Category Archives: Plant Selection

My ‘Droughted’ Weedy Lawn: What do I do With it Now?

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This little stucco house, in the Woodstock neighborhood, is one of Julie’s favorites. It sits on a little rise clothed in an unbroken sea of Juniperus sabina Tamariscifolia (?) punctuated with several Italian Cypress. This landscape has been here for decades and appears to be completely weed free. It’s xeric with enough density to choke out weedy interlopers.  By not adding supplemental water many of our more common weeds are discouraged. Even if you wanted to apply a pre-emergent herbicide I don’t know if it could get to the soil. There is no way for anyone to enter this to remove volunteer Blackberries, Clematis, Canada Thistle or anything else for that matter. Junipers are strongly allelopathic containing chemicals in their shed foliage that build up in the organic layer on the soil surface discouraging successful weed germination.  Many other plants including our West coast Manzanita are allelopathic as well and can be used similarly.  Generally, allelopathic plants require several years to build up an effective layer of weed controlling old leaves to be effective, so our efforts will be necessary for some time.  At minimum don’t remove this layer of old and decaying leaves!  Junipers are also highly competitive in terms of their roots for water and nutrients.  Do I recommend this landscape…not necessarily, as it provides little ‘useful’ space offering little more than a very ‘defensible’ border, though it does have its attraction.   It provides shelter for some birds and critters, including rats, unfortunately, and fruit to those interested, while posing a minimal weed/seeding hazard to other landscapes.  It is a very simple landscape.

We can do much better than we have been doing with our landscapes…we have to!  It is incumbent upon each of us to grow our landscapes well, whatever they are, whatever they demand of us.  Our inability or unwillingness to do this is symptomatic of a society today that doesn’t  place priority and value on life, first!  (If you are reading this, you probably aren’t part of this ‘we’.)  The fact that we don’t have the time, resources or interest is indicative of how far out of balance our own lives are.  This isn’t a new phenomenon.  I don’t mean to shame or blame anyone here.  Modern societies have long been out of step.  We place a premium on our personal freedom, the idea that we have moved beyond nature, that technology will do for us whatever we need.  Nature will keep ‘chugging’ on without us so that we can devote ourselves to our more personal goals…and so ‘nature’ has been left largely on its own as if what we do will have no significant or damaging effects…but that isn’t really the way it is.  So, what do we do about that dead weedy lawn out front? Continue reading

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The Opposite of Freezing: Plants Have Upper Limits Too

It’s Sunday, July 30, and 87º outside, our forecasted high.  We’re at the front end of a forecast that is calling for two days over our record highest temperature ever recorded in Portland.  I’m looking at it now, Monday, the 31st calls for 92º, August 1 for 99º, 108º, a record, on the 2nd, 110º, another record, on the 3rd, before ‘cooling’ to 105º on the 4th and 95º the next day.  Our average high for this time of year is 82º.  The current record is 107º set on Aug. 8, ’81 and matched on Aug. 10, ’81.  That may not seem that high to people in the SW, but it is here and here is what matters.  Temperature is a local phenomenon.  It’s okay if we whine about it.  It’s hotter than we’re used to.  Hotter than what the local native flora and fauna are ‘used’ to.  For native species it’s not just about preferences, though we may use that word when we talk about their requirements and limits.   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 Strength to Stand: Surviving the Load of Ice and Snow in Portland

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The morning after the big snow along the front of my house. To the left, splayed out and weighted down, is my Butia capitata. This one, from Argentina and not used to snow, had me worried, but it sprung back. The Oleander to the right, next to the sign, was bent down to the ground from its 8’+. Further back is one of my Chinese Windmill Palms, Trachycarpus fortuneii, bent under a snow load it is used to from high in the mountains of southern China.

Many of us who garden in the Pacific Northwest, and especially those of us in Portland this year, will be visiting our garden centers and favorite nurseries this spring and summer with a little more anxiety and need as we look for plants to replace those that have succumbed to this winter’s cold, ice and snow loads, all of which were more severe than what we have come to expect here.  But before we pull on our boots and don our rain gear to head off for shopping there are several questions that we need to consider before we make our purchases.  Not all of us draw up plant lists, but most of us at least carry in our heads a wish list of plants we have seen in other gardens, in magazine spreads and while on vacations, but if we want to avoid some major mistakes and move our gardens toward the kind of landscapes that we really want, we are going to have to put on our reality goggles and critically assess our choices…that is, if we want to avoid unnecessary losses in the future. Continue reading

Failing Landscapes, Failing Practices: A Look at Tri-Met’s Landscapes and How We Could Do Them Better!

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I include this photo, taken beneath the west approaches to the Marquam Bridge, an ODoT property not Tri-Met, as a reference for what is commonly found in transportation rights-of-way. This is not a problem solely with Tri-Met’s landscapes. It crosses the southern end of South Waterfront Park which was one of my responsibilities for 15 years and so I’m familiar with its level of care or lack thereof. The nearest portion, to just beyond the nearest piers, was entirely neglected for the entire period except for where I cut it down to reduce the amount of weed seed I had to deal with in the Park. There is literally nothing that was intentionally planted in the entire space. It is a landscape composed entirely of weeds and it is possible because landscapes for ODoT are of an extremely low priority. It is the neighboring properties that bear the brunt of their decision. It will be interesting to see if they come under increasing pressure over the years as the expensive and undeveloped properties to their south are developed. Currently the Knight Cancer Institute is developing a hundred yards or more away. The Marriot Residence Inn, immediately to its north, has had no effect on its level of care.

About a year ago I posted a series of three articles on Tri-Met’s landscapes along the new Orange Line.  They were a critical assessment of their design with many photos and explanations for my criticisms.  I had a brief correspondence with the project manager after the first two before he stopped responding.  I had asked about the maintenance schedule that they had with the contractor who would be doing the work.  I did not receive it.  Part of the reason was mine, as new ideas came up for me, my interest wavered and I moved on.  Still, I’ve never received anything.  Now, a year later, I decided to reassess the first portion of the landscape that  I wrote about, as it is a section I regularly walk and ride by bike to downtown or to just get out.  I would encourage readers to see my previously posted reviews. Continue reading

Losing Our Urban Landscapes: Sustainable Goals and Our Crisis in Leadership

The Brooklyn switching yard. These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven.

The Brooklyn switching yard. This ‘landscape’, in a modern utilitarian sense, is ideal.  These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven…and it doesn’t matter.  It works and that is the priority.  Whatever results elsewhere…is not.

The following is intended as a template for action or a beginning point for a discussion that is long overdue.

Landscapes are more complex than most people realize.  They can go seriously awry in a very short time.  Undisturbed native plant communities are relatively stable and are able to respond on their own, as they have for millions of years…if the disturbances they suffer are relatively small.  Unfortunately these plant communities have been decimated in urban and most rural agricultural areas severely compromising their abilities to respond in a positive and effective manner.  The addition of invasive species to the region puts even stable, undisturbed plant communities at risk.  Because we are not all ecologists, or even gardeners, what can we realistically do to stop or reverse this process of landscape degradation?  The decline of our landscapes is linked to a long history of practices that have ignored the value of both our native and contrived landscapes, a belief in a right to ‘dispose’ of the land in whatever way we so choose and our denial that this destruction matters.  We have done this through our land management practices, our designs and the uses of the land itself even those that may seem unrelated, many that have become automatic in our society and are directly related to how we live, work and play today in the modern world.  Our active threat is inherent in the way that we do business.  Our attempts at correction are, too often, limited to only slight modifications that do not put any undue ‘pressure’ on our local economy, business or the privileges that we have come to see as ours.  We are a society that has, in short, become disconnected from the realities of life at the local level and what is required to support it.  We see a limitless nature that is there for our use.  Whatever we may need, we believe that we may merely buy from elsewhere, an elsewhere that is limitless though undefined.

To turn this situation around, or to make significant improvements, requires that we examine what we are doing now, that may be working against the goals that support life and landscape,…and stop.  We have to stop doing the things that are working to continuously disrupt the ‘healthy’ functioning of the landscape.  If we don’t do that then all of our attempts at improvement, all of our tweaking of our system, will come to nothing.  We cannot ‘save the patient’ with good thoughts while they bleed out. Continue reading

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

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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