Native plants for a backyard food forest

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”~ Gustave Flaubert, “November,” 1842

In Sunday’s column (Feb. 19, 2017), I wrote about creating a forest garden using plants that are native to our region. A forest garden, or food forest, consists of multiple layers of edible plants that grow happily together to create a balanced micro-ecological system in our yard. The plant layers consist of small or large fruit/nut trees (depending on property size), shrubs, herbaceous perrenials or self-seeding annuals, groundcovers and vertical-growing vine crops.

Here are pictures and links to recipes using some of the plants native to our area in a food forest. Pictures are from Hansen’s Northwest Native Plants Database at: http://www.nwplants.com/.

Here’s a map of public food forests in the U.S.

The Winslow Food Forest in Portland is also open to the public.

Small canopy trees

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)

Western crabapple (Malus fusca)

Western crabapple (Malus fusca)

Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Shrubs

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier arnifolia)

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier arnifolia)

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Pacific blackberry (Rubrus ursinus)

Pacific blackberry (Rubrus ursinus)

Herbaceous Perennials and Herbs

Horsemint, wild bergamot (Monarda punctata)

Horsemint, wild bergamot (Monarda punctata

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)

Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatas)

Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatas)

Bulbs

Chocolate lily (Frittilary affinis)

Chocolate lily (Frittilary affinis) 

Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)

Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)

Wild onion (Allium cernuum)

Wild onion (Allium cernuum)

Groundcover

Blue blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Blue blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Vines

Western Wild grape (Vitis californica)

Western Wild grape (Vitis californica)

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A native flower and a tree with heart

The happiest moments my heart knows are those in which it is pouring forth its affections to a few esteemed characters. ~ Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his friend Eliza House Trist sent from Paris on Dec. 15, 1786

In Sunday’s column (Feb. 12, 2017), I wrote about plants with heart-shaped leaves, including a plant that is native to our region called Asarum caudatum, or Wild Ginger. I also want to mention two other native plants with heart – Dicentra formosa, Pacific Bleeding Heart, and Cercis occidentalis, the Western redbud tree.
Dicentra formosa is a perennial that is smaller and daintier looking than its cousin, Dicentra spectabilis,with pale green, delicately cut foliage that grows from 6-20 inches high.

Pacific Bleeding Heart - Picture from Plant Oregon Nursery

Pendulous clusters of light to deep pink heart-shaped flowers hang from nodding stems that rise 6 inches above the leaves. The flowers bloom from April to June and again when the weather turns cooler in the fall. The leaves go dormant in the summertime.

Pacific Bleeding Heart thrives in shade gardens with dappled sunlight when planted in moist but well-draining soil with lots of organic matter. Plant them in groups with compost and mulch to create a beautiful groundcover. The flowers attract hummingbirds and the leaves are a host plant for a species of butterfly in the swallowfamily. The plants are also deer-resistant!

Western redbud - Picture from Las Palitas Nursery

I always look forward to the springtime display of purple-pink flowers on the Western redbud trees in my neighborhood. The flowers of this small, deciduous tree emerge before the beautiful heart-shaped leaves that are green in the spring and summer and turn red or yellow in the fall. Purplish seed pods hang from the tree in the winter; the seedpods and flowers are edible.
Redbud trees love the seasonal climate in our region; in fact, they need a winter chill in order to bloom well. Redbuds tolerate a vareity of soils, inlcluding acidic clay soils, and the flowers attrract birds, bees and butterfies.
I found this excerpt of a poem written by a Texas teenager, “CrazyMK,” that describes the difficulty in capturing the beauty of a bleeding heart on paper:
Bleeding Heart

Dicentra spectabilis - Photo from botanika.wendys.cz

The flower’s petals blooming wide
Winding grooves the charcoal rides
A bleeding heart that’s drawn with care
Deep, dark secrets lying there
The tired artist tries and tries
To make the picture come alive

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Hanging branches in literature and in our yards

My darling promised to meet me when autumn comes.

Now the parasol tree has already shed its leaves.

And the osmanthus flowers are newly scented.

Dreaming of you during every watch of the night,

Thinking of you as I wake…

~ Feng Menglong, “Black Silk Robe,” 1615

In Sunday’s column (Feb. 5, 2017), I wrote about what to do with hanging branches. So what does this classical Chinese love song have to do with hanging branches? Well, literary gardeners, “Black Silk Robe” is one of more than 400 song-poems in a compilation of 17th-century Chinese ballads titled “Guazhi’er,” or “Hanging Branches.” These popular urban songs were created and sung in the “pleasure quarters” of the Yangtze River Delta. They portray relationships between courtesans and the literati of that time. Feng Menglong was one of those literati, and he compiled and edited the songs he heard at the brothels and in the surrounding cities.

In addition to the title of Menglong’s songbook (and a previously published songbook by the same title by Liu Xiaozi), “Guazhi’er” or “Hanging Branches” is the name given to this genre of sexually explicit love songs, all with a similar pattern: 8-8-7-5-5-9. I couldn’t find a definitive answer as to the meaning of “hanging branches” in this context, but perhaps the term refers to the hanging branches of the mulberry trees that were so important to the Chinese silk industry (and to all of those black silk robes!).

Menglong went on to become an important figure in popular Chinese literature during the late Ming Dynasty because he introduced erotic facets of Chinese culture to Chinese literature, and he used (and thus retained) regional vernaculars of the period in his compilations of songs, histories and novels, as well as in his own short stories.

Click here for a discussion of more “Hanging Branches” poetry.

Now, what about the hanging branches in our yards? Here’s a useful guide provided by the Montana State University Extension Service on how to make proper pruning cuts for broken branches.

The Arbor Day Foundation also offers handy advice for Tree First Aid After a Storm. One of the points the ADF makes is to resist the urge to overprune after cutting away broken branches: Don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, your trees may look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will heal, grow new foliage, and return to their natural beauty.

I’m glad to hear that news because I found several damaged branches in the interior of my laurel.

In addition to lots of hanging branches in my own and my neighbors’ yards, I’ve also seen a few trees that toppled right over after the recent winter storms.  Frequently this

Toppled tree

happens when a top-heavy tree has a weak root structure. Although my neighbor tried to prop this small Chinese Photinia tree back up with rope, it fell over again and may not be salvageable because the roots have been weakened by wet clay soil and exposure to the elements.

I’ll end this post with an excerpt of a contemporary poem called “Broken Branch” by Andrew Blakemore:

Broken branch on forest floor
And hanging on the tree no more,
All tangled twisted overgrown
It now remains forever prone,
The broken branch a solemn sight
Split on one November’s night,
When the wind was cruel and strong
And gales were gusting for so long.

A bad pruning cut results in a dead stob that invites insects and disease

Exposed inner bark invites insects and disease

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Create pollinator “pads” in your garden

“There is a flower that bees prefer/And butterflies desire;/To gain the purple democrat/The humming-birds aspire.” ~ Emily Dickenson, “Purple Clover,” 1890 

In Sunday’s column (January 29, 2017), I wrote about the importance and gardening pleasures of attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds to our gardens. I also provided some examples of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that appeal to different kinds of pollinators. It’s important to keep in mind that butterfly larvae – caterpillars – often require different host plants than adult butterflies, so it’s a good idea to have some of each kind of host plant available in the garden. Here is a useful listing of plants for both caterpillars and butterflies.

In addition to having their favorite plants available, butterflies need water to drink, which they suck up through a mouth part called a probiscis. Butterflies prefer to drink from puddles, which can be created during our dry months with a shallow pan filled with a mound of sand in the middle and surrounded by water. Place in a somewhat shady location to prevent the pan or water from becoming too hot. An optimal butterfly habitat will also have at least 5 hours of sunlight every day and protection from wind.

At night, butterflies rest underneath plant leaves, in small crevices between rocks or wood, or among the stems of woody plants. Some gardeners enjoy making or purchasing butterfly houses, while other gardeners say these houses are mostly used as garden art rather than by the butterflies.

Here is a comprehensive listing of butterflies that are seen in Oregon. Also, check out the Butterfly Pavilions during May-October at the Rusk Ranch Nature Center in Cave Junction, Oregon and at the Elkton Community Education Center in Elkton, Oregon. For several years, the Oregon Zoo in Portland has bred and released the endangered Silverspot butterfly species as part of its conservation program. In addition, there are several Monarch butterfly way stations in our area, including at the Coyote Trails School of Nature in Medford, OR and at the Demonstration Gardens at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point, OR.

There are five species (out of about 340 species) of hummingbirds in Oregon, including Allen’s, Anna’s, Black-chinned, Calliope and Rufous hummers. According to the OSU Extension Service, Rufous hummingbirds are the most common in Oregon, but Anna’s are usually seen during wintertime. Hummingbirds spend much of their day visiting preferred plants for nectar; however, at night they sleep in vegetation or in holes they have drilled in trees or burrowed in the ground. Some hummingbirds even build nests just for sleeping.

Hummingbirds prefer to select their own nesting sites; however, some gardeners have successfully provided platforms and nesting material to encourage nest building. Birds and Blooms magazine has interesting information about hummingbird nests. Here is a site that describes simple steps to make a hummingbird platform for nesting.

Keep reading the Literary Gardener for my upcoming column and blog about one of the mightiest garden pollinators – the mason bee! In the meantime, here’s another, untitled, pollinator poem by Emily Dickenson:

The butterfly’s assumption-gown/In chrysoprase apartments hung/This afternoon put on./How condescending to descend/And be of buttercups the friend/In a New England town!/

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Analyzing soil texture in my yard, and figuring out what to do with all that clay!

“The assemblies of the clays are like those hedge mazes and forests in which fairy-tale children become lost, like those places where the old woman is met and where treasures are won. The landscape of the clays is like the wall of the stomach, or the tree of the capillaries, or the intricate folds of the womb. It is the honeycomb of matter, whose activity is to receive, contain, enfold, and give birth.” ~ William Bryant Logan, “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth,” 1995

Wow! Who knew a description of clay soils could be so poetic? Then again, that’s why William Bryant Logan’s book is my favorite book about soil. Logan argues that, far from being inert, clay is a living thing and may have “spawned all the creatures now inhabiting the earth.” Indeed, the Hebrew word for “red clay” is adam, so, Logan says, “perhaps our ultimate ancestor really was (A)dam.”

Fascinating! Logan makes me feel a whole lot better about the preponderance of clay in my yard, the kind of soil local folks call “black sticky.” East Medford, where I live, is infamous for its clay soils, although when I typed in my address on SoilWeb, I learned that the majority of soil in my “map unit” (44c) is composed of between 20-27.5 percent clay when the soil is dug at least 6-12 inches from the surface. According to SoilWeb data, only 2 percent of the soils within my area are composed of 60+ percent clay. This wide variation is due to the presence of an alluvial fan, a cone-shaped deposit of sediment from an underground stream making its way to Bear Creek about 1 mile downhill from my property.

I used an adaptation of the Jar Test, recommended by the OSU Extension Service, to analyze a soil sample from a raised berm in my front yard. I dug about 8 inches down, past the bark mulch, to collect the soil sample, and then mixed 1/2 cup of the soil with 3 cups tepid water in a glass container. I stirred the mixture thoroughly and let it stand overnight, and then I measured the proportion of sand that made up the bottom layer,  silt that made up the middle layer, and clay that made up the top layer.

As the picture shows, the clay layer comprised 90 percent (4 1/2 inches) of the total depth of the three layers (5 inches). The sand and silt layers comprised only 10 percent (1/2 inch) of the total depth. The sand and silt layers were about equal, measuring about 1/4 inch each. I’ll take additional samples from other parts of my yard to get an overall picture of the texture of soils on my property.

I also conducted the Hand Method with a handful of the moist, freshly dug soil from my front yard berm. I was easily able to work the soil into a ribbon that measured about 6 inches long. According to OSU soil science professor, James Cassidy, clay content equals approximately 10 percent for every inch of ribbon, which means that my soil content is at least 60 percent clay. This confirms the SoilWeb data. I think I could have worked the handful of soil into a thinner ribbon that would have measured about 8-9 inches, which would support the results of my Jar Test. Regardless, I have confirmed that I have a whole lotta clay in the soil on my property!

For a more detailed analysis of the soil in my yard, I can send samples to the OSU Crop and Soil Science Central Analytical Laboratory. The lab can analyze just the texture of my soil or conduct a comprehensive soil health assessment. The lab even provides instructions on how to read the results of your soil analysis.

In the meantime, which plants are more likely to thrive in clay-based soil? As it turns out, quite a few plants have adapted the ability to grow well with a lower amount of oxygen in the soil. Flowers that do well in clay soils include asters, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, Russian sage, daylily, yarrow, canna, coreopsis and a variety of ornamental grasses.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service provides a comprehensive list of trees and shrubs for clay soils.

Shallow-rooted vegetables tolerate and may even benefit from the the water retention of clay soils. Such vegetables include those from the Brassica family – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale – in addition to beans and peas. Root crops, such as potatoes and daikon radish, do a great job of breaking up clay soils. In fact, according to Master Gardener Scott Goode, planting daikon radish in clay soils will loosen the soil to as much as six feet below the surface. Daikon also releases sugars and other nutrients into the clay, which feeds microorganisms that grow in the radish plant’s extensive root system. “When left to decompose in the soil, this remarkable volume of biomass suffuses the clay with organic material. This can transform a clay soil into a rich, deep organic soil,” Goode says.

What are other ways I can improve the clay soil in my yard? Goode recommends three strategies:

  • Simply keeping a clay soil well mulched will keep it from drying out and forming deep cracks. The mulch will encourage earthworms and other soil organisms to build habitat near the surface of the soil, allowing rain to soak into the soil rather than compacting the surface on impact and flowing away as runoff.
  • The difficulties associated with clay soil, such as stickiness and cracking, are resolved with the addition of organic material. The fastest way to add organic material to a clay is to work humic acid into the soil. It is impossible to add too much humic acid to a soil since it will not change the pH (acidity) of the soil.  Organic material can also be added with high-quality compost.
  • Clay soils respond very well to lasagna style composting. If you build the pile in the fall and let it work over winter, you will usually see a noticeable difference in the spring.

Along with strategies to successfully garden in the clay soil of my yard, I have great respect for my “black sticky” and all types of soil. As environmental activist and poet Wendell Berry wrote, “Soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

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Mapping out garden success

“The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”— Gertrude Jekyll

Here is the garden record form I use to inventory my vegetable and herb seeds and plants, plot out where the plants will go in the garden and keep garden records throughout the growing season.

I use something similar for my ornamental annuals and perennials.

Garden Record.pdf

 

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Tips for organizing seeds from Pooh Bear and me

I keep the air-tight container in the fridge

“Organizing is something you do before you do something so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” ~ A.A. Milne (1882-1956), “Winnie-the-Pooh”

As a young child, I loved listening to Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and even today I cherish my little book of Pooh Bear’s witticisms. I agree that organization is a worthy goal, and one place to start organizing habits is with garden seeds!

Seeds to be sown in January

It’s one of my winter joys to open up seed packets when they arrive in the mail, but if I don’t organize them right away, the packets can quickly get lost among the other stuff that accumulates in my home. In Sunday’s column (January 8, 2017), I described my method of storing vegetable and herb seeds in plastic baggies by the month the seeds are sown, either indoors for transplanting later or directly into a garden bed outside. After opening up the packets, I add a bit of powdered milk to the bags. I keep the bags sealed and store them in an air-tight plastic container in the refrigerator.

Since I grow a lot more flowers than vegetables, I use one container for vegetables/herbs and another container for groups of annual/biennial and perennial flower seeds and bulbs. Within each of these groups, I also sort by botanical name, germination requirements and length of time for germination. Seeds could also be sorted by bloom time, flower color and/or other variables. 

Seed baggies are placed in divided container sections

 

Typically, I start sowing flower seeds in my greenhouse in late January or early February and continue sowing through June. I plant spring-blooming bulbs (daffodils, tulips, crocus, snowdrops, etc.) in October/November and summer-blooming bulbs (canna lily, gladioli, calla lily, daylily, etc.) in April.

Certainly organization has its merits for gardeners. On the other hand, Winnie-the-Pooh also reminded us, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” Oh, bother!

 

 

 

Powdered milk sachet goes in each month's plastic bag

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SPF and UPF – What’s the difference?

But what about gardening?!

I mentioned in this week’s column (January 1, 2017) that my top-priority garden goal this year is to protect my skin. I’ve recently undergone  surgery to remove basal cell carcinoma from the tip of my nose and another surgery to reconstruct the tip. Definitely not the way I would have liked to spend my winter holiday! One thing is for sure, though; after 53 years of basking in the sun without protection, this experience has finally motivated me to take seriously the importance of caring for my skin while gardening outdoors.

I’ve never liked the greasy feel and the smell of most sunscreens, so I listened with interest when my dermatologist told me the best protection for my skin is to wear a sunhat and clothing with a 50+ Ultra-Violet Protection Factor (UPF) rating. She also recommended that I use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of at least 30 on my face for extra protection.

I’ve known about SPF for a long time, but UPF was an unfamiliar term until I did a bit of research. As it turns out, these two factors are completely different ways to measure sunburn protection. SPF is specifically for sunscreens, and the more recent UPF rating is for sun protective fabrics. SPF measures how long a person can be exposed to sun rays without getting burned. By heeding my dermatologist’s advice and applying SPF-30 on my face, I’ll be protected for 300 minutes (5 hours) as long as I don’t sweat the sunscreen off.  The Environmental Working Group offers a list of effective sunscreens that meet its criteria.

However, SPF only measures protection from the sun’s UVB rays unless the product label states it’s a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means the sunscreen also protects from UVA rays. Both types of ultra-violet rays are responsible for skin damage, including skin cancer.

A UPF rating measures how much of the sun’s UVA and UVB radiation is absorbed by the fabric. For example, a fabric with a UPF rating of 50 allows 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through it. This means the fabric will reduce the skin’s exposure to UV radiation by 50 times (98% UV block) in areas where the skin is protected by the fabric. Coolibar is a company that specializes in UPF 50+ clothing, hats, and gloves.

Covering up while gardening in the sun sounds counter-intuitive to someone who hates being hot and loves being tanned, so part of my sun protection strategy is going to involve becoming more selective about the times I garden – before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m. during the summer months. I’m also going to hang this picture somewhere visible. Anytime I start to revert back to my old, reckless habits, I’ll remind myself that I don’t want to go through that again!

Ouch!

 

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Caring for winter-worthy plants

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” ~Andrew Wyeth, American artist, 1917-2009 

Winter doesn’t have to look and feel lonely and dead, though. In Sunday’s column (Oct. 30, 2017), I shared my recommendations for 20 trees and shrubs that provide winter interest with berries, bark, and blooms. Here are pictures of some of my picks and a bit of information about to care for these winter-worthy plants.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos alba) - Grow 3-6 feet - provide full to partial sun - not picky about soil type - good air circulation helps prevent disease - keep plant moist until established, drought-tolerant afterward - prune in late winter/early spring before new growth begins.

Japanese Skimmia (Skimmia japonica) - Grows 3-4 feets - grows well as an understory plant in partial to full shade - provide loose, rich, moist, acidic soil - don't cover root ball with mulch - fragrant flowers in spring!

Golden willow (Salix alba 'Golden ness' - Can grow very tall so needs to be consistently coppiced (cut back to the ground) - provide full sun to partial shard - grows in lots of different soils, including wet, poorly draining soil

Winter daphne (Daphne odora) - Grows 3-4 feet tall - Grows well in partial sun/shade - Prune in late winter to help keep shape - be sure not to overwater

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)- Grows 4-6 feet tall - cut back to 6 inches above ground in late winter to early spring - needs regular watering in summer

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) - Grows 20-30 feet tall - slow-growing - Grow in full sun to partial shade - likes moist-well-draining, soil

Red Twig Dopgwood (Cornus sericea/stolonifera) - Grow up to 15 feet - grow in full sun to partial shade - grow best in rich, moist, well-draining soil - needs regular watering during summer - cut back one-third of the twigs back to nearly ground level in early spring

Young's weeping birch (Betula pendula 'Youngii') - Grows 8-10 feet and 15-feet wide - grow in full sun - deer resistant - needs regular watering in summer - prune every other year by removing shoots around the base of the tree, branches that rub each other and branches growing inwardly

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Autumn’s beauty captured in seeds

“Touch-me-not seed vessels…go off like pistols on the slightest touch, and so suddenly and energetically that they always startle you, though you are expecting it. They shoot their seed like shot.”~ Henry David Thoreau, “The Dispersal of
Seeds,” c.a. 1856

In this week’s column, I wrote about fall as the beginning point for plant life (Sunday, October 23, 2016). Even though I’ve long associated fall with endings, Thoreau reminds me that the dispersal of seeds in autumn marks the start of the trajectory of life for a new plant that will emerge from its protective capsule come spring. Click here to view exploding seed from the spotted touch-me-not plant, also called jewel weed (Impatiens capensis).

Thoreau inspired me to take a second look at my garden plants with my camera, this time focusing not on the dying foliage but on the presence of seeds, waiting patiently for the winds that will release them from their parent and set them off on their independent journey. What an uplifting experience!

Flaming maple leaves in my front yard

Rudbeckia seeds on flower disk

Dogwood drupes with seeds inside

Calendula seeds

Pelargonium seeds

Iris seeds

Strawflower seeds

Canna lily seed vessel

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  • About the Authors

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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