Carrie Blake Park, Sequim: Hell for plants?

I think I may have discovered the place of eternal torment and damnation for ill-fated plants, and it’s right here in Sequim, at the popular Carrie Blake Park. I go there with my family quite a bit to walk around and enjoy the wildlife, and so my son can play on the toys. One part of the walk is planted with native plants, and looks like this:

Looks like it has potential, right? The native plants section is planted with perhaps 15 species, some of which will be pictured below.

One of our most special native plants is Garry oak (Quercus garryana) – although common in Oregon, it is quite rare this far north. Here in Sequim we have the remnants of an outlying oak prairie, which we would think is rather special except that most of it has been destroyed as a result of urbanization or agricultural practices. Here’s one that’s managed to survive being urbanizated; in fact they cared about it enough to route Hendrickson Road around it:

As you can see they are stately large trees, looking as much like a western oak as any of the California species, yet specially adapted to the Northwest in drier areas. And because they are quite slow growing and lack bright fall colors, they have not really caught on as a popular shade tree for gardens.

So, getting back to the park, there are a number of these planted along the trail pictured above, and near the north entrance to the park. In my visits I had been enjoying watching them develop and slowly assuming their typical rugged shape. So imagine my shock one day when I was walking along the path and saw this:

That’s right, you’re looking at a Garry oak that was once full and beautiful, with almost all of its branches pruned off. But wait! It doesn’t end there:

I’m sure this one (above) was pruned slightly less severely only because some of the higher branches were out of reach.

A row of three Garry oak sticks (above). If this is a bit difficult to make out it’s because, well, there’s not much left to look at.

Here we’ve managed to prune off every last one of the side branches while retaining the forked leader – brilliant.

Sometimes Garry oaks grow with multiple trunks, so it’s great that the natural form of this specimen has been, shall we say, emphasized.

Welcome to stumpytown, ye sad little trees.

The mad pruner strikes again!

Even Oregon ash is not immune to this treatment.

The funny thing is this pruning tactic is not achieving its desired end, which I can only suppose is to direct growth to the top of the tree. These trees are fighting to live by sprouting branches all along the trunk. These goofy looking sticks are about to look even goofier, like columnar little oak pom-poms, or something like that.

Let’s take a look at the other side of this path. Overall this seems like someone’s well-intentioned concept was poorly executed. This site appears to have heavily compacted, poor soil. I’m guessing this was planted with the usual “native plants require no care” mentality which really isn’t as true as most people think.

Here (above) is one of several flame maples (Acer ginnala) that is obviously under stress – note the numerous shoots arising from the base, and dead branches. I may be wrong, but if I had to guess I’d say the soil was probably not amended when this was planted. This is a challenge for balled and burlapped trees, even native species. Think about it: if a tree has half its roots cut off when harvested from its site of production, wouldn’t it need to be babied along a little bit at planting time? Of course, there may be something else going on here as well; I didn’t look closely at it.

Kinnikkinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) was heavily used here, but did not look good with extensive dead patches. I have to wonder if these plants were from a natively sourced kinnikkinnik, or a cultivar such as ‘Massachusetts’ which is poorly suited to our dry summers. Again I don’t claim to have the answer but my suspicions are aroused.

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is a great plant but it hates compacted soils. This was one of the better ones – many were stone dead (could someone have thought to remove dead plants from the planting before taking the time to slice and dice oak trees? Anyway…). Actually, a lot of our native plants will handle dry soils, but not compacted, dry soils. Additionally, when many native plants seed themselves in nature, they have the advantage of being able to quickly put down a very long taproot from an early age to ensure a constant moisture supply from the subsoil, an option not available to containerized plants that are planted out with branching root systems. In the background you can see some rather stumpy looking Mahonias which are making it but not really thriving. This planting illustrates very well that even native plants are not 100% tough and care free, and sometimes need a little help.

And then we have this random European birch (Betula pendula) tree. Why? I don’t know. It’s neither native nor drought tolerant. Actually, I think birches are among the worst possible choices for dry-summer Northwest gardens, and vastly overused here in general. Yeah, I know we have a native one, but even it still isn’t appropriate for dry sites like this. (Looking closely you can also see two more dead evergreen huckleberry plants in this picture.)

One plant that has actually performed well in this setting is this excellent form of our native Arctostaphylos x media, which combines flower and leaf appearance, vigor, and adaptability as well as I have ever seen with this hybrid.

In other parts of the park, one wonders if caretakers have heard of the term mulch. If you’re a balled an burlapped tree with half your roots cut off, imagine trying to get established competing against this much grass, and with no summer water.

Here’s the top of the tree – not looking good.

Again, an investment has been made but is not being well cared for.

This tree on close examination was obviously planted at least a few inches too deeply. It’s really a waste of money and effort to just plunk things into the ground without proper planting knowledge for things to survive and grow.

You can see that the base of the trunk was covered right up. One little branch of this poor tree is still trying to live!

This tree is certainly alive, and doesn’t look half bad on top, but has obviously been a repeat victim of “weedwhacker blight.”

On the same tree we have this really splendid pruning cut.

To line the south entrance to the park, purple leaf plums have been chosen. Unfortunately, their visual impact suffers from the fact that you can about see right through them.

Purple leaf plums are among my least favorite trees (though, I acknowledge, some cultivars are worse than others). In general, they only do something interesting for about a week and a half in spring when they are in bloom, and then look ugly the whole rest of the year. They have poor form and many of them seem to be pest and disease magnets.

And three random cherry trees. I’m not sure why. At least they look better than the plums.

Many of the flowering cherry trees in the park are in poor health, though. For example, Mr. Mad Pruners might have expended a little effort on this one, like, right at the base.

Another example of great design, poor planting choice – this worthless Nandina ‘Plum Passion’. This is one of many plants that has obviously been developed for impulse appeal at the nursery rather than long term performance in the landscape (the subject of a future blog post!).

The lack of upkeep in this meditation garden would probably not make Sequim’s sister city in Japan proud. The only thing to meditate about is how long it would take to pull all those weeds out of it.

This extensive planting is almost well done if a bit too orderly and unnatural for my taste.

As you can see, Monsanto-manufactured RoundUp remains the weed control method of choice. Although I suppose things would be worse if they just let everything go.

In places this planting perhaps seems to have some potential. But perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to note that Euphorbia myrsinites, which reseeds itself freely in Sequim, is a Class B noxious weed in Washington State.

This is new. I’d call this really a colossal waste. Any of these that manage to survive the summer will be eaten by deer this winter. Even from a design standpoint, this would still bother me if better plants were chosen. No further comment.

Nearby is posted this sign showing plans for a large undeveloped area. Click to enlarge.

A close up of the garden plan (click to enlarge). Not to be rude or anything but to me this looks like the confused, uninspired bastard child of a bunch of people’s competing interests. (But then that is pretty much how the City of Sequim functions in general, as far as I can tell from reading the paper.) The space allocated for each concept/section is insufficient to effectively demonstrate any of them well. And why reduce “drought tolerant” to one small area? Why not have the whole thing be drought tolerant – or at least most of it? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t the whole thing be deer proof? Who’s going to stand guard to protect all the other plantings from voracious naughty Bambis?

Well I’ve probably gone on long enough about that. Now to some positive news. First, it should be noted that not all of the trees and plantings in the park are dead, ugly, or abused. A proportion of them, even including some newer trees, are healthy and look great.

Also, I really like this:

Under each of those little cages grows, we hope, a little Garry oak (the cages must be to protect them from loppers-wielding Sequim city maintenance workers). You can also see more of the remnant of the Sequim Prairie oaks on the hillside behind them. I’m curious to know whether the restoration area was in fact previously oak prairie, as the soil there appears to be more moist than they usually prefer. The grasses there look nothing like the dry bunchgrasses of a true oak prairie – it’s going to take a lot more work to restore this area fully if indeed that is the goal of those behind this project. One other thing that would be nice to know is whether these oaks were in fact sourced from Sequim Garry oak populations, or brought up from Oregon, which would be less ideal. (The Northwest oak prairie, by the way, is not an entirely natural construct: they have largely persisted from the Holocene warm period (c. 5,000 – 9,000 years ago) when our climate was warmer and drier, by the repeated controlled burning practiced by Native Americans who used the Camas that grew on these prairies. Left to itself this ecosystem would have been out-competed by native conifers long ago.)

My take: the city of Sequim needs to hire someone with true qualifications in horticulture including at least an associates degree in horticulture and CPH (certified professional horticulturist) status, and preferably some formal training in botany so that person will actually have a clue how plants grow. (I have no idea who is responsible for this – perhaps someone was just doing as they were instructed by someone higher up – but if they ever studied horticulture I can’t recommend their place of study!) With a major overhaul in the management of Carrie Blake Park including knowledgeable caretakers, and a lot of luck, perhaps what looks like a plant hell now will someday prove only to be plant purgatory.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Billy Goodnick
    May 26, 2011 @ 20:24:17

    Where do I begin? Maybe by weeping silently and clutching my blanket over my head. It’s tragic that these crimes against horticulture continue unabated. Obviously, neither the people wielding the tools, their bosses or the department leaders have even a clue regarding plant needs, aesthetics, or long-term safety for the public. Keep fighting the good fight. I’d suggest attending your local city council meetings from time to time and give them an earful.

    Reply

  2. Steve S.
    May 27, 2011 @ 09:57:31

    It’s a GOVERNMENT OWNED park! What do you expect?

    Reply

  3. David R.
    May 27, 2011 @ 16:40:36

    It looks like some good old boys from east Texas got a hold of those things. I say things cause they sure don’t look like trees yet. That one planting with all the meatballs looks a little weird too. LOL.

    Reply

  4. Ian
    May 27, 2011 @ 23:08:03

    Billy, you’re right Sequim isn’t a big city but that’s no excuse for this. Bringing this to the city’s attention isn’t out of the question but the council has been characterized as a very negative environment where pretty much no one gets along or agrees on anything, so there’s a good chance I’d be wasting my time. We’ll see – I know there are at least a few locals who follow this blog.

    Steve, with adequate funding, private gardens are generally better cared for and more sensibly managed, that’s for sure – Western Hills and Heronswood in their glory days come to mind.

    David, I hope that’s not how they prune things in east Texas. If summer ever gets here all those meatballs will probably be dead. That wouldn’t break my heart! Except that it’s still a waste.

    Reply

  5. Trackback: The Amazing Resilience of Trees | THE DESERT NORTHWEST [blog]

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