Archive for Garden Tips

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides – A Portland Landscape Designer’s Perspective

Preventing erosion

My vacation home is above a steep slope. It’s smart to learn about preventing erosion

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides

As a Portland landscape designer I often work with hillside properties.

I also own a vacation home on Harstine Island in Mason County, Washington. We built our house about 10 years ago. The house is 30 feet from a steep hill overlooking the beach. The things I’ve learned about controlling erosion are useful to anyone who has a sloped property.

When we built the house we made some smart choices, we went with a natural landscape instead of lawn, ran our water from downspouts down the hill in pipes rather than spilling it out at the top of the hill.  Nor did we disconnect our downspouts to let water pool and perc down into the soil near the house.  That can be a fine practice for flat properties but not hilly ones.

I have a majestic fir tree on my slope and neighbors have suggested I cut it down for fear that it will remove a lot of my bank someday when it fails.  I want to support this tree for as long as possible so I was inspired to make an appointment with Karin Strelioff with Mason County Conservation District.  Karin is a technician with their Marine Waterfront Assistance Program.  She knows about the slopes and cliffs that make the shoreline of the South Puget Sound and many methods of erosion control.  She gave me some important signs to watch for regarding my tree and the name of a local arborist who is astute in the science of trees on slopes.

Well planted slope controls erosion

My slope is well planted with salal, sword fern and other erosion controlling native plants.

My Tree    

Karin gave me these basic things to watch for with regards to my beautiful huge fir tree.

Pay attention to the surface soil and the plantings around the trees trunk. Know what the ground and general area looks like typically and watch for any changes in that area.  On the uphill side of my tree trunk I’ll look for an area of disturbance, an area of soil higher than it was when I saw it last.  This could mean my trees roots are pushing toward the surface.  On the downhill side of my trunk I will be looking for soil that may have fallen away making a new steeper area.  Either one of these disturbances will have me on the phone to an experienced certified arborist that I trust.  I love knowing what to look for.  It will help me with my anxiety when the wind blows and my tree’s branches whistle like a Hitchcock movie sound track.

I recognize that my tree is supposed to fail at some point, falling down the hill along with a portion of my slope to bring more sand to the beach and add to the natural beachhead.  Given that I would like to keep every square inch of my backyard, when the tree is starting to fail, the arborist will probably recommend it be removed.  Hopefully by that time I will have enough plant material well established to offset its loss to my erosion control plantings.

Erosion Prevention

Blackberry Fruit

How can anything so sweet, be so evil?

I learned important things about my property.  For one thing my various slopes and banks have either a lot of trees or ground covering plants or both so I can take the information from Karin and apply it as a preventative rather than having to rush into a mitigation process. We also have very few invasive plants on the property. I have one Himalayan blackberry plant that we will work on getting rid of.  Lucky me.

Karin says the most important thing that I can do is to learn about the water load on my property and how best to control where it goes.  The biggest water load source is water from the roof of the house.  The county had good rules in place when we built the house so we are also ahead here.  We took our water down the hill in pipes.  The old practice of disconnecting our downspouts and letting the water perc down a slope has caused erosion problems for many properties.  That’s a fine practice for people with flat lots in Portland, in fact Portland encourages disconnecting downspouts and building rain gardens. Karin says be sure to inspect your pipe.  If we had a crack or damage to a pipe that allowed water out in the wrong place, it could create a heavy water load and cause big problems.  We can start inspecting pretty easily because our pipes are not buried.

Other sources of water are as simple as rain water. The way to control rain water is with plants.  Think of it this way………..Gravy and bread.  We use bread to sop up the gravy, well we did until they said it was bad for us and now they are saying animal fats are good for us…….  I love gravy which is a diversion from this article, must be dinner time.  We will use the right plants in the right places to sop up the rain water.

Evergreen trees are most effective on slopes and yet a lot of people cut down evergreen trees because they spoil the view.  It turns out evergreen needled trees (coniferous) perform brilliantly to protect slopes from erosion.  I had no idea. Here’s why:

Coastal feeder slope

This cliff is feeding sand to the beach.

Large evergreen coniferous trees like our Western Red Cedar or our Douglas Fir have needled foliage.  The needles break the impact of hard pelting winter rain into tiny droplets. The surface soil is protected from the impact of the hard rain. That’s helpful, but even better the trees roots take up a tremendous amount of water and utilize a process called transpiration which releases the water from the needles as a fine mist. So water under the soil surface is absorbed by the roots instead of spilling out of the side of the cliff.  Deciduous large trees such as Oregon Bigleaf Maple, or alders have no leaves in the winter, and they are dormant and so their roots do not take up as much water as the needled trees do in winter or any other time of the year.  The conifir reigns as the top water catcher on the slope.  There is also what seems to me to be a rather magical thing fir trees do.  It’s called thigmomorphogenesis.  This word refers to the way trees and plants respond to mechanical stimuli that influences how they can  grow in really unusual ways. Basically, they are responding to the situation on the slope and growing their roots in ways to protect that slope. They may grow a larger branch to balance their mass.  Somehow they know to do this.  It’s seriously cool science stuff here.

Here’s what I’m going to do to help protect my slope.

New plantings that include evergreen coniferous trees.

First I am going to enhance the soil above my big tree to help the native plants spread and grow.  I’ll add compost near my top of slope plantings to try to cajole them into growing toward the house.  The top of this hill was graded flat by the developer to build the house so there isn’t a drop of top soil in my flat yard.  The native plants stop growing and you can see the straight line across the edge of my yard at the top of the steep downhill slope.

Pacific Madrone

Pacific Madrone – Arbutus menziesii
has recently been approved for City of Portland street trees. It’s a NW native plant.

I am going to plant 3 more (tiny sized) Pacific Madrone below my big fir tree and also 5 dwarf Western Red Cedar. I’ll use willow stakes in areas with more sun.  They are easy to plant.  I’m using a modified native tree to try to protect my view.  The Excelsor Western Red Cedar matures at about 20′ tall, not 70’.  Will I be here to see them at 20’ tall?  Hard to say, I better keep eating lots of grass fed butter and Kale.

I got so much from my appointment with Karin that I have another blog that will explain what plants I am planting where.  Stay tuned for part two.

 

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.

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.