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Native Plants for Small City Landscapes

Native Plants for Small City Landscapes

NW Native plant Sword fern

NW native plant Sword fern can be planted in less than ideal soil with good results.

People dream of a landscape that will need no watering.  Sometimes because they think it will be less work but more likely these days they recognize that water or the lack of it is a problem that will continue to grow.  Like the Brits in World War II they want to do their bit to help with a very real problem.

One way to have a no water landscape is to use NW native plants.  Here are some tips to help you have more success.

What size of plants to plant

They will establish better with a bigger root ball.  Expect 15 to 20 percent of your plants to fail.  Try not to take it personally.  Natives are a little more particular than other plants.  Use 2 gallon sized plants not 4 inch or 1 gallon for best results with native plants like Salal-Gaultheria shallon, Ocean Spray-Holodiscus discolor, Huckleberry-Vaccinium ovatum, Current-Ribes sanguineum or the favorite native of all, Vine Maple-Acer circinatum.

Sword fern can be smaller

If you are planting Sword fern Polystichum munitum, save your money and buy smaller plants, like a 1 gallon.  Sword fern can also be planted in less than ideal soil with good results.  It’s the only NW native plant that doesn’t need careful soil preparation.  I’ve transplanted it from my woods and had it play dead for over one full year.  It came up the second year and was back to a three foot wide fern by the third year.  Fascinating.  This plant can be killed but one would have to work at it.  It can tolerate summer water and will look more attractive watered when planted in a sunny area.  In shady areas it has looked quite attractive without a drop of summer water by the third year.

Pacific Madrone

Pacific Madrone – Arbutus menziesii
has recently been approved for City of Portland street trees.

Madrone must be smaller

Madrone-Arbutus menziesii is perfect for a no water landscape and is very picky about how and  where it is planted.  This is because unlike most trees it has a tap root so it does not thrive in a pot for long.  In the past I’ve only successfully planted a 6 inch tall plant. Recently friends of trees has found a way to grow them to about 5′ feet tall and plant them in parking strips.  They are a needed plant for hosting rare butterflies so if this succeeds it will be very exciting. Two important tips for success with your new Madrone; water sparingly the first summer, and do not ever fertilize.  After the first summer is over, never water your Madrone again.  Don’t plant anything else within ten feet that needs summer water and don’t prune your Madrone.  It’s a beauty that requires planned neglect for success.  At this time I do not have a retail source for the larger Madrone.  If you want one, buy the 6″ size at a native plant sale.  They grow surprisingly fast.

Vine Maple with Single Trunk

Vine maple with single trunk fits small city landscapes. Multiple stemmed trees will get too wide.

Vine Maple-Acer Circinatum

The most typical mistake I see in small city landscapes is multi stem Vine maples horribly disfigured with poor pruning because they got too big. Most small city landscapes are not big enough for a multi stem or clump version of Vine maple – Acer circinatum.  Instead I select a single trunk Vine maple from one of my wholesale growers.  A single trunk tree will not get too wide.

When to plant NW native plants

Plant in fall for best results with native plants.  Planting in late winter and early spring works almost as well.  Planting in mid spring or summer will require more summer watering and some natives have an adverse reaction to summer water but their roots are not established well enough to go without water for the first summer so it’s a dilemma.

Avoid this dilemma by planting in the fall or early spring.

Native Huckleberry

Evergreen Huckleberry used as a screen in SW Portland.

Evergreen Huckleberry comes in two sizes (sort of)

Evergreen Huckleberry-Vaccinium ovatum is almost like two different plants.  Planted in a sunny area it grows slowly to 4’ tall and perhaps 3’ wide.  While it will continue to grow and get a little  bigger each year, it’s very slow growing.  Compare it with the same plant in part shade to heavily dappled shade and it grows faster and is often in  the 6 to 8 foot tall by as wide.  People use the berries in muffins, pancakes and jam.  The flavor is mild from plants in low elevations and more flavorful in higher elevations.  Birds will eat them but don’t tend to use them for baked goods.

Soil Preparation

Most NW Native plants need well prepared soil.  Some need fertile soil, some need a sandy soil but almost all of them need well drained soil.  I find most directions on how to prepare soil for NW natives quite complex.  It is doable.  If you are DIY, here is a web site that might be helpful.  http://plantnative.org/how_siteprep.htm

NW Native Flowering Current

Flowering current – Ribes sanguineum is a spring pick me up for people and nectar for hummingbirds.

How to Kill your plants

Plant too deep – Dig the hole several inches deeper than the root ball of the new plant.  Plant them in the lowest area of your property.

Water them every day their first summer.  They might live a few months but will die in their first winter even if you only over watered them in the summer.

Best Practice

Dig the hole twice as wide but only as deep as the root ball of the new plant.  Plant 1” too high and bring soil to the plant.  Water carefully the first summer.  A slow soak rather than daily light sprinkles of water is best.   Mulch the plant in the fall and spring, don’t fertilize.

Sword Fern in Sun

NW Native Sword fern – Polystichum munitum has upright fronds in sun and horizontal low fronds in shade.

Mix of NW Native Plants and Non Native Plants

As a Portland landscape designer, when I have clients who want no water landscapes, I tend to mix other plants with NW native plants.  My list for a full sun area might look like this:  Spanish lavender, dwarf Manzanita groundcovers,  Oat grass, heather, California lilac, true dwarf pines, smoke tree, madrone,  Grama grass, dwarf Fountain grasses, Rosemary, Hebe, stepables like Elfin Pink Thyme.

 

Coreopsis colorful easy low-water plantings

Tickseed - Coreopsis Bengal Tiger Photo Terra Nova Nurseries

Tickseed – Coreopsis ‘Bengal Tiger’  Photo Terra Nova Nurseries

Coreopsis colorful easy low-water plantings

As a Portland landscape designer I use Coreopsis verticillata and its’ cultivars because it’s a perfect colorful, low maintenance plant for modern landscape designs, bee friendly gardens, cottage gardens, container gardens and low-water plantings.

Clients love it because it flowers for such a long time from summer into fall.  Coreopsis is beloved.

I wrote this blog to help clients understand which Coreopsis will live for years and which ones will not.   Coreopsis verticillata is one of about five species of Coreopsis that are native to the United States.   Many people feel  that Coreopsis verticillata will grow too wide after about five years and will need to be divided.  A lot of my younger clients are so focused on low-maintenance plants that I typically don’t include any plants that need to be divided in their plans.  I still have this old-fashioned idea that I can provide a planting plan where all the plants will last 20 years and the trees forever.   However, if I really stick to that I’m shorting my busy young clients of some plants that are going to do very well for a long enough period of time. Digging up a plant every five years chopping it in half, tossing half of it or giving it away, and then re-planting half of it is less work than having  to buy a new plant.

So if you are still interested in a low maintenance easy plant that has to be divided read on.

Bee friendly flower

Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ is perfect for a bee friendly garden.

Another asset, Coreopsis verticillata hits its color stride after all the May and June flowers have faded in the heat.  I am still picking flowers for my bathroom posy in late September.  It’s a perfect fit for a bee friendly garden. You could start your bee feeding year with winter flowering heather, then Spanish lavender then English lavender and finish the year with Coreopsis.

I personally use Coreopsis in small bathroom bouquets. I love it’s ferny foliage texture and the strong zap of color.  But it’s a great addition to any flower arrangement.  They are so cheerful.

Here are some trustworthy choices easily available at most nurseries.

Coreopsis verticillata varieties

‘Creme Brule’ versus ‘Moonbeam’

When ‘Moonbeam’ came out in the 1990’s it was possibly the most popular perennial of all times. Nurseries could not keep it in stock. It has dark green ferny foliage while ‘Creme Brule’  has a bright emerald green ferny foliage. ‘Creme Brule’ is taller and has a soft yellow flower which is larger than ‘Moonbeam’.  The stems are stronger as well but while many claim that ‘Creme Brule’ is more mildew resistant, I have not found this to be true.   ‘Creme Brule’ tends to have flowers from the lower stems to the top which I find attractive. ‘Moonbeam’ tends to carry the flowers only at the top of the plant. ‘Moonbeam’ will be a little cheaper as it’s been around longer in the nurseries then ‘Creme Brule’. They are both great plants.

‘Zagreb’: is named for the capital of Croatia.  When you think of the trouble those people have been through and have persevered it makes sense that this plant carries that name. This plant is incredibly yellow and tough. I don’t typically recommend it because I have had problems with it reseeding and making a nuisance of its’ self in some areas.  I use it for incredibly difficult environments where having it spread won’t matter. Obviously, this would not work for small city landscapes except as a low maintenance mass planting.        

Coreopsis verticillate ‘Bengal Tiger’  Photo credit Terra Nova

‘Bengal Tiger’: select this plant for the amazing color contrast of red and gold. It is similar to a plant called ‘Route 66’.  The flowers on ‘Bengal Tiger’ will be more consistent whereas the flowers on ‘Route 66’ will be very different from each other on the same plant which some people feel looks a little muddy.

How to care for Coreopsis Verticillata

Plant in a well draining soil or up on a berm.  I’ve seen this plant do well at the edge of a lawn too.  To keep it flowering cut the plant back by half in mid summer. I have cut back ‘Moonbeam’ Coreopsis up to 3 times in one summer to keep it flowering until fall.

How to kill a Coreopsis

To kill this plant, plant it in a low spot with heavy mucky clay and it will die or over water it.  It comes back in the late spring so don’t be fooled and start to dig it up and kill it.  Be patient.  The dark green foliage is lacy and can be hard to see when the tiny shoots first emerge from the soil.

Companion plantings

I like to plant Coreopsis verticillata varieties with low water plants like Yucca ‘Golden Ribbon’, Caryopteris ‘Blue Mist’.  It’s a great texture complement to ornamental grasses like American Switch Grass, ‘Heavy Metal’ or Blue Oat Grass.  A mass planting of Coreopsis in the foreground with dwarf conifers and a  ‘Gilt Edge’ Silverberry shrub in the background is a very simple low maintenance plant composition.  For the cottage garden you can’t beat Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ with Nepeta cat mint and shrub roses like ‘Happy Chappy’ or David Austin rose ‘Graham Thomas’.

There are a lot of different species of Coreopsis out there and it’s buyer beware.  You have to pay attention to the names of the plants because there are some Coreopsis that make a nuisance of themselves and will seed all over your yard.   Many Coreopsis varieties are short lived so I tend to stick with these five. My Portland garden design clients love this plant for low maintenance, low water, and color in the summer landscape.

Diversity of Dogwoods Part II

Venus dogwood from Heritage Seedlings

The flowers of  ‘Venus’  dogwood compared to a typical dogwood flower. See Diversity of Dogwoods Part I.  Photo courtesy of Heritage Seedlings

Continued from Diversity of Dogwoods Part I

The diversity of dogwoods is well illustrated by these two trees:  Cornus Kousa ‘Summer Gold’ and Cornus Controversa ‘June Snow’.

Summer Gold dogwood

Bright cream flowers are backed by colorful variegation of  ‘Summer Gold’ dogwood. Photo courtesy of Heritage Seedlings

I love ‘Summer Gold’ partially because it’s so different from other dogwoods.  Typical dogwoods have a wide oval green leaf and a round wide canopy.  ‘Summer Gold’ has narrow bright green and gold leaves and has an upright narrow shape.  This means it fits into urban settings much better than a typical dogwood.  It was created by  local grower Crispin Silva who is a delight.  His curiosity and enthusiasm about plants has certainly inspired me.  People in the industry refer to his plants as “Crispin’s Creations”.

‘June Snow’ dogwood is also different from most dogwoods.  She matures at 30′ tall and spreads to 40′ wide.  I use her for light shade for medium to smaller landscapes.  She is too big for your typical row house back yard that is only 20′ wide, but in landscapes with a little more room she can be the single tree.  This is because she has it all.  Her branch structure is incredibly graceful and open.  When she flowers in June these flat topped clusters (which often exceed 6 inches) seem to float above the foliage.

Cornus 'June Snow'

‘June Snow’ dogwood at Portland’s Legacy-Emanuel Hospital in The Children’s Garden.

 

 

The fall color can compete with any dogwood starting with orange yellows and moving into purple red and deep purple as fall deepens.  The fruit that develops from the flower clusters are tiny and not messy.  The local birds will eat them.

 

Diversity of Dogwoods Part I

Cornus Kousa 'Satomi' at Joy Creek Nursery.

Cornus Kousa ‘Satomi‘ at Joy Creek Nursery.

Diversity of Dogwoods – Part I

Dogwoods are a very large family.  There are twiggy shrub dogwoods whose hot colored stems light up the winter landscape.  There is a dogwood who blooms in March with yellow flowers and makes an edible fruit.  There are semi evergreen dogwoods we are experimenting with here in Portland.  This is the kind of knowledge homeowners need their designers to be up to date on.  When a client asks me for a dogwood I know its the visual and emotional impact of the flowers they are thinking of.  Designers think through the details to find the right variety for the clients size of yard and environment so our clients don’t have to.  Landscapes come in all different sizes and environments and now so do Dogwoods.

Plant designers have been busy improving our old-fashioned dogwood tree into a garden designers dream tree. Our old dogwood varieties have problems that plant designers have been working on for 40 years.

Cornus-Kousa 'Satomi' Intense pink flowers. Photo by Randall C. Smith, courtesy of Great Plant Picks

Cornus Kousa ‘Satomi’  Intense pink flowers.  New on the scene, ‘Little Ruby’  is a deeper pink. Photo by Randall C. Smith, courtesy of Great Plant Picks

They are improving drought tolerance, disease resistance (okay not sexy but important!)  and cold hardiness.  They’ve created new shapes that fit better into the urban environment.

What is sexy or desirable are the improvements made to the flowers.  Let’s admit it, where dogwoods are concerned,  we want even pinker flowers.   Everyone wants more color than nature supplies on her own. There are darker shades of more intense pink red.

Cornus Kousa 'Venus' has large dogwood flowers

Cornus Kousa ‘Venus’ has large white flowers which are 6 to 7 inches across.

Varieties such as ‘Little Ruby’  showcase the new strong colors.   ‘Little Ruby’ is wider than tall.  She is  plump and round headed and can be used in the landscape as a shrub or small tree.

Another new variety is called ‘Starlight’.  This cross is from our own native Pacific Northwest Dogwood;  the shape is upright and more narrow.  It works for your small yard or as a street tree. There’s a beautiful ‘Starlight’ in the courtyard of the Edith Green federal building in downtown Portland as an example of a tree perfect for urban life.

Cornus Kousa 'Starlight' dogwood

‘Starlight’ dogwood is a cross from our Pacific Northwest native dogwood. The narrow shape is perfect for urban life. http://landscapeplants.oregonstate.edu/plants/cornus-starlight

 

‘Venus’ features ginormus white flowers which are 6″-7″ across.  Like ‘Starlight’ they produce little to no  fruit unlike the many Korean dogwoods hybridized and sold in the last 15 years.  In fact even Friends of Trees offer messy Korean dogwoods.  I confess I make a TSKK TSKK when I see the huge mess they make on the sidewalks. In the fall they drop a large raspberry colored fruit.  Friends of Trees is a fabulous organization and many clients have been happy to purchase an inexpensive tree and learn how to care for their tree.  I would use the fruitless varieties near walkways and for small yards and save the old fashioned fruiting types for large properties.

 

Garden Designer Brings Integration and Function To “Mismatched” Landscape

The new deck feels like an outdoor living room and makes the garden feel part of the house.

The new deck feels like an outdoor living room and makes the garden feel like part of the house.

“My garden adventures with Carol, Design in a Day, began in 2010.  Carol took my “mismatched” garden and pulled it together by incorporating a variety of plants which added interesting leaf shapes, texture, and color.  With the addition of stone paths and walls, art pieces, and a deck with planter boxes, she created a garden that blends continuity, interest, and beauty.

The old deck seemed small and cut off from the garden area.

The old deck was too small, felt cut off from the garden, and made an unattractive view.

Since a garden is an ever-changing palate, I have continued to work with Carol as my garden coach so my garden space will continue to thrive.

Carol is professional, knowledgeable, and talented.  She’s a good listener and will collaborate with a team of experienced and creative contractors as well as resources for plants.  With Carol’s style of landscape design one can select from a wide menu of options – from a garden design only where the client does the work, to a design and consultation, up to supervision of the project.”

August in the garden: Hakonechloa Macra 'Albostriata' - Japanese Forest Grass; Aconitum 'Tall Blue' - Monkshood; Hardy Fuchsia

August in the garden: Hakonechloa Macra ‘Albostriata’ – Japanese Forest Grass; Aconitum ‘Tall Blue’ – Monkshood; Hardy Fuchsia

When I work with an established garden, I strive to bring an experienced eye that can see exciting new possibilities with the removal of plants and features that no longer work (or missed by a mile simply because no one knew what could be).  It’s hard for clients to do this on their own.  For many years some plants were wonderful and were loved.  I have been hired to help my clients have their best garden. Telling them a plant  is great just because they love it is not earning my pay.  I try to do this gently when it needs to be done.

We (Lois and I) made so many amazing changes in our design process but I will speak of a few.  This garden already had a mature dogwood tree.  Its location was perfect but it had been damaged by the pruning of a well intentioned “mow, blow and go” gardener.  It took 3 years of light but precise pruning to correct damage and now it is the long term focal point of the back garden.

The new deck feels more like an outdoor living room and is an extension of the great room. What had been a dark interior room now feels significantly bigger and airy.  We used planters instead of railing and they bring the garden (including year round flowering plantings) up into the view from inside.  Before our design, the garden was obscured and felt cut off from the house, now it feels like part of the great room.  We created a kitchen window view with plantings that look good year round and bring the Anna hummingbirds into close view in winter.  This had previously been a forgotten area and the client had no expectations for it.  To her it was just a side yard.  Now it is one of her favorite views.

Driveway pic 1 plants tempOur adventures do continue.  Here are photos of our latest improvement, a retaining wall and plantings that dresses her driveway beautifully.Driveway pic 2 temp