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Whidbey Island Landscapes


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You are my Sunshine

 

Dad and I, Smallwater Farm, 2004

Dad and I, Smallwater Farm, 2004

I’m still pondering a memorial tree for my Dad, who died on September 2.  Usually I can easily pick from my list of wanted trees.

How best to honor his love of the countryside, birds, his (we think) Cherokee heritage, fishing, laughter, family, deer?  Oklahoma state tree?  A tree to attract birds?  A climbing or swinging tree? Something with Cherokee in the name?   Dad would have loved everything about our home on Whidbey Island and I wish we had been able to spend more time here together.

It is largely due to Dad’s  love of fishing that we live here.  He had a fishing buddy with a cabin on the beach at Lagoon Point, which is just behind and below us  in this picture.  I have happy memories of the beach and sitting snug in the cabin while another buddy of his serenaded us with a guitar and”You are my Sunshine”.  As a child I promised myself that I would either grow up to live on my grandparents ranch or move to Whidbey Island.  As we searched for property  11 years ago, I kept an eye out for the landmarks that matched the nameless location in my head – the road that hugged the bluff on it’s way to the beach and the view towards Marrowstone Island and the Olympics beyond.  When we happened upon this property for sale, something in me said, “This is home.”  It wasn’t until after we contacted the real estate agent that we rediscovered  the bluff and beach of Lagoon Point  right below what was to be our new home.

I’m sure I will come upon the perfect tree soon.  In the meantime, there is no better way for kids to honor their parents than by living well and being happy.

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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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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.

 

IMG_5387 IMG_5307

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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Don’t try this at home

Now can I have my sheep toy?

Now can I have my sheep toy?

Some of you may have read my post from October of 2012, Next Year’s Garden.  My confident manifesto that I could have a dog AND a garden.  If you do a little sleuthing, you’ll notice that I only posted once in 2013.  That is because I could barely have a dog and a LIFE.  Poppy is what lay people call “a handful” and professionals call “a persistent gambler.”

My intent had been, on the demise of our beloved golden retriever to hire friend C., is a dog trainer, who knows me and about such things to come and consult with me, look at our home and property and recommend a dog breed.  She was more than happy to do this, she said.  Then I started reading.  And looking at the seductive internet.  And voila, I decided an English Shepherd was the perfect dog for me.  For all good reasons, I thought – a bit smaller, smart, fun-loving, good with children, likes to stick with you.  And doggone it – she looked just like the dogs my grandparents had.  I hope my cousins are reading.    What I pushed to the back of my mind were the things herding dogs love to do – run, chase and boss things. My grandparents dogs herded cars down the driveway, biting the tires all the way.  How could I have forgotten?  My friend, the professional would have known this and cautioned me about it or at least prepared me.  2013 would have been a much easier  year if I had stuck with my idea to consult with her.

Well – hindsight, right?  I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to train this dog using do it yourself methods and so talked to everyone I could this year about Poppy.    I also read everything I could get my hands on.  Much of the advice was helpful and seemed up to date to me – at least much different than when we trained our golden retriever.  But Poppy is wicked smart, complicated and  determined and  things were not going well.   My dog trainer friend C. referred me to  an awesome  animal behaviorist and in one session  I see Poppy in a  new way.   A whole new world of dog training that I never knew existed has opened up to me.   People who love and live their subject matter tend to know the latest and best stuff.

Of course, some professionals know more of the  latest  and best stuff.  Gardening seems like a do it yourself project.  Most of it probably is.  But sometimes you need an expert.  How do you go about finding one?    Ask a neighbor with a beautiful garden.  Ask the owner of a business with a beautifully kept landscape.   Ask the local nursery.   Look at the professional’s website – do they have a philosophy that you are comfortable with?  Ask for references – ask to see their gardens in person.  Certainly ask about price.  But in my experience, cheaper is usually not better even when it comes to garden maintenance help.  Do you really want your expensive perennials pulled up as weeds? What training and background does the professional have and what continuing education does he or she take part in? What professional organizations does this person belong to and does he or she have certifications?  Does the professional return your call quickly?  As you interview this person, take special note of not only the  advice, but how well he or she takes the time to find out about you, your garden  and your specific needs.

We had a good day, Poppy and me.  I’ll keep you posted.  Or Poppy will – she’s taking note of how to use the computer.

 

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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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Road Maintenance

This is our new and improved dirt road after we and the neighbors who share it hired a professional to bring in lots more  gravel, compact and re-establish a crown.  He did a good job and this will hopefully allow the water to drain off to the sides.  I’m sure we’ll all be happy at not having to maneuver the pothole obstacle course – especially at night.  And my Mr. will not miss filling those potholes all winter.    Much more functional.  But sigh -right now it  looks a little soulless to me without the grass and daisies down the center and hugging the edges.

New Road

 

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Bloom Where You’re Planted

We had a fun extended weekend visit  with our Utah kids earlier this month.  Much of it was spent doing projects, which the Mr. and I love and one of those was putting their garden to bed for the winter.  I took all of my cold weather work clothes (along with Felco pruners) and promptly had to remove most of them including my gloves because it was hot! (Two days later they had SNOW!)  Daughter A. and I both agreed that cleaning up is much more fun while chatting with somebody besides yourself.  It became apparent to me that some of the advice I regularly met out to clients here on Whidbey won’t necessarily apply to Utah gardens.  When to prune roses, should you mulch with leaves, should you plant in the fall?

Luckily, there is a great nursery (The Greenhouse http://www.logangreenhouse.com) on their walk / run route with a COFFEE shop (Crumb Brothers http://crumbbrothers.com/) right across the road!   A trip there was our afternoon treat while the boys drank beer and watched football.  The nursery was very quiet and almost empty – unlike our nurseries here, which generally have plants of some kind year round.  This was a good indication that fall planting in Utah is not a common practice, and a chance to see the structures in the nursery.  A’s go-to nursery person was there and we chatted about plants and gardening.  Her opinion is that most penstemons – even the larger-leaved species do well in Utah.  Goody.

Seed heads of Echinacea and Rudbeckia, et al have been allowed to stay up in the grass garden outside the coffee shop.

The soil is alkaline, which means that many of  those shrubs that could survive the cold zone 4 don’t  do well.   Then the go-to nursery person asked, “Do you know about High Country Gardens?”   Are you kidding?  It is one of my guilty pleasures to eat my Christmas chocolates in bed while salivating over that catalog.  Now I have a second garden in which  to try out some of those plants.  Can’t wait for next spring.   See http://www.highcountrygardens.com/#2

Nursery fence.

Nursery arbor.

Nursery is almost empty. A good reminder of how important structure is in the garden.

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Next Year’s Garden

Today I raced outside during an all too brief sunbreak to clean up the vegetable garden.  But before I did that, I cleaned out our old dog crate.  It has been a year and a half since our Golden Retriever, Bunter left us and I was surprised at the tears that welled up while I was scrubbing with hot, soapy water.    I recalled the first night she spent in it, crying most of the night and how Mr. and I took turns opening the door, tucking her 8 lbs of sweet-smelling puppy fur into our sweatshirts for a trip outside to potty.  We used this crate in the back of our pick up to ferry her to and from the park for a walk when we lived in Kirkland.  The neighbors swore that every time we took her out of that crate, she was bigger than when she went in.    Once,  my sister-in-law opened the crate door to let her out and Bunter knocked her on her keister.  The last time we used this crate was when we moved her to Whidbey Island.   Here she is with her, “I’m so hurt” look.

Bunter’s first day on Whidbey.

I cleaned the crate because we are hoping to get a new dog.  I say hoping because we are in line to get an English Shepherd and since these dogs are bred to be working dogs, most of them go to ranches where there are cattle, sheep, or poultry to herd.  We don’t have animals yet.  We are planning chickens sometime soon.  We are also hoping to train our new dog to chase deer and rabbits out of the garden, to keep an eye on the property and the grandkids.  Most importantly, I want this dog to keep me company and remind me to get outside and enjoy nature.  Maybe we’ll even try agility . . . . .  But for the next seven weeks, all we can do is wait to see what the breeder observes in the litter.

Can I have a garden AND a dog?  In my mind, yes and I don’t want to be without either of them, thank-you very much.  My grandmother once told me that at two years of age I wanted to follow the sheep on their ranch, and that she encouraged my mother to let me do so.  Did the ranch dog supervise?  I like to think so.   The first birthday present that I can remember is my dog Tippy being carried through the front door by my father.   All through my childhood there were dogs in our neighborhood.  Some regal like the German Shepherd Teddy Moe and some Scooby-do-esque, like the slobbery mutt Spike who reliably showed up when you had an ice cream cone or were trying to hide from somebody.   In those days, we had few fences and dogs just roamed the woods with us kids.

Bunter gradually learned where in the garden she was allowed and where she was supposed to stay out of .  (She also learned to pick her own raspberries and pull her own carrots.)   My friend, D. has a garden AND a Great Dane.  I will likely be consulting her next spring when I wonder what the heck I was thinking and I’ll pass along her wisdom. Can I have a perfect garden and a dog? Obviously not.   But what is a perfect garden anyway?  Is it a garden without weeds?  If that, then a garden without the song of birds, who drop salmon berry seed all along the fence line.  Is it a garden without deer or rabbits?  If that, then a garden without fawns or bunnies.   Is it a garden where everything I plant succeeds?  If that, then I miss the powerful sound of the wind and the quiet of the snow.  It would be a place I hardly recognize as a garden.

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Plant Memories

We’ve had a lot of life events in our family this past year – wedding, death and a new baby on the way.   I like to mark occasions with the planting of a tree.  Much of the beauty of a garden is short-lived, but most trees live a long life given proper planting and care and it’s nice  to think that someday (quite a few years from now) when we’re gone, my children and grandchildren could walk down our road and say, “Look, there’s the tree that was planted for me.”

Two years ago, we planted a Liriodendron tulipifera / Tulip Tree to honor the marriage of our daughter A. and son-in-law, T.  A loves all kinds of magnolias and their relatives and they had a huge Liriodendron in their backyard in Brooklyn,  NY.  They lived on the third floor of a brownstone so they could see into the blooms at the top of the tree that most often go unnoticed from down below.

Liriodendron tulipifera

Another daughter, another A. married son-in-law S. this July.  This past weekend we planted Quercus robur / English oak in their honor.  Unbeknownst to each other, they both spent time in England as young adults, at the same time!  Both were English majors and have interests in British history and poetry.  S. requested that the tree be big enough to hold a swing for children or grandchildren.  I don’t know that I can deliver on that one – I planted the biggest specimen I thought would survive and flourish in our landscape.  For a now, we’ll just have to build a swing next to the tree.

Quercus robur

We said good-bye to our beloved golden retriever, Bunter this summer.  In remembrance of her, we planted Cornus ‘Starlight’ / dogwood in the corner of our property where she liked to chase rabbits.    ‘Starlight’ is a cross between our native dogwood, Cornus nutallii and Cornus kousa, noted for high resistance to the diseases powdery mildew and anthracnose.  Next year there will be white summer flowers, showy fruit and fall color.

Cornus 'Starlight'

We’re looking forward to the birth of our first grandchild, a boy at the end of the year.  I’ll think about what to plant for him while I’m out watering the trees. . . .

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