Problems with Municipal Street Tree Code

First off, a slightly late Merry Christmas to all! We hope no one’s grandma got run over by a reindeer this year.

Well with the holidays more or less behind us, I’m certain we must all have our mind on just one thing, which of course is street trees. Is there anything more enchanting than the silhouette of bare winter branches against a dark, rain-soaked sky? Come to think of it, perhaps there is.

I’m going to dive into what I think is wrong with municipal street tree code, and in so doing I’m sure this is going to sound like another one of those really negative posts. Am I just here to pick on municipalities for creating policy on this stuff? If we’re doing things so wrong, then what are my suggestions for positive change? Well, with the publication of this blog post comes my commitment to follow it up with something productive. That may take me a few weeks but we’ll get there.

Let’s start with an example of why I think this is necessary. Coincidentally, Lance Wright recently posted the following commentary, with photos, to Facebook:

“Portland has been planting Parrotia persica frequently as a street tree, probably the cultivar ’Vanessa’. The species is ‘decurrent’, with weak apical dominance, as it has a shrubby form with competing leaders. Often times these tend to sucker and sprout, even without pruning or damage, as does the tree pictured here forming a very congested silhouette down to the ground. These can also be quite broad relative to their height…making them a questionable choice for narrow parking strips such as this. As street trees are rarely pruned /trained this is what you can get. This one has been in place less than five years and is already encroaching into the street and taking over the sidewalk. Some Parrotia are better behaved, but I often see this in SE Portland. I do love these in the right place…I have a 30+ year old one in our garden!”


Photos by Lance Wright


So I’m just putting that out there as an example to introduce the topic. It is apparent that something has gone wrong in this instance, because the result is less than desirable. It is worth exploring what that might be.

Rather than Portland, however, my frame of reference here will be the Street Tree Guide for the City of Port Angeles, since it is the city closest to our nursery that has any kind of street tree code. This document is available online here.  (Parrotia is on their list as well! By the way, if any such document exists for Sequim, it is not online that I can find. Let us hope this means it is not too late to craft a more sensible policy!)

I want to begin by saying that I don’t think there is anything wrong with just having guidelines in general that concern street trees. One has to start somewhere, and something is better than nothing. No city, nor its residents, want street trees to rip up sidewalks, drop heavy cones on cars, or otherwise become a public hazard. I can also say this policy is not in any way consistently enforced, as one can tell just by looking around the city. Whether we think a high level of enforcement is good or bad, I would put forth that a city should have the goal of drawing up a plan that allows for easy and consistent enforcement with a minimum of ambiguity or exceptions. That way no one feels like they are being treated unfairly.

Unfortunately, however, a quick look at this document reveals some inconsistencies, which I will describe. One also finds quite a few errors of spelling, word spacing, underlining and layout that make it look a bit sloppy and unprofessional. I’m not saying I’m always perfect in that regard myself, but it jumps out at me. (I’d be glad to fix that!)


(Click images to enlarge)

I’ll skip over the first page, which I don’t consider to be the most controversial or problematic part of this document. Moving on to the second page, we have a set of guidelines which mostly make good sense and are fine, until we come to the part about minimum caliper requirements. After some consideration I’ve concluded that these requirements are a big part of the problem. Having looked into this topic a bit, I’m wondering if there’s something I’m missing, because the reasons I’ve unearthed so far for establishing minimum caliper requirements just aren’t great. Generally they seem to have more to do with project bids by landscaping firms, rather than individual homeowners: municipalities don’t want landscapers cutting corners on tree size to reduce their costs and appear more competitive. There is also the issue of tree replacement: if a large tree is lost there may be a perceived need to replace it with something immediately substantial. (Even this is debatable, as I hope to demonstrate later.)

The main problem with caliper standards is that they are far too limiting for everyday homeowners or gardeners. The homeowner is going to have a lot more tree options if not restricted to what is available in a large caliper. Also, if they are paying for the trees themselves, this could be the difference between buying a tree vs. not buying it at all, if they are on a tight budget. In my view the homeowner should be automatically exempted from this requirement except perhaps in instances where they are responsible for the loss of a large tree that is being replaced. There are other reasons why cities should be much more open minded about this as well, but I’ll get to that in the follow-up post.




So here we have the list of recommended large and medium trees for Port Angeles. First of all I notice that at least half of these trees are going to be difficult to find in any size. Suppose we classify trees three different ways: those recommended by municipal tree code of Northwest cities, those available in our local nurseries, and those that are actually the best performers in our region. We would have three very different lists, with some overlap, but a lot less than you might think. This discrepancy is unfortunate but there it is. For example, not once ever in my life have I seen Osage Orange in a nursery around here; it is exceptionally rare in the Northwest.

Then I notice that some of the medium trees grow larger than some of the large trees. So that’s interesting. In general some of the heights seem a bit “off” for what may be expected in our climate. But then others are accurate enough. This leads me to think parts of this list were assembled from a city or cities in a different climate, as some trees grow to a smaller or larger ultimate size in our climate than described by many popular references. A good regionally specific reference as to what ultimate sizes for trees we can truly expect in our climate is found in Trees of Seattle, by Arthur Lee Jacobson (2006). The reader will find some major surprises as to how certain tree species (commonly sold, and otherwise) have performed in the Northwest over time. However, even in that book, some gaps exist for species that haven’t been established in our region for very long.



I find it interesting that small trees are not preferable. This may be because they don’t cast as much shade or contribute as much canopy for wildlife habitat or sequestration of pollutants. There may be other reasons I haven’t thought of. I think we ought to regard this principle with a great deal of flexibility, as the homeowner may wish to use the space for something besides grass and one huge tree that shades out everything around it.

In general the selection here doesn’t excite me too much. The first thing I would take off the list of small trees is Prunus virginiana. It is ugly and suckers everywhere: I know this because I have been trying to eliminate it from our property for years. I would also note that Acer davidii (never have I seen this in a large caliper, BTW) certainly looks far better in about half shade than in full sun. Ideally a street tree should be adapted to mostly sunny and relatively dry conditions; species should be selected with this in mind.

So taking those lists together, here are the main things that stand out. I know it’s kind of buried down here, but the following issues are really the central point of this post:

1. All the recommended trees are deciduous.

2. The majority of these trees are native to climates where it rains all summer.

So to the first point, although I don’t automatically hate all deciduous trees, I am an advocate of using broad-leaf evergreens far more than we do around here. Some have been accused of looking “gloomy” in our winters, but for the most part I think they add interest by giving you something to look at in winter besides bare sticks. Many of them have interesting foliage, form, or bark that is very appealing when the winter sun hits it. There are literally hundreds of options for broadleaf evergreen trees that do well in the Northwest; many of which you can read about in books such as Trees for All Seasons. Even if you are not a huge fan of broadleaf evergreens, there can be no sensible reason why ALL the trees on the list need to be deciduous.

But I am sure this all comes back to the caliper requirement. Broadleaf evergreens are generally grown in containers, rather than produced in the field, and are thus seldom available in the large caliper desired. Put another way, because they are container-grown rather than field-grown, they are more expensive to produce to get the same size as a comparable deciduous tree, and thus are not produced because of the lack of demand for the more expensive option. Doubtless this is a major reason they have been largely overlooked.

Now to the second issue. I am aware that some planting areas are irrigated (at least until the irrigation system breaks), and there is a certain amount we can get away with as far as using trees native to climates with more rainfall during the growing season. In the follow-up post I will discuss what I believe makes the most sense as far as selecting and planting species that are well adapted to our region. But, taken together, tree species native to China, Japan, and the Eastern United States, all places where it rains all summer, make less sense here than species better adapted to dry summers. As my readers are well aware, we have a dry-summer climate here in the Northwest. Thus, I simply don’t think it makes sense to recommend continued planting of thirsty trees. It makes even less sense when we consider that our summers have been on a warming trend and water resources are likely to be increasingly strained over time.

Still, I’m not drawing too hard of a line: some tree species from wet-summer climates perform adequately here, and examples of them can be seen in cities all over the Northwest. Some perform well in Port Angeles but not Portland, since Portland is that much hotter and drier. Some of them perform well but only on good soil: in less than ideal soil conditions they languish and die. For example, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, a relatively popular/available selection from the list, really needs heavily amended or deep, fertile soil to do well here without irrigation in the long run. One could recommended it for, say, Mount Vernon, a city built on deep, alluvial soil. But for much of the Northwest this species isn’t a great choice.


Here is where more problems and inconsistencies pop up. But before getting into that I would say there are large parts of this list I certainly agree with. Many of these trees are inappropriate as street trees and ought not to be used, no doubt about it!

“Large Evergreens” – I can see why something like a 200′ tall douglas fir doesn’t make sense as a street tree. Still, I would think you’d want to allow for quite a few exceptions to this rule, especially for those species which develop dome-shaped canopies, have exceptional drought tolerance, and/or remain compact in stature. I can’t believe they forgot to mention Leyland cypress, the scourge of the Northwest. Also I find it interesting that deciduous conifers and true cypresses are not mentioned here; though obviously they are also not on the approved list. There are a few rather large Monterrey cypresses around Port Angeles, which are on the large side for a street tree but make quite a statement!

The next six things on there are certainly problem trees. However, I would question whether Platanus occidentalis is really so much better behaved than P. x acerifolia, which is on the approved list. My impression is that all Platanus have rather aggressive root systems, but perhaps there is some variation.

Then you get to “palm trees.” This is the part that tells me some snippets of this document were pulled from a completely different climate. I would like to know where in the Pacific Northwest anyone has seen palm trees cause the problems this document accuses them of: invasive root systems, damaging sidewalks, weak wood that breaks easily. In California, larger species of palm trees have moderately aggressive root systems but even these don’t have the capacity to crack sidewalks. Palm trees don’t even form a woody root system. Most problems with palms are associated with species that won’t even grow long-term in our climate (Washingtonia and Phoenix species, mainly). These problems include being messy, harboring rodents, dropping huge leaves and sticky fruit at random, and being a major fire hazard when the older leaves aren’t trimmed off. But none of these issues were mentioned in our document, so I’m just saying let’s be honest about what those problems are.

Most importantly, because we cannot grow those problematic species of palms in our climate, all the concerns about them that I described don’t mean much here in the Northwest. Our most popular hardy palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, is quite well behaved, has never been known to harbor rodents, possesses fruits that are small and not messy, and I’m darned if I’ve ever heard of one catching fire.

Now as far as using T. fortunei as a street tree in our climate, I think that it is too small-scale to be impressive, besides which it prefers summer water. There are some nice ones in Port Angeles (including some right along Eunice St. as street trees) but they can also look a bit weather-beaten with exposure. So to clarify, I’m not advocating its use as a street tree; I mainly want this document to make sense from a horticultural standpoint.

(Now Jubaea chilensis as a street tree, I could get behind! The Seattle Arboretum invested in some large ones a few years back, which so far has paid off as they are looking great [except for people stealing the fronds for Palm Sunday]. It has also proven hardy in Victoria. Notably, this species is native to a summer-dry climate. Of course, one may still complain about the fact that it may take decades for enough clear trunk to be produced that the fronds are above head height.)

So moving on from palm trees, I have no problems with the next bit, although I will say I have noticed quite a few of these being used as street trees in Port Angeles. I find it interesting that Fraxinus are prohibited generally; certain ash cultivars have been very popular street trees in other municipalities, especially in the interior West, and remain so even now with new plantings continuing. Three specific ashes are mentioned and it’s ambiguous as to whether the widely used types should be allowed. Also, as long as we’re considering birch, we may as well ban them all equally since they are all aggressive surface rooters that are greedy for water and can get significant pest problems when they get too dry (though I’ve seen less of this in Clallam County than in, say, Seattle or Olympia, no doubt because summers are cooler).

Moving on to horsechestnut—wait, didn’t we just see that on the recommended trees list? And it’s certainly more LARGE than medium. Also it reseeds itself. It does great here and is very well adapted, but if we are concerned about reseeding potential, we probably don’t want to recommend it.

Fruit bearing trees—mixed feelings here, since there is something to be said for planting fruit trees in publicly accessible places. However the problems with them are substantial: dropping fruit on cars, staining sidewalks, etc. There would need to be some assurance that they will be pruned annually and maintained to fit the space. I don’t expect that to be realistic in most instances.


Overplanted trees: YES! I’m on board with not using any more of these. But let’s add to the list virtually anything else native to a climate with wet summers that is reasonably common—perhaps granting exceptions for a few tough species that still do pretty well here (eastern US oaks, for example). As long as we’re telling people what not to plant, we might as well be consistent!

Ok, that is enough with the critical mindset for now. In a future installment, I promise to offer constructive thoughts on the topic in general, on what types of trees should be used, and will be so bold as to recommend at least a starter selection of appropriate species that would make great street trees in the Northwest.

Spiky Plants of Sequim

About two weeks ago I took my youngest family member on a bicycle tour of some of the spiky plants growing around Sequim.  I thought I would share the photos, but first I’ll make mention of a couple brief notes.

Did you miss our fall Open House the weekend before last?  Well that may be because I neglected to advertise it.  Or perhaps that isn’t the reason.  In any case, we’re planning to have one more open day this year on October 29th.  Stay tuned for more information on that!  Of course, you’re still welcome to come out by appointment on another day if you like.

The other big news is greenhouse 4 is finally done.  Well, it doesn’t have doors, or irrigation, but these are minor details.  The main thing is it has plastic on it and looks great.  The plastic expands when it is warm and contracts when cold, so it has to go on when it is warm (or hot) and sunny or it doesn’t fit well.  Thanks to assistance once again from our volunteer Bob, we got the job done just in time last week, when it was sunny and relatively mild.  Now of course the fall-like weather has set in.  We are happy to have some new uncluttered and open space as it will help us to clean through parts of the other greenhouses that are overcrowded.

Finally we (well just me actually) had the pleasure last month of visiting a nursery I really like, Wild Ginger Farm, which is located southeast of Portland.  They specialize in alpine plants and have a fine selection of Penstemons, Lewisias, Lilies, dryland native plants, and much more.  We thank Truls Jensen, the owner, for a nursery tour.  Very nice folks. We recommend you check them out!

All right, now on to the spiky plants tour!


First we have this Yucca patch just outside of town.  These appear to be Yucca glauca or a similar species (there are several that look more or less like this).  Might not be all that exciting for some of my readers, but this is actually a very rare plant in these parts, one which nurseries almost never sell even though it is easy to grow and does great here.  The homeowners (one presumes) have tried to kill this thing off a time or two, but it always returns from the roots.


In another yard, here’s a perfect, mature specimen of Hesperaloe parviflora.  I have pictured this plant on my blog before… a really long time ago.  (I’m sure you all remember that, right? Ha ha.)  It has grown nicely since then; I guess it really likes Sequim!


This Opuntia engelmannii on Hammond St. is probably a “child” of the large specimen of this species that used to grow at a storefront in Carlsborg.  I’ve posted about that plant before as well.  It’s nice to see someone who likes cacti enough to keep them going.  I have seen a couple others around town too, which are probably all this same clone.


Here’s a yard on the south side of town planted by someone who really likes interesting plants.  This is a Dasylirion that appears to be too green to be D. wheeleri, but I can’t be certain.  I can hardly tell these things apart and they are kind of a taxonomic challenge.  It may be D. longissimum. I wonder where they got it?


In the same yard, an outstanding specimen of Yucca rostrata.  Just look how happy this thing is in Sequim.  (The Gunnera in the background isn’t exactly what I think of as a combination plant for Yucca rostrata, but like I said this yard is definitely about the plants!)


Then right in downtown Sequim along Washington Street (which is basically Sequim’s main drag), the city (presumably) has planted some cute little Yuccas.  I think this is again Y. rostrata but it will be a few years before it looks as good as the specimen pictured earlier.


This wider shot shows where they are planted, in little islands on both sides of the street.  I actually think this is great.  But I have a few questions.  Did whoever selected these know how tall they can get?  Are they going to be a problem being planted so close next to those large deciduous trees?  (I have to admit I didn’t even notice what those were.)  How long will it be before someone complains about getting poked by them, and the city is pressured to take them out?  That would be a shame, but not really surprising if it happens down the road.


Not spiky, but this is Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ at the new Sequim Civic Center.  We sell this, and a few plants from our nursery have found their way into city plantings.  In general, I am pleased to see the city getting a little more adventurous with the use of dryland plants (we’ll ignore that dogwood at upper left for now).


Also not spiky, but I have passed this Eucalyptus gunnii on Cedar St. a million times without stopping to photograph it, so I figured I’d better do that.


Now what is this, across 5th Avenue on Spruce St.?  Hint: it’s not a spruce.  (Although spruces are prickly.)


That’s right–it’s an honest to goodness Agave.  Although not enormous it is certainly large enough to make a statement.  The owners had this plant in a pot for a long time.  After a while it apparently grew too large to overwinter in their sunroom, and they let it sit outside in a pot for a year or two, even through a winter that went down to 17°F.  It must have rooted into the ground from its pot because I later saw it tipped on its side for a couple months. For a while there I was worried they were going to get rid of it or something.  But no, they just wanted to create this special planting bed to put it in, which took them some time. Now it looks happily at home.


The big question, of course, is what kind of Agave is it?  It looks a good deal like A. americana, but one does not expect that species to survive 17°F in a pot without a scratch in the Pacific Northwest, as this plant did.  In my experience A. americana gets frost damage in a normal winter, and the couple times I put it in the ground it failed. However, it’s not totally out of the question, as there is a good deal of variation in different clones of A. americana.  My next best guess would be A. protamericana, but who knows.  It’s happy and I’m enjoying keeping an eye on it.

Well, if we went a little farther out of town there would be a few more plants I could show you, but that was all I had time for that morning, so it will have to do for now.  All of these plants are rather special.  Some might consider them to be “pushing the boundaries” of what will grow here, but I just think of them as plants that make sense in a relatively drier part of the Pacific Northwest, and require virtually no care.  It’s not like the Agave needs that drip emitter on it! They are actually very practical, and they look different than the same boring stuff everyone else puts in their yards.

New Low Impact Garden in Sequim

Before I get to the subject at hand, allow me to interject a brief commercial announcement. This Saturday we will be at the Fronderosa Frolic in Gold Bar with lots of other exciting nurseries! As usual, your special requests are welcome. Please note the event is only ONE DAY this year. This might be the region’s geekiest plant sale. Maybe we will get some thunderstorms. That would be exciting. See you there! Woohoo! And such. OK, moving along now. . .

I recently learned of this new “low impact” garden that has been installed at Sequim’s Carrie Blake Park (here and here). So I thought I had better go check it out and see what I think, since “low impact” and “water wise” are pretty much what we are about (along with excellent plantsmanship) here at the Desert Northwest.



I ought to preface this post by noting that I had no idea any of this was going on until I read about it in the Sequim Gazette online. Some of our local nurseries donated plants to this project, but we were not contacted. I suppose that means there are a lot of people here in the area who still don’t know about our nursery. Well, we are not in a prominently visible location, which you will know if you have been here.


The garden area is divided into several different sections, which I didn’t figure out until the end since I started at the “wrong” end of the garden and missed the interpretive sign. The larger part of the area consists of “open prairie” and “woodland” plantings. There are also demonstration rain gardens, seashore gardens and a rock garden.

I am glad they have the rock garden. Rock gardening is kind of a big deal when it comes to combining low-maintenance with plantsmanship. It is tempting to think of rock gardening as a dying fad for eccentric old geezers, as I (dare I admit) once did. I have been slow to get into it because of the amount of time and skill it takes to place the rocks. But there is certainly a such thing as a garden that combines the best of rock gardening and low maintenance.




This rock garden was small but had a decent selection of plants. It will be interesting to see how the Agaves (A. montana and A. ‘Blue Glow’) do. It is great that someone thought to try them, but I would have started with A. parryi, and I would have started with at least a 2-gallon plant or nothing at all, since smaller sizes just don’t always make it through their first winter. But hey – maybe we’ll get lucky with these; you never know. The manzanita at the corner of the garden (left side of pic above) was not labeled as to species, but looks like probably a form of A. densiflora which means it will get way too big for the space, and grow into the parking lot and halfway over the rock garden if it is not cut back or eventually removed. Oh well.

I thought the rain garden was well done given the limitations of the space. I only wonder if enough water will run into there to sustain the plants that are supposed to benefit from the runoff. Time will tell, I guess.


It is hard to say how the rest of the garden will look until it fills out, so I guess I won’t say much yet. Most of these plants are very small, and one gets the feeling that availability of source material was a major limitation when doing this project. That doesn’t surprise me. Conventional nurseries in our region continue to be pretty out of touch when it comes to offering plants that really like to live in our climate without getting irrigated all summer.


A Madrona. Well that’s good.


One can hardly go wrong with beach strawberry. As long as you keep it out of the rock garden!


Calocedrus is another good choice. This one looks a bit stressed out, but ought to make it.


Lots of kinnikkinnik here. One has to be cautious with it in our climate, I think, because of the prevailing availability of inferior clones like ‘Massachusetts’ that can burn in hotter gardens and aren’t as tough as people expect. ‘Point Reyes’ is probably the best selection for Northwest dry gardens.

Conceptually, I like this garden: it is something I can get behind. The different areas are well thought out. The careful planning, consideration and work that went into it is very much evident. The billboards are loaded with good information and even talk about how dry it is in the Olympic rainshadow.


Here, we have a hose bib. Leading to. . .


. . .a sprinkler. Oh well. It would be better to hand-water the plants to get them to grow deep root systems, but it is probably too many plants for that to be realistic. You can do it with a sprinkler too as long as it only comes on once every week or two.

To me the weakest link is simply plant material. I can’t imagine the full spectrum of plants that was desired was incorporated here (if it was, I have a lot more educating to do about drought tolerant plants for our climate. HINT: very few of them are available at most nurseries). I don’t know what their plant budget was, and it sounds like many items were donated; but my approach would have been to specify what plants were needed beforehand and have someone contract-grow most of them (as my first budget priority), excepting a few things that are readily available. I imagine a low impact garden in the Northwest being full of Callistemons, Grevilleas, Leptospermums, Olearias, a vast array of species Penstemons, Artemisias, Garrya, Baccharis, Yuccas, ice plants, other hardy cacti and succulents, and many more kinds of Cistus, Ceanothus and manzanita; to start with.


A Cistus. It’s doing splendidly – so why just two of them in the whole project?

I (cautiously) mention budget priorities in relation to plant selection because I think it is important to “wow” people before they are interested enough in a project like this to want to be informed about it through brochures, signage, etc. A lot of people aren’t going to be motivated to try something different if they aren’t immediately impressed. I guess I just don’t want anyone to get the idea that low impact gardens are boring or visually underwhelming. I don’t want anyone to feel like a compromise is involved when aiming to conserve water in your garden. There are thousands of drought tolerant plants out there that are suited to our climate, and a water-wise garden can look like a lot of different things.

If, on the other hand, the goal of this project was to get people to use plants that are already easy to find in the nursery trade, then we have a bigger problem: nurseries, largely, aren’t growing the right plants for our region. This sounds like a fine topic for another blog post. And I am now sounding like a broken record.

I hope this review has come off as well balanced and not too scathing. I get it that these plants are not easy to find: it can be a major challenge, but not impossible. I also get it that funding was limited.

So with all that in mind, I wish to let anyone who reads this know that I am happy to contribute plants to this project, or similar projects in the future, especially if they are close to home here in Sequim. That includes both donations (subject to current availability and within reasonable limits) and competitively priced contract growing for specialty items. I’m here. But you still have to find my web site and blog: I just don’t want to seem like a pushy sort of person, I guess.

Dryland Plant Management in the Nursery and Landscape

So, to follow up on a recent post, we hear that the proposed Seattle green code provisions have been shelved for now. Apparently they are going start over next year and consult various horticulture/landscaping industry representatives this time to draft a provision that makes sense. I have mixed feelings. Partly I almost think it would be (dare I say) funny to see the rule go forward more or less as originally proposed, just to see how nurseries and people would respond. Imagine Swanson’s selling 75% native plants… heh heh heh. Anyway, I read that there is going to be some big meeting about it on September 5th. I am really bummed that I did not get invitated, especially since all the ideas I sent them were so well-received by my readers (including many who didn’t comment on my blog). But I’m actually not that bummed, since we have a lot of things to do out here that are funner than sitting in meetings; and Seattle is far away, with lots of traffic, and politics, and people who sit in meetings. At least that is our perspective from the far away land of Sequim.

I wrote (more or less) against the rule, but (in part) not for the same reasons other people wrote against it. I really like this post about it by Mark Turner, a respected authority about native plants, who presents a very well-thought out and balanced view. On the other hand, I note that many of these letters make two major points which I believe are false: one, that native plants pose special problems when it comes to producing them in the nursery and/or growing them in your garden; two, that native plants offer such a limited selection as to be uninteresting or unexciting. I can see what people who make such comments are getting at, but ultimately I don’t buy either of these points as valuable refutations of the green code provisions as originally proposed. For me this whole issue really comes down to water use: that should be the central focus in crafting this provision. So in this post I shall attempt to demonstrate that nursery plants are not really that difficult to produce or cultivate. In a future post I may attempt to expand upon point number two.

In my letter to the Seattle City Council, I stated that “native and water-wise plants are, broadly speaking, not difficult to grow either in nurseries or gardens.” This is likely a somewhat controversial statement, since its runs contrary to what most other people writing letters to the Seattle City Council on this topic (at least, the ones I got to see) seem to think about growing our native plants. So while not everyone may agree with me, I still consider this to be a matter of education and adjusting to different practices from what nurseries and gardeners are usually accustomed to. For that reason I am happy to divulge some of our methods when it comes to successfully producing and maintaining these plants. Perhaps over the winter I will have time to revise and expand this into more of a formal article and put it on the Desert Northwest web site.

Dryland Plants in the Nursery

Some think that dryland and/or native plants are unamenable to nursery production and therefore will never become popular. Our starting assumption, then, is that there is nothing wrong with the plants, since they are obviously well adapted here, being native; so there must be something wrong with conventional nursery production. And, based on our experience, we find that the main thing that can go wrong with these plants is supplying too much water, especially in the summer. Most growers have their plants on a sprinkler system that is timed to water at regular intervals. Frequently the sprinklers are set to run for a couple hours every day (overnight, ideally) during the growing season. A few smaller growers hand-water everything and can use that method to regulate how much water plants get. It should come as no surprise that we do not believe one should indiscriminately water the crap out of everything in a climate that has a pronounced very dry season occurring reliably every summer.

So we don’t want to soak our plants to death with timed waterings, but we sure as heck don’t have time to hand-water it all either. So we have decided to say “no” to timers and “yes” to sprinklers. Using sprinklers, we water more or less often depending on what the plants need to maintain good growth, and on the weather. What this looks like is during a typical summer heat wave, the plants get water perhaps every 36 hours or so. During periods of cooler weather watering goes to a 60 – 72 hour schedule. We think it best to give the plants a very thorough soaking when watering, and then let the plants dry out somewhat between waterings. We just wait until they really need it before we turn the sprinkler on. (As an aside, some nursery people are afraid to thoroughly soak plants when watering, because they may get too wet and start to rot. We believe this is only a problem if your soil mix is too heavy, or if you are not letting the plants go dry enough between waterings.)

In conventional nursery production, the problem of keeping plants watered is frequently aggravated by over-fertilization. Potted nursery stock that is given the maximum amount of fertilizer it can handle without burning frequently develops an excess of top growth that is not able to be sustained by the amount of roots in the pot. Such plants also get very rootbound which is not ideal. Sometimes retail nurseries find themselves having to water such plants twice a day to keep them from drying, which is always a hassle. Additionally, once these plants are set in the ground it takes a couple years for them to develop a large enough root system to sustain the top growth. Although such plants will frequently come out just fine in the end with proper care, we don’t think this is the ideal way to grow plants.

Our method is to give plants basically as little fertilizer as we can get away with without compromising quality. Also, we use only organic fertilizers. Sometimes our plants may not look quite as full as conventionally grown stock (but then again, sometimes they do!) but we know that it is important to have a plant with a strong and healthy root system so the plant will experience little or no setback when transplanted to the ground. However – and here it might sound like I’m totally contradicting myself – “as little fertilizer as we can get away with” is often more than might be expected for certain plants. For example, we find that Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos are pretty heavy feeders in general, and sometimes surprisingly so, despite their preference for harsh sites in the wild. Really clever soils people could probably explain this, but all I can say is “go figure.” (Well, now that I think about it, there might be some connection with their adaptability to fire ecology.)

Some people – and we went through this phase for a while there – think dryland plants need extra gritty soil for the super good drainage they need to survive in containers. This, we think, is sometimes a little bit true, but mostly not really. As long as you are not watering too frequently – and that’s the important part – most dryland plants will grow just fine in an ordinary, reasonably well-drained commercial potting mix. This is even true of seriously deserty plants like sagebrush. A bark-based mix with some pumice is ideal, and a little compost won’t hurt anything either. It’s true that certain plants require extra grit, but these tend to be in the minority (unless you are specializing in alpines, in which case you probably already know what you are doing and don’t need to read this). Beyond “alpine” it is difficult to generalize about which plants these are: usually just a few species per large genus. Cacti and succulents are a mixed bag; many of these do require gritty soil, but a surprising number of hardier types really don’t care what you put them in and may even respond to a richer mix by putting on vigorous growth; bearing in mind the aforementioned caveats about watering.

Finally, since we have dry summers, a lot of our native plants are adapted to stop growing in the summer. We find that they are better not messed with in summer. Potting up, planting out, anything that involves messing with roots should be done in spring if possible; the second choice would be fall. Of course they’re not doing much in winter either, and wet/rot can be an issue when transplanting at that time, though many species don’t mind.

Dryland Plants in the Garden/Landscape

Water-wise plants, including our dryland natives, may fail in the landscape for numerous reasons, but I think the most frequent are too much water, not enough water, and inadequate soil preparation. There are definitely some misconceptions that need to be addressed in this area. For one thing, dryland plants are (for the most part… most succulents excepted) not so tough that you can just plunk them out in a harsh, awful site with terrible soil and not water them at all. Why not, you ask? They’re native. Well, when something seeds itself in the wild, the first thing it does is send a taproot straight down into the subsoil as fast as possible so it won’t dry up in its first summer. The same species planted out of a container doesn’t have this advantage (especially if the soil has been compacted or scraped off), so it will need a little help to get established.

Time sequence of container-grown plant vs. self-seeded plant.

In actuality, native plants, generally, will appreciate much of the same treatment that is usually provided for “normal”/”conventional” (whatever) plants: they respond as well as any plant to soil amendment and mulch. The main thing one must do differently is watering.

But let’s back up for just a moment and address soil amendment. This does not have to be complicated. Some swear by double digging, but we are of the opinion that this is generally unnecessary. Usually a healthy top-dressing of compost, left on the surface to decompose over time, does the trick. If you want to use less compost, even a little circle of it around each plant, several inches deep, goes a long way towards successful plant establishment. The only time we might not think soil amendment so important for dryland plants is if you actually have existing native topsoil at your planting site. Unless your house is really old, this is probably not you. Usually the native topsoil is scraped off and/or compacted beyond usefulness during new construction.

So, having amended the soil and mulched – and mulch an be a lot of things, including wood chips and rock; but not beauty bark, which is evil because it does not promote healthy soil – the big question is how to water. It probably goes without saying that dryland plants will not grow in a swamp, so we will assume average to well-drained soil here, though a surprising number of these plants will be fine on heavy clay as long as it dries out for a couple months in summer. The best way to water is with the watering basin method. You want to finish your planting hole with a nice, big, deep watering basin so that when you go to water you can fill the hole up all the way, and the water will work its way straight down into the soil. This will encourage deep rooting, as opposed to the shallow rooting that often takes place under conventional irrigation that only sprinkles the soil surface. How often you will want to do this depends on your soil, and how established your plants are; but generally you will want to do this as infrequently as you can get away with before your plants start to wilt, which may be anywhere from about once per week to once per month during the dry season. So we see it is not really a major time-consumer, because you are not out there all the time watering things by hand daily: you just have to pay attention. You’d better believe those new little plants are sending roots straight down as quickly as they can during this process.

Plant root development under various watering techniques, redrawn from The Dry Gardening Handbook by Olivier Filippi.

Conventional methods, by contrast, suppose that once you have installed your irrigation system and set the timer, you can pretty much forget about things. This mentality leads to the failure of native plantings that end up getting too wet. It is motivated by the short-term convenience of not having to pay attention to the planting and hand-water until the plants become established. If we consider how much it costs to install and maintain an irrigation system (they always break, of course), and the cost of all the water that is used, perhaps we can say it is time to re-educate people about more practical ways to create sustainable plantings and gardens. A little more care in the first year or two after planting goes a long way towards sustainability of a water-wise landscape.

And that is where I shall leave it for now. I hope that has been helpful, or at least interesting.

On a completely different note: you still have one more day to come and visit us at our September Open House! Don’t worry, we haven’t sold out of awesome plants yet. Come and see us if you can!

Seattle Green Code Provisions: Over the Top?

This may be difficult to believe, but it appears the City of Seattle is in the process of drafting some provisions that may be controversial. This time since it relates to horticulture, and particularly, to my area of emphasis (water-wise plants) I have decided to get involved. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a really detailed post on this, and anyway, it all happened pretty suddenly. So I will totally flake out here and refer you to for the full story in their words. Actually, they sum it up better than I probably could anyway.

I have decided to write a letter in response to this provision. You may wish to do so as well if you read this on time and don’t mind staying up late: the deadline is tomorrow! (If enough people ask for an extension, though, who knows? Perhaps they’ll offer another comment period.) So here is a copy of the letter I am sending for all to see. It would have been nice to have a few days to leave this posted here and bounce ideas off my readers, before officially submitting it. In any case I would welcome your comments.

Before getting on to the letter I guess I should say one more thing. All this talk of rules and regulations is rather obnoxious. Some might ask, why do we really need anyone telling us what we can or can’t plant? Isn’t this just another government infringement on individual property rights? (The examples of cities prohibiting front yard vegetable gardens come to mind.) Actually (trying not to get too political, heh) I usually tend to be rather sympathetic to such sentiments; as long as people are being fair about the distribution of finite resources and not infringing on the rights of others. In writing this letter I am assuming, based on my reading of historical trends, that the implementation of this provision in some form or other is pretty much unstoppable sooner or later, so we might as well make the best of it. Put another way, if we’re going to be stuck with more rules, let’s at least have rules that make sense. This is how I justify the inclusion in my letter of ideas for how to draft this rule.

All right, so here it is:

August 26, 2012

Attn: Kathleen Petrie, Green Code Provision Taskforce & Seattle City Council
700 5th Ave, Suite 2000
Seattle, WA 98124

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to provide my professional opinions regarding Section 4. Invasive species and native vegetation portion of the Green Code Provisions for Healthy Landscapes under proposal.

I am the owner of a nursery that specializes in water-wise plants including many native species. Since I agree that gardens use far too much water, and are often planted using plant choices inappropriate to our summer-dry climate, I applaud the spirit of the rule. However, I would like to address some problems that would arise if the rule were drafted exactly as proposed, and suggest a number of changes. Because I like to be helpful rather than merely criticizing things I don’t happen to like, this letter will be heavy on ideas, of which I hope that some may be found useful in crafting the final draft of this provision.

As a basis for my suggestions, I must begin with a brief assessment of the adaptability of native plants to urban environments. Many people assume that because a plant is native it can automatically tolerate difficult or harsh conditions without special care. In actuality a large proportion of our native plants are best adapted to grow in the forest’s shade or riparian or wetland environments, and thus make poor choices for urban gardens where sun and reflected heat are common, especially in new plantings. Even those that are adapted to grow in the sun cannot always be considered sufficiently tough, since they will take several years to establish, and may languish if planted without proper soil amendments and irrigation for the few years it takes to get established. For these reasons, despite the benefits of native plants, I do not believe using native plants in the large numbers suggested by “75% of all new plantings” in the proposal is a very practical approach to the objective of water conservation. Furthermore, it may result in significant outcry from a gardening public who feels their planting options are suddenly far too restricted, as well as from the nursery industry which depends on the sales of a wide variety of garden plants to thrive.

Therefore, I would like to propose some possible alternatives to be considered for modifying the provision, which are as follows:

1. The definition of “native plants” is expanded to include plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, and Oregon and California.
2. The term “native plants” is replaced with “plants native to summer-dry climates” (from a list of world regions with such a climate).
3. Restrictions could be placed on what can be irrigated, and for how long after planting, regardless of plant origin. This would be my professional recommendation as the most sensible approach in drafting the provision.

I spell out these options in greater detail below.

In option #1, the definition of “native” plants is broadened somewhat beyond western Washington. Inclusion of plants from the dryland regions east of the Cascades, as well as plants from Oregon and California, would give gardeners far more planting choices for their landscapes than those only “native to western Washington.” A large proportion of plants native to the aforementioned regions are very much appropriate for urban settings, perhaps more so than many of our own native plants in many instances.

In option #2, the provision would be changed from reading “native” plants to read “plants native to to summer-dry climates”, which would include the entire western region of the United States, the Mediterranean, central Chile, and a few other parts of the world. This gives gardeners yet more options while maintaining the objective of reducing water consumption.

Before getting on to option #3, here I must include my thoughts regarding native vs. invasive plants, emphasizing that a very great majority of introduced plants are not invasive. Given that the plant species and cultivars that have been grown in the Northwest throughout history range in the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands, yet only a handful of these have posed a serious invasive threat (I base this on the list provided on the website of the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board); I conclude that a very small percentage, such as perhaps 0.1% or less, of all cultivated plants possess the potential to be invasive in the Pacific Northwest. While I can see supporting the removal of existing populations of invasive plants in some way or other, I do not consider “invasive potential” as a sensible restriction on plant choices, or support for the exclusion of non-native plants generally.

Of course, no matter what kind of plants one chooses to plant, it is still possible to use water irresponsibly. Under guidelines requiring a certain quota of native or water-wise plants, it is easy to foresee a frequent scenario play out in which all the right water-wise plants are installed, then irrigated excessively for the indefinite future under oversight that does not know any better how to maintain such a planting. For this reason I present option #3, a water-use based rule; based on the principle that a truly effective provision focuses not on the selection of plants themselves, but on the purposes for which plants are irrigated, and for which irrigation systems may be installed. By extension, I would put forth that watering native or water-wise plants for the first two years to get them established, then withholding water thereafter; is an idea worthy of support: watering any planting indefinitely, whether the plants be native, drought tolerant, or not; is not beneficial to the end goal of creating landscapes and gardens that reduce water use.

Here I would like to note an important exemption: Plants that produce food or meet some other significant utilitarian goal (bamboo for poles, for example) should be exempted from any rule regarding both plant selection and water use. The reasons for this should be obvious, but homeowners need to have the right to produce their own food without undue restraint. Let’s go after big water users like unused expanses of lawn and large-scale ornamental landscapes full of water-loving plants, not homeowners striving towards independence from big ag and reducing their carbon footprint.

Therefore (clarifying, I hope, my option #3 here), a sensible provision is one establishing that all new plantings (excepting food crops, as noted above) may be irrigated only for the first two years (perhaps three), and allowed no irrigation beyond natural rainfall thereafter. It doesn’t so much matter what plants are used: after two (three) years, they have to be tough enough to survive on their own, or not. This permits the broadest possible range of water-wise plants for use in gardens and conserves water by pulling for landscapes and gardens that can sustain themselves (as far as water is concerned, at least) in the long-term; and protects the rights of homeowners to grow food. It also leaves room for people to grow certain slightly thirstier plants they may feel they can’t live without, by means that have no impact on municipal water consumption, such as the incorporation of rainwater catchment systems and rain-gardens into the landscape.

Now for some further thoughts about how this provision may relate to the nursery industry. I strongly believe that native and water-wise plants are, broadly speaking, not difficult to grow either in nurseries or gardens. I feel qualified in saying this since, at our nursery, we propagate and produce all of our own stock. It’s true that certain species pose challenges, but perhaps not disproportionately so when compared with conventional or water-loving plants: in many cases, growers and gardeners simply need to be re-educated away from conventional higher-water-use practices to succeed.

I have independent data demonstrating that at least three quarters of plants offered by Northwest nurseries are native to parts of the world having climates where reliable, significant summer rains occur. An astounding number of these (48% of all nursery plants in my study) are native to eastern Asia, including our beloved Rhododendron hybrids, Japanese maples, flowering cherries, and a huge range of other ornamental shrubs, trees and perennials.

I believe the scarcity of water-wise and native plants in nurseries is based partially on supply and demand, yet also (much more so than people usually think) on what growers choose to produce and market. I therefore think it would be helpful to add an incentive for nurseries, landscape contractors, and related businesses to market/sell/use water-wise plants (meaning, those native to summer-dry regions of the world, or whatever criteria from the options above are chosen). For example, if Bob’s Nursery in Montlake can be determined to sell water-wise plants as 75% or more (or whatever number is chosen: this is admittedly arbitrary) of their total stock, they would be eligible for some kind of bonus or tax exemption, or a greatly reduced municipal water rate, or some such incentive. This would both raise awareness of the issue in general throughout the nursery industry, hopefully providing growers to move more towards the production of water-wise plants; and push the nursery business to diversify their range of water-wise and native plant offerings at the expense of thirstier choices; which, I believe, may be a tall order but certainly not an impossible goal to achieve.

I predict that there will be major obstacles to the success of this provision without the support of the nursery industry, since they are the ones who supply our landscape plants through a variety of channels. This ties in with another good reason to change the criteria for plant choices to something beyond just natives: if gardeners are given a wider range of drought tolerant options, there may be fewer objections among the general public at not being able to get their favorite Rhododendron or Japanese maple at a local nursery whose selection of such plants is vastly reduced from what it was. I believe it is important that this provision be crafted in such a way as to deliberately compel nurseries to provide more options for water-wise plantings, rather than just drafting it with only the landscape/garden in mind leaving the business end of this to fate.

One more idea that may be useful would be for the city to initiate and maintain a “trial garden” to determine which plants meet our region’s criteria for true drought tolerance. This, I think, would have to be quite extensive to be worthwhile; but the educational value of such a garden could be very much worth the trouble and expense. The OSU trial gardens at the North Willamette Experiment Station might serve as a model for such a trial garden, though their plant selection has been more limited and focused on specific plant groups than what is needed here.

Finally, on the subject of preserving existing native plants, I would prefer to include for protection only certain vulnerable or particularly enigmatic species (for example, garry oak). There seems little sensible purpose in preserving something like the ubiquitous Douglas-fir or a field of horsetail.

While I could ask the expected questions about how the terms of the provision will be defined and who will enforce them, I will leave such questions for others to ask as I am not a Seattle resident.

Lastly I would like to request that the comment period be extended. There are far more people who need to know about this provision and have the opportunity to comment.

Thank you for your consideration of this letter. It is my hope that some of the ideas I have presented may be helpful. As described, I believe some significant changes need to be made for this provision to be sensible, realistically enforceable, and able to achieve its desired ends. Please feel free to contact me if you have an interest in discussing this further or any other questions.

Ian Barclay
The Desert Northwest
PO Box 3475
Sequim, WA 98382

Annuals: A Major Waste of Time, Effort, and Resources???

One result of our meteorologically quiet and somewhat dry autumn is that many annuals look better than one might expect. Usually by mid-November they are brown and frosted – as has already occurred in some colder gardens – or melted into a mushy mess by our not-so-gentle autumn rains. In either case their departure is a sorry sight, as they usually leave quite a mess to clean up – and once you’ve done that you have a big hole to fill in, or just leave it empty so it can look empty all winter. This leads me to ask, could there be a better way to garden without using annuals?

Now I’m not lambasting all annuals indiscriminately, believe it or not. Annie’s Annuals certainly grows some good annuals, among other things. I’m aware that many wild plants are, in fact, annuals: their life cycle involves germinating, flowering, and setting seed within a single year (usually less) to perpetuate their species. This is sometimes a survival strategy to endure winter cold, but more often summer drought. Many annuals also produce food, but I’ll get to that later.

So here are a few reasons why we are not overly fond of annuals. I’m really not trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but perhaps you’ll consider some of these points the next time you’re shopping for plants, or even making plans for your garden.

First, growers of annuals are major consumers of peat moss. This is a finite resource that will expire at some point. It is also quite environmentally destructive to harvest it. Once you’ve dug up a peat bog it takes thousands of years to recover. This has become a major substrate in potting soils for annuals because it works so well. While some substitutes have been developed (coco coir being the best known), none of these has really caught on sufficiently to show promise that it could truly replace peat moss. So for the present, it takes some really specialized knowledge to figure out what else might produce acceptable results without compromising quality. Growers of annuals aren’t guilty exclusively; but, broadly speaking, most perennials and shrubs seem able to perform better than annuals in a bark or compost based soil mix.

Second, you plant annuals, and then in a few short months they’re dead. Sure, they are great while they last. But if I’m going to spend $100 on plants wouldn’t I rather enjoy them year after year? I dunno, that just seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.

Third, it’s more work to plant a bunch of stuff year after year (and then to clean it up year after year when it dies) than to just plant it once and let it keep on growing. Gardening of any kind requires a certain amount of maintenance, but having to do the exact same work over and over again seems like a waste of effort (unless you’re really easily amused, in which case I guess there’s nothing wrong with that).

Fourth, many annuals require a lot of water to look good in our dry-summer climate. This is not true of all annuals; there are certainly many exceptions – but I rarely see drought tolerance considered as a factor when someone selects annuals for planting. Watering takes time and money; and, while a lot of perennial and woody plants require regular water through our dry summers as well, we try not to grow or encourage too many of those and only use them in moderation.

Fifth, the majority of annuals that are now available are over-bred genetic dwarf hybrids of the species and earlier hybrids from which they were bred. This means they just plain don’t have what it takes to perform that well in the garden. A lot of people buy these plants and plant them, then after watching them languish they think they did something wrong and blame themselves. This creates a negative experience that I consider to be quite destructive since it has the potential to turn people off from gardening in general. Sometimes it really is the plants’ fault – or, more precisely, the growers and breeders fault for producing this junk to merchandise to unsuspecting plant shoppers. So because growers are now flooded with over-bred dwarf annuals, gardeners lack the right plants to choose from. Of course we could do something about that by growing and selling only the best kinds, and perhaps someday we will.

My sixth and final reason has to do with how they’re used. This is less of a serious complaint since we can do something about it; that is, use them tastefully if we use them at all, and show gardeners how to do likewise. The problem is that the sort of “boink-ism” that Annie’s Annuals blogged about has infiltrated every area of society, it seems. People, and especially new gardeners, don’t even know how to use annuals well since they have so little to go on.

At the Desert Northwest, we do not grow or sell annuals. But that doesn’t mean we never could: but they will probably not ever become a really major part of what we do. We would probably stick with certain easily grown and water-wise annuals that perform well here and fit our theme.

Another great excuse for annuals is that some of them produce food. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, and more. We think that’s just grand. If you’re going to be an annual and use up all that time and effort it takes to grow you, you might as well give something back.

We would say, though, that we do not believe annuals will feature prominently in the future of the horticulture industry – at least, not the segment of it that survives the challenges it now faces – relative to the past. As people are increasingly interested in sustainability; and in saving time, money and water; they will gradually figure out that annuals just don’t make as much sense in a sustainable and water-wise garden. Not that they’re all going to disappear, or that we want them to. But for gardening to remain popular it has to make sense to our current generation of people who don’t like wasting money and would usually rather be spending time on other things than planting and replanting the same area over and over again.

I may be right, or perhaps not – I guess time will tell!

Here’s part of an appealing mixed planting of water-wise annuals, perennials and shrubs in downtown Port Townsend. Now I think this (possibly excepting that one stray grass front and center) looks great – hooray for whoever did this.

New botanical expedition report!

I have now posted photos of the highlights from our botanical expedition to Chelan County that we took in October! This is the first such report I have produced in about five years, so that is exciting. Have a look, and let me know if the new format gives you any trouble.

I have also made a few minor corrections to the web site – thank you for your feedback. You can now see what our mail-order plants look like at the Terms page; these images had not been loading earlier. I think things are all fixed for the time being.

Lawn Order

The weather was so bad this spring that it took me until April to start mowing grass. (Last year I was mowing in February.) This leads to the question, why do I mow grass? Why can’t I just let it go natural instead of getting out this noisy little polluting machine all the time in some feeble effort to control nature?

In a broader sense, you might be wondering what we at the Desert Northwest think of lawns. There’s a nationwide movement afoot to replace, eliminate or otherwise annihilate your lawn. Food not lawns! Xeriscapes not lawns! Anything but lawns! Whatever.

So here is about where we seem to be settling on this subject: lawns should be organic, responsible, and functional.

Organic is obvious enough. We should not spray chemicals and poisons all over our lawns. Not only does a lot of this stuff run off and leach away to the detriment of the environment and various kinds of wildlife, but it also poses a risk to humans when this stuff gets into our groundwater and when people (particularly children) play in lawns. Perhaps it’s time to settle for a less than perfect lawn a tolerate a little bit more in the way of weeds. In some cases it’s even possible to pull them by hand, a fact that we often forget when it comes to lawns.

Responsible sort of relates to the organic part of things, but it also includes not using more water than we really need to. Some folks give their lawns far more water than they need – or, they water foolishly, keeping it constantly soaked with light waterings. The effective way to water anything is to soak it thoroughly then let it dry for a few days. In the Northwest this usually means to keep a lawn green we should give our lawn about an inch of water every week, preferably all at once, or maybe twice a week if were having a hot spell, which would usually only be about twice a year. Of course individual mileage may vary depending on soil type etc. but the basic idea is to give it as little as you can get away with before it turns crispy. Or maybe you want to let it turn crispy. That’s becoming a fad too, and not a bad one at that where water resources are limited, since it still always grows back and looks green again after a few good rains. We won’t tell you that water shortage is a huge, immediate crisis for everyone, such that we should stop watering all grass now; but as more pressure continues to be placed on water supplies, including groundwater, in the Northwest, it’s something to be mindful of.

Functional means a lawn should have a purpose besides just decorating your property. If you have kids and they play on the lawn all the time, great. If you are a 1940’s English family who uses their lawn to play croquet after tea every Sunday then great. But for most people the lawn is just the empty space on their property that they just feel is a necessary component of it. And why? Well, that’s the great mystery, isn’t it. I wish I knew! Did they run out of money for landscaping or plants? Did they run out of ideas? Do they think their yard will look bad without an open space of grass to look past? Maybe they shouldn’t have chosen boring plants. Or if the lawn is primarily negative space, why does negative space have to be a lawn? Something like rocks would be less maintenance (assuming weed seeds aren’t blowing in from the neighbors’ yard). Everyone has a lawn, so how about something more interesting. Dare to be different! As far as I’m concerned, the non-functional lawn is really one of the more nonsensical phenomena American culture has burdened itself with.

So why do we mow? The part behind the house is our play area, but that’s really the minority, and is the only area we ever water. There’s another good reason having to do with our other goals for the garden and nursery. We mow a lot (we don’t really call this area “lawn;” it’s more like the “uneven grass and weeds zone”) to prevent weed and grass seeds from blowing into beds and potted plants. We are also convinced that grass kept smaller and shorter poses less competition for water, light, and nutrients to new plantings. Eventually we may replace grass around these plantings with mulch of various kinds, but for now we must settle with mowing. So it’s sort of a “lesser-of-various-evils” situation. We really can’t have weed seeds taking over the potted plants: been there, done that; not fun. And new plantings have to be given a chance to succeed for everything to come together as a garden.

And there you have it. Lawn order.

Classic pointless, unimaginative, negative-space lawn; Watson’s Greenhouse, Puyallup.

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.

Garden Show, and Winter’s Parting Shot?

Time for another long one. Finally, I’m more or less recovered from the Northwest Flower and Garden Show and my first ever participation in it as a vendor, so it’s time for a few responses to the whole experience.

I’ll start by saying I liked the WSNLA Treasure Island greenhouse. It was appealing and caught the attention of showgoers from a distance. The potting benches looked great and somehow added a little more class to the vendors’ plants.

Here’s our wee little booth. We packed 212 plants into it and made more money than the show cost us, and it was great as far as promotional value, so in that regard it was a success. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and bought something from us even when I couldn’t be there!

Treasure Island could have been better promoted and publicized: a web search a few days before the show turned up only a Facebook photo album of it under construction (on the WNSLA Facebook site) with little additional information about it. Also, names of nurseries participating in Treasure Island should be provided somehow to folks at the information booth—I had a few complaints about how hard it was to find my table. Oh well, I’ll send this feedback to WSNLA and better luck next year.

A number of plants from us were also featured in the WSNLA display garden called Cook’s Endeavor Returns with Treasure. Although I’m no expert designer I thought the designers did a great job showcasing our plants, and with the garden in general. I like the treasure chest, and I got to take the Leucospermum boquet home after the show – I might be able to root them from cuttings although they’re not so fresh looking now!

Here’s our Banksia repens right in the front of the display. We might have this for sale towards the end of the year but no guarantees yet.

The garden even got a gold medal – apparently I’m not the only one who thought it looked great. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a full shot of the garden with so many people in front of it.

Now, what did I think about the show in general? Well again, I couldn’t get around to see everything, or take very many pictures. But I will provide a couple quick thoughts. And I should mention that I hadn’t been to the show in three years prior to this year, so my comparisons are not based on last year so much as years going much farther back.

The element of fantasy in the display gardens remains as strong as ever. I say this because many of them used plants that just won’t grow here – particularly treeferns which were seen in abundance, but many other things as well. The question is whether this element of fantasy truly reflects current trends – i.e. what gardeners are excited about – or if this is old news and people have become much more practical over the last few years. Do people look at these gardens and think “Awesome, I wish my garden looked like that” or “Fine for them, but not practical enough for me?” I don’t have the answer, but it’s a big question.

I also get the impression that, ever so gradually, plant vendors and other horticultural causes represented at the show seem to be getting fewer, while vendors of garden products and in some cases only distantly related products continue to take over the show. Personally I’d like to see a reversal of this trend, but I can appreciate that must be a major challenge for show managers especially at a time that the nursery industry is struggling. Renting the Convention Center can’t be cheap. Should they consider raising the prices for booths for non-horticultural vendors and giving nurseries a price break? Or would that cause an uproar? Tough call.

I also attended a lecture on ‘Fun in the Sun’ – Outstanding Plants for Sun and Drought Tolerance (or something like that, LOL) with Richie Steffen. The talk was great, for what it was. Only two problems: One, it was poorly attended – I mean, everyone should have been interested in this topic. Where were they all? What’s wrong with everybody? Two, “for what it was” set some major limitations on what could be discussed. The Great Plant Picks Program, which sponsored this talk, only includes plants that are readily available from nurseries so that people can actually find the plants that are promoted. Not a bad idea, except that nurseries are selling all the wrong plants when it comes to sun and drought tolerance for the Northwest. If I were to give a talk on this subject unaffiliated with the Great Plant Picks Program, it would out of necessity be about a completely different set of plants, most of which are unavailable or only available from specialty nurseries. Mr. Steffen probably recognizes this so I won’t be too hard on him. I just think, why not motivate gardeners to go a little farther out of the way to find the best plants, in general?

I was bummed that I missed Panayoti Kelaidis’ Wednesday talk ‘Rocky Mountain High’. If anyone went, please please please send me your notes!

It wouldn’t have been possible for me to attend the show Wednesday though, because while all that was going on in Seattle, I had to deal with this:

It snowed a little Wednesday morning… then started snowing HARD Wednesday afternoon, and snowed almost all day (though lightly, most of the time) Thursday.

Not that I was technically snowed in, but it would have been a mistake to leave while it was snowing, in case it started snowing really hard and no one would be there to knock the snow off the greenhouses – without some interior support (which mine lack), they can collapse under the weight of 6+ inches of snow.

Here is my specialized greenhouse snow knocker offer. I built it on the morning of November 22 just when the big November snow was starting up.

All the plants are cozily tucked inside the greenhouse, waiting for spring. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Finally on Friday, Feb 25, the sun comes out – a beautiful, but cold day! It dropped to 16°F, which is about as cold as it ever gets this late in the winter.

As I type today (March 2) the snow has almost finished melting. Now that we’re done with this cold weather I hope to start planting in a major way over the coming weeks!

Drought vs. Frost

If you could do one thing to preserve the life of a plant you really liked, would you prefer to spend all summer watering it, or to mulch it in fall and cover it with something on the coldest winter nights?

Apparently, most gardeners would choose to spend all summer watering it. Most people have accepted the idea that because plants need water, it only follows that a good gardener should spend a lot of time (and money, in some cases) watering them. In my experience, it’s much less common to encounter gardeners who adapt practical protections for winter cold as part of their gardening regime.

Nature has provided Northwest gardeners with certain limitations on what we can grow. Summer drought is a limitation. Freezing weather is a limitation. We compensate for summer drought by using tons of water to keep our plants healthy. We compensate for freezing weather, by, um, doing nothing, most of the time. The question is, why this discrepancy? Why do we have this subconscious expectation that our garden plants ought to be able to handle all the cold weather our climate has to dish out with no help from us, but it’s OK if they can’t handle the dry weather (a much longer period of time) because then we’ll take care of them? In short, why do we accommodate garden plants for drought, but not for frost?

Consider this example. You have a sunny, well drained area in your front yard where you want to put a shrub, and you have narrowed it down to two possibilities: Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ or Grevillea ‘Poorinda Elegance’.

Suppose you choose the Hydrangea, because you don’t want to worry about winter hardiness. What does it need to stay looking sharp? Well, you don’t really have to fertilize it, but it helps if you amend the soil or at least top dress with some rich compost. You’ll also want to mulch it so that the soil will retain moisture. Then you have to water. And water. And water. How often? Once a week would be about right for most gardens: that’s at least 20 times in a typical Northwest dry season (late June through early October). Suppose you have fairly moisture retentive soil: you still probably have to water at least every other week. (Unless you live on the edge of a swamp.) So that’s 10 times every summer to remember to water. And each time you’re probably out there for at least two or three minutes to really give it a good, thorough soak. So there goes, at best, a half hour of your summer, watering. And the next summer. And the next summer, etc.

Suppose you choose the Grevillea: what does it need? It needs to be watered a few times the first summer, but certainly not as much as the Hydrangea—and none at all after the first year. You can probably skip the soil amendments. In fall you mulch with something that will insulate the roots and protect them from freezing—but you’d want to mulch the Hydrangea anyhow. Then when the big arctic freeze is about to come, you cover it with a cardboard box or blanket to prevent it from getting frost damaged. And then when the weather warms up, you take it off. That’s it. It only takes a moment, twice a year. Well, you might get a winter with two or even three big freezes, and have to provide a repeat performance. But on the other hand there are also mild winters when you shouldn’t have to do this at all. On average you’re only expending a few minutes of effort on this every year. And you don’t have to spend any water, or precious summer hours, which we know are all too few in the Northwest anyhow.

Now multiply this by all the plants in your garden, and it’s your choice: spend a whole day watering your plants, once a week, all summer and early fall. Or spend a couple hours – perhaps longer, depending on how many plants you have – covering some of your most special plants with boxes and blankets, just once a year. (And taking them off is even easier, if anything.)

Of course, I know there are automated irrigation systems, and mulching can help the soil retain moisture, etc. But in a climate with reliably dry summers, a situation in which you still save effort by choosing a water hogging plant over a marginally hardy plant is rare. Think about how much money goes into your irrigation system. And mulching the soil, prescribed in both cases, is no more or less difficult either way.

Next time you’re considering what to plant, ask yourself: Is it time to reconsider what the real limitation is on what I can grow in my garden? Perhaps we should get over our somewhat reactionary fear of marginally hardy plants. Perhaps the water hogging plants are the ones to stay away from.

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Elegance’, hardy to about 15°F, needs no water once established in the Pacific Northwest, and is well worth protecting from the occasional cold blast.

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