When inspiration strikes

The last two weekends have been busy ones in my garden. The weather has been unexpectedly dry (despite the showers), allowing me to plant at a time of year I usually stay inside out of the rain. Why this frenzy of garden productivity? I finally found the inspiration I needed for the large, dry, sunny area of the garden. And planting now, while I can still expect about two more months of rain, should help to reduce stress when summer arrives. Once, I would have expected rain lasting through May and even a little into June, but the last two years the rains mostly stopped some time in April. 
A view of "The Park" from two years ago, in early spring. The ginkgo is the gangly tree in front of that big mass of green near the center of the photo, a patch of salal that is a relict of when the area was covered in Douglas firs. That mound was formerly a cluster of red alder. The rhododendron on the far left WILL be moved this year to location with more shade and moisture.
I've come to think of this area as "The Park," after recurring reader comments to that effect. The Park was once covered in large Douglas firs, as is most of the property. Those trees were removed when I was in high school. South of the house, the closer trees posed a danger from branches (and potentially whole trees) falling in the strong winds that come from that direction. The entire area was cleared for that purpose, as well as letting in more sun, especially during the winter. The plan was to replant the area with shorter, primarily deciduous trees that wouldn't be tall enough to fall on the house and would let in more light during winter.

Years went by, and non-native field grasses and perennial weeds reclaimed the area, with no trees planted, save for a Ginkgo biloba that struggled from an insect infestation and subsequent woodpecker cleaning of the bark, in a site too dry even for this resilient tree. Two years ago, I thought it was finally recovering and gaining steam, but last year it looked parched all summer and dropped its leaves early, hardly having grown at all. I just couldn't keep up with watering it. At this point it's too large to easily move. I'm close to cutting it down, but I'm weak. One more year, I think. One last chance. Several years ago, my parents added an Acer rubrum. I wish they had chosen something more drought-tolerant, but it's here now, so we'll deal with it. Other members of the sparse plantings include a Cedrus deodara and some poorly-placed rhododendrons that previously grew on the shaded southern end of the house. More on the rhododendrons later. On the right edge of the photo above, you can see part of a raised bed build between several stumps left over from the logging, where an Acer griseum and several other plants are still waiting for the rest of the bed to be filled in with plants around them.
The Park last year, with some small changes from the previous year. Cotinus 'Grace' (center, behind the irises) has been in the ground for almost a year. On the right, you can see daylilies in front of the Cercis canadensis. On the far left, a Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula' was added. And in the background, you can see the line of a trench for a new irrigation line, significantly easing the burden of dragging hoses around in the summer.
So that's what The Park has been for about eight years or so. I went off to college, then to the east coast, and this area mostly just sat, untouched except for an occasional lawn mower. I wanted to plant trees during my return visits, but I didn't have any kind of plan or vision. I could have planted native Garry or Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) and big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) but the former grows somewhat slowly and both become very large trees. I wanted more variety in trees and a more open canopy than either would provide. This winter, though, various elements connected in my mind to produce a mental image to direct my efforts: a woodland with a very open canopy, almost verging on a savanna in places. Four influences were key in this inspiration. Overarching everything in the last three years has been an increasing desire to grow plants adapted to my site with minimal input. That means little or no summer water once established, but able to withstand cold, wet clay loam in winter, without significant amendments. With our summer drought lengthening even as winter storms bring more extreme precipitation, it's an increasing challenge. Along with this desire has come a significantly improved understanding of microclimates and how to take advantage of them. I consider sites more carefully now, understanding their various quirks to find the best plants to grow there.

The Park as of two weeks ago. Dark patches mark newly planted trees.
Another source of inspiration came from a very different climate from my own. Anyone who has read Pam Penick's blog, Digging, or seen her garden in person (lucky), must surely have admired the crooked trunks of live oaks and Texas persimmon in her garden. I've admired her trees and serene garden for several years (as long as I've been following her blog). However, my climate is starkly different from that of central Texas. I didn't think there were any trees I could grow here that would provide a similar effect. I was resigned to admiring pictures of twisted trees from Texas, the southwest, and California, and visiting places like the Columbia River Gorge or the coast to get a fix in person, where high winds sculpt trees into appealingly architectural shapes. Away from these areas, trees in the PNW tend towards larger, fuller, denser canopies, though there are exceptions. As I would soon discover, to my everlasting delight, there are more exceptions than I'd imagined.

And this past weekend. Several more trees and two new beds. Hard to tell, with everything so small and far away, but it's starting to take shape.
Enter Cistus Nursery. I began working there as a propagator last April, and it's been one hell of a learning experience. This year has also been an intense period of research on my part into drought-tolerant trees, and Cistus is a great source for information and plants in that regard. Sean Hogan has a passion for evergreen oaks, and it's catching. I had never paid much attention to oaks before I started working at Cistus, and had no idea of the variety and adaptability of this fascinating genus. I am now firmly enamored with evergreen oaks. The mature specimens of Quercus arizonica, Quercus mexicana, and Quercus hypoleucoides (to name a few) growing at the nursery triggered the beginnings of a plan.

The vision that arose from the confluence of these various sources of inspiration was of an open oak woodland; twisted, architectural trunks and branches supporting a canopy of mostly evergreen foliage that casts dappled shade over an understory of primarily shrubs and evergreen ground covers. West coast natives would feature heavily throughout, with plenty of other drought-tolerant plants from similar climates. Plants would be sited to take advantage of the minor microclimates in the area, the regions where the lawn stays green longer in summer and grows more lushly, and places closer to the new faucets, reserved for plants that need more water, moving quickly to drier zones all the way to zones where no water need be applied in summer. Trees like Quercus mexicana, that don't need but may benefit from some supplemental water in summer, are perfect to tie together the space, as I can plant them in the wetter zones with more exotic plants as well as in the drier zones that will be planted primarily with west coast natives that can actually be harmed by summer irrigation.
Two weekends ago, after planting 13 Quercus mexicana in various arrays of 1-3 trees for a natural effect. Yes, they're seedlings, so all you can see from this distance is the dark patches of compost mulching the ground around them. Other plants have been set out in containers as I decide where to place them.
The best garden plans are open to change, though, and my vision wasn't quite finished forming. After visiting Tamara's new garden and receiving a gift of two young Quercus garryana (along with a Cornus nuttallii and several Umbellularia californica) I started thinking about native Garry oak savannas, one of the most endangered natural communities in the United States and Canada. I planted the two Garry oaks with ample space, in a large area behind the big mound of salal you can see in the first three photos, sort of off to the left in the background. I don't plan on adding any other large trees to that area, though I may put in a scattering of native shrubs like Ribes sanguineum, Holodiscus discolor, and Oemleria cerasiformis. The majority of the space around these two oaks will be converted into a meadow of native bunch grasses and wildflowers. And, while I'm at it, I decided I might as well do the same thing to cover the ground in the more cultivated region of The Park.. Though most of this area will eventually be too shaded for the majority of meadow plants, they can at least help keep out the weeds until they either disappear from too much shade (many years from now) or are gradually replaced with shrubs and groundcovers. And while they're covering the soil, they'll be improving it and attracting all manner of beneficial organisms. I've gotten the distinct impression my parents aren't exactly comfortable with a completely wild, natural meadow look, but except for the area around the two Garry oaks, the meadows are mostly temporary, to be replaced gradually with a visually-simpler palette of shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers such as drought-tolerant sedges, kinnikinnick, Asarum caudatum, Oxalis oregana, etc, all capable of tolerating dappled shade.

Last weekend, walking across the dry creek bed to get a bit closer than the last shot. Two larger beds now connect several plants on the left and right, with more in the distance. This weekend I planted 16 Aesculus californica (again, in various clusters), 1 more Quercus mexicana, 3 Quercus suber, 1 Cotinus 'Grace', 1 Cotinus coggygria 'Ancot' (aka Golden Spirit), 1 Leptospermum lanigerum 'Weeping Silver', 2 Magnolia maudiae, 1 Calycanthus occidentalis, 1 Arctostaphylos 'John Dourley', 1 Cistus 'Silver Pink' several clumps of tall bearded iris, and mulched all of the above. The last two were added to the screen planting along the road, another project. I also planted a few other things in other areas of the garden.
That change will happen gradually, organically, and even when much of the meadow has been shaded out, there will still be pockets of it in clearings and around the fringes. Most of the shrubs, perennials, and some of the groundcovers, such as the sedges, will be ecologically important in their own right. This won't be a sterile garden. It's going to be full of life. These are long-term plans I'm laying down, and frankly I hope I'm not the one carrying them out, except for occasional guidance and visits to lend a hand. This is my parents' yard, after all. Personally, I'm hoping to get into grad school, leave the nest permanently, and find my own patch of dirt to garden in. But right now I have no idea if grad school is going to happen and I can't base all my plans on the possibility of not being here to follow them to completion. I'd never do anything. I might as well not even plant trees because I won't live ot see them as majestic 100+ year old specimens. So I'm going to make plans, big plans, long-term plans, based on where I am now. If that changes, great. Hopefully my parents will have caught some of my vision and will work on it during their retirement. Or maybe they'll go in a completely different direction. It won't be my garden anymore. Anyway, enough of that tangent. Back on track.

I wouldn't be able to do all this if I didn't work at Cistus. I weeded out seedlings (with permission) of Quercus mexicana and Aesculus californica from the garden, which is why I was able to plant in such numbers. I also was gifted 3 Quercus suber, or cork oaks, which came to be planted in prominent positions near center stage. Actual center stage will be a clearing, inviting garden strollers to enter under the (someday) arching branches of the oaks, walking toward the deodar cedar. Someday I'd love to have a garden with mature cork oaks, picturesquely gnarled, preferably with epiphytic ferns along their branches. I'm just a little bit in love with them. Check out these photos on plant lust to understand why. Most of the plants I've put in so far have been freebies and discards from the nursery. Planting on this scale wouldn't be affordable otherwise, or at least it would take much, much longer just to plant all the trees. While I'm thanking Cistus, I should also thank plantlust.com, where I've spent many hours combing through their database, using their helpful filters to build lists of plants that should tolerate my conditions.

Past the two beds in the foreground of the last picture, looking left. I plan to gradually expand the mulched areas and sow them with my native seed mix.
Getting back to the meadow, I did a ton of research (I am just a tad obsessive) to find seed sources. I was especially looking for a seed mix composed of native bunch grasses and wildflowers, preferably one that would adapt to dappled shade over the years as the trees grew. A tall order, even without that last requirement. I wasn't interested in the "wildflower" mixes you generally see on seed racks, which are a mix of a few actual natives, usually overwhelmed by "natives" in a looser sense (as in North American, like Echinacea), and by non-native pests like chicory and bachelor buttons. I wanted the genuine article. A real, native meadow. First I had to figure out what grasses were actually native to the PNW, particularly west of the Cascades. Go figure, in a region dominated by forests, there isn't a whole lot of information on grasses. The majority of "native" grasses that come up in internet searches originate in the tall grass prairies of the midwest. This is definitely not what I was looking for. Bunch grasses for the interior west are fairly easy to find, but generally suffer in the relatively mild, wet winters west of the Cascades. I tried searching for lists of plants that grow in Garry oak savannas, but inevitably wound up with a paltry and incomplete list of the more prominent or showy species, the popular kids, while the more boring, nerdy (but often more ecologically significant) grasses and forbs were left out. After a couple weeks of research, I had a pretty good idea of the kinds of plants I was looking for. I finally stumbled upon a company called Silver Falls Seed, located in Silverton, OR, and their range of seed mixes composed of ACTUAL, NATIVE grasses and forbs. They have native seed mixes for everything from wetlands to dry meadows. I finally settled on their Northwest Woodland Economy Mix, composed of plants that will grow in full sun, but will also adapt to shadier conditions. What do you know? Exactly what I was looking for! I checked the lists of species, all native, all apparently adaptable to my conditions. So I ordered a pound of that mix, to start. 

And looking right.
I've also ordered an expanded palette of west coast native wildflowers from Everwilde Farms, located in Wisconsin but with a wide selection of bulk seeds. I'll mix them all together and scatter the seed over all the places I've mulched. I've been collecting cardboard from work, taking a cue from Tamara's sheet mulching at her new garden. Rather than removing all the sod from an area, I've just been removing it around the planting holes for the trees I've added. If a cluster of trees and other plants is close enough to make mowing between them inconvenient, or close enough that they can be easily joined at this point, I've laid the cardboard down on top of the grass, then mulched over the cardboard with either straight compost or a mix of composted bark and coarse sand (called organic plus), which is formulated by my local landscape supply company to break up clay soil and use with plants that prefer leaner conditions, like natives. It saves me a ton of work, though schlepping the wet compost and organic plus from the piles to the plantings is still exhausting. The cardboard will break down, and worms and other soil organisms will gradually mix everything together. My only concern is that the grasses and wildflowers may get too dry this summer while the cardboard is still present under the mulch. I've been spreading the mulch fairly thickly because of this, and the result is that I'm now almost out! Time to order another truck load! That's not entirely a bad thing, as the rest of the garden could use a little spring cleaning.
Formerly 6 cubic yards of organic plus on the left, and  4 cubic yards of compost on the right.
If you've made it this far, thank you so much for reading through all that. I know it was a lengthy, wordy post to slog through. I hope you found something of interest or value to you for your efforts. I'll be sharing more photos, with fewer words accompanying them, to show the progress in this area. I don't actually know how it will turn out. I have an idea in my head, and a bunch of trees in the ground already. Honestly, it's probably going to mature into a denser woodland than I intended, the way I've been planting, but not for many decades. Here are a few more pictures, just to finish off.
I forgot to mention earlier the staghorn sumac and Dasiphora floribunda (or whatever the name is currently) planted in The Park near the road.

The same area now.
When I planted the first round of Quercus mexicana two weekends ago, I also put in a trio of Acer sempervirens.

I've also started planting a few things in the mulch already. This was before I decided to direct sow the grasses and wildflowers. I've been taking bits of Satureja douglasii, yarrow, and kinnikinnick to start forming a groundcover around the newly-planted trees.
Some of the trees I planted are in close groups like these two. Only about a foot apart, I'm hoping these two will duke it out, leaning away from each other a bit and taking on more picturesque forms.
Lagerstroemia 'Natchez' was displaced from its original location by one of the cork oaks. It was admittedly too close to the deodar cedar for long-term well-being. It was moved to a different location where it should also have access to more summer moisture.
The red maple gets some new friends: 3 Aesculus californica, one tiny Calycanthus occidentalis (good luck spotting it against the mulch), a bit of  Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire', and two patches of purple bearded iris. On the other side of the stump is a volunteer clump of daffodils, which I forgot about last fall and planted Crocosmia 'Lucifer' on top of. The daffodils don't seem to mind.

Remember, gardens are all about change. I moved a Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' about 4 feet to the left in this photo. I know, huge difference, right? OCD? What's that?

At least the catalpa had a few months in that spot. This cork oak was moved the day after I planted it, 4-5 feet further from the other cork oaks than it was originally. I also moved the one behind it a couple feet back, trying to stretch out the spacing as much as possible while keeping the same relative position and perspective.
The tallest of the three cork oaks, and the only thing I've planted so far that's already taller than I am.

Already forming its fissured, corky bark!
The tops of the leaves are a dark green, and just glossy enough to glitter in the sunlight. The undersides are a beautiful pale blue-grey-green.


  1. Are you kidding? The meadow research alone is worth the read, plus it's fascinating to follow your thought processes through your many experiments. By the time you get that patch of earth, you will be Yoda-like in your knowledge base.

    1. Aw, thanks, Ricki! Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. You have a great situation, Evan: ample opportunity to experiment and learn while helping your parents sculpt their land. It's wonderful to see all those trees find a place to spread their roots!

    1. I'm very excited to finally have trees back in this area, even if most of them are less than a foot tall right now.

  3. I'm not sure how to follow Ricki's comment as she said everything I wanted to only better. I love what your creating here and hope the land stays in your family long enough that you get to see your efforts (research, hard work) achieve a sort of maturity.

    1. I think we'll be fine for the next 20 years, at least. That should be sufficient time for some growth to occur.

  4. "...So I'm going to make plans, big plans, long-term plans, based on where I am now." That is very Zen! I enjoyed reading about the evolution of your plans. Its important to take your time; unlike a small garden, "The Park" requires a BIG picture, which is not an easy thing to come by. I don't know much (anything really) about oaks. I notice the cork oak has sucker-like branches at the base (2nd to last picture). Will you clip them off? I hope you find a way to save the Ginkgo: its a magnificent tree at maturity. Looking forward to updates regarding the meadow seeding.

    1. I say that one minute, but then the next my zen breaks and I'm impatient to move on. All three cork oaks had suckers, which I did remove after taking these pictures. I want trees, not shrubs. At this point, it would be easier to start over with a new ginkgo in a better location.

  5. You know, Evan, those trees will grow faster than you think. Two years after we moved to our current garden, I dug up a tiny Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku' seedling from the front yard. I put it in a pot, coddled it for a few years and planted it. Now, the tree is over 20 feet tall! I am going to wager that you'll see the fruit of your efforts sooner than you think. :) Great post!

    1. Thanks, Grace! I hope you're right about the trees! I do sometimes forget that most of the things I've planted are only 1-3 years old, and some of them have grown quite a bit. Others, not so much.


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