I think the number of posts on my blog over the last year gives a good indication of how things have been for me lately. Busy. And that hasn’t changed much now so this one’s just going to be short and sweet. Below is a landscape plan for a backyard I finished earlier this year for the Moore family. This plan reflects their needs and desires (including relatively low maintenance and year-round appeal) and offers solutions for some of the existing site problems. This landscape had to exude peace, grace and serenity, so summer foliage colors include dark greens, blues, and the occasional gold tones, with flower colors providing appropriate contrast and color boosts throughout the year. Elegant specimens were chosen, such as the Weeping Cedar of Lebanon, the tiered June Snow Giant Dogwood, and a prostrate, trailing cultivar of Canadian Hemlock, sited on a gentle slope to help showcase this habit. If you’re planning on doing landscaping this spring or summer and need design services now is the perfect time to get that ball rolling. Time that is invested up front in a quality design plan can save a lot of sweat, heartache and money in the long run.
Here in the greater Portland area we’ve had quite the cold and dry spells recently. After dealing with the cold for weeks I’ve been hoping we would at least be rewarded with some snow, but, as it normally happens here, once the clouds roll in the temperatures quickly rise above freezing and we are instead dowsed in its crystal-challenged counterpart. Oh well. The recent rains at least keep me from having to go out to water the plants that were needing it.
Even without the snow, there is a beauty found on those cold days when a light dusting of frost covers the landscape. Interesting patterns in nature are accentuated, with frost accumulating on ridges and edges. Click on any of the pics below to open the image carousel.
I especially enjoy the patterns and texture of the Oakleaf Hydrangea, which is quite the semi-evergreen shrub here. Its maroon leaf coloring and peeling bark add great winter interest, and it pairs especially well with winter-blooming Ivory Prince Hellebores around its base. Another great semi-evergreen shrub here is the Virginia Sweetspire. I bought a dwarf form earlier this year, Itea virginica Little Henry. These plants have wonderful red fall (and winter) coloring. The one pictured here is just in part sun, so the red coloring isn’t incredibly strong, but I have been impressed by how well-clothed this plant has stayed through the winter. So modest.
One of the fully evergreen, dwarf shrubs in my yard also with great winter appeal is the Japanese Lily of the Valley shrub cultivar ‘Cavatine’ (Pieris japonica ‘Cavatine’). Aside from its clean, dark green foliage, it keeps a very compact form and is loaded with colorful flower buds this time of year. When frosted over it almost appears to be a variegated form, with each edge highlighted in white. I bought Helleborus HGC Jacob, an evergreen perennial, mostly for its foliage, but it’s been very nice to have some blooms this time of year. When you start off with such pristine white flowers it can be hard to enjoy them for long since you can quickly see any blemishes or fading, but for the most part I like the way these long-lasting flowers age, developing a pink cast to them and growing large seed pods. Helleborus lividus ‘Pink Marble’ (not yet in bloom) is also a nice foliage plant, with its lightly veined foliage and pinkish-red petioles, but they are so diminutive, they’re probably best just used in a container planting.
Well, along with the birds, that’s what I’ve been enjoying in my yard this last week or so. I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying from yours recently.
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.
My 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the many benefits of gardening, I believe, is that you can come to develop a deeper sense and appreciation of the subtle beauties of God’s creation. If you are asked the question what a yard with winter interest looks like and would answer, “one that has evergreens in it”, then keep reading. Okay, all others keep reading as well… Sure, evergreens go a long way to add structure and dependability to a landscape, but I have become one who really enjoys and appreciates plants that outwardly change with each season. These plants can heighten intrigue and alter mood from one season to the next. And there are many plants that have unique offerings this time of year.
So, when planning for added winter interest I say remember the four ‘B’s: bark, bones, berries and blooms.
There are many trees and shrubs waiting to show off their beautiful bark this time of year, now more noticeable as they drop their leafy coverings (and as all those ostentatious annuals and perennials fade).
I love the compact size and dense branching of Kelsey’s Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’). They look like little flames in the garden this time of year. Another one that also really catches my eye is the River Birch (Betula nigra), which I believe is an under-appreciated and under-utilized tree, at least in our area. Its impact multiplies with its number, the more the better. The Paperbark Maples (Acer griseum) are truly amazing as well, with their peeling cinnamon-colored bark. And I must also give special mention to the Stewartia, a great four-season specimen with its unique, mottled bark that comes with age and which is often multi-stemmed. This tree does best in an organic, well-drained soil and with a little afternoon shade. This is a slow-growing tree but it really pays off for those who wait. Another noteworthy, but more common plant, is the Coral Bark Japanese Maple. ‘Sango Kaku’ is the variety I’ve seen most, but ‘Beni Kawa’ (may also be referred to as ‘Beni Gawa’) is reportedly more sun-tolerant with brighter coral-red bark. Sounds like a winner to me.
There are also many wonderful native choices for interesting bark that are just as pleasing, or even more so:
I love the warm glow the red-twig Dogwoods (Cornus sericea/stolonifera) give our lowland forests this time of year. Equally captivating are the stands of Nehalem Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra) and their yellow branches. Both of these natives will have the best coloring on new growth, and fortunately they both can handle somewhat severe pruning every few years to stimulate such growth (do your research, or ask me for details, before you go hacking away at one though). Unfortunately, Pacific Madrones (Arbutus menziesii) are on the decline in our area. They are beautiful broad-leafed evergreen trees that sport striking bark (as you can see above), springtime bell-like flowers and fascinating fall fruit. A few of these above natives don’t mind some wet feet; the Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) being one that can tolerate some wetness. There are a couple of them growing behind our house (creating a thicket along with our native swamp rose) and it’s a large shrub I enjoy year-round, with its white late-spring flowers, reddish-brown summer seedheads and yellow fall color. I also hear it makes a great slope stabilizer with its extensive root system.
Maybe before the end of this season I’ll be able to touch on the other three ‘B’s mentioned above, but no guarantees… I may have a spring-mindset before it has fully arrived. I can see those daffodils coming!