“image
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.

Beds, Benches, and Lessons Learned

Beds, Benches, and Lessons Learned

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

Under our house, we have a pile of lumber, decking, siding, and plywood that was leftover from the build. Nearby is a pile of two-man boulders. My goal is to use these resources to build out the landscaping at virtually no cost.

I tend to learn by doing. I might sketch out a plan for a project, but I’m always drawn to getting started quickly and stumbling through. And there are stumbles that waste both time and resources. But eventually, I learn enough about what doesn’t work to understand what does, and why. It should be noted that, on this approach, Sachi and I differ.

The Fire Pit

One of the features of living on Orcas Island is the availability of tractors. My next-door neighbor and three friends within walking distance all have them. When I tell them about the work we put into building a patio for a fire pit, they all say, “Why didn’t you tell me? We could have knocked that out in an hour!” And it’s true. We sometimes choose to take the manual route because it’s harder. We want to sweat. We want to feel it.

In this case, the manual route meant leveling the grade and moving rocks large and small across the property. It turns out that rocks are heavy and difficult to move with a little cart. But soon, I developed a system and started moving rocks with something approaching efficiency. I have bruises to show for it.

Moving the big rocks turned out to be the easiest part. Leveling the surface was also easy compared to covering it all with aggregate gravel. Bucket by bucket, we built up a 3-4″ base.

Within a couple of days, it was done and our friend, John, offered a fire bowl he didn’t need. It was the perfect fit for the space. So now, we have even more places to build a fire. Thanks, John!

The Potting Bench

In all the time we’ve spent in the garden, we’ve never had a proper place to work. We’d end up sitting on the ground to pot a plant or assemble a tool. I decided to fix this by installing a potting bench along our fence. In looking at designs, I loved the idea of the bench having a screen where potting soil can drop to the ground or into a bucket. This required a sketch.

I had all the lumber I needed, and dove into the project.

To my surprise, it came out even better than I imagined. We now have a potting/workbench in the garden. The surface is the same as our trim material, so once it silvers, it will match.

Hanging Planters

This project was a challenge; honestly, I’m still waiting for it all to fall apart.

In our first summer at Flattop, we thought it would be useful to mount gutters on the fence and grow strawberries. It didn’t work. Because there’s so little volume, it dries out quicker than you can keep it watered in the summer heat.

So, I had another idea: what if I built planter boxes that we could hang on the fence instead?

For this, I’d use panels of our decking, which is thermally-modified ash that is very rigid, but also a bit fragile. Without a fully developed plan, I started cutting pieces and gluing them together. Initially, I didn’t use screws because I was concerned the wood would break apart on the ends.

I built four boxes and let them dry for a few days. Then, I hung them on the fence and used spare wire fencing and weed barrier to create a bed that drains well.

They looked so good on the fence, and I was nervous. The added weight of soil and water would be the real test. Aaaand one didn’t pass. The day after I added soil, the first box I built came apart. Fun!

Clamps to the rescue. And screws. I ended up pre-drilling holes and covering those boxes with screws from every conceivable location. Lesson learned.

As of today, the boxes are full and currently growing basil, mint, dill, shiso, and zinnias. They seem to be holding for now. Time will tell.

Slowly but surely, the property that was wiped clean by construction is coming to life. We still have a lot of open space to work with and years to fill it. Hopefully, I can find ways to use the resources we have to do a lot of that work. I can’t wait.

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.