Creating Beautiful
Whidbey Island Landscapes


that celebrate the unique history, ecology and character of our island home.

Learn more!

Cutting back the grasses

cutting back the grasses

cutting back the grasses

My garden assistant Jen and I cut back all the grasses today – Miscanthus, Panicum, Pennisetum, Nasella, Stipa, Calamagrostis, Anemanthele – using a long-armed gas-powered hedge trimmer.  It only took about 45 minutes.   Jen said, “Wow, that saved us a whole day’s work.”  Indeed.   I said, “How about you weed and I’ll deal with the dead bodies.”

I rake and roll the debris onto a small tarp, then drag the tarp to the tractor.  It takes several trips with the tractor to dispose of it all.  As I was driving, I thought, “Wow, I am almost sixty and I’m still gardening!”  Nagging at the back of my mind is, “for how long?”  Many of my friends don’t garden anymore and have moved to smaller places.   I miss their gardens and I’m guessing they do too.   I would like to stay in our home and garden as long as I can.  And I’d love to see children or grandchildren keep our home as a get-away place.  So I’m always thinking of how I can make this garden easier to take care of.  Here are some of those ideas.

Stay fit and flexible.  Yoga and swimming have been my best allies.  Warm up before going outside.  Vary tasks.  Quit before you are tired.   My friend Michele does a victory lap around her garden, wine glass in hand when she is done for the day.

Hire some garden help – even if for now you don’t need much.  Develop a relationship with someone  who comes to understand how you like to do things and gets to know your plants.   Someone you could eventually trust your garden to in case you are ill and can’t get outside.   Hire a knowledgeable professional and expect to pay him or her well.  Or hire someone less experienced and plan to spend several years training this person.  And then if you plan to keep this person, pay him or her well.  Make sure there is work to do even during the winter.

Cover the ground with plants.  Weeding and mulching is time-consuming, expensive and hard on the back and hands.   I am relying more on shrubs and using perennials as accents.

Select plants that need less pruning, deadheading or dividing to look good.  Place shrubs that get twiggy or perennials that spread in a section of the garden you could your “wild” area.

Choose plants that match the cultural needs of your garden and you won’t need to coddle them.  Dragging around hoses is hard work, so use drought resistant plants whenever it is appropriate.  Consider installing an irrigation system to get the plants off to a good start,  but in the long run even this needs monitoring and repair.

Be judicious in your use of low “ground-covers.”  In a small garden or an in-town garden they are fine.   In my garden, open to forest and field they become a huge chore as weed seeds land and sprout between the runners of the groundcover .  I use shrubs at least 1’ tall as groundcover – something I can lift the skirt, reach under and pull the weeds.

Contrary to the sound bites I hear nowadays, I think lawns are much easier to take care of than planting beds especially if you don’t expect your lawn to stay green over the summer or be weed free.  Think about how much easier it is to run a lawn mower over an area than it is to weed the same amount of space.  I mulch our lawn clippings so I don’t fertilize either.  And hiring someone to mow is also easier and much cheaper than hiring someone to weed, prune, deadhead, etc. . . .

 

  • posted
  • categories
  • author

A horse of a different color

I had ten yards of arborist chips delivered last week for mulching the garden beds.  The delivery man said, “Wow, you’ve got the thickest stand of horsetail I’ve ever seen on this island.”  Now I like commiserating as much as the next gardener, but shouldn’t he have offered a compliment first?  Or maybe he was . . .The horsetail is rather lush looking.  I have a very healthy 12′ x 100′  swath of it down one entire side of my garden.

The good news is that shrubs and the horsetail seem to co-exist quite happily.

Potentilla with horsetail

Potentilla with horsetail

The bad news is that you can’t even see the choice perennials that I sometimes succumb to. Maybe there’s a lesson there too.  Can I get rid of the horsetail?  I don’t think so.  Here’s what hasn’t worked: lime; gravel; covering a patch with black plastic to burn it out; pulling; mulching with compost, bark or wood chips.  We did some drainage work last spring to dry things out a bit, are now just snapping the horsetail stems at ground level and are adding high nitrogen via blood meal.  We’ll see whether those things plus doing more dense planting of shrubs will help convince the horsetail to eventually go the way of its pals, the dinosaurs.   But the horsetail has those thousands of years of survival skills on its side.  I’d better starting learning to live with it.

I’ve had to do some serious rethinking about beauty and what makes a good garden since moving to Whidbey’s more rural environment as in: a gravel drive needs some softening grass in it; windswept trees and shrubs are picturesque; the deer are always with us;  caterpillars drop nutrient rich poop.  I’m not so in charge here as I was in my suburban garden and most of the time that’s the way I like it.

IMG_4646

Aquilegia sp?

I love it when I find a plant that has seeded itself into my garden – like this columbine with stunning red stems and purple-flushed leaves or when I spy a cultivated plant like ajuga that has snuck its way into the grass at the side of the road.

Ajuga in the grass.

Ajuga in the grass.

I do promise to not share plants that may have shared the ground with horsetail as any little bit of root can regrow and populate quicky.  Obviously.  Because one gardener’s groundcover is another’s scourge.

  • posted
  • categories
  • author

Time to think

January is the traditional month for reflecting on the past year and making resolutions for the new.  But for me, fall marks the slowing down, if not end of the gardening season.  I have some rainy days and dark evenings to review the list of projects I’d hoped to accomplish and  think about what I’ll do differently next season.  Island gardening is a different animal, so there are plenty of lessons I’ve learned  – usually the hard way.

You may recall in my post of August 17, titled Rework, I was ripping out a border next to our field.   It has taken me until this weekend (that’s about six weeks) to finally finish pulling up the unfortunate choice of groundcovers and the resulting network of weeds underneath.  I was actually despairing of being finished before the Greenbank winds drove me in for the year.  Then the Mr. stopped work on his project to join me in a whole weekend of weeding and our daughter and son-in-law spent this past weekend helping us lay down newsprint and mulch.  On a big piece of property, it’s not often you get to say you’re finished with something, but HOORAY! . ..

Here is the result.  All ready for filling in per the planting plan, early next spring.

Lessons learned:

1. Don’t open up a patch of ground near an open field unless the time and budget exists for planting, mulching and diligent weeding until the plants are big enough to defend the territory. Get the biggest plants you can afford.

2. Short, spreading groundcovers are no match for the weeds from a field or forest.

3. Mow the field more frequently to keep weed seeds from blowing in especially nearest the border.

4. create a “mini ditch” between the field and border to help keep the field roots from crawling into the bed – may need to be done once a year.

5.  Keep a log of plants that did the job, hours spent weeding / mulching sections of the garden, how much mulch was used in each section and how long it lasted. (Actually a suggestion from my brilliant daughter.)

6. Get some help.

  • posted
  • categories
  • author

Rework

One of the things I like about gardening is its physical requirements.  I am not enjoying this week of chores so much however.  I am ripping out a border adjacent to our field, one that I planned to be a drought and deer tolerant “no weed’s land”  between the field and the inner border.  I planted it shortly after we moved to Whidbey, using some tough groundcovers that I’d relied on when I lived and worked in the suburbs, such as Rubus pentalobus / Taiwan bramble,  Ceanothus gloriosus ‘Pt. Reyes’ / Point Reyes Creeper, Cistus salviifolius ‘Prostratus’ / Sageleaf Rockrose and Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’ / Dwarf Japanese Juniper.  Of these, the only one that performed well enough to stay is the juniper, which looks good without water, is impervious to weeds, deer and rabbits.

The problem isn’t with these perfectly good plants – it’s with the placement next to a field and I’m guessing the same would happen adjacent to a wooded area where you not only get weeds creeping in (as in town) but blowing in constantly.   With most ground-hugging groundcovers, there’s  just enough tiny spaces for the weed seeds to sprout, but since the plants root along as they spread, you can’t lift branches to pull out the weeds.  Perhaps it’s also true, that with a bigger garden, I’m going to need some plants that can duke it out on their own for a longer period of time.   Plants that have worked to halt the weeds are taller – at least a foot  and allow me to pull up the “skirt” and weed underneath, if need be.  Prostanthera cuneata / Alpine Mint Bush and surprisingly enough, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low / Catmint, a perennial are doing a great job.  Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Kitten’ / Maiden Grass has been fiercely territorial.  So after I finally get done taking out my hard-earned lessons, it’s back to the nursery.   Along with more Prostanthera and Nepeta, I’m going to try Berberis, shrubby Cotoneaster, shrubby Potentilla, Caryopteris and some smaller mugo pines.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

  • posted
  • categories
  • author