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Whidbey Island Landscapes


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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. . . .

 

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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.

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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.

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January Sunshine

Good thing we have a tractor!

Good thing we have a tractor!

Some unexpected sunny afternoons find me outside gardening already!  I always give myself the psychological boost of tidying the entry garden first since that’s what I and my guests are most likely to see.

I pulled shot weed, cut back perennials and grasses, combed out the dead foliage from some evergreen grasses, cut back last year’s foliage from hellebores and epimediums.  I also pruned the lonicera hedge.  I hemmed and hawed over what to do about  the gold hardy fuchsia.  Considered a somewhat tender sub-shrub, the naked branches protect it, so pruning it now is a risk (especially with cold weather coming this week), but it is so much harder to prune later in the season since I have a clump of narcissus coming up right underneath it.  So I chopped it to the base and hopefully it will rise back up to its 3’ height come summer time.

I noticed the deer are getting desperate, so I sprayed the usual victims plus the hedge and euphorbias – wow they really are hungry! It is obviously not yet time to take the rebar stakes away from conifers and shrubs.   I noticed my soil is much less soggy this year, but even so I try to avoid unnecessary stepping in the beds this time of year since it can compact the soil.

The temptation is to try to do everything while the sun shines, I’m suited up and armed with all my tools, but I know better.  I left the roses for later in February and hydrangeas for March.  I remembered to vary activities, stretch and quit before I was too tired – good for me.  Because next on the list is pruning fruit trees.   And maybe I’ll have enough energy to cut some branches for forcing indoors.

Poppy -  keeping an eye out for deer.

Poppy – keeping an eye out for deer.

 

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