Thursday, July 28, 2016

Building our Garden: Lessons Learned

Eight months ago we purchased two acres of land. At that time I posed the question: "What would you do with a nearly blank slate to garden on?" I did so knowing there would be as many different answers as there are gardeners in this world. We listened, gathered ideas, dreamed a little, absorbed the message the land was conveying and took action. Everything we have accomplished thus far we are happy with, but there is always room for improvement. We have learned lessons both big and small along the way. We would like to humbly share some of those with you now.

By sharing our mistakes we are hoping to spare others frustration. Here is a photo of my blank slate taken some eight months ago with the pink deck and plant prison intact.

The Chicken House
We learned it's best to try to have plans for construction projects. For example, the only plan David had when building the chicken house was to cut three sheets of plywood in half and go from there. ‎This method demanded a great deal of improvisation and time and going back and forth to the garage for tools and to the hardware store for bits and pieces. Compare this with, say, buying a table at IKEA that comes with all components and tools and instructions to just having an idea to build the same table with a pile of wood. Good luck. While we are pleased with our coop, which we hope to detail here in a future post, it took David too long, he says, and it is by no means square. We like to say parts of the coop are "close" to level but we might be fooling ourselves. At any rate, start with a detailed plan, the correct components and the tools. Tamara's note here: David wanted to build it himself without plans, it was a challenge of sorts for him. In the end it looks just fine and it kept Mr. Retirement out of trouble for a couple of months.

Due to the goodly amount of rain in this area, David built the chicken coop high with a sturdy foundation. Can't have the hens gettin' their feets wet!

The coop is insulated with R-21 fiberglas and features a double-pane vinyl window for the hens to live in high-style. The hardest part of the whole process was building the main door. Again, no plans. Winging it, so to speak, was fun but not easy.

You KNOW Miss Artsy Pants is going to paint some kind of chicken mural on that bad boy to help cover up the green, right? Maybe a clematis or two growing around it would be a nice touch. David has not agreed to any of this. And the hens, which have not yet arrived, will have to vote. Oh, too many conventions on PBS for this blog!

Debris Removal
Plan ahead for debris removal. When we moved onto the property there existed a large pile of tree limbs in the east half-acre. As wide and as tall as three Chevy Camaros parked side by side. Despite best intentions it remains but now it is encased by a web of blackberries and grasses. We should have taken care of it during the late winter months. Well, we will tackle it soon. Also, and perhaps what we want to say is to plan your debris removal before you start your project. As shown in this post, I trimmed the driveway and swale filbert trees in late winter and instead of hauling off, chipping or burning the resulting limbs immediately we wound up with another multi-Camaro pile. Actually two but the pile on the driveway was more Vega in size. So we had two giant piles and one medium pile. Too big to burn ‎and a lot of hard work ahead. So we tackled it. We rented a wood chipper and enjoyed two wonderful days. That is sarcasm. Ho ho! Now we are down to the one big (original) pile. The lesson here is to address your debris! Don't let it stack up.  Take care of it and when done come help us clear our tri-Camaro mountain!!

The beginnings of the "Vega pile" in January.

 Here's the Camaro pile a few months ago. It has grown since then. I'm too embarrassed to show a current photo.

You've seen these pictures before, but this was a good lesson to prepare the to-be-chipped limbs for when the rented chipper arrives. They were arranged by size with the cut end all in the same direction. David spent several hours preparing the limbs beforehand and that made the actual chipping a breeze.

Lawn Removal
When we decided some of the lawn needed to go, we used a sod-cutter. This was the most practical tool to use, but we were inexperienced in using it. The result was our first attempt missed several clumps. We had to rent it a second time and go over the whole area again. We also would have left the cut sod in place until ready to till and plant as it was basically a mass of dirt. That made working conditions around the area difficult because if it were dry, there was dust in the air and if we were watering or if it rained, it was a slippery, muddy mess. I also would have tilled a few times to really kill the grass roots underneath instead of just once. Now the weeds are coming back, but they will be tackled, mark my words. Just not the easy way. The lesson is don't be hasty. We were in a hurry to get the rented beast back in time to avoid extra fees. We should have rented it for the whole day.

David tackling the first round of sod removal.

Re-designing the Berm
 From the outset, I knew the area I call "the berm" needed help. The soil was pale and rock-hard at the end of last summer. Additionally the retaining wall that holds back the soil also keeps water from draining in the wet months so the bottom of it turns into a sludgy clay mess while the top part, fairly well-drained, is rock-hard. Organic material of any kind seemed to be absent. I would look at in en route to other projects and it kept gnawing at me. I would come dig around in it when I needed to burn off some frustration or had a hard day. It was and still is my "extra" project as it was the only existing garden on site, requiring a redesign to suit the spirit of our new property.

I knew the soil needed serious amending with masses of compost and 1/4 - 10 crushed gravel to aid drainage. While the whole berm is now composted, replanted, graveled, and completely redesigned, I would have done a few things differently if I had to do it again. I think it would have been much easier to remove all the plants at once, compost and rototill the whole thing and then arrange the plants and plant them all at once. Of course, this would be a massive week-long project (at least), but the soil throughout would be improved and ready for plants. The way it was actually done was a little at a time, plants moved and moved again and compost and gravel added as I went.

In the end, it is really starting to look good but there are still a lot of asters that will be dug and moved to the meadow area which means I will have to go back and amend the soil by hand where they were once planted. In a way, it's probably okay to have done it as I did as it allowed me time to think, plan and move plants as I needed to. Of course knowing me, many plants will be moved around a few times before they find their forever home.

The berm area last fall.

As it looks in late July.

Again, the berm area last fall as seen looking west.

Here it is in late July looking towards the west.

Tree Removal
To put it simply, we should have removed the large dead trees early on. We were preoccupied with other projects and now we'll have to dance around existing plants to make that happen. We have one large Acer macrophyllum or big leaf maple that is completely dead and now we see about three other mature specimens that are also dying of verticilliuim wilt. They all need to go as their decline is certain, and their size is huge. If any of these fell unexpectedly it could spell disaster.

We plan to hire David's brother who has some experience with tree-falling to visit and take down the affected maples. We will carefully plan each tree's "down zone" before we start the chainsaws. 

Here the trunk of the dead big-leaf maple tree can be seen. A little too close to the house for peace of mind.

Labyrinth Garden
 Here it is pictured half-composted.

If I had to do it over again I would have removed all the sand from the former "labyrinth" and placed it in a pile for use somewhere else. I would then have had the compost man dump two units right in the center of the circle then borrow our neighbor's roto-tiller. I would take great pleasure in tilling that whole mess up and then have the gravel man deliver about 5 cubic yards of quarter ten crushed gravel and mixed it all in. **sigh** well, live and learn. As it is, I have about that much compost on it already but it's the sand removal that is missing. The sand in there has me worried for the long-term health of my plants. They all look good now, but you never know. This is a big regret.

There are a few other thoughts that come to mind when thinking about lessons. First off, we're human and it's okay to make mistakes. At least we're trying. Secondly, it's a long project, the rest of our lives will be spent tending for this beautiful land and we are most happy to live a simple life here doing just that. We don't have to do things quickly, but we get impatient because all around us we see potential and work to be done to reach that potential. There is also the advice that when you are a gardener and you move, that you should wait an entire year before planting anything so you completely understand what your new garden is all about. I did not do that, obviously. I think that's okay, because I'm not the average gardener. I am surrounded by plants every day of my life. I understand many of the plants I grow and love fairly well and know their cultural requirements. I also saw that much of what I was going to claim as new garden area was simply field grass, so no love lost there. In other words, go for it if you have a plan that excites you. Do what you love. But for the big projects, we have learned it is in our own best interest to really slow it down. Okay, try to slow it down. Okay, at least write it down. That, we can do.

That wraps it up for this week at Chickadee Gardens. What lessons have you learned in your garden? We'd love to know!

Thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Plant Shopping at Xera

Gardeners in the Portland area are blessed with an abundance of incredible nurseries and plant choices. Even I who work in a nursery get such joy from visiting other nurseries and, well, it gets me out of the house so to speak. Xera Plants is my favorite, hands down. On a trip to Portland this week, I made a little extra time to visit and pick up a few plants. Join me as we revisit this wonderful small retail nursery in the heart of Portland.

As many of you know, Xera is known for climate appropriate plants for the Pacific Northwest. They have a large wholesale operation outside of Portland and for the longest time, only sold wholesale. Lucky for us they have a retail shop, albeit small but packed with plants, in Southeast Portland. They do have a few semi-tender plants that are of great interest and worthy of bringing in the garage over the winter.

The shop is the former home of a gas station, I believe.

There are hundreds of plant choices here. Xera grows perennials, shrubs, grasses, succulents, vines, trees, ferns, shade garden and sun plants. They do it well, too. Every plant I have ever purchased from them (probably in the hundreds, no exaggeration) has been in wonderful shape. Great root development and never root-bound. Just a dream for a gardener to pop a plant out of its container and see beautiful roots waiting to get into the ground.

Sweet vignettes are particularly effective in this small space. It gives ideas for the small urban garden.

When I think of particular plants such as crape myrtle, I think of Xera. They have a few genera that they specialize in of which this is one. Additionally they have introduced many of their own varieties of this and other plants as they wish to consistently offer the best plants available.

Passaflora 'Damsel's Delight'

Fuzzy silver leaves of Potentilla gelida. This sweet plant will have a home in my garden at some point, but I am busy getting shrubs into the ground first so will wait a while for this small charming accent.

West Coast native plants are a key feature at Xera. They have many perennials, shrubs, grasses, groundcovers in their native plants section. I have purchased many. They also have some especially lovely cultivars.

Frangula (Rhamnus) californica 'Eve Case', a plant fairly new to me. A West Coast native coffee berry. I have a low-growing form planted at the new garden, these are more upright at 6 - 8 feet high and wide. A lovely evergreen plant that produces berries for wildlife. Handles dry or wet, easy, drought tolerant shrub.

Here is Frangula californica 'Leather Leaf', looking more like a small rhododendron with the added benefit of hosting many beneficial insects. This one also gets about 8 feet high and wide.

Arbutus menziesii, our native madrone. What a wonderful tree with a reputation for being difficult to propagate and grow in the garden. I lost one I planted this spring, so can attest to its difficulty. These, however, look incredibly healthy so I have hope I will successfully grow one someday. It is arguably one of the most attractive trees out there with smooth rusty colored bark that exfoliates and evergreen attractive leaves. It grows to 50 - 100 feet tall, so not for every situation. If you have the space and right conditions for this, it is a stunning tree that also supports beneficial wildlife.

Here some California fuchsia (Zauschneria spp), Juncus effusus and Geum triflorum adorn the natives table.

Moving on to other plants besides natives. Agastache in one of the permanent containers. It has seeded beyond the fence of the property on to the sidewalk to lovely effect. Wonderful.

Abutilon 'Gingerbomb' with its alluring translucent petals. Oh, how I want this but these are likely not hardy for me as I'm slightly colder in Saint Helens. A Xera plants introduction.

In the shade plant section is a lovely planting of appropriate plants. Loree from Danger Garden blogged about this area when Xera opened some three years ago and mentioned watching it fill in over time. It has done so very nicely. You can revisit her post about that here.

Hellebores and Loniceras...oh my! Looking amazing.

Yes, I would say it has filled in beautifully.

Here's a conversation starter, a sedum tree - Sedum oxypetalum, only hardy to zone 9b so must be protected. Oh, how I'd adore having this plant.

A lovely oxalis, Oxalis vulcanicola 'Copper Glow', an annual foliage plant great for container gardening. To 5" tall and spreading.

Oh, Albizia tree, your leaves make me hungry. Wait, what?

Chocolate. So rich.

Bottlebrush or callistemons are another Xera specialty. These evergreen Australian shrubs are great for our climate, too. A variety of sizes and bloom color, the flowers are bottlebrush shaped, ideal for hummingbirds. I have a few in my garden and they add wonderful textural evergreen elements.

This Tetrapanax is doing its thing in the shady corner.

Hardy Fuchsia 'California', a somewhat unexpected plant to find at Xera but they really embrace a wide variety of genera. It is lovely and with proper planting, hardy for us.

Crape myrtle, grasses, oh my. Greg mentioned that they will likely be replanted. What a display, though!

The shade area has many choice grasses, I have most of these I think.

A lovely colored salvia caught my eye, Salvia 'Silke's Dream', hardy to zone 7b.

Mahonia 'Charity'.

Another specialty, manzanita or Arctostaphylos. I have blogged about them before, Xera is THE best place to go for a variety of species and cultivars. I have purchased probably 15 from them over the years, one of my top 10 plants of all time. Oh, and did I mention they are native to the West Coast and evergreen? With prostrate and huge upright forms and everything in between, if you can give great drainage and sunshine, there is one for you if you live on the West Coast.

Oh, perennials, sedums, agaves....such eye candy.

Bloom of my favorite hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia - this one is Sike's Dwarf, hardy to zone 5a.

Eucomis or pineapple lily. These always remind me of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons when their little top hats fill in.

I did not go there to just drool, after all I have a new garden to plant, right? Here is my haul, well - to be accurate part 2 of my haul as I was also out there last week and purchased a flat of Festuca rubra 'Patrick's Point' per Greg's recommendation and I love it. I needed a few more, plus an Olearia lineata 'Dartonii' which I forgot to actually put in my car last week, a couple hebes, manzanitas and ceanothus. Oh, let the planting begin continue.

Thank you Greg and Paul! Happy gardening to you, too! Thank you for being there and, well, you make me a happy gardener.

That's it for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening!