Thursday, August 13, 2009

Weed or Wildflower?

I’ve heard a weed described as “any plant that is growing where you don’t want it to be”. So by that terminology, a rose may be a weed if it’s not growing in the right place. But what about when you have a plant commonly thought of as a weed that is growing in the right place?
A few years ago, some of the plant known as Common Mullein (Verbascum) showed up in our garden. I knew this weed from seeing it growing in ditches and disturbed areas. I liked it’s grey, velvety rosette of leaves, so I left it for a while. I planned to pull it at the end of the year. Mullein is a biennial and will form a rosette of leaves the first year and then send up a flower spike the next. I didn’t want it to flower because one mullein can produce 180,000 seeds which can stay viable in the soil for 100 years (no lie!) But I didn’t get around to pulling it out. So the next year, my mullein plant sent up a spike of soft yellow flowers. It was stunningly architectural and in just the right spot, so I decided it could stay, but I promised myself I would pull it out before it set seed. Fortunately, I have a way of procrastinating and being rewarded by wonderful happenings.
On the day I was finally going to get around to pulling out the mullein, I was astonished to see the tall seed spikes covered with goldfinches. One stalk held 14 of the beautiful little yellow birds hungrily devouring the seeds. This clearly was a two-for-the-price-of- nothing bargain. So I gathered some of the seed and scattered it around other parts of the garden (I can hear some of you shuddering). The next year I had more stately mulleins and consequently, more goldfinches. Since then I have noticed that it’s not just the goldfinches that love the seeds, but also the chickadees and this morning I saw a nuthatch working it’s way up and down a spike gathering seed. Since the seedlings are very easy to weed out (and make excellent compost), I feel like this is one weed that I can welcome into the garden. I have had mulleins in the garden for 6 years now and would feel deprived without it.
Another plant, that I used to think of as a weed, is Portuguese Laurel. It grows extremely fast and drops it’s messy fruit over patios and driveways. The birds that come in to eat the fruit drop purple poop over everything else. BUT… Those birds are very often Cedar Waxwings. Whole, huge flocks of them, happily hopping from branch to branch gorging themselves on the small black fruits. Luckily, our Portuguese Laurel is not hanging over any patios or driveways and if we can locate a bench just far enough to avoid a purple poo bath, we can sit and listen to their delicate chatter and admire their beauty.
FYI - Mark your calendars for the 7th Annual Gathering of Gardeners on September 19th and 20th. This festival and symposium is held every year in the gardens at the Village Green.
Saturday at noon we will host Territorial Seed Company's Great Northwest Tomato Taste-Off.
There will be vendors selling plants, tools, garden art and food. plus live music on the stage.
Lectures this year are:
"Proper Pruning at the Proper Time" - Scott Altenhoff
Late Season Vegetable Gardening - Josh Kirschenbaum
Native Plants in the Neighborhood - Mike Nehls
For more information, visit

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bambi or Beast

With housing developments sprawling wildly across the country, it should come as no surprise that we suddenly have deer in our back yard. Yet we are surprised - and filled with anxiety - and angry when the plants we so carefully nurture are browsed down to stubs. While we hoped that the deer would just relocate in the hills, we must face the fact that the hills are covered in houses too and the only refuge for many deer is the back yards of America.
There are ways of co-existing, but it means making a few sacrifices and doing a lot of thinking on the same level as a deer. If you think carefully about what it would be like to be a deer, you can easily comprehend what they desire and are comfortable with and what they don’t like and are fearful of.
Enclosure – Deer usually won’t jump a fence if they can’t see where they are going to land, so fences have to be either too high to jump – 7 feet minimum, or solid enough that they can’t see through them or over them. If they can jump into your garden from an uphill point, you may want to consider other tactics besides fencing. If you have a very large area that makes fencing cost prohibitive, you could consider fencing a small area (artistically, of course) and using that area for a sitting garden with all the roses, and tender delicacies that the deer love, using tougher, nasty tasting plants for the outer perimeter.
Discomfort – There are ways that you can make the deer uncomfortable enough that they stay out of your garden, preferring the neighbor’s stress-free environment instead. Heavy duty fencing with 2 inch openings can be fashioned into “foot traps” by cutting sections approximately 2’x 4’ and bending the ends down 4 inches so the fencing is slightly elevated off the ground. These sections can then be laid on the ground and groundcovers planted around them. The groundcover will quickly cover the fencing. The deer will not walk on the groundcover because they don’t like the sensation of their hooves getting caught in the 2” spacing in the wire. Anything planted behind a 4-foot deep border like this will be fairly well protected. Other tricks consist of stringing fishing line across their paths, and running short lengths of electric fencing with peanut butter-smeared pieces of foil attached to it. The deer will taste the peanut butter- once.
Deterrents – There are many deterrents on the market for deer. Most sprays are egg based and need to be reapplied often. More natural deterrents like blood meal and carnivore urine usually deter most gardeners as well. Bars of soap tied into the plants sometimes work, as does human hair, but are really ugly. Chicken wire around trees will keep the deer from browsing on the new growth, but when the males are rubbing the velvet off their antlers, that chicken wire makes a great scrubber. Besides, chicken wire, soap mobiles and little bags of smelly blood meal are not conducive to paradise.
So what if enclosing, harassing and deterring doesn’t work? Than it may be time to adapt.
The best way to keep deer damage to a minimum is to populate your garden with plants they don’t care for. Like children shunning the Veggie Bar for the McDonalds next door, the deer will decide that they would rather dine on your neighbor’s roses than on your nasty-tasting hellebores. Below are a few plants that add great beauty, yet hold no culinary interest for deer.

Daphne odora – This is a fabulous plant that blooms in February when every promise of spring is cherished. The small pink flowers are intensely, exotically fragrant. The waxy, lightly margined leaves are evergreen and lend an elegant element to the garden all year. Give this plant filtered shade and heavy pruning to keep it bushy.

Liriope – Recent introductions have been taking Liriope out of the shadows and into the spotlight. L. ‘Silver Dragon’ is a breathtaking beauty with the iridescence and arrogance of a rooster’s tail. A shimmering silver stripe runs down the arching blades, adding sparkle to a shady garden.

Aconitum – For those of us who desperately want delphiniums (a deer delicacy) aconitum is a terrific substitute. It comes in different shades of blue, purple, yellow and cream on tall spires. By planting a variety of different species, you can get bloom over a long period of time. Prefers moist, fertile soil in partial shade. One caveat – Aconitum is extremely poisonous.

Hellebores – Also called Lenten Rose and Christmas Rose because of their extremely early bloom periods, these plants are not roses at all, which is good news for gardeners in deer country. They bloom in different shades of white, cream, yellow, green, pink, purple and nearly black. Hellebores have a delicate demeanor that belies their tough constitution. To keep them happy, give them filtered shade with a woodsy, humus-rich soil.

Ferns – With so much emphasis on texture, ferns are almost a necessity in the garden, and their deer-resistance is an added appeal. Deer Ferns (blechnum spicant), as their name implies, can frequently be found in deer country. They have both sterile and fertile fronds, which are quite different in appearance from each other. While the fertile fronds lie flat to the ground and are broader, the sterile fronds stand straight up out of the center of the plant and are very narrow. The resulting look is both elegant and otherworldly.

Allium – Allium is an architectural plant. There is an allium for every space in your garden. In the kitchen garden, of course, you may plant onions, garlic and chives – all allium members. The tall, purple-headed ‘Globemaster’ lends drama to the border with its vertical presence topped by a large purple ball of tiny florets. There are many dainty alliums that are at home in the rockery. A. thunbergi ‘Ozawa’ offers delicate blooms in September, A. acuminatum blooms in early summer. A few Alliums are so spectacular they can stand by themselves as accents or specimen plants. Allium schubertii has massive, airy heads the color and texture of lavender sheet metal. The illusion is of giant sparklers poised to explode at any second. Allium cristophii is another spectacular fireworks-type plant. Its head is not as airy as schubertii, but carries a profound impact nonetheless.
Note: Thanks to Scott Hoffine for the adorable picture of Bambi.