Archive for Plants I Recommend

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.

 

Tempting Red Hellebore Flowers for Winter Cheer

Popular Double Hellebore From Englands Ashwood Ashwood Garden Hybrids

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Double BiColor Shades’ grown here in the NW by Monrovia.

Tempting Red Hellebore Flowers for Winter Cheer

Red flowered Hellebores are still the holy grail for plant geeks but they are so tough that anyone can covet these and grow them.

‘Peppermint Ice’, ‘Amethyst Gem’ and ‘Ashwood Double Bi Color Shades’ are Hellebore cultivated varieties with red to eggplant hued double flowers.  They wow us in late winter with a long vibrant flower display.

As a Portland landscape designer I like to use Hellebore in my designs.  The Helleborus x hybridus plants (which is what we are focusing on today)  can live for a hundred years, deer don’t like them, they are low water and except for a typically minor problem with aphids, and a little slug activity they are pretty pest free.  The leaves are leathery, attractive and provide interesting contrast with a range of plant material to include feathery fern fronds, ornamental grass or tiny leafed boxwood.

Helleborus x Hybridus 'Peppermint Ice'

Peppermint Ice has a darker outline around each of the petals. Its adds a lighter touch with pink red flowers.

They are shade tolerant although I  tend to use these three in strong morning sun with dappled or full afternoon shade.

Terra Nova Photo of Hellebore Amethyst Gem

Amythest Gem comes from the famous NW Garden Nursery. Double petals with a light edge gives us drama and the constrast needed to appreciate the mass of petals.

Double flowers give us more color than the singles but the singles, with only 5 to 7 petals, are also stunning and low maintenance.  ‘Ashwood Double BiColor Shades’ have a wine red petal with a darker edge which is opposite of ‘Amethyst Gem’.

Using Hellebore as a cut flower

The flowers last a long time in the landscape but not long as a cut flower because the stems wither quickly.  Most people cut the stems off and float them in a bowl.  I’ve picked them from my NW Portland garden, knowing they would only look good for a few days.  There are techniques for making them last which involve picking them at the right time based on the age of the flower and using an alcohol solution in the vase.  Follow this link  to NW Garden Nursery and read the bottom of their culture sheet.   Now that you are bringing the flowers inside please be aware that all parts of the plant are toxic.

All Hellebore flowers tend to nod down rather than face up.  This protects the flowers from cold damage (disfigurement/freezer burn) because water drips off the flower and  is not trapped inside. Nature designed this plant to flower in winter.

What about aphids?

What about aphids?  My only problem with Hellebore is aphids. Some years I don’t have any noticeable aphid activity. When I do it’s so early in the year that handy predators like lacewing and lady bug are still in sleep mode or haven’t hatched yet so I’m  on my own. Dealing with them is easy.  Use a spray bottle filled with water or 1 tsp of dish soap to 1 gallon of water and spray down your plant.  Use your hose or this great gadget called the bug blaster  which you can buy at Portland Nursery. (I’ve got to get one this year to use in my veggie garden too.) Don’t use a pesticide because most of them will harm bees even if they are not present when you spray. Aphids have soft bodies and will be damaged by the force of the water or the soapy solution will invade their bodies and disable them. You will have to knock them down with water or soapy water once or twice a week to prevent the temporary cosmetic damage.   I’ve never lost a hellebore plant to anything let alone a virus but in recent years virus has spread from plant to plant by aphids.  It is only an issue for professional growers or collectors.

Check out this bowlful of hellebore beauties

Check out this bowlful of hellebore beauties

How to care for your Hellebore

How to care for your Hellebore:  I water once or twice a week its first summer and then once a week after that.  Drip irrigation would be best rather than overhead sprinklers because drip can water deep into the soil.  Established Hellebore become quite a low water needs plant and might be content with every ten days or less.  An application of mulch around the plant once or twice a year is a good practice.  If your soil is so good that they make seedlings, be aware they won’t have the same flower as your hybridized plant. I cut the old leaves off the plant in late winter so that the flowers are not visually diminished by the previous years worn foliage.

How to kill a Hellebore

Plant it in a low spot where winter rain will rot the roots. Over water it and fertilize it heavily.

Winter Color provided by Hellebore 'Peppermint Ice'

Helleborus x Hybridus ‘Peppermint Ice’ is another Winter Gem by NW Garden Nursery. It is grown by Terra Nova so is available at local garden nurseries. Photo by Terra Nova.

Helleborus x Hybridus 'Peppermint Ice' photo by Terra Nova

Helleborus x Hybridus ‘Peppermint Ice’ has double flowers that hang down but the overall effecting your winter landscape is very colorful. The flowers last a long time.

Swim Spa Landscape Design

The Swim Spa That Took Over The Backyard

Swim spa in small backyard

Rachael and her family like to swim even in December when this photo was taken with the blooming Camellia Sasanqua ‘Yuletide’.

Rachael and her family like to swim. They have twin toddlers who have been swimming since they were three months old. Seeing them playing like baby otters is adorable, even cuter than puppies which is saying something!

Existing Conditions

Prior to the swim spa their backyard was a pleasant place with a tiny lawn, a covered patio, and some easy-care plantings.  They also had a beloved gorgeous 36-inch diameter trunk California myrtle tree that shaded half the yard.  The new swim spa dominated the back yard and the mud from the construction process made it a poor place for toddlers to play. This new situation was beyond heading to the plant nursery to select a few new plants.  They needed a designer to re-design the backyard, create solutions for privacy and manipulate the space to maximize every inch.

Landscape Design in a Day

Rachael and I talked on the phone and we were a great fit.  We scheduled a Landscape Design in a Day, my collaborative design process, and they started preparing their base drawing and working through my landscape survey questions.   I was really looking forward to this one but it was going to be so tricky!  We met at their home one cool spring day to create the design together.

Privacy

The new 10′ x 20′ swim spa sits four plus feet above the ground making the swimmers very visible to neighbors.  They wanted privacy for themselves and in case their neighbors didn’t really want to watch them swim, for the neighbors too.

Screening plants for swim spa

Camellia Sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ helps screen swim spa.

The privacy issues for small properties with close neighbors is often tricky.  On one side of the property it was easy.  The California myrtle and a couple of mature rhododendron would solve most of the problems on that side.  Three things would need to happen.   We needed to stop pruning back the tops of the old rhodies, they would need to be treated each year for lace bug and be irrigated.  For the last privacy hole on this side we would fill it with a New Zealand Box Tree.  I will prune it myself the first few times, Azara Microphylla to help it fit into the difficult spot that is right next to the gate.  It is needed to screen out a neighbor’s window that is on the first floor.  It’s important to use a small tree that won’t get too big for this spot and this tree was the perfect solution.

Bamboo Screen

The back-property line was difficult because the swim spa was right next to the fence.  We had only a few feet for a privacy planting and it needed to grow to 10 feet tall and very narrow in order to fit.   I used my faithful clumping bamboo up in planters. This variety of clumping bamboo, Fargesia Robusta ‘Campbell’, stands straight up so it will not weep over and interfere with the swimming. Most varieties of clumping bamboo have too much weeping and arching shape to them and don’t work well for tiny landscapes.  The planters were advantageous for many reasons.  1st we would not need to dig deep and disturb the root system of the beloved California Myrtle tree.  2nd we could use an ideal soil mixture in the planters so the bamboo would thrive.  They will grow in our local clay top soil but will do much better in a soil mix that drains well.  3rd by putting them in planters they would be taller from the beginning.

Newly installed landscape

We utilized the existing walkway which fit the client’s cottage garden style and her budget.

The privacy for the driveway side was the hardest.  We needed to screen out a second story window at the neighbors and had no planting area to do it with.  We decided to use an arbor.  It fit beautifully and we were all enthusiastic about it.  However, when all the numbers came in, the arbor wasn’t a practical choice.  When I visited recently to see how things were growing along we talked about a more affordable solution.

Before swim spa

Before – The new swim spa dominated the back yard.

Two small trees in very large pots placed strategically will be part of a future phase.  In a small yard situation like this tiny backyard we can’t afford to leave the driveway to the garage read as a driveway.   They didn’t use the small garage for parking a car.  Using furniture and pots we made this area a sunny sitting area.

Rachael says

“Hi Carol,  Nice to hear from you.  Yes we would love for you to come by and take a look.  All the Camellia Sasanqua  are blooming and they are beautiful!  The bamboo is already growing and we love our little backyard oasis.  Thank you for referring us to Scott Schultze, Tellurian Gardens.  He and his crew did a great job installing the new landscape.”

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.