Plant Secrets You Can Use from Fox Island, Washington


deer_Japanese_mapleA year or so ago I planted a special kind of Japanese maple in my sister’s landscape. I traveled up to her house recently to celebrate our birthdays which are only 2 days apart and to check on the maple’s progress. Prized for their their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple, my sister’s Beni Kawa Japanese maple is coming along fine. I forgot to buff the bark with a soft cloth to polish it which keeps the color bright but I’ll be sure to remember that next summer when I visit again.

I also wanted to check in on her neighbor’s organic garden that I wrote about last summer. Bob was happy to show me what’s in the works for this year. Although he was fighting a cold -you can’t keep a good gardener down- he shared a few tips he is trying out this year.

Raw sawdust is his magic weapon in the strawberry patch. Sprinkled between the strawberry plants it is said to prevent annual weeds from germinating. He’ll get back to me with the results later in the season. His grapes were nicely pruned, the raspberries just starting to bud and the garlic which he planted last fall was about a foot high. The raised veggie boxes have been planted with lots of peas. Inside the green house, several types of kale and lettuce were just emerging in their flats.

Bob told me that this year again everything seems to be about 3 weeks early- sound familiar? As I walked the neighborhood enjoying the various blooming plants and taking in the sights of majestic Mt Rainier and the Puget Sound I admired many plants that also thrive here in our neck of the woods. A plant that grows in a multiple of growing conditions is always a winner in my garden. Here are a few notables from Fox Island.

What could a plant that is iconic of Scotland have in common with erica_canaliculata_Rosea.1600our area? Easy to grow heather and true heath look great in the garden at any time of year. Although both belong to the Ericacaea family, they are botanically different and are divided into the Calluna genus and the Erica genus. In the garden, however, they are nearly identical in color, shape and growing habits.

I love their colorful foliage and flowers and have seen the true heath, Erica canaliculata ‘Rosea’ blooming now also in gardens in our area. It is tolerant of winter lows a bit less than 25 degrees and will thrive in soil that is more alkaline than the calluna vulgaris heathers. Calluna types need more organic matter in the soil to really do well. Our acidic mixed redwood soils provide this and calluna cultivars are very cold tolerant. All need good drainage.

pieris_Valley_Valentine-closeup.1600Another shrub that I admire where ever I find it is Valley Rose’ Lily-of-the-Valley. The other vivid rose variety which grows a bit taller is Valley Valentine. It seemed most gardens on Fox Island had at least one of these beautiful plants in full bloom including the stunning white flowering forms. Books might tell you they require average water but established specimens are remarkable tolerant of drought.

Although it wasn’t blooming yet I came across a lovely choisya Sundance choisya_ternata_Sundance.1600also called Mexican Orange Blossom shrub which describes the fragrant orange blossom-like blooms. The new growth of this fast growing, evergreen, deer resistant shrub is colored bright chartreuse and provides year round color to the garden.

To round out my tour of local rhodie_pink_early.1600landscapes on Fox Island many of the early rhododendrons were starting to bloom. Covered with vivid pink flower trusses they looked great planted with viburnum davidii, daffodil and narcissus, iberis and black mondo grass. All grow great in our area too. We have a lot in common despite the distance between us.



Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest- Part 2


deer_Japanese_mapleLast Christmas I gave my sister a Beni Kawa Japanese maple. This tree sports even brighter red bark in the winter than the more familiar Coral Bark maple. She recently sent me a picture of a deer standing right next to it and looking  longingly at it’s next meal. Her tree wasn’t nibbled that day but I was anxious to visit Fox Island where she lives in the Pacific Northwest to check on it for my self.

The morning after I arrived I heard the neighbors next door outside in their garden chatting. I have seen their vegetable garden from outside the fence as I drove by and was curious what they had growing in there. I introduced myself and was offered fresh picked blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “Come by after breakfast and we’ll give you a tour”, they said. I could hardly wait.

The front of Bob and Bev’s corner lot is landscaped with perennials, flowering trees and shrubs. Everything on the property is grown organically, they told me. “The weeds can really get out of hand up here with all the rain”, they hydrangea_paniculata_Limelightlamented. The back garden containing the edibles is fenced but the front is open to the local deer population. A massive Limelight hydrangea paniculata dominates the entry. Covered with hundreds of lime green blooms that will turn pink in the fall, Bob told me he sprays it weekly with Liquid Fence deer repellent.

White coneflower, dahlia, crocosmia, hosta and gladiola are just a few of the perennials in their landscape. Bob and Bev mix native plants with other plants they like. Native Oregon grape front_perennial_bedground cover and manzanita cover the sloping bank along with a small stand of vinca minor that is well behaved. Bev does wish she hadn’t planted the bugloss under the flowering plum but say’s the little blue forget-me-not flowers each spring are worth the effort it takes to keep it in check.

In the back, protected by a perimeter deer fence is where the edibles live.

On one side of the yard is a 40 foot stream Bob designed and built himself. Along the curving bank they have planted Oregon grape, salal, kninnikinnick manzanita and snowberry. Woolly thyme and black pussy willow also grow alongside. Wild birds love bathing in the stream. Bob used the leftover soil and rock from the stream project to construct a streammound for overbearing strawberries.

Another bed of strawberries is still producing. This one is built from timbers and amended soil from compost Bob and Bev make themselves.

The raspberry crop was great this year, Bev said. I had tasted a few and she wasn’t exaggerating.

They have an attached greenhouse, that Bob designed and built. “Overbuilt”, they both laughed.  Bob’s an engineer and couldn’t help but design thermal windows, fans, vents and a heating system that allows them to grow back-up tomatoes in the summer and to start seeds in the winter. The double pane windows keeps the temperature inside in the 40’s without the heat having to kick on. A meyer lemon grew lush in the corner covered with blossoms and fruit.

cornBob was advised he could never grow corn in the Pacific Northwest but being from the midwest where corn is king he had to try. Their crop was just setting ears at 4 feet and will grow to 7 feet tall by the end of summer. “They’re delicious”, he told me.

All bare soil in this organic garden is covered with bark chips. Bev told me she listens for a chipper in the neighborhood and tells them where to drop it off. They swear by this type of mulch. “Like gold”, Bev laughs.

Bob and Bev make gardening in the Pacific Northwest look easy. Their garden is the result of many hours of pleasant work and it shows.



Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest


strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.



Beni Kawa Japanese Maple


Last fall my sister lost her favorite tree in a windstorm. She lives on Fox Island in the southern part of Puget Sound. I remember hearing about the extraordinary Pacific storm on the national news shattering records in the Northwest. Gusts up to 76 mph closed bridges, falling trees hurt 2 people and thousands lost power. Her Silk Tree didn’t stand a chance.

Won_Yang_JanWhile visiting over the Christmas holiday I thought it would be a nice present to replace her dearly departed tree. Several nice ornamental trees made the short list including the Katsura tree with leaves that smell like vanilla in the fall and Forest Pansy redbud with magenta spring flowers, burgundy heart-shaped summer leaves and reddish-orange fall color. We also considered the native Pacific dogwood but she already had one in the yard. Driving around we started to notice the beautiful color of the Coral Bark Japanese maples in many landscapes and the decision was made.

I knew we would have no trouble finding a good specimen in the Pacific Northwest and I was right. Close Won_Yang_graftsby in Gig Harbor we found Yang’s Nursery and I walked into the realm of a Japanese maple expert. Owner Won Yang opened the nursery to give us a tour of the grounds.  We walked between rows of hundreds of maples and marveled at the huge bonsai specimens of Weeping Katsura tree, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, several different conifers and a very impressive, beautifully pruned Oshio Beni Japanese maple all over 20 years old.

Won showed us his greenhouses where he propagates the maples himself. He has been in the business for 30 years so he knows his stuff. Starting with a small green maple seedling with a half inch stem that is cut off 6″ above the ground,  he carefully grafts a tiny tip of new growth from the desired specimen onto the larger stem. It will take at least 3 years before the new tree will be big enough to sell. Won’s pride in his work was apparent as he smiled at the rows of newly grafted maples.

Acer_palmatum_Beni_KawaBack out among the maples, I had my eye on the rows of coral barked Sangu Kaku maples when I saw them. Lined up alongside were several trees with bark so bright I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What are these”, I asked? Won just smiled and told me they were called Beni Kawa Japanese maples and were a cultivar originally developed in 1987. They are prized for their brilliant salmon red bark which is much brighter than the regular coral bark maple. I was hooked. How could I not plant this gorgeous tree in my sister’s yard?

I learned that the bark of this tree can be polished to keep the bright color. Lichen often grows on older trees hiding the salmon red bark of the new branches. I’ll have to try using a soft cloth on my coral bark maple and see how it turns out. The Beni Kawa is a fast growing Japanese maple that will eventually reach 10-15 ft tall and 5-12 ft wide. It is hardy to 15 degrees.

Won grows his trees in a 50/50 mixture of top soil blend and fine crushed bark. He fertilizes with a balanced granular fertilizer and prunes in the winter. The 6 ft tree I bought my sister will not need to be pruned for a couple of years allowing it to establish a strong root system.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the new tree evolves as it grows especially since I know where this Beni Kawa Japanese maple was born.

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