Safe Soil in the City

Portland landscape designer Carol Lindsay

Daizzie and I in my edibles garden

Safe soil in the city – smart and healthy practices for urban gardens

I love having a vegetable garden. It’s healthy, right? I love eating kale and I grow a lot of greens for smoothies year-round.  There are a few concerns about growing food in urban areas. Two concerns that apply to us all, city and suburban, are lead paint and lead exhaust from the past in our soils. Let’s be practical not scary about this.

Is my food safe to eat? What are the most important practices I can do and how can I keep it simple?  My garden is below Highway 30.  It’s an old heavily traveled highway so our soil has years of exposure to lead exhaust.

There’s no way I’d grow my food in the ground here.

My current garden practices

I’ve been assuming my food is safe to eat because:

Our community garden has raised beds with new clean soil from just three years ago.
I apply lots of compost at least three times a year.

Carol's winter kale

My garden supplies me with year round greens like kale.

I use an organic fertilizer. (OK it’s boxed Dr. Earth, not a truckload from Natures Needs because it’s very convenient and my garden is small.)  I don’t know what my NPK ratio is which makes me a bit of a lazy gardener but the food I like to grow does fine.  NPK being Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorous.  And yes I was trained as an advanced master gardener and yes that was a very long time ago………they teach you all about soil in the master gardener program.

I wash my produce, no nibbling right out of the garden bed. (OK once in a while a strawberry or tomato).

According to some experts I’m doing OK but I could do a lot better.

My improvements

  1. Soil areas next to old garages often have higher lead levels.

    Soil areas next to old garages often have higher lead levels.

    Reducing exposure to dust is the most effective thing you can do to reduce lead hazard in your landscape. It is typically in the first few inches of soil. This is the most important thing in the blog.  Mulch and compost applications cover your soil and protect it from dust with contaminants in it.    We want to keep the dust and soil off human skin and out of the mouth.  This is critical for babies and small children and good for the rest of us too.  Adding compost has many benefits for improving conditions for plants.  Adding compost at least twice a year can only benefit, there are no drawbacks.

  1. Here at my community garden, we could have put a barrier between our new soil and the existing ground soil. I can still do this once my winter Kale are done in March. I’ll have to get a tarp and dig out a lot of my soil so I’m going to install a metal grid and landscape fabric.  The grid is to keep the moles and gophers out of my raised bed. They may have brought some of the lead contaminated soil up into my new clean soil, and they caused a lot of havoc with the roots of my plants.  Some died or did not produce well because of the soil disturbance.
  1. I could improve the efficacy of washing my veggies by using a 1 percent vinegar solution instead of only using water. I’m thinking a large spray bottle under the sink could be used for my final wash. It’s got to be simple or I won’t do it.

Beyond these good soil management practices, I will need to do a Nutrient Analysis soil test to know what I need to add to my raised beds to improve the health and productivity of my vegetables and bind up any lead and keep it locked into my soil where it won’t cause problems for me.

Portland landscape designer in edibles garden

My garden is below Highway 30. It’s an old heavily traveled highway so our soil has years of exposure to lead exhaust.

Lead Soil Test

My client Katy had an older home in SE Portland.  I suggested a lead soil test.  She collected the soil and submitted samples for a lead test. She discovered the area where we wanted the kids play structure to go had high lead.  It was next to the neighbors’ garage.  Several inches of contaminated soil were removed.  She brought in new soil and playground chips and now has a safe play area for her toddlers.

What’s one new thing you could do this year to improve your landscape or edibles garden?  Get your soil tested.  I’m planning to collect soil from my vegetable garden and submit it to a lab for testing.  I’ll share that experience with you in another blog.

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake

edited-mccann-after-front-yard

Winter view after drainage and landscape design was installed.

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake

Cindy and Chris were house shopping in Eastmoreland Portland, Oregon.  Chris found the house and brought Cindy to take a look.  The curb appeal was so bad she gave it the thumbs down and would not even go in the house. After looking at several other houses which just didn’t work for them, her husband talked her into going back.  She went inside and fell in love with everything but the front yard.  There was edited-mccann-before-front-yardone big problem which wasn’t apparent at the time of purchase and might not have been bothersome if the house was in Arizona.  Water!!! Water in the basement, and large puddles of winter rain water in the front yard drowned plants and lawn alike.  As the years passed the problem worsened.

I’m married to a designer/remodeler and while he is a creative and competent professional, he can get a little pale talking about the complexities of finding a water leak.  It can be very tricky even when you have solved these types of problem in many different situations for years.  Its nothing one should ever be arrogant about.

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio. My client and I were so pleased to be rid of the muddy winter lake - she built it herself!

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio in Wilsonville.  I used Dwarf Red Twig Dogwood in this design as well as Cindy’s.

Rain Garden Solution

Cindy is a figure it out, research the heck out of it kind of person. She talked to lots of different contractors, asked great questions and decided that a rain garden was going to be part of the solution for the water problems in her home.  She took classes from the City of Portland and researched rain gardens.  She determined the volume of water her roof and downspouts needed to handle using the formulas she learned in the class.  Her solution was to install larger gutters and downspouts and have a dry well dug and installed to handle the overflow.

Front Yard Make Over

Cindy was not prepared to take on the front yard alone.  She decided to hire a landscape designer she could collaborate with.  I am not licensed to design drainage solutions.  Cindy knew that.  I was hired to create a landscape plan with her that would create beauty and curb appeal and hide all views of the mechanical water solutions.

How I did it

I design for beauty of the landscape and to enhance the appearance and the welcoming energy of the home.  I don’t like seeing irrigation valve boxes, irrigation heads and tubing, or drainage hardware.  It’s ugly.

I started by creating a beautiful natural shaped berm in the front landscape:

  1. It would create a second level which helps to add drama and contrast to the      otherwise flat yard.
  2. We used the excess soil we would dig up to do the dry well.  It’s a terrible thing to waste good top soil so we didn’t!!
edited-monrovia-bloodgood

Upright dark purple ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple. Photo courtesy of Monrovia Nursery

3. They wanted a Japanese Maple.  Cindy and Chris loved the up right (not the weeping form) of dark purple leafed ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple.  Japanese Maples, Acer Palmatum, are much healthier here in the Pacific Northwest when they are planted up on a berm.  The raised soil keeps their roots from getting soaked in our winter rains.  Dryer roots helps to avoid the dreaded verticillium wilt which kills so many of our beautiful maples here. Plantings on the berm under the Japanese Maple would be highlighted because they are on a higher grade in the lawn.

We tucked a few boulders in the berm.  We added multi sized river rock over the top of the dry well and made it look like an attractive dry stream bed that fit into the berm nicely and as per Cindy’s plan would direct water to the dry well.

Cindy loves the evergreen Ink Berry shrub. It's great for wet areas.

Cindy loves the  Inkberry shrub. It’s great for wet areas.

Plantings for Wet Areas

We still had a wet area near the dry well that needed plants. Cindy loved the evergreen Inkberry and Kelsey’s Dwarf Red-Twig, Cornus Sericea ‘Kelseyi’ shrubs I used.  She had never seen the Inkberry, Ilex Glabra ‘Shamrock’  before. It’s the only evergreen shrub I use for low wet areas. Other typical small evergreen shrubs like Azaleas and Pieris get root rot and cannot be used in wet area applications.

Drought tolerant evergreen arbutus unedo

Strawberry tree, Arbutus Unedo adds a little touch of Italia to the stucco house.  Photo courtesy of Richie Steffen, Great Plant Picks

We selected classic foundation plants to frame the house, added a large pot and Strawberry Tree, Arbutus Unedo ‘Compacta’  to pick up a little Italian style on the south side and we were finished!

Mission Accomplished

I talked with Cindy recently.  “The front yard is thriving.  I’m so happy every time I look at it.”  The design has stood the test of time.  It’s been 10 years since we installed the design. The only thing she changed was replacing her Johnny Jump Ups Violas for Black Mondo Grass. Mission accomplished, she loves her front yard!

Cindy and I created the design together in a day.  It was a simple design meant to be low maintenance with full season interest.  Her landscape contractors installed the design, I came by and placed the plant material for the contractors and it was done.  Voila!

 

Colorful Cape Fuchsia Makes Beautiful Summer Memories

Cracker Jack on Barnes Road roof garden

My cat loved to watch hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds love Cape Fuchsia for the nectar.  I love to use it in designs because it adds so much color, is easy to grow and the new varieties work well with modern and cottage garden styles.  This plant is a crowd pleaser and I use it frequently.

I planted my first Cape Fuchsia, Phygelius x rectus ‘Salmon Leap’  on my roof garden in Portland’s West Hills.  It was at 900 feet and we had snow every year even though I was 5 minutes away from downtown Portland.   The house was designed so that the third floor master suite had easy access to and a view of my roof garden.  It had a hot tub that was 20 feet from my bed, a big overstuffed outdoor sofa with an overhead cover and plenty of Cape Fuchsia!  In spite of the colder winters, the Cape Fuchsia (native to South Africa) never flagged or failed in the 12 years I lived there.  I loved my roof garden and the only family members who loved it more were the 4 leggeds, Barley,  Cee Cee and Cracker Jack.  One particular day everyone was curled up on the big overstuffed sofa.  I was reading and pets were napping.  All was peaceful.  I heard a strange whirring noise.  At first I didn’t see anything unusual.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw my pets’ heads were going up and then down and then up and then down, I looked up to see a small blur. What did I see?  What was happening?

Portland roof garden

My roof garden 2006.

We were witnessing a hummingbird mating ritual.  The male made a 90 foot oval flight pattern to within an inch of his intended.  She was steadfastly ignoring him and drinking nectar from my Cape Fuchsia.  There wasn’t even a flicker in his direction.  The buzzing sound was made by his high speed downward trajectory.  It abated on the way up.   It was mesmerizing.  It was one of those wonderful garden memories that I treasure.    Just us mammals all watching the entertainment together.

If you would like to have some close encounters with hummingbirds or you just love colorful plants, the Cape Fuchsia is the perfect addition to your garden.  The best hummingbird attractors are the older varieties because they flower in the most intense coral red shades.  My favorites are ‘Devils Tears’, ‘Salmon Leap’ and ‘African Queen’, but they are too big and a bit too rowdy for a small yard.

The new varieties are more compact and a little tidier in habit.  The flower colors are available in more traditional shades.  When these new colors first came on the market I was annoyed.  I felt like they had dumbed down a great plant by removing the coral shades…….but then I saw it wasn’t an either or.  I now had more choices and that is always a good thing for a garden designer.

If you love modern landscape design style but don’t want to give up color, these new Cape Fuchsia are perfect for you.

Here are 2 new varieties from Skagit Gardens:

Croftway purple prince cape fuchsia

Skagit Gardens’ Croftway Purple Prince is an intense magenta.

Phygelius Aequalis ‘Croftway Purple Prince’ has that intense magenta color.  I think it looks really good with Black Mondo Grass………Morticia Adams where are you now?  It glows in the evening light.  ‘Croftway Purple Prince’ is cold hardy for the Pacific Northwest and listed as zone 6 Yah!

Phygelius Aequalis ‘Croftway Yellow Sovereign’ is 18 to 24 inches tall by 24 inches wide.  Many soft yellow flowers burn in full sun but ‘Yellow Sovereign’ can take the heat.

Full sun easy care yellow sovereighn cape fuchsia

Skagit Gardens’ Yellow Sovereign does not scorch in full sun.

Barbara Ashmun, Portland garden writer has a great article about Cape Fuchsia’s.

I don’t tend to use the older varieties of Cape Fuchsia in front yards as the winter appearance is a little ragged.  If you love this plant like I do, simply cut it to the ground in mid December for a tidy look.

Holiday Open House at Portland Audubon Nature Sanctuary! 2016

Holiday Open House at Portland Audubon Nature Sanctuary! 2016

Saturday Dec. 3   from 10am to 6pm

Sunday Dec. 4  from 10am to 5pm

Join us for our free annual Holiday Open House as we kick off the solstice season. A warm, welcoming fire in our cozy Audubon House hearth will beckon winter revelers. Delicious treats and warm beverages will chase away the winter chill. Take a short hike in the Nature Sanctuary and visit with the Education Birds!

 All Weekend Enjoy Free:

Sauvie Island Coffee, Spiced Tea & Hot Cocoa plus holiday food treats.

Special Saturday Events

Swift Cider Tasting noon-6pm:

Swift Cider is inspired by the migration of Vaux’s Swifts that occurs during the peak of the annual apple harvest. They’ll be bringing their delicious ciders to our event for a tasting and give you the opportunity to buy bottles to take home for the holidays.

Meet the artists (hours vary):

From 10am-2pm, Audubon Nature Journaling instructor, Jude Siegel, will join us with her beautiful and affordable avian watercolors which are ready-to-hang and make great gifts. Get acquainted with Corinne Hodel of Autumn Fern Designs. The creator of colorful sun-print shoulder bags for active people and fun pottery for home and garden will be with us all day.

Meet the authors (hours vary): Paul Sullivan, the popular longtime leader of Audubon Birding Weekends has a new book, The Birds of Rummel Street, chronicling 23 years of backyard bird sightings. He’ll be on hand all day to sign copies, talk about the value of record keeping and share stories about this project he shared with his partner, Carol Karlen. Margo Greeve, author/illustrator of Oregon’s Special Animals is children’s art instructor. Her delightful book contains both her drawings and poems. She will be on hand to sign copies from 10am-4pm.

 Special Sunday Events

Meet the artists from 11am-4pm: Margaret Greene of JourneyWay, LLC is the creator of beautiful fused glass feathers to decorate your walls. Each feather has the size, detail and coloration of a specific bird species. Corinne Hodel (see Saturday event) also returns.

Free Afternoon Music: In Heron Hall from 12-4pm, enjoy the toe-tapping tunes of the Oregon Bluegrass Association.

 

Bad News about Slug Bait and Winter Garden Care Tips

Slugs at NE Portland Landscape Design in a Day

Slugs on a Honeydew Melon Date

Winter is just around the corner here in Portland.   Here are 5 timely tips to help you care for your landscape right now.

Slugs Last chance to knock out slugs! Control your slug population now in late fall.  They lay thousands of eggs that will hatch in spring.  I’ve got bad news about using the so called pet safe slug baits. New science says it kills your earthworms and can sicken your pets and other animals.  Control your slugs with beer traps or even better an instant coffee spray.  Yup coffee! Fill a spray bottle with strong instant coffee or any coffee except de-caf.  Spray the leaves of plants they prefer and any slugs or snails you see.

I grow lots of winter greens here in NW Portland so I’ve been out there spraying down the leaves of my beautiful Dinosaur Kale plants to protect them now.  Spraying coffee once a week in fall and early winter makes a big difference in the spring hatch of slugs.   Read more about why slug bait harms worms.

Coffee bag

Its the caffeine that kills slugs or snails. Instant coffee works well.

Mulch.  If you only do one thing to improve your soil and care for your plants, mulching is the biggie.  Schedule your winter mulch application for the last week of November to mid-December or hire someone to blow in your mulch.  Companies such as Bark Blowers will blow in mulch including the newer “living” mulch products that I prefer.  One company that provides mulch inoculated with beneficial bacteria is Natures Needs, a product called  Recology Compost.  McFarlane Bark, Mt Scott Fuel and Grimms Fuel supply basic mulch products.   Did you mulch just 2 inches deep?  Great!  Now go and unbury the crowns of your plants so they don’t die from rot during our wet winter. Burying plants with mulch might be a good practice in Vermont or Montana but not here.

Iron gate design with snow

Landscape Design in a Day client’s custom gate.

Protect your plants from winter temperatures

The best cold protection for plants in the winter isn’t something that naturally occurs to most people.  Over watering and over fertilizing done in summer can cause plants to not go dormant.  When cold weather comes, they are not prepared.  Read more: Protecting Plants from Winter Cold Starts in Summer 

Pruning knowledge  There are many plants that should not be cut back in the fall and winter.  There are many perennials and grasses that can be cut back to create a more attractive winter landscape. This is a case by case basis which drives new gardeners crazy. Consider consulting with your garden designer who can teach you what to do to your plants and when.  It feels good when you know what to do.

Protect your pottery  The best winter protection for your pottery is proper drainage and location.  Make sure water drains through the pots hole and doesn’t back up.  If water sits in the bottom and it freezes, good bye pot.  I have had Vietnamese high fired pottery outside and intact for over 15 years.  I always put drainage material in the bottom of the pot and a piece of flagstone under the pot or I use those little pottery feet.

If I have expensive pots where they will get east winter wind, the kind of wind that freezes rain to ice on the power line, I would move them into a protected area for winter right now. I hate to even think about that kind of weather but we get our share here in Portland Oregon, especially in January.   Its hard to pay attention to the weather report, and besides who wants to move heavy pots around when its icy cold out?  Not me.