Category Archives: fill soils

Why Bad Things Happen to Good Plants?: On Root Problems, Root Washing, Nursery Practices and Customers

“To be, or not to be? That is the question—Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?”  Hamlet.

Is the question we face as gardeners as simple as, To ‘root wash’ or not to ‘root wash’, before planting?  To some today it has become ‘heretical’ to suggest that it might not be just a necessary corrective, but an unmitigated good…and not doing so dooms a plant to failure.  The practice of ‘root washing’ in its present form, is relatively new to gardeners.  Horticulture, which is a system of techniques, traditions and science, that goes back to our own species’ first intentional involvement growing and selecting plants, has not always included it.  Practices develop over wide spans of time.  Many are retained, others pass away. Root washing has been around as a method to assess damage to root systems, to ease and make more efficient division, to study root growth or cleanse them of particular infestations.  ‘Bare-rooting’, during a plant’s winter dormancy in temperate regions, has historically been done in the field when harvesting or transplanting many deciduous trees and woody plants for shipping and ease of transport.  In some circles today root washing has become an almost literal flash point, pitting proponent against opponent, ‘science’ against ‘tradition’…yet another fracture line to divide society. The road of the absolutist, as with many other human practices, tends to create conflict as evidence of correctness is lobbed back and forth.  My own view is that, like so many other things today, the subject is somewhat ‘grayer’. Science can be on both ‘sides’, or neither, and reality is rarely so simplistic. Continue reading


Manzanita, Rock Roses and Friends: The Strength to Stand

Choosing the right plant is not an easy process.  We pick a design theme, make sure our plant choices are a good match for our site conditions, are compatible with their ‘bedmates’ and won’t become overly burdensome, in terms of the maintenance we are able and willing to perform.  There are a lot of variables here.  Our expectations of how a plant performs in the landscape, as individuals and as a composition, are important as we assess their performance over time and decide how we will respond to them.  Many of us are attempting to create gardens that require less of us in terms of maintenance, that fit the conditions on the ground with minimal intervention on our part.  We may chose to create a xeric garden to minimize or even eliminate supplemental irrigation.  If we do, the plant choices we make, their spacing, the size of plants we purchase, even the timing of the planting and the soil prep we do, are all important in our success or failure.  While we attempt to keep our specific site conditions and our goals in mind, we need to be prepared for the extremes of conditions, like weather, that can occur occasionally, even if only once every several years.   Continue reading

The Fields Park: Brownfields, Compaction & Drainage – a Missed Opportunity


The Park enterance, framed by the four bio-swales (I can’t bring myself to call them ‘water gardens’ as they look very ‘un-garden like’) that take runoff from the adjacent hard surface as well as from the drain system installed across the lawn. They are planted with Betula nigra cultivars along with Cornus stolonifera ‘Isanti’, C. s. ‘Kelseyii and an Iris. As you walk through the Park you will move over eight different hard surface treatments!

The Fields (Click here to see the final design plan), completed in spring of 2013, is Portland’s newest Park in the north end of the Pearl District.   While I was still with Parks I did the horticultural review during the design process and was an on site inspector, periodically, during construction.  New Parks like this one require a huge time commitment by Parks.  Selection of designers, outreach to all of the stakeholders and many other meetings involving more technical aspects of such a project all in an effort to deliver to residents a Park that is beautiful, serves the needs of residents and is affordable in terms of long term maintenance.  Before  the project is offered to the design community functional goals are set for the Park and a general design theme is chosen.  Various firms offer proposals.  Concepts are bandied about.  Eventually, one is chosen.  In this case, the Office of Cheryl Barton, a San Francisco firm, was awarded the design contract (To see what they have to say about it). Continue reading

Manzanita, Arctostaphylos, a Genus Whose Time has Come: Advocating for a Plant


Many Arctostaphylos, like these A. densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ make admirable landscape plants on xeric sites. This is above Riverplace Marina on the east facing bank of the Willamette in nutrient poor, compacted fill. It shares the site with Compact Oregon Grape and a variety of local dry site natives, Mediterraneans and Californians.

Thirty years ago, when I first moved here to the Portland area from the Central Oregon High Desert country, very few people were growing Manzanita.  Those plants that you did see were local natives that you had to search out, remanent populations of widely scattered stands, in western Oregon, in the Cascades, parts of the Gorge and Siskiyous or on old stabilized dunes above the beach, e.g., near Manzanita.  They were mostly ignored in the trade, barely recognized by anyone other than those in the Northwest native plant societies and hikers who would go out on forays botanizing. When I still lived in Bend, I would occasionally order dry-land native plants, like Cercocarpus, that could be seen in the Ochocos, from Forest Farm in southern Oregon.  My first two horticulture books, other than the many vegetable growing guides I bought from Rodale Press and Steve Solomon’s guide, were the Sunset Western Garden Guide and Arthur Kruckberg’s, “Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest”…I went through them over and over again.  In the small space Kruckberg devoted to Manzanita he wrote, in the first paragraph, “Only Arctostaphylos uva-ursi…, A. nevadensis…and possibly A. patula are hardy in colder areas.”  Because I lived in one of these ‘colder areas’ this stayed with me, effecting my view of the genus.  I’ve already posted on A. patula, of it growing in Central Oregon, the eastern slopes of the Cascades and as a specimen outside of our breakfast window in my childhood home.  Other than A. columbiana, a denizen more of the western Cascade slopes and the high ground of the Coast Range, Kruckberg barely mentions the other species and forms…of which there are argued to be between 50 and 100, primarily in California and  southern Oregon.   Continue reading

TriMet’s Orange Line Landscapes: SW Lincoln & 4th to SE Milwaukie Ave

[I had been delaying the posting of this entry as I was waiting to meet the project manager with TriMet.  As I’ve heard nothing back from him, I’m going ahead and posting.  It would seem that my earlier posts concerned him, but I suspect now that time has passed and the sky has not fallen…he has moved on to more pressing matters.  It is a common tactic not to engage ‘critics’ so as not to give them any energy.  Ignoring critics can be effective, albeit, a very frustrating treatment to the one who is being ignored.]

Part 3 of the Series

This is an introductory note.  Yes, I realize I started the series in the middle, in a linear thinking world this would have been the first posting, but I live nearest the middle portion of the Line…and I have my own motives. Those of you who don’t know me, I do not mean this to be overly critical in spirit.  I’m a person who is always thinking what next? How can I do this better?  I have similar high expectations of the organizations around me.  Organizations all tend to be conservative in action.  There is a reason mature bureaucracies have a reputation for mediocrity.  It is not my intent to question the intent of TriMet or of its hired contractors.  I am a big supporter of transforming our City into a more livable place and the Orange Line is part of that.  There is nothing to be gained through polarizing a situation or setting someone up as ‘the bad guy’ and putting them unnecessarily on the defensive…having said that, sometimes a ‘push’ is in order.  We live in times of rapid change, many of them destructive, and it does no one any good to not work toward the changes that they see as positive.  That is my intent here.

I began this series with a discussion of scale and how it acts as a magnifier.  I spent some time talking about the problems caused by compacted, heavily disturbed, soils and I emphasized the issues created by a history of bad weed management…this first section of the Orange Line landscapes, from SE 11th to its beginning at SW Lincoln and 4th is heavily impacted by these factors.  Built on heavily graded and or imported fill, often on abandoned industrial sites, on or adjacent to sites that have been out of control weed generators for decades, this section may pose the biggest problem for landscape maintenance of all.

It is dangerous to assume that a new urban landscape is created on a ‘blank slate’.  Merely scraping a landscape off and beginning anew does not return it magically to its ‘pristine’ condition prior to the arrival of ‘modern’ white American culture and all of our accumulative impacts.  To be successful some effort must be expended to ameliorate at least the worst of these conditions.  Even if we make our ‘best’ effort to do this, landscapes such as these with their ‘heavy’ impact histories will present a powerful challenge to those charged with maintenance.  It is easy to underestimate the severity of this problem.  We have developed an ‘alien’ aesthetic that really doesn’t belong anywhere and as such is outside the bounds of the function of the normal cycling of energy and resources common to nature.  We impose this aesthetic and our designs on our landscapes and then expend a great deal of energy, in the form of labor and chemistry, to maintain them, or they quickly degenerate.  In some ways it would have made maintenance much simpler to have buried all of the surface beneath concrete sealing the problems beneath it.  But then the priorities of urban tree canopy, the capture and ‘treatment’ onsite  of stormwater would have been negated, the possibility of groundwater recharge further reduced and the ‘softening’ of a very hard edged urban ‘landscape’ stymied. Continue reading

Tri-Met’s Orange Line Landscapes: Clinton & SE 12th to Harold St.

This shows the banded pattern common today in long mass plantings each swath a single species.

This shows the banded pattern common today in long mass plantings each swath a single species going for a kind of landscape scale ‘graphic’ pattern that is less concerned with ‘fit’.  This is near the Clinton/ SE 12th stop.

Size matters.  In horticulture it changes everything.  Things that are inconsequential, or maybe even enjoyable in the backyard garden, can quickly become daunting or onerous when the scale is ramped up.  Working at a commercial or institutional scale has to change your entire approach to the landscape.  In a small garden it is easier to accommodate mistakes, the conflicted combinations and those issues of horticultural ‘fit’ that we missed when we design or install.  Scale, however, rubs our faces in it everyday, makes us pay with aching backs as unintended consequences play out across the thousands of sq.ft. and acres.  It becomes a matter of physical survival and undermines your professionalism.  You become perforce part laborer, part diagnostician, designer, plantsman and critic….Out of necessity you sharpen your critical thinking skills and the last thing you ever wanted, your sales skills, as you work to sell your ideas to management who are absurdly ignorant of the problems you face everyday in the field.  And, then, eventually, you retire, but you don’t turn it off…you can’t.

Which brings me to the MAX Orange Line and its landscapes.  When I did horticultural design review for large capital Parks projects, it often felt like a dueling match.  I would pour over the design, whatever the stage it was in, match that with my particular knowledge of site conditions and my maintenance experience within Parks.  I would state my concerns on paper and in meetings with the Project Managers and Architects.  I was stubborn and consistently found myself up against a process that undervalued horticulture and my input.  Good horticultural practice was regularly placed in a losing position opposite not just that of the Landscape Architects but of a very political process that tried to give the public what it wanted as long as it fit within the Architect’s vision.  Horticulture always came out a poor third, even though good horticulture always saves money in the mid and long runs.  It was exasperating.  The public, by and large is ignorant of horticultural practice and no effort is made to educate them at any level. Continue reading

The Plaza Blocks – Practicing Horticulture at Lownsdale and Chapman Squares

The Spanish American War Memorial the the Federal Courthouse behind. A recent Elm stump in the left foreground and another behind and right of the Memorial. Ringing the memorial is Pachysandra, Hosta and Clethra alnifolia. These take a lot of abuse from playing kids and posing tourists crossing back and forth.

The Spanish American War Memorial with the Federal Courthouse behind. A recent Elm stump in the left foreground and another behind and right of the Memorial, the further had a cavity for several years housing raccoons, but the tree began to split. Ringing the memorial is Pachysandra, Hosta and Clethra alnifolia ;Hummingbird’. These take a lot of abuse from playing kids and posing tourists crossing back and forth.

Chapman and Lownsdale Squares sit aside each other on SW Main with the ‘Elk Fountain’ (the anatomically incorrect Elk, or at least disproportionate)holding the neutral ground in between, the street splitting traffic that flows around it like a boulder in a stream. These are among the City’s oldest Parks. Laid out formally they are nearly mirror images of one another, sidewalks hugging the streets without parking strips to shield them, a crossing pattern of concrete marking them boldly with an ‘X’, lined with metal benches, a center axis and each with a restroom building on opposite sides…the north, on Lownsdale serving as the men’s restroom with the more machismo memorials to the Spanish American War and the south, on Chapman, the women’s with its sculptural tribute to pioneer families Bible in hand. This is a carry over from the early days when each Park served as a respite for the opposite sex where one could publically relax without being ‘bothered’. As were most western territorial towns, Portland’s population was dominated by men and women were often brought here as wives or as part of commercial ventures. Somewhere here was the site of the gallows, erected as need be, up until 1870 or so when the state banned public executions. More recently it has served as a respite for government workers, lawyers, officers and staff of our courts and jail, or visitors to either, taking their breaks, having lunch or getting a few minutes of air as they cross on their way to an appointment. Walking tours and school groups wander through pausing at the monuments. Others congregate here too, sometimes for rallys or protests within earshot of government offices. There are almost always a few members of Portland’s homeless community about taking a few moments or more in the shade of the large Elms and Gingkos. It was also the site of Portland’s own ‘Occupy’ movement in the Fall of ’11. Continue reading

Gardening in Public: The Duniway Park Experiment

Portland Parks: horticultural profiles series

I’m almost a little embarrassed to post this article….  Most of my earlier project were much smaller, more like bandaids.  This is the first Park I went through more systematically assessing, horticulturally, and trying to correct landscape ‘problems’ with entirely different plantings. We generally weren’t expected to do more than little fixes and bandaids.  Larger issues were considered beyond our scope and should be addressed by our Planning Division, with master plans and all of that.  The Bureau was, however, neither staffed nor funded to do master plans which is a laborious and time consuming process.  They were few and far between.  So, as I said, this was my first go at it, though I don’t claim to have created a master plan in the process.  My time was even more limited. Continue reading

Adaptive Management and the Dynamic Maintenance of Sustainable Landscapes


The second grassy bay, below the Harborside Restaurant, between the Taxodium clumps from the south end. A sweep of Cistus pulverulentus 'Sunset' at the bottom, Ceanothus cuneatus 'Blue Sierra' at the left and two Arctostaphylos x 'Harmony'. The grasses are Kohleria macrantha, native, Festuca rubra commutatta and a few nasty invaders.

The second grassy bay from the south end, below the Harborside Restaurant at Riverplace, above the marina, between the Taxodium clumps. The ’04 planting included no shrubs or perennial forbs in this area.  It was a monoculture of Koeleria macrantha, a native early season bunch grass that goes dormant by mid-July leaving the entire area vulnerable to invasion by weeds and offering no ‘barrier’ to either people or dogs, which enter frequently. A sweep of Cistus pulverulentus ‘Sunset’ at the bottom, Ceanothus cuneatus ‘Blue Sierra’ at the left and Arctostaphylos x ‘Harmony’ have been added to this site along with Festuca rubra var. commutata a low, fine textured spreader to help fill in the spaces and scattered native perennials.

We, all of us, are part of the landscape.  Just as individual plants belong to a local native plant community, and its place, so do we. That we live in highly disturbed and contrived landscapes does not change the fact that we live in relationship with it, that we are a functioning part of it. Deny this as we may, many of us as a group likely admit to very little connection to our ‘place’. It’s just where we live, for now. Our understanding of it and any involvement with our landscape, other than as a simple stage for our lives, is minimal, a condition which has become pervasive in modern society. Some professionals, who work with children have come to refer to this state as NDD, or Nature Deficit Disorder, a dissociative relationship now that was once basic to human survival. Today this condition is pervasive and our landscapes, as a result, severely disturbed, damaged and compromised, lack the capacity to return to their former state. There is a general ignorance amongst the public and our leaders of the severity of the problem and our necessary role and responsibility to correct it.  We are locked into a strategy that views landscape as incidental, the natural world as backdrop for our activities, not central to our well-being.  Today landscapes, as long as they meet our grossly simplified idea of our needs, a modern minimalist aesthetic, that does not over tax our ‘pocketbook’, are forgettable. From a horticultural viewpoint this is becoming an increasingly deteriorating disaster, something that not only we can do something about, but one that is imperative that we do so.  Adaptive Management describes a responsive relationship between people and the place in which they live. It is centered on a positive and workable strategy we can adopt that addresses this situation and turns it around, reengaging us with our landscape. Continue reading