While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.


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Colors of a Storm

Walking through the garden after an early morning rain storm I find dark, water-soaked soil beneath the mulch.  Perhaps the preceding days, hot and dry as a prairie, are forgiven.  A break in the cloud cover pierces the garden with yellow and white intensity.  ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ Picea pungens sparkles in fresh, clean air against billowing clouds.  Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’ shines yellow and gold next to a dark Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’ and steel-blue blades of Big Bluestem.  ‘Indian Steel’ Sorghastrum adds to the palette.

Charcoal gray clouds begin a slow, lumbering roll towards the garden and threaten the occupants like a bully on a playground.  But like most bullies, something welcome hides inside and soon a drop of rain taps my shoulder.  I want rain.  I want to feel the heat and dust of summer slide off my skin as rain soaks me to the bone.  Outlined against the dark roiling backdrop are soft white blooms of Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ and the enthusiastic pink of ‘Pecos’ Lagerstroemia.  I’ve waited a few years for Crepe Myrtle to show off, and it has finally complied.

A bright blue line of clear sky shows through the storm clouds but is quickly beaten back.  Deep blue/black clouds bring a strong wind that sweeps a riot of color before my eyes like a scarf whipping against an autumn jacket.  More rain drops.  Pink cosmos and dusty maroon smoke from Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ fly around the garden.  The door behind me slams shut.  Time to go inside.

I open the door and heat from the previous day rolls out to greet me like a large heavy dog.  Rain begins to hit my back and I go inside – I don’t want to be soaked, after all.  Better to stay indoors and appreciate the dance of colors from inside the house.

This rain is beautiful, but it’s just a tease.  Before long, summer will return hot, dry, and dusty.

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The Squirrel who Stood His Ground

My garden is large.  It is filled with plants that provide food, shelter, and nesting materials for wildlife – some of whom are less welcome than others.  There is no shortage of places to hide, to hunt, to nest, to bury food for later, and to forget where food is stored.  In winter, early spring, and late autumn, we provide supplemental food for birds and for a few opportunistic rodents with big, furry tails.  We have a fish pond and a bird bath to provide water and an occasional snack for the heron that lives in a near-by park.  The landscape has been maintained with organic pest control methods for over 20 years so our population of beneficial insects is high and our pest insect population is low.  I think we’ve done well by the creatures who visit here.  So I ask this question almost every summer: why is someone digging holes in my container gardens?  Why not just the gardens?

I never catch the culprit in action, rarely find anything hidden in the containers, and never discover plants removed from the containers.  This has been a mystery and a source of irritation for a many years.  Most mornings when I water the containers, all is well.  But on occasional mornings I will find a messy mound of potting soil near the edge of the container and a large, deep hole in front of the mound.  Of course, I’m sure a squirrel is responsible but I never find a morsel of food, a nut, or even an acorn in the container.  Nothing.  And, as I said, I never catch the culprit in action.

So I was mightily surprised one recent sunny morning when I walked around the corner of the house, watering pail in hand, and found – right there in my favorite container with my favorite plants, hind quarters up and head down – the 4-legged criminal!   Caught in the act!   And he was busy!   Frantic digging splashed potting soil around the container, over the plants, and down to the pavement.  This squirrel was on a mission.  Whatever he lost he needed back in a bad way, and fast.  At this point it should be noted that the squirrels in my garden tend to arrive with plenty but often leave with nothing.  It is not surprising to find squirrels all around my garden busily digging, finding nothing, running to another spot to dig, finding nothing there, and running to yet another area.  This goes on for hours.  The reason for this is that the crow family I seem to be supporting will perch on the roof of my house and watch where these guys bury the goods.  And crows don’t forget what they observe.  As squirrels run around my garden like wind-up toys with broken springs burying their stash for a future that never arrives, the crows sit upon my roof and calmly watch the show.  I think they laugh.  I certainly do because I know who will be the lucky recipients of the many stashes around my garden.  Sure enough, as soon as a squirrel leaves the area he just buried something in, a crow swoops down to retrieve the prize.  Anyway, I watched this little guy dig down into my container as if looking for the best nut ever created until he realized I was behind him.  He shot out of the container, spun around, and landed on the pavement in one motion.  And there he sat, perched on four tense, quivering little legs, tail twitching alarmingly, and stared at me.  I stared back.  He twitched.  I didn’t.  Then he raised up on his hind legs and began puffing out his cheeks, making a small huffing sounds with each puff.  I tried not to laugh as I said “Shoo!”  I imagined him saying to me, in a wise-guy voice, “You talkin’ to me?”

At that point, he took one little hop towards me.  This did make me laugh but I accepted the challenge and took a step towards him.  We stared at each other, neither blinking.  Wondering how long this could continue, I decided to begin cleaning the mess he had made in my container while watching him out of the corner of my eye.  He dropped down to all-4’s again and watched my every move but stood his ground.  I took my time (being stubborn, I guess) and slowly, carefully returned the soil to the pot where it belonged.  I straightened out the foliage of the creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), put the little malachite frog (a gift from my brother) back in its rightful place, and walked back around the corner.  There I stood, out of sight of the squirrel, and waited.  Sure enough, in a flash he jumped back up into the container and resumed digging.  This must have been the nut to end all nuts, because I walked back into his sightline but he didn’t budge.  In fact, he gave me one hard, determined look (this time I imagined him saying “You want a piece a’ me?”) and continued to make a mess of the container.  I decided to see this through so I left him alone.  After making a messy hole in the same spot I had repaired and finding nothing (don’t these guys remember anything?), he sprang around to the other side of the pot and began digging there.  Sure enough, this was the place!  Soon he had dug down deep enough to find a large Brazil nut – pure gold in the rodent world, apparently.  With the nut in his mouth, he leapt down to the pavement with me right on his tail.  He turned to face me, stood straight up on his hind legs again, twitched his tail, and gave me a look that said “Mess with me and you’ll regret it!”   At which point I decided that any squirrel brave enough to stare down a human in gardening clothes with gardening tools close by deserves to keep what he finds.  Then he turned and ran up the large, statuesque Pieris he uses as a freeway overpass between my and my neighbor’s yard, and disappeared.

The container is no worse for the experience and the squirrel finally found the nut of his dreams, and I had an entertaining morning in the midst of day full of chores.  Sometimes, nothing else is needed to make a day good but the snack of your dreams and a laugh.


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Gardening in the Dust

Dust covers the horizontal surfaces of my house.  I brush it away but more returns by the end of day.  Windows open, fans on high, curtains sweep forward and back as the house breathes, outside shade covers pulled down to block the sun – but nothing blocks the dust.  This is a hot, dry summer.  I am reminded of our years lived among the hot, dry, soil-saturated winds of Yakima.   Shelter from the heat was possible; not so the dust.  Minute particles of soil, pollen, plant debris – the cast-offs of life – swirl in the air before settling on stationary surfaces.  It waits patiently to be relocated but it seems never to float back and settle from where it originated.

The soil in my garden is dry under its cover of compost, mulch and anything else I’ve decided to return to a garden bed.  Drier than I have ever seen at this time of year.  I don’t water often; some summers I’ve not watered the garden at all.  Water conservation has been a priority in my life for over 10 years; since I first noticed something amiss with the precipitation patterns here in the PNW.  However, this year is different.  The heat and drought are so extreme that I began watering in mid-June, after having used all the water in our rain barrels.  Because 90% of our property consists of garden beds, watering weekly to compensate for the heat and drought would require taking out a loan to pay the water bill, so instead I have been even more conservative than in past years.  I collect our greywater for use on the youngest ornamentals in my garden and for container gardens.  I save unconsumed tea and coffee (sans sugar), dilute it with water used for washing fruits and vegetables, and use it in the gardens.  And our showers are shortened by 50%.  I’ve decreased the food crops I grow by 60% and have not planted any water-hungry crops except tomatoes.  (A summer without home-grown tomatoes simply isn’t an option.  Like a summer Sunday afternoon with a good book and a glass of wine, homegrown tomatoes are one of the requisite luxuries of life.)  But most ornamentals have only been watered twice each month this summer, and they are tired.  Some plants are weathering this dry storm with grace – stoic stands of Andropogon gerardii, Festuca californica, Schizachyrium scoparium, and Calamagrostis sway in the wind and nod at my commiseration of their thirst.  These prairie, chaparral, or meadow grasses were made for the long, dry punishment of summer winds.  They’ll be ok.  Guara lindheimeri, Echinacea purpurea, and of course Yucca ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Bright Star’ seem indifferent to the drought.  Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘White Surprise’ looks better this year than I’ve ever seen, and it’s only been watered once since the last rain.  But my collection of rare rhodendrons has received attention and water this summer, as have our dwarf conifers and deciduous trees.  Signs of stress are evident in leaves – brown tips, slight curling, yellowing.  I resist the urge to turn on the soaker hose and let it run all day.  Instead, I have resorted to watering by hand the plants that show the most extreme signs of suffering.

This hurts.  All of us – plants, wildlife, humans – have no choice but to adapt to new, harsh conditions.  Each form of life is dependent upon each other and we must do all we can to help each other adapt.

Nothing is untouched by this environmental change.  Not even dust.


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Plant Shaming III – A Shameful plant gets a job

Some of you may be familiar with Prunus laurocerasus, English Laurel.  You know, that merciless shrub most often used as an intimidating hedge that will take over your garden, your garden art, your garden furniture, and your dog if he sleeps in one spot too long.  The plant that will quickly grow into an impenetrable wall of green 12 feet tall if your neighbor doesn’t trim his side of it (no matter how nicely you ask, or even if offer to trim it yourself).  Yes, that plant.  I know this plant well because it resides in that inscrutable, flexible zone called our Property Line.  This plant doesn’t get along well with the other plants in the garden it borders.  Nothing grows under this hedge, and not because of shade.  I have carved out small full-sun spaces at its base with the intent of using those areas for small sun perennials.  No luck.  The perennials don’t even survive a year.  Bind weed (Convolvulus arvensis) grows into and through laurel’s multiple, sturdy stems but, apparently, not under it.  Even dandelion, the plant of the century, stays clear of the hedge.  The only plant I have seen that grows in concert with English Laurel is Hedera helix, English Ivy.  Hmm. . . .

Anyway, this made me wonder if laurel might be allelopathic.  Think of the possibilities!  I may have found a never-ending supply of weed killer/suppressant right outside my front door.  Think of the savings – both time and money!  I could take my new discovery “on the road”, going door to door offering laurel boughs to any neighbor brave or foolish enough to give my idea a try. With many possibilities rolling around in my mind, I tried 4 experiments here in my garden (I have a few weeds to sacrifice).  Beginning with a dandelion, I covered the healthy, thriving weed with laurel leaves and left it alone for 3 days.  On the morning of the 4th day, I uncovered the dandelion and found a wilted plant showing signs of initial desiccation, but still alive.  Struggling, suffering, but not dead yet.  (Sounds cruel, I know.)  The laurel leaves were as green as ever but just beginning to show signs of curl.  More time was needed, so I covered the dandelion with new laurel leaves and gave the experiment 2 additional days, checking the plant once each morning. On the morning of the 7th day, I found a very dead weed.  And I was very happy.  Duration of this experiment was 6 full days.

The dandelion had been growing in full sun during a stretch of 90+˚F days with, of course, no water.  For the next experiment I chose a partial-sun location with a small amount of young petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus).  This experiment included a stretch of days over 85˚ with one day at 92˚, again, with no water.  I left the site alone for 3 days, and began checking the plants daily on the morning of the 4th day.  By afternoon of the 5th day, all herbaceous growth was dead.  Duration of this experiment was 4.5 days.  The site remains uncovered and after 3 weeks no new spurge is seen.

The next plant I chose to experiment with was herb robert (Geranium robertianum).  This experiment consisted of one young plant six inches across, growing in full sun.  This plant was an easy kill – by the 4th morning (the first time I checked it) the plant appeared thoroughly dead.  I uncovered it and left it in place for 2 weeks.  It’s still dead.

My last experiment – bind weed (Convolvulus arvensis) – was a quick failure.  The bind weed grew out from under its heavy cover of laurel leaves with a strong, healthy shoot in the short duration of 3 hot, sunny days.   Didn’t even slow it down.   This one will require much more time and thought.

This is just the beginning of the hard work I have planned for Prunus laurocerasus. For such a nuisance plant – one I inherited and one that my neighbor (bless his heart) loves so much he won’t prune – there may be some redeeming qualities, after all.  And those qualities may not reside only in the roots, but in the leaves as well.  Or, it could be that the leaves are so tough and leathery that they suffocate most plant material they fall upon.

I’ll keep you posted.