Challenges and A Bit of Hope

 Late August is usually not the best look for a garden. At least, not on the West Coast where we are painfully aware of our summer dry climate. While I prefer it to February, for example, the lack of water is a challenge not only for the garden but for animals, too. In search of worms, moles are especially active where we irrigate. In search of nourishment, voles follow suit looking for plant material while utilizing the moles' vast tunnel system. Both wreak havoc, which frankly makes me want to throw in the towel. But we garden on, in search of solutions and balance. Here then is a look at some of our challenges as well as some end-of-summer bright moments that give me hope.

I begin this post with a vantage point I don't think I've ever shown before. I am facing east with FM's newest garden bed on the right and the edge of the labyrinth/Himalayan mounds on the left with the veggie garden straight ahead through the grape vine growing over a gate. The dormant grass is typical for this time of the year all over the region and frankly, even if we did irrigate it (which we never have), it would still go dormant unless we did so practically every day. I would say that this bit of gardening is a success, as the irrigation is minimal and it is still rich with foliage and textures.

Now for a few of our challenges. This is in the shade garden where the dead areas are riddled with vole tunnels. I walk though the area daily squishing down the raised areas that dry out (as if I need more drying) and large areas of plants die off. This was a lush area of Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff), but has been reduced to what you see because of moles and voles. In the center is an epimedium trying to grow but it has struggled. I realize that many of the "dead" areas (in the shade garden especially) are probably due to vast tunnel networks.

This was a mossy side path off of the main one. Currently a disaster with dozens of mole holes and the entire area riddled with vole tunnels. So much soil is disturbed that the moss won't grow. Again, every day I need to walk through it to tamp down the vole tunnels or roots would die off and make it worse.

In the center is a Hydrangea serrata 'Shiro Gaku', one of many in the garden. It is beginning to sulk from lack of water. I experimented by cutting them all back fairly hard earlier in the year to see if less plant material would mean less watering and I report that they need just as much water. They are all coming out this autumn and being replaced with less thirsty shrubs. This whole area is not maturing at a normal rate because of the lack of water and the fact that the neighbor's thirsty Leyland cypress trees suck up every drop. I simply cannot irrigate this area enough and even when I do water, the moles and voles are right behind.

My pretty mossy path has been littered with these lately. So. As it is so late in the season anyway, I think I will stop watering the shade garden for a while. I know plants will suffer and some may die, but what's the point? Being bombarded by underground mammals when they are watered is almost worse. I hope the rains return in time to replenish the entire ecosystem.

Chamaecyparis 'Heatherbun' did not survive. I went to prune out a dead branch or two and quickly realized the whole thing was dead and chunks came off in my hand with the lightest touch. After digging it out I am still not sure what killed it, but I suspect a mole hole caused it to dry out (water went down the hole, not to the soil), then I overwatered it when it was very hot out. You win some you lose some.

Hebe 'Red Edge' suffered branch breakage in the April 2022 snowstorm. This branch was apparently also damaged and only this week told me so.

After pruning it out, a large hole is left. While many would rip the whole thing out, I know it's healthy otherwise so will leave it.

Our poor, mature, withered Cornus nuttallii, (native dogwood) likely has anthracnose. It has been declining the past few years, certainly weather stresses have not helped matters. We will wait one more season to see if it rebounds then we are pruning off all branches and leaving it as a snag.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Barry's Silver' had some snow damage last year and has had a rough recovery. I recently combed out the dead interior to expose the branches to a little more light and it seems to be rebounding, though it's a slightly sad sight right now. Some issues I can see past with little effort.

Now for a few bits of hope. While the grass is dormant and weed-filled, we really don't care. The new areas on either side are drought-adapted and doing well. I love the new areas and are so happy we went to the effort to make this what it is.

Near the top of the driveway this area has given me a lot of heartache the past two years. I lost four mature cistus, an Atriplex halimus and had a lot of mole mounds. Now with a cleaner look and additional areas given over to more gravel, the Dorycnium hirsutum is seeding around and a few more appropriate plants are settling in, such as Mirabilis multiflora and a couple yuccas (not in view). It took two years for me to be happy with it once again.

A garden bed in process - the triangular area to the left of the Yucca recurvifolia. The little green bumps are Teucrium chamaedrys, behind them are more Dorycnium hirsutum and behind that are several clumps of Eriophyllum lanatum. Madia elegans has seeded in here also. I think by next year the effect will be much greater as plants start to weave together. Much better than the bare, dormant grass that was/is here.

This year the Digitalis ferruginea made a statement in the meadow garden.

I enjoy the dark stalk and also their dark silhouette through winter.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus' is a fantastic upright grass that does not flop. Its colors are stunning in autumn, turning all shades of orange and brown.

Where the Himalayan mounds and labyrinth gardens meet. Again the dormant grass is irrelevant to me when there is enough green material to fill my eyes. All drought-adapted - they have to be in this part of the garden that is rarely irrigated.

Looking up the driveway from our gate, many deciduous shrubs give a woodland feel. These areas have been heavily mulched with arborist's wood chips and have been incredibly effective at keeping in moisture during the dry months.

Case in point: Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' used to live in the shade garden under very thirsty Douglas fir trees. They never looked good despite being irrigated sometimes every other day (ridiculous, I know). Having been relocated to this area with much heavier soil mulched with wood chips last autumn, I have maybe watered these three times this summer and they all look great. This gives me hope that I can have nice things with enough mulch.

A pulled-back view with a newly defined path area. The little green dots are mostly Aster 'Purple Dome' which will grow to about 2' high x 3' wide and cover much of the ground. In autumn when they bloom they are spectacular and add a punch of color here.

In the same area, Hydrangea villosa is one hydrangea I am definitely keeping. It stays relatively happy here, but on super hot days it does ask for a drink.

Mahonia x savilleana, a hybrid between M. eurybracteata and M. gracilipes, originally from the Miller Botanical Gardens. This was a gift from Evan Bean when they moved from their former garden last year. I love it, Evan; thank you. Mahonias in general give me a bit of hope because they are drought-adapted and look wonderful despite the tough root competition in my shade garden. More of these, please.

Polystichum setiferum 'Bevis' is a lovely and finally rather large fern in the shade garden. Not needing excessive water it is a superstar for me.

Northern edge of the labyrinth garden with many sedum, Cotinus 'Pink Champagne', Hebe diosmifolia and Miscanthus sinensis 'Cabaret'. Though I lost an Ozothamnus 'Silver Jubilee' in there (was next to the cotinus, was too dry as I never thought to water it), other plants have filled in around it and it may yet regrow from its roots.

Eryngium giganteum, Miss Wilmott's Ghost is a prolific re-seeder in gravel. I love this time of the year when the color shifts from silvers, to whites, to greens and browns, it has a rainbow effect.

Parthenocissus henryana, silver vein creeper, has finally reached a respectable size. I let it climb up a support of our overhang near the garage where it has made itself lush and full while not being a clinging thug. Its bright sunset colors in autumn is reason alone to grow it, but surprisingly it is a huge hit with bees even with its inconspicuous flowers.

At the edge of the Himalayan mounds, more drought-adapted plants are thriving. Salvia 'Celestial Blue', although it has not bloomed for me yet, is promising in its form, color and health. Sedum spurium is everywhere and looks good much of the year while Achillea millefolium, Agave parryi supsp. truncata and Arctostaphylos pumila are quite happy with the hot, dry location.

Penstemon 'Firebird' is a steady bloomer and has survived many moves by me and still keeps going. I appreciate its dark stems.

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' is a tall, eye-catching beauty but it does sulk in my dry garden after a week or so of dry weather. While I may move it this autumn, it is a cheerful thing that I look forward to every year despite having to give it extra water.

Sedum 'Matrona', (Hylotelephium telephium 'Matrona') is a reliable plant in the labyrinth garden where it receives very little water. More dark stems.

Rosa glauca is surprisingly drought-adapted, looking great with its long arched branches and dangling hips. I am impressed with its resilience and disease resistance. It's a total winner.

Sweet Salvia 'UC Pink' was swallowed up in a bed of Ceanothus gloriosus earlier this year. I freed it and planted it in an area with better air circulation and it has rebounded and doubled in size just this summer.

Diplacus aurantiacus 'Jeff's Tangerine', which I took cuttings of last year, is now in many places in the labyrinth garden and has been a non-stop bloomer despite its small size. I'm hoping these all overwinter successfully, a challenge with new plants not fully established.

From the edge of the labyrinth garden looking towards the house and deck. Despite the dry weather, many areas of the garden look lush to my eyes.

Last but not least, we're having another pop-up plant sale! There's something to be hopeful about! Portland area friends come on by, there will be several of us selling hardy perennials, shrubs, grasses, succulents, houseplants, spiky things, garden books and more. We'll be there from 11 - 3-ish. I hope to see some of you there! It's always such fun talking plants with one another.

Gardening is an act of hope and courage. It also requires a certain amount of stubbornness. The rules are changing rapidly and I'm trying to keep up. I must remind myself that when I do lose something, it's just a plant. There are other, perhaps better, choices. Still, it stings for at least a while but having garden friends whose shoulders I can cry on helps. We're all in this together.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do love hearing from you! Happy gardening and I really do hope to see some of you Sunday! Cheers!


  1. Sorry to hear about the moles and voles, Tamara! I've had to deal with gophers again this year but, from the sound of it, your critters are more troublesome. August is always awful here too as the dead and dying leave gaps, although this year at least the rare tropical storm delivered lots of rainwater I've been able to spread lavishly during our most recent heatwave. I love your abundant 'Lemon Queen' sunflowers, a variety I've never had much success with.

    1. Thank you Kris and I'm sorry for your gopher issue. Ugg....

      I'm glad that you had some decent rain, that's a relief. Yes, I'm not surprised that 'Lemon Queen' might not work well in your climate as it does like a lot more water than what I was led to believe when I bought it.

  2. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes12:05 PM PDT

    Amazing foliage on Polystichum setiferum 'Bevis'. Too bad about the unfortunate name, 'Bevis'. LOL. That is great to hear that it is relatively drought tolerant. Definitely will add it to my list.

    1. OOoooh, Bevis is a good one. Ha ha...I think I know your reference ;)
      Add it for sure, it took a while to reach a large size but totally worth it.

  3. No matter where we're gardening, we're all facing challenges and losing plants and shrubs and trying to figure out how to cope. It's helpful to see what's happening in other gardens and what plants are wining and losing the climate change battle.

    1. Exactly, Linda! Well said. It is helpful and that's why I do posts like this. We're all facing moving targets as a friend of mine recently said and he is so right. What are your climate change winners?

  4. Today's rain is making me so happy! It's that time of year when everything is a little bit too parched. Thanks for the reminder about the heavy mulch: that's going to be a fall project for me! Compost and mulch, repeat.

    1. Hooray for the rain! I know, today I gardened all day and didn't have to water much of anything. It was glorious. Oh, compost, mulch, repeat - great mantra. I am so happy with how well the wood chip mulch has helped.

  5. Just as the gardener is tired at the end of the season so are the plants. Anything that looks good at this time of year is tough. Soon the rains will start and things will green up again. Ironically we have had a mostly critter free season. A few pocket gophers showing up now but nothing like the past few seasons. I feel for you but keep in mind their populations wax and wane so they might be peaking currently. Nowhere left to go but downwards.

    1. Oh yes, the plant ARE tired, aren't they? You are right, what looks good now (with minimal input from me) is super tough and I am repeating these plants. I'm glad you have been critter free, and as you say their populations wax and wane, I'm hoping this is as bad as it gets, it's been pretty nasty for about 5 years.

  6. Anonymous9:08 AM PDT

    I enjoyed the multiple new vantage points in this post. As I see it, you have many more success stories than challenges. I wish a pair of nesting owls adopt your garden: it should help with the vole problem. The sword ferns seemed undisturbed in the shady path. I wonder if one of the low growing native mahonia varieties would do equally well in that area. (My sweet woodruff also go dormant in summer).
    The look from the driveway and the newly defined path are amazing! The transplanted the Hakone grass it is thriving and that is the theme of your post: find the happy place for a plant and you don't have to worry again (though it can take a few seasons to get it right). The mahonia gift from Evan is gorgeous, and so are your 'Bevis' ferns. Wow.
    Good luck with your pop-up plant sale. Let us know how it went.

    1. Thank you, Chavli, again - for your kind words of encouragement. I would LOVE a pair of nesting owls, we have an owl box that FM made a few years ago but sadly no takers yet. The sword ferns are basically undisturbed in the shade garden, it's true. I let them multiply wherever they want, they are super valuable to me. Mahonia might be a good choice for that area, I should transplant some from other areas in the garden, thanks for the idea.

      Thank you for the well wishes, cheers!

  7. Anonymous1:24 PM PDT

    I'm rather liking the 'tonsure effect' of the Hebe 'Red Edge'...taking notes, as always

    1. Ha ha...leave it to Rickii to make me laugh out loud and spit out my coffee. "Tonsure effect" indeed. You are the best!

  8. Hi Tamara! I added Diplacus aurantiacus 'Jeff's Tangerine' to my Potential Plant worksheet after seeing it in one of your previous posts. Will you have any of your cuttings for sale tomorrow at the NoPo pop-up? Thanks! Colleen

    1. I mean Sunday ;-)

    2. Ooh, it's a good one. I have two I'll be bringing, I can hold one (both?) for you if you like. if you want to get ahold of me.

  9. Ugh, moles and voles, the curse of country living. I used to make raised beds with wire mesh bottoms and the voles couldn't get in, but the tunnels would allow all my soil to fall through, so the plants still didn't thrive.
    Leyland Cypress, an awful plant. They die a hideous death in the heat down here. I believe I read somewhere that a gardener in England killed his neighbor in a dispute about a hedge of Leyland Cypress. They take things seriously there.
    We got a lovely rain today too! In S. Oregon! Not just a sprinkle either.

    1. Oh Barb, you too with the moles and voles? Ugg...we did that under our raised beds (wire mesh), they just go around the edges of the raised beds now. And soil falls in, still. I'm not surprised there was a hedge issue that resulted in murder - sounds like an episode of Midsomer Murders. Ha! Yes, the rain. I'm so happy about it too. Cheers!

  10. It was so lovely to see your garden in person and to see and hear about what has worked and what hasn’t. Even in the best of years, there have been losses. It’s just that there have been so many this year that it hurts. Time to refocus on the winners. Nice to see the names of many of the plants we talked about. Still mulling over options that will match the scale of our garden. I’d like some of the larger drought tolerant grasses, just can’t puzzle out where they would fit in and nit look out of place. Penstemon Firebird and Enor are consistently perform well for us. Just started a new set from cuttings. Our Parthenocissus henryana was also surprisingly drought tolerant. Didn’t water it once this summer and it still looks great. Will miss the plant sale. Have fun!

    1. What a treat to have YOU, amazing you in my garden! Yes, we share/overlap many plants that both perished and did well for both of us and it's interesting to note the differences. Your soil is so much different than mine based on your description, so much more challenging.

      Yes, time to refocus on winning plants and move on from the (ouch....that stings) losses. We can at least cry on one another's shoulders, we the gardeners who appreciate and sympathize with the loss.

      Go for the grasses, it's one thing that I have not really been disappointed in (other than flopping for some panicums). They add so much.

      I forgot to give you a cutting of that rose! I'll try one here for you.

  11. Lots of beauty for you to appreciate in fall! (All things considered, that's selfishly my bottom line -- what do I get to look at?) I planted Miscanthus 'Malepartus' after learning of it from you, only about 3 feet now but already what a looker! Gardens are now climate change laboratories for sure. I wonder what stymies the burrowing tunneling critters -- big bulky grasses like miscanthus once they're established? Something with stinky roots? Human pee-pee, coyote pee-pee? How you collect the latter, I have no idea...

    1. I'm thrilled you are enjoying Miscanthus 'Malepartus' thus far. The color in autumn is really lovely. Climate change laboratories? Indeed they are, great description. As far as stymying critters I'll try just about anything that's not too gross - pee pee is not out of the realm of possibilities. I'm hoping that predators will keep them in check, my favorite method but the owls are few and far between right now. Come on owls! We have a nest box all ready for you ;)

  12. Anonymous1:16 AM PDT

    I've been thinking about your vole/mole problem a lot. I sympathize. I'm in the city but have the same issues. Once upon a time I had a yard with over 100 lilies. But not anymore. The few I have left are in pots and will stay there.
    Anyhow, I'm planting lots more alliums- they seem to be left undisturbed. They do better in part shade than I expected. Other things that aren't terribly bothered include (This might be controversial) violets. They can seemingly take all weather. Of course, they do spread enthusiastically. However, they put down deep roots and can take very little watering and don't seem disturbed by the tunnels. I'm also experimenting with cyclamen coum. It's been multiplying nicely under a doug fir in heavy forest needle duff, rarely watered. I also have a particular euphorbia with "orange" (lost the tag eons ago) in its name that I got more than 10 years ago (from Dragonfly Farms near Kingston) that is fertile and just moves itself around under my doug fir. That said, I haven't really had the voles under the doug fir. I haven't quite decided to grow castor bean (ricinus communis) yet. I've added a few yew as well. Neighbors have planted "mole plant"-also a euphorbia, so naturally I've got it now too. It's seeding around all over but is actually kind of cool looking. I'm not sure it really does anything about the critters. Maybe it should be in large groups?
    Otherwise, enjoyed seeing the different perspectives in your garden. It really does look great.

    1. You know, alliums were recommended by a very savvy garden friend for the shade garden and if I can locate ones for shade I'll try them. Ah, violets - thanks for the suggestion, not the best idea for me as they would indeed take over and I'm not prepared for that. But maybe I should do some more research before I totally dismiss them. I tried Ricinus communis - shoving the leaves down mole holes - and it did nothing. In fact, moles dug up around the roots to add insult to injury. Thank you for your kind words! I do appreciate it! Cheers

    2. Anonymous12:56 PM PDT

      Hi again. Try Christophii or Schubertii in shade. Not the tallest, but they don't lean like some of the others (summer drummer is not at all happy in shade, don't try that one!) Nectarsicordum is also not too happy in shade, though I wish it was.
      I've been reading lots of British writers lately and ran across the invasives fight invasives idea, where you plant a better native bully to out-compete a problem plant then you do it again, gradually modifying your space. I've been wondering if this idea could be modified to deal with vole-disrupted soil. Establish a densely matt-rooted ground cover to stabilize the soil for a year or two, add the plant you really want into the stabilized soil, then once it's all established start diminishing the ground cover, or leave it to protect the roots.
      I hear you on the violets! I don't know how I got them but I will never be without them now. I've thrown in the towel and changed tactics, deciding managing is more realistic than elimination. I'm also planting much more densely in hopes it will leave them less room. In low moments I have considered caving and encouraging an all-violet "lawn" (does stay green 😱) as they do seem to require no care...Fortunately, I recovered from that nightmare idea. There supposedly is a native variety. Maybe it's not as bad?
      Good to know about ricinus communis, I'll skip it, then. Beneficial nematodes help with moles and weevils but I don't think it's probably reasonable to treat your entire property. Or put the chickens to work on the grubs there, or maybe just treat the worst areas? I wonder if some of the very deep rooted native grasses and flowers have the hefty root systems partly *because* of voles.


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