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Sleep, Creep, and Leap

Sleep, Creep, and Leap

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

In talking to plant people, you hear the adage, in reference to planting ornamental plants:

The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.

It’s a nice, medium-term way to think about the garden; one that teaches patience.

“…and on the third year, your gardening genius will finally be revealed!”

Two summers ago, just after moving in, I planted the garden with hope for the future. Just wait, I thought, in the summer of 2023, the garden will be bursting with color, fragrance, and life. I couldn’t wait.

The summer of 2023 just passed and I’m not sure my hopefulness in 2021 was warranted.

The second summer (2022) arrived and built my confidence. Most plants lived through the winter and crept into the summer, just as expected. Sections of the garden did well, like this huge dahlia.

We built a new bed which I filled with trees and shrubs, along with a bunch of perennials.

The process of choosing plant locations has always given me mild anxiety. How do I know where to plant them? What will they become in this location versus another one? Is this plant taking a spot away from a better one?

With a three-year plan in mind, I began to ask: Do I want these plants in these locations, for years?

An example is the boysenberries we planted along our fence. Over time, they become part of the fence and more permanent. I think we chose well with these two vines and should get berries next year. The plant in the middle is pineapple guava, one of the few tropical fruits you can grow outdoors in our region.

Another win is creeping thyme, which is starting to grow nicely over the rock wall.

As I learned more about gardening and garden design, I realized that I wasn’t locked in. I could experiment over time, and learn what works where. I could move sad plants and divide perennials I love. I could shake up everything. This was liberating and I started to see that the garden was always in flux.

Last fall I dug up 20+ Dahlia bulbs and overwintered them inside. I now know this isn’t required, but I wanted to move them anyway. They did almost nothing this year. As of October 2, a total of one has bloomed.

This “frost free” gardenia looked dead after a harsh winter. Today, it’s starting to show signs of life and I’m claiming victory in its savior.

Bottom line: experience matters and you have to earn it. The person who made planting decisions in the first summer was a rookie and rookies should not be making three-year plans. But what could I do?

The 2021 garden was a chance to learn from mistakes. Perhaps gardening knowledge is simply a collection of lessons learned.

Year Three – A New Beginning

Here in year three, I should be able to finally start the three-year plan and stick to it. I was inspired to dig almost everything up and start over. Like many things, the more you learn about gardening, the more amateur you feel. I’m under no illusion that I know what I’m doing, or that I’m capable of pulling off the three-year plan. But I am going to try.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve formulated a plan. I created an overhead map of our property so I could sketch a design reflecting my accumulated knowledge to date. The red marks are new or moved plants.

For the first time, this plan accounts for dividing perennials, planting some things I’ve propagated, and getting bulbs in the ground for the spring. Unlike the garden before, I’m thinking ahead about the overall design. This means planning ahead regarding height, color, spread, what blooms when, and for how long.

Finally, I’ll plant things with a real three-year plan in mind. Then, in 2026: Camelot!

I want it to be so, but I am realistic. I have so much yet to learn. I fear that in 2026, I’ll be saying “That 2023 dude was an idiot” and resolve to start the REAL three-year plan. Vive la 2029!?!?

You can see where this is headed. There is no end. There is no magical point where any garden is leaping all the time. Plants change constantly and sometimes mysteriously. There is always a new problem to solve or an idea to manifest. Maybe a leaping garden is more of an aspiration.

I’m already looking forward to the spring of 2024 so I can see the results of my planning and the start of what should be a longer-term experiment. If I keep saying, “Just wait until next year!” every year, I will be on the right track.


I Can Recommend

Speaking of gardening, I want to share a show and a few Instagram accounts that have taught me.

Gardener’s World:

For over 50 years, the show Gardener’s World has been a staple of British TV. Each episode has a mix of practical advice, visits to unique gardens, and an overall soothing British feel.

Monty Don is the long-time host (along with his golden retrievers) and I’ve come to be a big fan. It’s the kind of show that you put on when you don’t want to think too much. It’s light, educational, and quite entertaining. It helps, too, that UK weather matches our own.

​Seasons 6 and 7​ are on Amazon Prime. Seasons ​7,8,9 are on Tubi​.

Instagram Accounts

​Dave The Plant Man​ is a constant source of useful and interesting posts about plants. He’s so kind and charming.

​Nettles and Petals​ is an account by Jamie Walton, an extremely tattooed and experienced gardener who focuses on edibles and wild plants.

​Powers Plants ​posts frequent tips and observations about small home gardens and garden design.

​Branches and Leaves​ has taught me a lot about propagating shrubs and trees.

​You Can Do It Gardening​ – Jess is a garden coach who records herself consulting with clients. Great for design and how-to.

​Garden Mentors​ is by a local friend named Robyn Haglund. She doesn’t post as often as the others but knows her stuff and teaches online classes for gardeners.

The Most Wonderful Time of Year ? ➡️ ?

The Most Wonderful Time of Year ? ➡️ ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The summer plants are dying, or at least fading away. After a season of production, they’re slowly disappearing into compost. Brown leaves blow about and crunch underfoot.

Clouds of dust swirl around the dogs when they play chase in the garden, powdering them with invisible grains that dull the color of their fur and our floors. It’s noticeably cooler, but the sun continues to shine, sometimes through a screen of wildfire smoke.

According to my weather station, it has rained 0.83 inches since August 1st and it’s not an anomaly. Summers in the PNW are almost always bone dry, in part, because we don’t get hot enough to produce thunderstorms that would be a reliable source of rain.

Annual precipitation for our county

For weeks and weeks at a time, the sun shines bright and dries everything to a crisp, including the people.

I love a nice day in the sun, but by this time of year, I’ve had enough. The world outside is a tinderbox that needs moisture before it’s too late. Wildfire is our biggest risk. If we can get through September, we can relax with the knowledge that the rain will finally arrive in spades.

Right now, I’m a little anxious, or maybe just full of anticipation. Each year, I plan for the famous PNW rain to arrive by October 15th. Then, storm season commences and the sun disappears along with the risk of fire. It’s fascinating how quickly and reliably it happens.

I plan on the transition each year, and for now, I wait and watch for signs of change. The weather models are unsure of what will happen. It’s like the dry PNW summer is battling the north pacific currents trying to push into Washington for the winter. Forecasts this time of year often say there is a 58% chance of rain, which is frustratingly noncommittal. They might as well admit they have no idea.

It’s the forecast of rain that feeds my anticipation. I want commitment and confidence. I want a sure thing. For the last couple of days, I’ve been watching a prediction for rain on Wednesday. On Sunday, the Wunderground app showed an 80% chance of 0.20 inches of rain and it allowed me to relax. Rejoice! It’s coming! ?

Then, I checked the weather as soon as I woke up on Monday. Overnight the forecast dropped to a 74% chance of 0.11 inches. It ruined my day. ?

This morning it was 68% of 0.04 inches. ??‍♂️

At the time of publishing this afternoon, it’s down to 49% of 0.03. ?

I’ve seen this happen so many times. The models get you all hyped and hopeful, only to crush your dreams. At this point, I expect a perfectly sunny day on Wednesday without a drop of rain. What have we done to deserve this? Why do they torment us?

Perhaps, I am addicted to the drama of not knowing. Or, maybe I’m just fascinated by the machinations of weather and the difficulty of getting it right. What gets me through is the confidence that the autumn rain will arrive… eventually. It always has.

As much as I complain about the sun at the crunchy end of summer, I love and look forward to this time of year. As I’ve written here many times before, I believe happiness lives in anticipation. Right now, it’s bright and dry and the summer weather seems interminable. But I have so much to look forward to. The cool misty air, the sound of rain on the roof, and fires in the fireplace. I miss seeing our property in its more natural state: wet and verdant. For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

The Garden Gamble ?

The Garden Gamble ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When people learn that we live on an island that’s only accessible by boat, plane, or ferry, they sometimes conjure visions of Alaska-style wilderness and off-the-grid living. People who aren’t familiar with the region ask if we have schools and grocery stores. Despite our relative remoteness, Orcas Island does not want for amenities. In fact, our grocery stores punch above their weight and have prices to show for it.

But island life does have its inconvenient realities. A severe earthquake could cut off our power and disconnect us from the mainland for weeks. An attack (or accident) that affects mainland infrastructure could do the same. In these situations, we’d be on our own and this has imbued the island with a doomsday prepper ethic of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We are not immune and always planned to move into the new house and start preparing.

While we don’t have a bomb shelter or a closet full of MREs, we are working to build up our knowledge and skills in feeding ourselves, and our friends. This summer was our first with a full season of gardening and catching seafood from the Salish Sea, and I’m fascinated by the possibilities.

We’ve enjoyed entertaining over 30 off-island guests this year. Some stayed for an afternoon, some for days. We want nothing more than for friends and family to have a memorable experience with us. Creating that experience from our effort is something we take as a challenge.

People who visit Orcas often prize the local, farm-to-table experience, including eating local seafood, like Dungeness crab, oysters, and spot prawns. They visit the farmer’s market to load up on fresh vegetables and bread. After a nice dinner out, they may order a cocktail or a dessert. Along with good company, food is a necessary part of any island experience.

We want to create a similar experience from home, based mostly on our own planning, time, and self-sufficiency. This summer has been a time to share what we’ve grown and caught. We’ve served many meals that featured crab and prawns we from our traps, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, peppers, strawberries, and lettuce we grew, bread and pizza we baked, and dessert and cocktails we made, all overlooking the Salish Sea. That’s always been the dream and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see it happen.

Spot Prawns

Dungeness Crab

The average visitor, I hope, feels that everything is operating smoothly and we have it all under control. This is my hope because the reality is not so flattering. We are learning on the job and always trying to figure out how to solve problems. Growing, catching, and cooking food is a challenge that always evolves. There are always new problems to solve.

From the outside, you might wonder if so much gardening and crabbing is a chore. Do we really love it, or is it a means to a self-sufficient end? It’s a good question and I’ll answer it with an analogy.

If you’ve ever gambled on a football game, lottery ticket, or at a card table, you know the rush that comes with taking a risk and hoping that lady luck shines on you. Having fished for crab and shrimp with Sachi for a few years, I came to see that all fishing is gambling. You place bets in the form of lures, traps, and bait and then hope that you’ll get lucky. Some days you win, some you lose, but the rush keeps you coming back. Experienced fishers are able to beat the odds, on occasion.

Perhaps gardening is no different. There are no sure bets, especially when you’re just getting started. You plant, water, wait, and hope. Sometimes the soil and sun cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, but you keep trying. The rush comes, but it’s spread over weeks in the summer when the garden finally matures. Experienced gardeners, like fishers, are able to beat the odds.

Today the odds are probably still against us and our garden, in part, because we’re still getting a handle on our little microclimate. Wind, shadows, sun, moisture, humidity, and temperature are all variables that can impact the harvest. Understanding what works at a specific location requires entire seasons of experiments. When an experiment takes that long, you have to see vegetable gardening as a lifelong pursuit. We are currently 1.5 seasons into a very long game.

Sachi is our chief vegetable gardener and gambler. Starting early in the spring, she placed bets in the form of squash, pepper, and tomato seedlings in the garage under UV lights and over a heating pad. She planted seeds for lettuce, beans, and more in the garden. If it works, the bets pay off when dinner is served.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.

One of our experiments this year seems to have paid off. Peppers and tomatoes prefer heat and warm weather. This spring we added raised beds next to the south-facing side of our home. We hoped the sun shining on the black siding would warm the plants enough to make them successful. It worked this year; a jackpot that came from a new use of the sun’s rays.

In fact, it worked so well we’ve been able to freeze the surplus and give some away. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky with tomatoes, so we traded our tomatoes for their apples and a frozen loaf of homemade zucchini bread. I like to think, if things do go off the rails, that we’ll all combine forces to get through.

Now that autumn is upon us, dried squash plants are composting and the tomato plants are looking barer. We’re watering less and looking forward to transitioning to a more interior lifestyle. Before we know it, seedlings will be growing in the garage, the garden experiment will start again and we’ll be one step closer to getting it right, come what may.

Roots

Roots

Early this spring, I planted a tree called a staghorn sumac. It was about two feet tall and looked like a dead branch sticking out of the soil. We were promised it would grow to over 10 feet, eventually. (See mature version)

Nearby is a blue Chinese wisteria tree with a trunk as big as a pencil. (See mature version)

The sumac and wisteria trees are emblematic of our approach to the ornamental side of the garden that is my domain. We’re starting small. Sure, we could spend more and get mature versions of the plants we like, or we could watch their growth and savor tending them from a young and fragile age. 

When people visit, I often tell them they are seeing a miniature version of the garden and that, over time, it will change. I want them to remember this version for a sense of scale. Starting now, each year will bring another, fuller version of it. For the first time since 2017, we can plant a tree and feel confident that we’ll see it grow and mature. That feeling has been missing for too long.

This newfound sense of permanence is something we both feel deeply, having lived in the new house for over a year. It’s fascinating to develop a new rhythm of daily life with the knowledge it may stick. Twenty years from now, will I be taking out the trash, brushing my teeth, and making coffee just as I am today? If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance I will. The accumulation of these permanent rituals will probably get boring and stale and that goes with the territory of permanence. We can only hope we get them right as early as possible.

Part of what has gripped me about the garden is the combination of permanence and change. The sumac tree may be here in twenty years, but it will have changed constantly in that time. Every day, I can inspect it and notice the little things. I can see it in different colors as the seasons change. 

There are some parts of the garden that I’m hoping will trend toward permanence, or at least long-term stability. As a result of construction, we have large and visible swaths of the property that consist of rocky construction fill. One of my first priorities this year also seemed like the most boring: planting low ground covers that will one day cover the troubled fill areas and create a dense groundcover mat that looks great and prevents weeds. 

Today, these plants are miniature, too. I planted creeping raspberry, kinnikinnick, thyme, and cotoneaster around the property and feel real joy from seeing them spread. Everywhere they go, weeds and future maintenance are being reduced. Within a couple of years, my work will hopefully be limited to trimming the edges into the shape I want. 

creeping thyme
kinnikinnick

Right now, the hundreds of new groundcovers, ferns, sedums, trees, bulbs, and shrubs require daily or weekly care because they are new plantings. They are young and need to get settled. Most need a year or two of regular watering to establish their roots. Once established, they can trend ever so slowly toward permanence.

We’ve opted for a number of drought-tolerant plants, which I know sounds odd for the pacific northwest. Our summers are very dry, with almost no rain July-September. The tolerant ones need to get established, so my watering duties for this summer are significant. In this, I’ve developed a ritual. In the afternoons, I start a podcast and spend an hour or more watering and weeding. It’s not much of a workout, but I find it meditative and a time to focus on just one thing. Every minute I spend watering contributes to the plant becoming healthier, more permanent, and lower maintenance. I have this summer to get it right.

In June, we declared our planting season to be over. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it was time. Sachi wanted me to pause and leave some things for next year. She knows my happiness lives in anticipation and didn’t want me to use up all the fun planting and landscaping projects too quickly. I told her something I believe deeply: there will always be projects in the garden. Unlike brushing my teeth or taking out the trash, the garden changes daily. Soon enough we can transition from clearing, preventing, and preparing to a focus on developing, maturing, and beautifying. Maybe that applies to humans, too.

Today, the staghorn sumac is changing every day and has become an essential part of the garden. The groundcovers are slowly reaching out to one another in what I call the Sistine Chapel moment of development.

Every time I water, I imagine roots below the surface slowly becoming permanent parts of the landscape. And as I do, my roots become more permanent, too.

Permanently Incomplete ?

Permanently Incomplete ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

One of the things I missed in our multi-year transition to Orcas Island was having a sense of permanence. As I wrote at the time, everything felt temporary; too temporary to exert effort to establish or beautify. I couldn’t wait to finally move to Flattop and begin a life with years of permanence. 

Now that we’ve lived in the house for about a year, we’ve developed a good sense of our daily rituals and patterns. I make coffee the same way every day. The same bowls go in the same drawers. The books, blankets, and other accoutrements now have homes. In the months after we moved in, it felt new and transformational to identify these permanent homes. We could finally take advantage of the design choices we made with great deliberation.

Now, when I put a bowl in the drawer, I sometimes think, “This is it. I may use this drawer in the same way for the rest of my life. Bowls live here, perhaps forever.” We can always change the contents of shelves and drawers, but in reality, we won’t. The drawer was designed for bowls and that’s where they’ll remain. 

I’m a little torn about this new reality. On one hand, I never have to think about where to put bowls. On the other, there’s seemingly nothing left to optimize. The problem has been solved and I take comfort in that. My brain can move on. The question is: to what? There will always be things to redesign and optimize in small tinkers. The garage is one. But soon, I will have achieved what I desired for so long: a mostly permanent feeling of consistency and completeness. The platform is built and the stage is being set.

And now, a new feeling is creeping in. Completeness and consistency are both comforting and… boring. I’m starting to miss the design process and having a productive place for my mind to wander when it comes to home. The satisfaction completeness produces is fleeting and spread across a lifetime of slightly more convenience. Soon enough, it fades into the background.

We are both happier with a problem to solve or an idea to be brainstormed. While the interior of Flattop is coming together, the exterior has a long way to go and that, too, was by design. We chose not to think about landscaping so we could think about bowls. We wanted to live on the property and take our time with planting because it’s a project that is never truly complete. The design problem changes every day and persists through years of seasons and weather and pests.

A year ago, we moved into Flattop with the exterior being a blank slate. We rushed to build a few garden beds so we could participate in the growing season. We were late, but still had a productive year for vegetables. 

This year, we’ve added vegetable beds close to the warming black siding with hopes of growing tomatoes, peppers, squash, and more.

Sachi has been working on starts in our garage, which, I’m learning, becomes a greenhouse this time of year. She’s our vegetable gardener and has things mostly under control, or as much control as nature allows.

The ornamental side of the garden is a very different kind of problem and that’s my focus. We added six raised beds for beauty this year and unlike vegetables, their contents will be mostly permanent.

I want to turn the blank slate into a lush, colorful, and fragrant garden, full of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. I want to plant things that are remarkable and uncommon. I want them to start small and grow into something amazing over many years. 

That’s the magic of permanence applied to living things. Discovering the perfect spot for a plant is the beginning and not the end. It may never move, but it will change and develop. It will require attention, care, and maintenance. It will be a part of a much bigger canvas that is also evolving. These plants offer a lifetime of projects to optimize and problems to solve.

We recently made a trip to the nearby Bullocks nursery and came home with a plant called a stag horn sumac. There is perhaps no better example of how we’re thinking about the garden. As a mature plant (below), it can get 15 feet high and wide, with big bright leaves and cone-shaped flowers.

Today, our sumac looks like someone stuck a dead branch in the ground. It may be years until we see its full glory and that’s the idea. We can wait. We want to wait. 

We’ve Got Worms ? – How to Subpod

We’ve Got Worms ? – How to Subpod

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

You’ve probably heard, but worm poop is worth its weight in gold. At least that’s how it seems. The “castings”, as they are called, make for amazing garden fertilizer that you can buy. As we’ve discovered recently, you can also make it yourself, or run your own little worm farm/production facility.

When we lived in Seattle, the city encouraged composting on a city-wide scale. Along with garbage and mixed recycling, we had a yard waste container that was picked up every two weeks. We were supposed to put compostable food in the container with plants and leaves. In fact, we could be fined for not doing so. 

We kept a little bucket under the kitchen sink with a compostable bag. When making dinner, food scraps went into the bucket and eventually into the yard waste container. When we first started composting, it seemed like a time-consuming extra step, but over time it made sense. Along with helping the city turn food waste into compost instead of it going to the landfill, our normal trash stayed relatively clean and less odorous.

Then, we moved to an island. In our location, trash trucks do not arrive to cart away trash, recycling, or yard/food waste. Like so many other things, we must do it ourselves and feel motivated to make it as easy as possible. Trash and recycling are easy and much more affordable than in the city. Every six weeks or so, we load up a vehicle and go to the transfer station. 

Food waste is another matter. The island waste company is in the planning stages for a facility that processes compost where residents can drop off food and yard waste along with the trash. As always, the goal is to keep materials on the island instead of having to pay to remove it by ferry. 

In moving into the new house, we needed to develop a system for our food waste. We consistently cook at home and produce a good bit of the stuff. Sachi started looking into what we could do and learned about vermiculture or vermicomposting, which means using worms to process food waste and turn it into fertilizer.

The idea is pretty simple: You put thousands of earthworms, like red wigglers, into an outdoor container with food waste. The worms eat the food and turn it into gold in the form of castings. That’s the beauty of this system. It converts waste into fertilizer for the next round of crops. Win-win!

Sachi researched how to make it easier and discovered a system called Subpod. This is a milk crate type of box with two bays for the food waste and walls with worm-sized holes.

You place the box in a raised bed with the majority of the box under the surface.

Then, you add worms, shredded paper, and food waste to the box, which becomes a buffet for the worms. The rest of the bed can be used to grow food.

Back when we built raised beds, we built one specifically for composting and sized it for two Subpods, just in case. Then, we ordered the Subpod and the worms. A few days later 2,000 red wiggler worms arrived in a bag from the perfectly named Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm. We were in business.

They can come and go as they please in the surrounding soil and are likely to reproduce. Over time, the food waste turns into rich soil that can be transferred into a vegetable garden.

A lot of people build their own compost bins and they usually work great, but come with some issues. The food waste can attract pests and rodents, there can be unsavory odors and overall messiness. The Subpod mitigates the issues because it’s sitting in soil, with a cover.  

Now that the system is rolling, we collect food waste in a small bucket under the sink, grab the coffee grounds and tear up some carbon-filled egg cartons or paper, and take them to the Subpod every couple of days. The composting process required aeration, so Subpod gave us a giant screw to mix it up and an insulating blanket to keep the compost covered so it keeps temperature and doesn’t dry out. Other than that, we just wait. 

The instructions/rules for using the Subpod are handily placed on the underside of the bin:

When we give people a tour of our property, I often ask if they want to see our worm farm. And we are growing worms, but really, it’s a processing plant that processes plants. 

Another Man’s Treasure ?‍☠️

Another Man’s Treasure ?‍☠️

I’m sure that my first reaction was a subtle roll of my eyes or at least an imagined one. Two twin-size box springs had sat in our garage for a while and Sachi was formulating a plan. She asked around and no one needed them and she didn’t want to just take them to the dump, so she decided to try converting them into something useful. I fully support this as an idea, but I wasn’t sure a box spring could actually become anything much. With a box cutter and pliers, she got to work. 

When we demolished the yurt-shaped house, we tried to salvage what we could. Anything we could give away or use was something that didn’t end up in the landfill. Being new to island culture, we hadn’t yet developed a strong sense of salvage, but we were able to do a lot. We saved many of the windows and gave away the Blaze King wood stove, cedar roof shingles, ceiling panels and more. In addition, we saved at least fourteen panels of hog wire railing material for some future project or new island owner. We had no idea how handy they would be.

Hog wire railing at the yurt

Once Sachi’s vegetable garden got going, it quickly needed support, both vertically and around the edges, as squash plants spilled out over the side of the raised beds. The hog wire came to the rescue on both counts.

hog wire supporting squash

The hog wire also served as a moveable fence we can use to keep the dogs out of the temporary and dusty pile of dirt. 

Aside from what we could salvage from the yurt, the construction project produced its own scrap and we told the crew to save everything that seemed useful. Today a pile of wood and materials lives under our house and is slowly being put to use. 

A few brackets helped turn leftover trim into shelves in our garage.

Steel concrete form stakes became the weight that keeps our shrimp traps in place on the bottom. The holes are perfect for cable ties to keep the stakes in place. 

When our friend, Jon, moved to Hawaii, he gave us a roll of flexible deer fence that worked perfectly to keep bird beaks out of the beets.

The more we looked around, the more it seemed everything we’d saved would someday become useful. This is the salvage sense that took time to develop. We told our contractor, Drew, about some of what we were doing and he said something that stuck with me… “If you don’t watch it, your garden can start to look like a junkyard.” Point taken. The island has plenty of these “gardens”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and it can be a slippery slope. 

With the squash supported with hog wire, Sachi turned her attention to tomatoes and peas, which needed support as they grew. The tomato cages we had from Seattle were not enough to do the job. We considered buying more, but our salvage sense started to tingle. 

Off in a far corner of the property was a handful of hog wire strips from building the top part of our fence. These were small and destined for the dump until Sachi had an idea. Over the course of an afternoon, she used the scraps and garden tape to assemble frames for supporting the plants without having to buy new cages. I thought it was brilliant, if not slightly junky. 

The frames needed a bit more to support the plants and that’s when the box springs started to look more useful. Sachi stripped off the fabric and noticed the bent metal springs stapled to the wooden frame. They were not easy to remove, but that was part of the fun.

In an hour or two, the box frames were disassembled and flattened, leaving us with a pile of springs and an idea. If we could attach them to the frames, they could support tomatoes and peas just like a tomato cage. And that’s exactly what happened. The frames have a beauty borne of utility and a reduction of waste. They most likely will not become permanent parts of the garden, but for a season or two while we figure out the long term plan for the garden, they will do just fine.

Before moving to Orcas, I might have questioned the reasoning of putting so much effort into using leftover material. Are tomato cages that expensive? Could time be used more productively? Of course buying cages is logical, but it’s not about that. We can calculate savings and waste reduction all day and still not account for the satisfaction we get from putting scraps to work. It takes time, but it’s fun and useful in a way that can’t be counted in dollars. 

Now that the house is complete and we’re setting up our new lifestyle, we’re both motivated to see what makes sense in terms of reducing waste and reusing what we can. In the past, we had never considered washing and reusing Ziploc bags, but today it’s normal for us. Again, it’s not about the money or even trying to save the planet. If you strip that away, what’s left, I believe, is a smarter, more practical, thoughtful way to live.

I Can Recommend: Gardening Edition

I Can Recommend: Gardening Edition

Monty Don

I sometimes wonder what it is about British TV that we find so entertaining. Sure, there are charming hosts with funny aphorisms and accents. But the sheer abundance of quality shows that are unlike anything we see in the US is confounding. My guess is that it has something to do with funding from the BBC, which operates a bit like the PBS in the US.

?Gardener’s World (Amazon Prime) You can’t talk about British gardening without mentioning Monty Don and Gardener’s World. It’s a British institution that’s been going for 165 episodes. We also enjoyed Monty in Big Dreams, Small Spaces.

? Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime) Like Monty Don, Jeremy Clarkson is a British legend, mostly due to his long-running and much-loved show, Top Gear. This one-season show is about him buying a huge farm and learning to make it productive with the help of local farmers in the Cotswolds. His ornery sense of humor along with the colorful locals make this show very entertaining. I now know much more about the challenges of “real” farming.

?Grow, Cook, Eat (Amazon Prime) This isn’t British, but Irish, and features a master vegetable gardener and charming sidekick who sticks up for the amateur gardener. The couple focuses on one vegetable per episode and the viewer gets to see it grow from seed to harvest to being cooked by a chef. Very practical and easy to watch, especially if your climate is like theirs.

☘️Fredrick Law Olmstead: Designing America (Amazon Prime) – This documentary is about Mr. Olmstead, but also the evolution of Central Park in New York. Our neighborhood parks in Seattle, including the boulevard in front of our house, were designed by his son and nephew and I always wanted to know more about the family and their approach to landscape architecture.

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Bringing Life Back to the Rocky Ground ?

Bringing Life Back to the Rocky Ground ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

I clearly remember watching my father in his tunnel-shaped greenhouse on the hill behind our house in Kernersville, NC. On my frequent visits, I’d wander around in the humidity as I inspected his tools and projects. The air was a musty mix of soil, fertilizer, and him. He had long tables full of plants, mostly flowers, organized into sections with carefully placed labels and tags. A spiral-bound notebook with a dirty cover kept his barely legible notes. Little film canisters, each with their own labels, seemed to be sprinkled about and stored in a tiny refrigerator along with a couple of bottles of Yoo-Hoo.

When he wasn’t inside the greenhouse, he was somewhere on the property digging a hole, moving a plant, starting a sprinkler, pruning, weeding, and more. As a child, I never understood what he was doing in the greenhouse and garden, but I knew it came from a place of passion. At dinner time, I would often have to go find him. Left alone, he would stay in the garden until dark.

Wyatt LeFever in his Garden

Now that we’ve moved and built garden beds, our garden is our next big project and I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming a version of him in his garden. We are putting down literal roots on a landscape that has been stripped of life in the course of construction and building it back feels like a lifelong pursuit. Aside from the vegetables in the garden beds, the garden and landscape around our property won’t develop fully for many years and that’s part of the beauty of this project. We will bring life back to the rocky ground.

In my book, Big Enough, I shared this quote in a chapter on long term planning:

The success or failure of any design comes down to the goals you’re trying to reach and I take inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, who often ignored the need for short-term success and took the long view of landscape architecture. 

In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.” 

Forty years. That’s how long he thought it would take to see results. The distant effects of our garden will hopefully take fewer years, but I am prepared for the long term. As much as I want to snap my fingers and transform the sword fern by our front door into its full prehistoric splendor, I must water and wait. 

In our division of duties, I am the landscaper and Sachi is the vegetable gardener. In Seattle, we had a backyard planter bed where Sachi grew veggies for years. I was always interested in the challenge, which I didn’t fully comprehend going into the process. Gardening seemed like a nice hobby where you put seeds in the ground and a few months later, harvest a cornucopia of big beautiful vegetables. And in some cases, that happened with minimal effort (I’m looking at you, tomatoes!)

What I witnessed then, and now understand, is that tending a garden is more like an arms race or a puzzle than a set-it and forget-it hobby. It took Sachi multiple years to learn how to optimize the garden for maximum sun and what plants worked best in our little corner of Seattle. She was always at war with pests, like slugs, snails, aphids, birds, and squirrels who used the garden like a buffet. Then there was the weather, which can be uncooperative and the all-too-short summer season in the PNW. If it doesn’t get warm enough for long enough, gardens can remain puny. No season is ever the same. And that’s also part of the fun. 

The rush in building our raised beds at Flattop was an effort to get seeds in the ground before it’s too late. Now that we have them in, the real learning can begin. I’m sure we’ll have successes and failures, but for the first year or two, the real goal is experimentation. Our garden, like most, has a sweet spot between the spring and fall when the plants don’t need to be protected or covered from chilly winds and low temperatures. Finding that sweet spot is the goal, and it may take years. 

dogs with raised bed
Maybe and Piper

Orcas Island has multiple micro-climates and ours, on the west side, is known for being warmer and sunnier. Some say it’s Mediterranean. I’m not so sure, but taking advantage of what sun we have is high on our list. With its pests and wily weather, we have a lot to learn.

Today the beds are approaching full, with squash, french beans, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, and more. It feels like the calm before the vegetable storm, which gathers strength each day.

Chard
lettuce

The vegetable garden is Sachi’s happy place. She spends mornings and evenings tending it and watching it grow. Yesterday she was excited to show me that the Hubbard squash was starting to show fruit. Unlike the landscaping and ornamental plants that I tend, hers are productive. They feed us and that surely adds to Sachi’s attraction. 

Hubbard Squash

Flattop has large spaces to fill in terms of landscaping and it sometimes feels daunting. I have plans for filling each space, but the lower priority areas are slowly succumbing to weeds and grasses. We’re hoping to establish ground covers that, over time, prevent other plants from growing. It will take years, but will hopefully provide us a natural, low maintenance, and beautiful way to wrest control of the soil from invaders. 

One of my favorite projects is a relatively modest one. The west side of our house slopes down precipitously and the north corner is barren and rocky. Over time it may start to erode and one of my first goals was to plant ground covers that would beautify it and keep the ground in place. So far, like most of my landscaping, it looks puny, but I’m keeping it watered with high hopes. Thankfully, the rocky slope is not a place deer like to tread. 

kinnikinnick

For me, the garden has become a place of refuge. I jump at the chance to take a break from work and inspect the plants. In the evenings, I look forward to the meditative feel of watering. Looking back, I think that was also true for my Dad. His garden was his refuge and place to do what he wanted. 

He turned a few acres of family property in North Carolina into an expansive garden that became a stop for bus loads of garden tourists. Those greenhouse projects, notebooks, and film canisters were his tools in creating and naming hybrid varieties of daylilies, hostas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. One of his best-known varieties is a hydrangea named after my mother called Dear Dolores. Like most members of the family, I have a daylily named after me: Forsyth Lee LeFever.

Forsyth Lee LeFever

Today he’s 86 and his best gardening days are behind him. But he still reads gardening books and loves to talk about what we’re growing out here on the west coast. Someday, we’ll have a space like his greenhouse for our garden projects and experiments. We’ll grow what we can and hopefully, our garden will be a lifelong source of happiness, exercise, beauty, and food. Who knows what we’ll see in 40 years?