Saturday, November 4, 2017

Garden Report: Feather-Shaped Bird-Haven Bed

The feather-shaped, bird-haven Hugelkultur bed is inspired by and dedicated to our daughter Elizabeth. She has a special way with animals which is why this bed is feather-shaped. 
I needed a theme to guide my planting. When I asked her for suggestions she gave the obvious answer - 'Make it a place for the birds'

The plantings will include a full range of plants to create a complex ecosystem known as a guild.
The first layer of plants in a guild is the overhead large tree canopy. The Feather Bed has a Douglas-fir tree over its north end. It is a source of food for insect-eating birds and those that like the cone seeds. The falling litter of cones and needles continually adds to the soil below making it more on the acid side, something I have to keep in mind when making my plant selections.
At the edge of the Douglas-fir drip line, I planted a cherry tree to provide early spring food, perching sites and hopefully nesting sites when this tree matures.

A few flowers blossomed in the 2nd year then the fruit appeared and was eaten by the birds within a few weeks - a sign this tree is going to suit the birds' needs well.

At the south end of the bed, I planted a medlar tree to provide winter food for birds that stay around. The medlar fruit is edible after it has bletted, that is, turned soft and brown, usually by November. It will also provide perches and hopefully nesting sites.
On my sister's advice we have nipped off any fruit for the past 2 years but come next spring we will enjoy watching the fruit grow.

Each tree has 3 herb type plants under its canopy, plants to support a healthy soil -comfrey to provide minerals and biomass to the soil ...

...and lupines to support nitrogen-fixing organisms making nitrogen available to the trees. The 3rd plant, borage, attracts pollinating insects who may visit the trees' blossoms also.

While still building up the soil in the bed and before I had settled on what the shrub layer would include, I pushed squash seeds into the soil. Squash plants grow quickly to cover and protect the soil and provide it with a large biomass when they die back. Birds enjoy pecking at ripe squash too.

I placed a big bundle of left-over embroidery threads onto the bed thinking the birds could use them when nest building. However, I noticed they only picked up the straw mulch. After I read about how long threads can be a problem for birds because their feet and wings can easily get tangled in them, I took the thread bundle off and put it in the compost bin.
For the shrub layer, I have focused on berry producing plants - black currants, red currants and sea buckthorn. Hopefully, they will produce fruit next season and I will have pics to show you. 

The vine layer in the Feather Bed ecology is a kiwi vine. 

 It is being encouraged to climb up and over the Arbor. We have noticed the birds sit on top of the Arbor cross beams a lot already. At this stage they are vulnerable to raptors flying overhead so they don't stay long but once the kiwi has grown its leaves will provide the birds with protective shelter while resting on their lofty perch.


I researched the types of flowers attractive to hummingbirds because we are seeing more of them over the years and I would like to provide them with a more reliable food source. Hummingbirds like red flowers. I planted a number of them along the east side of the bed where I can see them through my studio windows as they visit the flowers. Flowers planted to date are red daylilies, deep red echinacea, liatris (also called gayfeather), and red crocosmia. I haven't cut back the stalks or lifted any of the bulbs because the stalks are full of seeds and are natural bird feeders over the winter. If a plant doesn't survive our winter then I will find another one to plant in its place. I am not interested in annuals.
The dried stalks also provide nest-building materials come spring.
With this mass of red flowering plants reaching their peak blooming in a sequence, we noticed early each evening our resident California quail family climbed up the mound to forage - a bonus I hadn't planned for.
A thriving Bird Haven attracting a greater variety of birds and more of them is of great benefit to the whole Backyard Garden.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Garden Report: Hugelkultur Bed - Bird Haven


This past summer was a bumper year for berries in the garden.
Mahonia bushes produced large bunches of berries. Individual berries weren't as large as other years but this year there were so many mid-sized ones the bushes were heavy with them 
The birds loved them.
The birds also started to enjoy the newly established Bird Haven Hugelkultur bed.

The original site for the Bird Haven bed was a tired grass lawn and a few natives under a Douglas-fir tree.

One of the first tasks Tom tackled with his big machine was to carefully bring the logs from a pile made when the lot was cleared to build the house, out into the backyard.

He picked up the native plants and placed them in a temporary bed outside the construction zone.


Construction of the Bird Haven began with Tom scooping out a trench inside the outline I had marked with yarn. Next, he laid logs in the trench to roughly fill the space.

He covered the first log layer with topsoil he had saved when he had cleared the Backyard site...

...then stacked on top another layer of logs....

...and covered it all with a layer of soil he packed down lightly.
Tom had made a hugelkultur bed (mound culture), a garden building technique long common in forests of central Europe. 

No scrap of wood is ever wasted. Piled up and buried the wood acts as a water reservoir accessible to plants during the dry season.
Here I am planting pieces of comfrey root around the base of the bed. The quick growing comfrey with its deep taproot will hold the base of the mound during the rainy season.
Ron and I began adding a variety of organic materials to the soil mound as a protective mulch - fallen leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, composted shredded garden clippings.
I cast a number of different types of seeds planning for them to grow as a green mulch cover. The birds thought I had laid out a smorgasbord and feasted before heading south. Oh well, I rationalised, they wouldn't have eaten every single seed. The remaining seeds will germinate in the spring and do their job.
The birds are enjoying the bed even before it is fully planted.




Friday, October 20, 2017

For the Love of Hydrangeas

Next to the boulder retaining wall coming out from my studio, I have planted a Hydrangea hedge.

It began with an invitation from Barbara G to dig up and take cuttings from her bushes last fall.

I planted the 2 root balls and stuck stick cuttings in the ground and left them for the winter.

Early in the spring they sprouted, grew enormous leaves and flowered profusly throughout the summer into early fall.

Barabara's plants are called 'lace' hydrangeas because the petals come out a few at a time rather than all at once.

They are blue and are likely to stay blue because our native soil is acidic. Pine needles and pine cones from nearby Douglas-fir trees continually fall on the soil keeping it acidic. 


Closer to the Green Shed I want the bushes to be pinker. I have been buying pink flowering plants and after enjoying them inside I have cut them back and planted them filling in the remaining space right up to the Shed. I pour my leftover tea into their soil and have added eggshells to help make the soil more alkaline (and the stalks fo these hybrids stronger) which supports pink flowers. However, most pink plants are now bred to stay pink so these ones are likely to stay the colour I bought.
I'll take a picture next spring to show off how the pink bushes pop against the dark green shed. As the bushes are further away they transistion into blues. This is the plan but I will have wait until next spring to see how things turn out. 

I love hydrangeas as do many of the women in my family. My sisters, mother, aunts and cousins grow magnificent hydrangeas in their gardens wherever they can. Karen, who lives in the mountains of Colorado, can't but I know she would if she could.
I made a series of hydrangea works from thrift store silk blouses.
Earlier posts about making these works here and here.

I gave one to each of my sisters and our mother.

We all remember how our grandmother (our mother's mother) grew magnificent hydrangea bushes that we spend many happy hours playing around.

I have a memory of watching her put some powder into the soil under the plants. She explained to me she was making their colours. It was my first introduction to aluminium ions and soil ph and I have been fascinated ever since.

I think of the hydrangea connecting our different generations. When I see them in my sisters' gardens I think of how our grandmother passed on her love of working with plants. I see I have passed this love on to my daughters.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Garden Report: Successful Completion of Gravel Bed Garden Trials

The 'before' shot of the Gravel Bed Garden, before the Backyard Project got underway. A huge expanse of lawn that required care, so much water and it still looked a wreck.

October 2015
Tom at work painstakingly interlocking every rock to edge the boundary of the Gravel Bed Garden.

Sammy, Mat and Laura put in a french drain, laid drain cloth, added a layer of growing medium, and lastly placed the gravel.

April 2016
This garden is not going to be irrigated so I didn't have to wait for the irrigation installation before I could start planting. Early in the spring last year I started by transplanting rosemary bushes from other beds.

I started a trial path with different ground cover herbs to see which ones would be happy in the hot dry conditions.

Over the spring and summer, I planted samples of lots of different plants that fit my spec.
I marked the path out with empty pots which confused a lot of people - is that art?

August 2016
Plants have grown with only the occasional hand watering.

July 2017
The plants are thriving, having survived one hot dry summer and one cold wet winter.

Small Russian sage was planted early spring and by mid-summer had put down enough roots to support lots of flowers that the insects loved to visit.

Over this past spring and summer, I continued to buy and plant ground-cover herbs until the path was completed. Some plants aren't doing as well as others so next spring I may replant with hardier types.


Over the summer I often took my studio tea break sitting out in the Gravel Bed Garden so I kept an eye on how different plants were doing and when they needed help with a hand water.

October 2017
There was a lot of growth over the past summer. 

The 2016 plantings have grown to make the path covered over in some areas. Other plants were pruned after flowering then continued to fill out.

The Corsican mint path plants in the foreground did not cope very well with the very dry summer and may be replaced next spring. The other plants have done so well I will be cut them back a lot next spring.

I have researched plants that fit a spec and made a long list of suitable candidates. After successfully trialling some of these plants over 2 springs and summers, I can now go ahead and complete the plantings as planned. Come spring I will be out visiting my favourite nurseries with plant list in hand.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Backyard Project: Soil Building in the Lower Patio

The construction crews may have left back in May but it was then our real work on the Backyard Project began. One of the first things we did was build soil in the Lower Patio area. A broken down hot tub had been removed and concrete walls built to support new garden beds in this very sunny spot. We have great plans for this spot but first, we need to build the soil.
By build I mean provide the right conditions for soil organisms to do what they do best - make soil.
I began by sifting through all of the remaining soil to remove all of the rocks and construction waste dumped there when the house was built.
Then I laid lots of different wood down, including alder branches high in nitrogen. A lot of household paper and cardboard was also recycled back into soil building.

Keeping in mind the "Brown then Green" rule I alternated thin layers - green garden waste - a woody mulch mix - ash from winter fires...

..more green garden waste...

...with harvested comfrey leaves rich in minerals...

...another layer of much - with a good watering in between each layer.

Fungi mushrooming was an excellent sign. It meant the mycorrhizal fungi are actively building up networks and making food available for future plants. 

A large number of roly-polies and woodlice/slaters was evidence they were happy with the conditions and working hard to break down the wood making the nutrients available to other soil organisms. 
We kept going with the layers until the contained beds were 3/4 full.

The soil probe scientifically registered the happy conditions with temperatures in the active zone.


Sammy dropped off a load of very good quality topsoil. The more soil building activity going on the more the level in the beds dropped down. Over the summer months, Ron has been keeping the soil level topped up. It has been a dry summer and I have been watering the bed to keep the soil organisms alive and busy. 
In the fall the irrigation will be installed then finally I can add the plants. I have a number of the plants bedded down in other gardens patiently waiting for their new home.