Creating Beautiful
Whidbey Island Landscapes


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

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Christmas Wreath, 2015

We gathered greens for wreaths the weekend before Thanksgiving.  It was especially important to do it early this year as our daughter Amie and family were due to go out of town the week before Christmas and I like to send a bit of home to her in Utah.  We loaded the tractor bucket with pruners, hand saw and loppers and came back with grand fir, spruce,  salal,  evergreen huckleberry and red huckleberry – all from our own five acres.  We also cut some branches of our ailing corkscrew willow.  I keep saying I’m going to take it out since it’s so unsightly most of the year, but at wreath-making time I relent since the yellow twisting branches are fabulous for accent.   I also love the red huckleberry because the new buds remind me of tiny red Christmas bulbs and the chartreuse stems are a nice contrast to the dark conifer greens.  Thanks to a fierce storm earlier that week we were able to pick up fallen limbs of Douglas fir that I use as the base material and the lichen covered alder branches I covet for accent all along our little dirt road.   The deer also did me a favor and thrashed the bottom of the neighbor’s giant sequoia into just the right sized branchlets.

Amie's wreath.

Amie’s wreath.

Amie got her wreath in enough time to enjoy it and Alison, our younger daughter who lives closer made two wreaths.  But my own wreath just sat on a list of to-dos the whole month of December, and the wreath-making machine glared at me every time I went out the laundry room door.  I finally set aside some time Christmas Eve day.  I was a bit dismayed to find that the greens I had efficiently cut into smaller branchlets and stored in the garage a month ago had dried out.  So had the promising garrya with the silvery tassels.  But I still had some very large branches left and the cuttings from those were nice and fresh.  Good to know.

 

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As I worked, part of me wondered if I should put my feet up for a long winter’s nap instead.  The scent of those greens however took me back to a favorite memory.  Every year – together –  my too-busy, bickering  parents decorated the outside windows and doors of our house with C-9 lights and greens. To gather material, they tromped into the forest that surrounded our house and left me at home in charge of my younger sister and brother.  The “woods” where we and our neighborhood friends built forts, damned creeks and picked berries seemed a kids-only kind of place so their going there was temporarily confusing to me – as if they wouldn’t be able to find the magic door.  An hour or so later they would come back, red-cheeked and laughing.  Mom would make a thermos of coffee and they would spend the next few hours – together – somehow attaching those greens to a brick house.  Not without a few choice words from my father.  Santa always brought an embarrassment of riches to my brother and sister and I.  But one of the sweetest gifts is this memory reopened every year by the scent of Christmas greens.

 

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Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

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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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Asters, Fall Fireworks

The simple form and  association with meadows make asters a must have in our garden.  I also appreciate the late season boost of color.

Asters are sun-loving and require good drainage – but don’t make the mistake of letting them dry out or they are prone to mildew.  I pinch asters back in early summer but still stake them as they inevitably flop and don’t live up to their potential.   I’ve been able to keep the rabbits at bay by spraying.  So far the deer don’t seem interested. Slugs can be a problem early in the spring.   I’ll be looking to add more asters, particularly A. laevis ‘Calliope’ with purple tinted stems, purple blooms with yellow centers ‘ and A. lateriflorus ‘Prince’ with purple-black stems and small white blooms with a pink center.

Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ started blooming earlier than most other asters and is almost finished here.  It is shorter (2-3′), self-supporting, hasn’t been even nibbled by the rabbits and deer here and since it is blue, is my favorite aster.

Aster x frikartii 'Monch'

Aster nova-angliae  ‘Alma Potschke’  is a later bloomer (still blooming here), 3-4′ tall with a striking color in bud and bloom.

Aster novae-angliae 'Andenken an Alma Pötschke'

Aster nova-angliae ‘Treasure’ is also a later bloomer (still blooming here). It grows to 3-4′ tall. Look carefully and you can see the grow-through plant supports that work particularly well with asters.

Aster nova-angliae 'Treasure'

 

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Bluebells for Sue

A friend of mine recently related that after clearing an area of blackberry and other weeds, she was delighted to find bulbs that someone had planted long ago.  I was so taken by this story that I’m planning to order bluebells to plant this fall under some trees in that new bed along our little dirt road.  I’m imagining that at least half of you reading this will recoil in horror and some of you may feel compelled to write or call and ask if I’m in my right mind.

It’s true – bluebells are great naturalizers OR invasive weeds, depending on your situation and point of view.  Though not on the state’s weed list (http://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weed_list/weed_list.htm), bluebells quickly multiply by bulb offset as well as self sow, and often inspire the same kind of curses as garden rabbits.  After the flowers have faded, the strappy  foliage that lingers can crowd out less assertive plants and just look untidy.  The bulbs establish deep in the soil, so can be hard to remove.  If you cut back everything after bloom, you can decrease the vigor with which bluebells spread.

Bluebells make up for all of this by being, well, blue.  And for being deer and rabbit resistant, tolerating a fair amount of shade, being very hardy (zones 4-9) and persisting without care in our summer dry soils (as long as they get winter moisture, but not saturated).  Spanish bluebells, in particular will also do well in full sun.   Spanish bluebells / Hyacinthoides hispanica are taller, 10-14” with erect racemes of usually blue, but also white and pink unscented bells.  English bluebells / Hyacinthoides non-scripta, abundant in English oak and beech woodlands are shorter with nodding racemes of blue flowers.  The two species do cross and there is some concern in England that this may cause the demise of the native English bluebell.

Some sources indicate that the English bluebell is fragrant, so that’s what I’ll plant this fall.  I like to think that someday, after I, my house and maybe even most of the garden is gone, that the bluebells will still delight and surprise some passerby.

Spanish bluebells / Hyacinthoides hispanica

Haze of bluebells in an old Greenbank orchard

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