Monday, January 23, 2012

Feed the Birds!

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Goldfinches (I think) enjoying the seeds of Agastache 'Golden Jubilee'
Last weekend I was getting some half & half for my coffee when a flurry of activity outside caught my eye. A small flock of birds had appeared as if from nowhere, descending on the garden for a feast. For a few hours they went from plant to plant, eating their fill. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they took wing and were gone. Afterwards, it almost seems like I imagined it...the noise and activity were gone.

It was a reminder to me that although I leave the seed heads of my perennials and grasses standing because I like their winter form, they also provide a valuable food source to birds and other animals during winter. Even in winter-mild Portland, food isn't as plentiful as during the warmer months. I have no delusions that my little garden provides enough food to see any number of birds through the winter, buy every little bit helps, right?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Backyard Renovation: Part 3

Alright everyone, it's finally time for the big reveal...what was I up to all last year. It sort of feels like the "What I Did This Summer" report we had to write every year in elementary school. In lieu of posts for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day and Foliage Follow-up (which I hope to participate in next month), I powered through this post last weekend!

Plans PairingLike any big garden project, we started with a "master plan" of sorts. On the left you can see Norm's blueprint for the hardscaping. You may notice something missing from his plan...yeah...the plants.

I find it amusing that to him, the actual garden area is like a void!
My plan on the right, however, has almost no indication about the harscape. It is focused entirely on plants.
I went round and round about what I wanted to do in the backyard. Should it be minimal, focusing on usable space for sitting, dining and entertaining. Well...we do precious little of any of those, "no" to that. I wanted plants, plants, plants! I did decide to pare the plant list down to just a handful of keep the garden from feeling too overwhelmingly like a curio cabinet. However, I decided to also plant in a somewhat random "matrix" style. Except for a few structural plants, I would place things in a seemingly random pattern...avoiding groupings of 3, straight lines and obviously "planned" groupings. I hoped that the limited planting palette, and the islands of grouped grasses, would keep the garden from looking overgrown and weedy.

Above is the garden seen from the North. The first pic, in April, is right after we finished the hardscape (well, except of the pavers). The May pic shows the same area with most of the plants in place (except for a few I couldn't locate until later in the season (Eutrochium 'Little Joe' and Echinacea purpurea). The May photo also shows our first stages of laying the pavers…trying to figure out which ones we liked…and the pattern we wanted. The difference between May and July is astounding…once warm temps arrived, the garden exploded with growth. Even though I knew it would green up during summer, I was still sad to see the brilliant winter coloring of the Anemanthele lessoniana change.

High summer and fall are definitely the best months in my gardens, in general, and the backyard is seemingly no exception! I guess it's pretty obvious in all these shots that I tend to favor blues, purples and pinks…colors and hues toward the cooler, more soothing end of the spectrum. That's not to say these colors aren't rich and saturated…but, for the most part, I avoid hot, primary colors. I noticed that, as lovely as gardens look in soft, overcast light, I found that this garden was most stunning when backlit…all the blooms and grasses positively glow!

Here, we are looking at the garden from the South. Again, the shot in April is very soon after planting. One of the benefits of using Calamagrostis is that they are cool-season grasses, and give a lot of visual weight to the garden early in the season while everything else is catching up. The June shot shows the plants filling in, slowy but surely. Again, in July, everything seems to be surging ahead like a locomotive…practically unstoppable. I love the Bronze Fennel on the far right one the bottom photo…but it, unfortunately has a tendency to flop right as it reaches a crescendo of bloom. I always toy with the idea of cutting it back as it starts to bloom, but never do, as the bees and other insects go insane for the blooms.

The same view of the garden during the next three months shows the garden reaching it's finest hour. The dog days of August don't faze the garden in the slightest…the grasses and Agastaches luxuriate in the warm summer sun. September was, I believe, when the garden really peaked…it was absolutely a riot of color. Also, the rains hadn't returned yet to collapse the taller, more delicate plants. I spent a lot of time sitting in the garden during these months, as the days cooled down and every hummingbird and insect seemed to redouble their efforts to drain every last ounce of nectar from the blooms.

Inside View
Haha…here's a view I probably won't show very often, as this window become partially obscured by the rampant growth of the Clematis tibetana vine during the summer. This is the view from our kitchen window, which I see every time I get a cup of coffee in the morning (so, quite a bit). It's a bit of an improvement, I'd say :-)

backyard august  809Sedum Matrona
Above is an closeup of the "matrix-style" planting at work. I found this area of the garden was the most effective result of my adapted technique. I adore the tapestry of forms and colors. I must have taken a million photos, trying to catch the ever-shifting changes. The pic on the right is of Sedum 'Matrona', intertwined with the rambling Geranium 'Rozanne'. This is one Sedum that really looks striking all season, and I would heartily recommend it.

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It took us a while, but sometime in August, we finally found a set of chairs we could both agree on!

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On the opposite side of the fence I set up a sort of "holding area" for plants that I wasn't sure what to do with...or plants that I had previously planted in a spot that didn't quite suit them. Among the plants that resided there this summer were a pair of Agastache rupestris, which, in spite of hardly ever getting watered, thrived and reminded me of why I planted them in the first place. They also made a wonderful, unplanned pairing with Geranium 'Rozanne' (who sneakily crept under the fence to join the Agastache). It ended up being a wonderful pairing and a fabulous bit of spontaneity.

Agastaches as far as the eye can see! Here we see Agastaches 'Ava' and 'Blue Blazes', both backed by Agastache 'Purple Haze' and backlit by the smoldering September sunshine (yes, bonus points for unnecessary alliteration)! I have to mention that as much pleasure as the garden gave me, it was even more alluring to bees. There was never a time when the entire garden wasn't humming with activity. Hummingbirds seemed equally drawn to the garden...anytime someone would visit, I'd make them stand still for a little bit. Almost without fail, a hummingbird would appear within a few seconds. There was a breeding pair in a tree next door who were locked in constant combat with any visiting hummer. As far as they were concerned, it was THEIR garden!

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At some point, i realized I had to find a way to vault the Clematis tibetan a over the path and onto the fence. Try as we might, we just couldn't find any sort of arbor we both liked. I liked rusty metal, Norm did not. It doesn't help that so many of the arbors we "sort of" considered were really expensive. In the end, I decided to make one out of copper pipe. I spent a few days hammering out a VERY SIMPLE design. We bought the pipe and necessary tools and had the entire thing finished in a day! I'm not overly-fond of how shiny it is at the moment…but rest assured, knowing it will for a handsome patina soon enough.

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I know it's becoming a bit gratuitous…but here's another backlit Agastache shot! Oops…looks like our arbor is leaning a bit in this pic.

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It turns out that our new backyard was a Mecca for the neighborhood cats. There was never a time that I'd look back there and NOT see a cat sleeping in a corner or stalking the birds that frequented the area.

I mixed several Verbena bonariensis, 'Lollipop' in the garden, randomly wherever I wanted a filler. While I was annoyed at myself for not realizing it was a much-shorter version of it's cousin, I realized that it was farm better suited for this small space.

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Agastache 'Purple Haze', backed by Bronze Fennel. This is one of the few plants in the backyard that was totally an impulse buy…but was a huge success. I loved it's very upright and bushy form. A bonus, it bloomed from July to Frost…a never-ending succession of sultry violet blooms.

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Another shot of the main planting area. I love how the Knautia has a constant supply of new blooms, while retaining the wonderful, spherical seed heads of it's past blooms. When backlit, the seed heads are a textural marvel.

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I can't imagine not have Echinacea in my garden...of all the perennials I can think of, they are the ones that most remind me of the prairie. I'm old-fashioned, so just plain ol' E. purpurea for me :-) They are honest plants graced with a dignity and simple beauty missing in many newer varieties. You all remember Boots, our Construction Foreman...he enjoys the new seating as well.

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For the first time this year, I grew some annual Poppies…and absolutely loved them…the blooms last for such a short time (glorious as they are) but it's the long-lasting seed pods that really endear them to me.

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Another shot of the wonderful Knautia…this must have been one of the very first blooms…as they coincided with the blooms of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'. I find 'Karl Foerster' interesting in all its stages…these feathery, pink-tinged blooms are so very different from the tawny talons they will later become.

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Of course, we can't always win, can we. I had planned on putting some Rodgersias I found for sale along the north side of the fence. I figured they would be shaded during most of the summer. I was so wrong…they got blasted with sun during the hottest part of the day…oops. It's always so hard to judge how far the shade will recede during summer. Oh well…I moved them all this fall to a more hospitable area…replacing them with Panicum 'Northwind'. Of course, the Panicums will not get as much sun as they would like until early summer…so we'll see how they fare.

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Sadly, we got a few heavy showers in late September or early October (can't quite remember which), and they pummeled the garden a bit…the tallest of the Agastaches had quite a few snapped stems :-( As you can see, they completely fell over the path (which had already grown so narrow it was hard to pass through). I left them for a few weeks, then cut back all the floppy stems. To my delight, they resprouted at the next bud and within a few weeks, I had even more (albeit shorter) blooms!

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I had better wrap this post up already! To end things, here's a look of what the garden looked like before we started working on it…and 1 year later. I will admit, one thing I would really like to figure out is how to provide a bit more privacy by screening out our neighbor's windows. I'm considering either some sort of bamboo…or, more likely, a stand of Miscanthus giganteus…do you all have any suggestions…remember, it's a tight space…and I don't want to block any more sunlight to the other plants than I absolutely must.

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Again…from the other direction, the garden in spring…and fall of that same year!

Whew! I have to say, it ended up being both harder and far more rewarding than even I could have anticipated. Days of hard, sweaty labor and fretting proved to be worth it in the end. I highly doubt it'll ever win any awards or be on the cover of Gardens Illustrated (hey, a boy can dream, can't he?) but I love my little Hot Mess of a backyard :-)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Backyard Renovation: Part 2

Ok, I have a confession to make...I totally intended these Backyard Renovation posts to be completed in 2 posts...but, as usual, it's taking me more time than I anticipated to complete the 2nd part (a hectic week at work didn't help). Therefore, I'm dividing the Backyard Reno into 3 posts! Honestly, cramming everything I wanted to cover into this post would have made it redonkulously long anyway (and I'm already guilty of too many monster-mega-posts)! This post is going to focus on the plants I chose to use in the backyard. The next (and last) post in this series will be about the finished product...woohoo!

How could I possibly have a garden without Agastache...well, I can't! I knew before I even started this garden that I wanted Agastaches to figure prominently in the design. Last fall, as I was drafting plan after plan for the plantings, I got the new catalogue from High Country Gardens. I was instantly drawn to one of their new introductions, 'Blue Blazes'. The rich, intense color and large size made it an instant buy. I also decided to try out one of their other Agastaches, 'Ava'. Even though not in my original plan, I also purchase a trio of 'Purple Haze' this spring at a local nursery. I was bewitched by the deep, sultry coloring of its foliage...and just hoped the flowers were even half as good as the leaves!

As it turns out, all of these Agastaches did AMAZING. I was blown away at how vigorous and floriferous they were, even in their first year. A few 'Blue Blazes' even topped 6' this year! 'Ava' grew to an impressive 4-5'. And the blossoms...such wonderful, rich colors...and they didn't fade in the sun like many Agastaches tend to do. I love them both. 'Purple Haze' also proved to be worth its weight in gold. It grows much fuller and more compactly than the other two, and blooms heavily in a wonderful smoky purple.

I'm amazed at how much I've come to rely on Geraniums for long-lasting color in my garden. I love how they form rich, emerald-green carpets of foliage, covering the bare ground...and even more, I love how they mingle with other plants without smothering them. Of course, I gush about 'Rozanne' all the time on this blog...suffice it to say, she's a staple here on Rhone Street. I'd become interested in Geranium macrorrhizum earlier last year, as much for the wonderful, evergreen foliage as for the richly-colored blooms. I happen to love the scent of the leaves (sort of a woodsy, incense-like smell), however, I've been told that quite a few people don't care for it. Geranium wllasovianum's claim to fame (aside from being both un-pronouncable and un-spellable) is it's wonderful rich fall foliage. The blooms are nice too :-)

If there's any one group of plants I can't live without, it's the grasses. Now, I have to admit that at least one of these grasses (the Stipa gigantia) is actually not going to stay in this spot! I've been wanting one for a while, but never saw it for sale around Portland. This spring, when I finally found some, I snatched one up and planted it in the backyard until I could find a better place for it the following year.Sadly, it's mature size is much too big for this space, and it would overwhelm the backyard. I'll probably replace it with one of the smaller Pennisetums ('Hameln' or 'Karley Rose').

Since many of the plants I was using throughout the garden have a very "relaxed" attitude, I wanted some really upright, structural grasses to contrast with them…and to make the garden feel a little less chaotic. I settle on Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster', with it's wonderful, tall seed heads. They grew huge and lush…and even though they get far less than full sun, never flop. LOVE THEM! I adore how, even though they are very sturdy and upright, the seed heads have a tendency to splay open at times…which gives a wonderful, naturalistic effect to the garden.

I bought Anemanthele lessoniana in a fit of lust at the spring HPSO plant sale. I'm crazy about it's wonderful amber-colored foliage. Towards the end of the summer, I realized the north section of the garden, which I has thought was very shady, actually gets quite a bit of sun during high summer…and, honestly, the spot needed some verticality to visually "lift" it up. What did I do…planted more grasses is what! I added a trio of Panicum 'Northwind'…so beautiful with their statuesque form and rich golden fall coloring.

Part of the fun of having a beautiful new fence is completely covering it with vines…right!?! I had actually planted the Clematis the previous summer after spying it at a local nursery and falling in love with a huge, mature specimen at Cistus Nursery. I've always love the rich, autumn coloring of the Parthenocissus…so knew I would get one of those as well. The cute little Dicentra was actually a gift from Ryan Miller…isn't it rad!

Ah yes, another one of my new loves…the Astrantias! I've been very surprised at just how tough and adaptable these puppies are. It was especially welcome once I realized that the spot they were in, which was full shade until about May, was pretty much full sun from June-August…oops. Regardless, with a little extra water, they didn't bat an eyelash…blooming for months on end. The only one that seemed a bit displeased with the sun was Astrantia maxima…although, even though it sulked a bit during the hottest part of the day, still managed to triple in size during summer.

Lastly, I have a few stragglers that didn't quite fit into any category. The Vernonias are awesomely tall and have gloriously rich violet flowers. 'Purple Majesty' Salvia has amazing rich, velvety purple blooms...they are too good to miss.

I almost always have a few Sedums in the garden, and this year decided to try 'Matrona'. It has wonderful pewter foliage that stands out amidst all the green. Plus, it's a beefier, taller Sedum than most, which I love. 'Lollipop' is a dwarf version of Verbena bonariensis, a it turns out that they are the perfect height for the tight space of the backyard garden.

While I started a few Knautia 'Melton's Pastels' from seed to plant in the backyard, I also purchased a few starter plants early this spring...just in case. Although the 'Meltons' Pastels' seedlings grew and grew, they haven't flowered yet. The Knautia starter plants, however, grew like weeds! I totally love how they throw up long-stemmed wands of ruby-colored flowers. They have a wonderful, carefree look I love. I've always coveted the dark-leaved Cimicifuga (Actaea) in other people's gardens...and now I have one! I can't get over how amazing its foliage is...I want a million of them!

Lastly, I have a plant that was gifted to me by none other than Mr. Impatiens himself. I had mentioned that I couldn't find any Impatiens balfourii for sale last year. Lo and behold, he brought a few seedlings from his very own garden. I know I will probably kick myself next year that I planted them, since they are supposed to reseed like there's no tomorrow. I'll think about that tomorrow...for now...aren't they pretty!

Alright...there are all the plants that I the next post...the finished (sorta) product!!!!!

BTW...for all of you who got a weird message when visiting that requested a password for MuckAbout (or somthing like that), I of the blogs in my feed was apparently doing that for anyone who hadn't logged on to WordPress as the feed attempted to load. I've removed that feed, so hopefully that will resolve the issue...hopefully :-)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Backyard Renovation: Part 1

Earlier this year, we undertook the (seemingly Herculean) task of renovating our teeny, tiny back yard (about 10' x 20'). To be honest, we were actually creating one from scratch. Before we moved in, there was a decrepit garage in the back yard, which had to be torn down as it was structurally unsound. We also had an oil tank buried back there, which we had decommissioned before we moved in. The company that removed the tank also had to remove a relatively large portion of the soil, as it was contaminated from the oil, which over the previous decades had leached out of the tank.

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This left us with a (semi) blank slate. There was the heavy clay soil itself, as well as a good dose of pulverized concrete chunks (from the garage pad) and loads of sand, which the clean-up company used to fill in where the oil tank had been. I knew we didn't have the time or $$$ to really do anything in the backyard that first year (or two), so we just kind of ignored it. Eventually, a few enormous Pokeweeds took up residence, which I kind of enjoyed, as they created a mini-forest. A word of caution, if you don't want to spend the rest of your natural life pulling up Pokeweed seedlings, please do NOT let them fruit and go to seed. Another benefit, you won't have to avoid neighbors' angry glances as they clean up purple bird-poop from their cars (Poke Berries are deep figure it out).

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Of course, I am not completely innocent either. As I tore up the our lawn over the past two years, the sod I pulled up inevitably ended up in piles in the back yard. This is how it looked this spring...a muddy, lumpy mess. Oh, by the way, that nice, professional-looking shed belongs to our neighbor...and I gaze at it longingly during these long months as we slowly build our own shed (but that's another post).

And so, last winter, the planning began. Of course, all I REALLY cared about was which plants I was going to put in...but, fortunately, wiser minds prevailed. My partner, Norm, started drafting plan after plan after plan for the hardscaping portion of the back yard. I honestly lost count of how many times we changed it, but early this spring, we pretty much settle on a plan. We must have visited every garden center in the greater Portland area trying to figure out which materials we wanted to use. We eventually settled on the horizontal fencing shown above, as well as these cobblestone-ish concrete pavers. I liked that the fence was simple and contemporary, without being coldly modern. I've always liked the look of stone pavers...but on our budget real stone was out of the these patterned pavers were a nice compromise.

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This spring, we were ready to get to work. Although not the greatest idea, we both agreed that it would be easiest all-around if we could start with something of a blank slate. We spent days picking up all the loose sod, concrete and other remnants of construction debris and tossing it into a dumpster. We rented a Tiller from, by the way, is AWESOME!

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For those of us without huge vehicles at our disposal, it's ideal. They dropped off and the tools we needed...then picked them back up when we were done. This is super nice for those of us who don't have Pickup Trucks or SUVs They also gave us a short tutorial in how to use the tools...especially handy since we (ok, mostly me) are kinda clueless when it comes to heavy machinery.

me tilling
My partner made me put this photo sorry, everyone.

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Voila! Look at all that lovely (mostly) of concrete and glass shards! Here is where I have to post a warning: We shouldn't have tilled up all the ground, because we ended up compacting it HORRIBLY as we worked on the fence and path afterwards. I ended up spending weeks afterward turning the ground over again before planting. Most any gardener can tell you this is really bad for the soil as it collapses all the air pockets that plants need. You live, you learn.

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Our next step was sort of laying everything out to make sure we measured everything correctly. Measure twice, cut once...right?Before we could put the fence up, we had to stain it...which ended up being the grossest/messiest part of the whole process.

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Being spring in Portland, we had to plan all our work to (hopefully) coincide with the few sunny days we got. Actually, we lucked out for the most part, and had quite a bit of nice weather. Oh, here comes Boots...the neighbors' orange cat who has adopted us, up our driveway to oversee our progress.

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Being project foreman is pretty tiring work, best to take a short nap.

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OMG...amazing...the fence is up...wasn't it easy! No, it wasn't. We had a TOUGH time putting this thing up. To begin with...the ground was soupy from all the rains we'd been having. We rented an auger from ( great). We were initially worried that we'd have a hard time getting it to drill down into the ground. We were slipped into the ground like warm butter. The problem is that the wet, heavy clay would then suction around the auger and we couldn't get it back out. GRRRRRRRR. In total, we put in 8 (I think) posts...which took us 2 full days of straining, sweating and swearing (I apologized PROFUSELY to our neighbors for months afterward). In retrospect, if we had been a LITTLE bit smarter, we could probably have done them all in 3 or 4 hours.

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With the hardest part behind us, we started work framing out the paths and seating areas. It was hard work, but after the fence...seemed like a walk in the proverbial park! Here it is just after we filled it with gravel.While I rather liked the idea of leaving the gravel as our walking surface, Norm HATED it, so we put in these pavers instead...and I admit, I like them too. We have yet to finish it with the Polymeric Sand.

At the moment, we only have the square seating area paved, eventually, we'll probably finish the path with pavers as well. I have to admit, although I originally wanted a more relaxed, curving path, I quite like the hard (almost severe) lines and angles we ended up with. Since I always end up planting in a very relaxed, informal way, the hardscape is a great contrast to the plantings.

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Of course, Part 2 will be all about the good stuff...the plants!!!