a yard debris bin so they can compost the leaves for you, or compost them yourself, which is what I would recommend.  Being in a large pile the leaves will decompose faster than when they are spread throughout your garden beds anyways, then you can use the leaf mold, or compost, wherever needed.  Yes, you will most likely still attract slugs, but with more vertical piling the affected area will be less (Just remember, they’ll appreciate any moist, protected area, such as under wood or stones).  To make things easy I try to fit in one last mowing for the year after a lot of the leaves have fallen so I can add them and the grass clippings to the compost pile at the same time, if the weather is dry enough for my mower to handle this.  More on composting in a future post.

If you’re wanting to kill some sod to make room for new garden beds, piling the leaves where you want them should kill the grass in time for next spring (so don’t leave them on the lawn for long if you are not going for this same result).  If this is in a windy location though it may be a little tricky keeping them right where you want them.  If you have any bird netting from your berry bushes or fruit trees you can roll that over the leaves and secure the corners.

Also, keep in mind that certain plants can be killed, or poorly affected, if they are covered by leaves for too long (primarily low-growing evergreen or semi-evergreen plants), such as the common Scotch or Irish Moss, and, as happened in my own yard, some of our native sedges.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to make a gigantic leaf pile first for the kids or grandkids (or yourself) to play in.  Getting the kids involved in these chores is a win-win.

Stressed by Design?

Forbes Magazine recently ran an article on the most stressed out cities in the U.S.  Not surprisingly it was some of the most highly populated cities included in that study that topped the list.  The study took into account factors such as cost of living, unemployment rate, pollution, traffic, health and more.  As noted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which compiles a “Better Life Index” on a global scale, numerous factors can contribute to stress levels, such as economic and physical health, family and community networks, work-life balance, and environment, in multiple aspects.  I’m sure that none of this comes as a surprise to my intelligent audience, but these are connections worth validating.

I can’t help but wonder how critical the role of community design really is.  Is poor design (or the lack of belief in the power and effect of design) a considerable contributing factor in this association between stress and densely populated, largely man-made areas?  I believe it is.  I’d hate to downplay the power and effect of the family unit, and one’s choices and social connections to healthy living, but how much could a better designed city, one that addresses people’s needs to connect with nature, really help?  Just think of what one city park provides opportunity for: rest, exercise, escape from (some) noise and pollution, can act as a meeting place, build a sense of community, and provide habitat for our animal friends.  And that’s just one outlet that enhances city living.  Urban gardening/food forests (check out Seattle’s new public food forest), trail systems, habitat areas and private gardens/landscapes also have numerous benefits.  Urban gardens and food forests not only add to the aesthetic value of an area, but also serve practical needs for fresh, healthy food and also reduce pollution, oil consumption and traffic from the vehicles that would’ve delivered those goods.  Not to mention city dwellers can become more independent, being less reliant on grocery stores, transit systems, etc.  All of these benefits could aid in stress reduction.

If confinement (aka densely populated areas) contributes to stress levels, what can be done to loosen cities up?  In Detroit, where droves of people have left, large portions of the city now sit vacant.  There isn’t any one simple answer with how the city is to move forward, but some look at this as a great opportunity for Detroit to rebuild itself.  People there have been integrating urban gardens and restoring the area to natural habitat, giving it “back to God” (Interesting article on that).

Blogger and Landscape Architect Thomas Rainer notes on one of his recent posts how landscape architecture may now be entering a golden age, with Landscape Urbanism gaining steam, promoting the ideology that landscapes, more than architecture, play a greater role in organizing and enhancing our cities.

Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver

The importance of natural areas/parks can be seen close to home at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver.  The restored park is now Vancouver’s back yard and the hub of downtown.  With a jolt of public investment in restoring the park, which was once a transient and crime magnet, private investment around the park has followed and has arguably been the catalyst in much more development across the city, and possibly even the downtown’s lifeline.  I’m not sure what other than a natural area made more accessible and friendly to the community would’ve spurred on and anchored so much growth, and also have kept livability there at a consistent, or growing, level.  Nature is important to us.  Nature grounds us and gives us perspective.

But it’s not just about having these natural areas within a city’s core, it’s about integration, scope and accessibility.  Do we look at landscape architecture as a means to merely decorate the outside of our buildings, or do we decorate our landscapes with buildings? Looking at the 2012 ASLA awards, landscape architecture’s prominence and influence appears to be growing strong.  And as an L.A.s role grows, I believe livability, functionality, and hopefully even levels of stress, can be affected in a positive way.

Bellevue Botanical Garden

Last weekend I had the privilege of visiting Bellevue with my lovely wife for an early anniversary get-away.  While up there I did not want to miss the opportunity to see the Bellevue Botanical Garden.  Unfortunately, we were in somewhat of a hurry so we only saw a portion of the place, but the timing couldn’t have been better to view their sunny perennial garden being late in the summer season and just before sunset.  Places like these make me yearn for heaven all the more.  Hope you enjoy the short slideshow.

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Some Great Foliage from the Garden

Hello friends, just wanted to share some pics from my yard of some of the plants that are really showing off with some great foliage right now.  This first pic features the beloved Hosta ‘June’, paired here with All Gold Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’.  Last year, ‘June’ sat there by herself and now that she’s wedged between the golden grass and the dark green foliage of Peony ‘Double White’, she shines even more as they all complement each other very nicely.

I love this tri-colored variegation found in ‘June’.

My garden is growing, adding some Jack Frost Brunnera this year.  These leaves will draw some light to the entryway on the shady north side of our house.

Another great plant with wonderful variegated foliage is this Columbine, ‘Leprechaun Gold’.  I ended up cutting down the long flower stalks however as they just couldn’t stand up in the wind we had this last week.  This plant also has great purple colored stems and the raindrops will sometimes get caught between the leaf and stem.  I love plants that will showcase rain in a special way, since it’s in such great abundance here.

Leprechaun's Gold Columbine

Below is our native Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia, however, this is the variety ‘Orange Flame’ which as you can see derives its name from the stunning new foliage.  The green leaves below make a perfect backdrop.

Orange Flame Oregon Grape Holly

And one more plant for now, the Golden Lanterns Pheasant Berry or Himalayan Honeysuckle, Leycesteria formosa.  It has chartreuse to gold foliage and red-tinted new growth.  I’ve been very impressed with what a strong grower this has been.  The more sun it receives the richer, or more golden, the coloring is.

Happy gardening!