Lilac’s contradictions

“[T]he lilacs nodded over the high wall as if they said, “We could tell fine secrets if we chose…” – Louisa May Alcott, “Under the Lilacs,” 1878

A decade after publishing her best-known novel, “Little Women” (1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote “Under the Lilacs,” a story about childhood friendships shaped and cemented as the children play school and host imaginative parties under the lilac trees. Alcott was deliberate in using lilacs in her book since “youthful innocence” was a familiar meaning associated with lilacs during the Victorian period. Alcott scatters this symbolism throughout the novel;  in one passage describing a sleeping boy, she writes, “The wind had sung a lullaby among the rustling lilacs, the moon’s mild face looked through the leafy arch to kiss the heavy eyelids…”

In fact, there are many stories that mention lilacs and many folk stories about lilacs, themselves. Altogether, these stories have resulted in diverse, and sometimes contradictory, traditions and associations of meaning attributed to lilacs. 

The genus name for lilacs, Syringa, originated from an ancient Sanskrit word, syrinx, meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘tube’ for the squarish pithy stems that can be easily hollowed out. ‘Lilac’ is derived from the Persian word, nylac, referring to the bluish-purple color of the panicles.

One of many legends about the lilac is that of Pan, the Greek god of forests and fields. Pan lusted after a wood nymph whose only recourse to escape his unwanted ardor was to turn into a lilac bush. Pan had to console himself with gathering the stems and binding them together to make a panpipe, or syrinx, in hopes of wooing the nymph back through his lovelorn melodies. ‘Love’ and ‘beauty’ are two meanings associated with lilacs stemming from this myth.

“First love’” and “youthful innocence’” are other meanings associated with lilacs because of its spring-time bloom period. Charles Dickens utilized lilacs’ association with first love in “David Copperfield” (1850) when Copperfield meets Dora: “But oh! when I DID find the house, and DID dismount at the garden-gate, and drag those stony-hearted boots across the lawn to Dora sitting on a garden-seat under a lilac tree, what a spectacle she was, upon that beautiful morning, among the butterflies, in a white chip bonnet and a dress of celestial blue!”

An old Persian love song also features the love-ly lilac:

“Ah, let me weave a chaplet for your hair/Of pale and rosy lilacs, lady fair/Woe to the lover who would choose a rose/that in its heart a stinging bee may close./Or yet a lily, or a spray of vine/Or any bloom that wreathes a cup of wine./The flower I gather, love, for your sweet sake/Breathes love that neither time nor ill can shake.”

On the other hand, supposedly an old Persian custom is to offer a lover a spray of purple lilacs as a way of saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s over between us.” Apparently, the sweet-smelling flowers are meant to distract the spurned individual until the “spurner” can make a hasty retreat!

The English began cultivating lilacs around the time of Henry VIII, and the lilac is still an important part of May Day celebrations there. However, according to one legend, an English nobleman seduced a gullible, young maiden and then abandoned her to die of a broken heart. A wreath of purple lilacs was placed on the hapless girl’s grave, but the flowers turned white as a sign of her purity.  Not only did this story add to the flower’s 19th century associations with “youthful innocence,” it also sparked the superstition that it’s unlucky to bring white lilacs indoors for fear the young maids in the house will never marry.

White lilacs are also often associated with death, as many other white flowers are. Walt Whitman mentions lilacs in a poem in which he mourns the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln:

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed/And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (1865). 

Conversely, lilacs are known for their longevity. A member of the olive family, they can live 100 years or more. Because they thrive in diverse climates, American pioneers traveling to the West to start a new life brought lilac bushes with them and planted them by their doorsteps. Many settlers did not stay; yet, years after their homesteads were abandoned, the lilacs still bloomed in the springtime for only the wind and the prairie dogs to enjoy.

Perhaps it’s the lilac’s association with steadfastness that led poet Robert Burns to write:

“Oh, were my love yon lilac fair/With purple blossoms to the spring/And I a bird to shelter there/When wearied on my little wing” (1793).

I appreciate that the lilac sends so many disparate messages:  ‘love’ and ‘forsaken,’ ‘youthfulness’ and ‘death,’ ‘innocence’ and ‘cursed.’ After all, a plant that lives as long as the lilac is sure to be complicated, and can’t we say the same of ourselves?

There are several types of lilacs that grow anywhere from 4-5 feet for dwarf varieties up to 30 feet tall for lilac trees. The most widely known is the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, of which there are 28 species and countless hybrids, including the “French” lilacs. In addition, the lilac families includes the: Persian lilac (S. persica); Chinese lilac (S. chinensis); Himalayan lilac (S. villosa); dwarf Korean lilac , also called Meyer lilac (S. palebinina); and tree lilacs (S. amurensis).

Lilacs grow well in my neighborhood in old East Medford, Oregon because they don’t mind heavy clay soil. They also do well in alkaline soil. They need moderate levels of water and do best with plenty of sunshine. They attract bees and butterflies, but watch out for aphids, leaf miners, spider mites, leaf spot, and powdery mildew.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Phun’ with Photinias (and how to rejuvenate and propagate)

Nature rarer uses yellow

Than another hue;

Saves she all of that for sunsets, -

Prodigal of blue,

Spending scarlet like a woman,

Yellow she affords

Only scantly and selectly,

Like a lover’s words.

~ Emily Dickinson, “Poems of Emily Dickinson,”1890

I always think of this Emily Dickson poem during this time of year in Southern Oregon. Nature blesses our area with climes in which lots of yellow-blooming flowers and shrubs burst upon the scene in early spring – first the daffodils and forsythia, then tulips, Oregon grape and Euphorbia, not to mention all of the shiny yellow fields of wild mustard.

Nature (and hybridization) also prodigiously provides for “blue “flowers here – grape hyacinth, violets, iris, lobelia, vinca, phlox…

Nature’s most “spendy” (flamboyant) scarlet plants in early spring in the Rogue Valley are the plum tree leaves, emerging after the pink blossoms have faded, and the leaves of the Japanese red maples, and the red-tipped new foliage on all of the Photinia hedges. Photinia (Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Tip’) is one of the most popular hedging shrubs in my neighborhood in East Medford, OR.

In Sunday’s column (April 15, 2017), I wrote about caring for Photinia shrubs, including watering, fertilizing, pruning and treating for pests. Here, I want to focus on how to rejuvenate a Photinia shrub and how to propagate Photinia cuttings. Plus, I’ve found several ideas for having a bit of “phun” with photinias. Read on!

Rejuvenating Photinia

Although Photinia shrubs will eventually grow back after a hard cutting (to about six inches from ground level), the best way to rejuvenate tired or scraggly plants is to cut back in stages. During the spring of the first year, remove all dead and inner crossed branches, and then cut back to six inches about one-third of the oldest, weakest stems. Prune the plant in the same way during the second and third years until most of the stems have been cut back by the fourth spring. Be sure to remove any diseased foliage and dispose of the leaves and stems to prevent the disease from spreading.

Propagating Photinia

The best time to take cuttings from Photinia shrubs is late summer when the stems are mature enough to snap off when bent. Soft-stemmed cuttings tend to rot and otherwise have difficulty rooting. In the morning, use a sharp knife to cut a  healthy 6-inch-long stem from a shrub. Make a slightly angled cut just beneath a leaf node. Dip the end of the stem cutting into a rooting compound, and then place into a 4-6-inch pot filled three-quarters full with a previously prepared and moistened growing medium, such as equal parts sand, coconut coir or peat moss, and perlite. Pack the medium around the plant so it stands up. Cover the pot and keep in a sunny location until spring. I keep rooting cuttings on heat mats set at 65-degrees F. in my greenhouse; other gardeners keep them in an unheated cold frame or sunny room indoors). It’s important to mist the cuttings a few times a week and keep the potting medium just slightly moist. Transplant rooted cuttings the following spring after first testing whether the plant has rooted by checking the bottom of the pot or lightly tugging on the plant to check for resistance.

Novel ideas for using Photinia

Most Photinia shrubs are used to create hedges, and the most popular is a red-tipped Photinia hybrid (P. x fraseriRed Tip). Here is a list of other lesser-used cultivars of this popular plant:

A closely related shrub that is native to our area is the toyon or coastal sage (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrub. It’s also called California holly or Christmas berry for its large, red berries the plant produces. Toyon is evergreen, like Photinia, and is even more drought tolerant; however, it has a more rangy growth habit and is better used as a specimen plant in a native garden.

Here are some “phun’ ways to use Photinia in your landscape:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Time to rethink the hospitality of our lawns

“Anyone new to the experience of owning a lawn, as I am, soon figures out that there is more at stake here than a patch of grass. A lawn immediately establishes a certain relationship with one’s neighbors and, by extension, the larger American landscape. Mowing the lawn, I realized the first time I gazed into my neighbor’s yard and imagined him gazing back into mine, is a civic responsibility.” ~ Michael Pollan, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns” (1989)

Thirty years ago, Michael Pollan was considering whether or not to buy into the belief that living the American dream in suburbia meant having a tidy lawn. By the end of the article, he had talked himself out of it, as have many other American suburbanites since the turn of the 21st century, including me. In Sunday’s Literary Gardener article (April 9, 2017), I provided a

The last remaining section of my front lawn

brief history of America’s love affair with lawns, and I outlined the disadvantages of maintaining a lawn in a world where civic responsibility has more to do with conserving water resources and cutting down on pollution than keeping one’s lawn greener and more manicured than the neighbors’.

There are three basic ways of getting rid of the grass in a front lawn – digging, solarizing, and smothering and composting. See

Bye-bye lawn!

Sunday’s article for information about digging, which is the fastest way to get rid of a lawn. This is the method I used because I want to plant new groundcover this spring and needed to amend my clay soil with 4-6 inches of compost and loamy topsoil. Although some gardeners use thesod as compost, I didn’t want grass seed to germinate in the soil so I didn’t keep the sod.

Solarizing the soil is another way to kill the grass, but this process takes 6-8 weeks for best results, and it needs to be done during July and August, the hottest months of the year. Solarization uses heat from the sun to kill grass, weed seeds and soil pathogens. The bad news is that solarization may also kill beneficial organisms, so it’s important to add them back into the soil with compost that contains lots of organic matter. If you choose to go the solarization route, wait until after the 4th of July, then mow the grass and water it thoroughly. Cover the grassy area with thick, 1.5-2 mil. clear plastic, making sure the sheeting comes in contact with the soil, and then secure the edges with soil or rocks. At the end of August, remove the plastic. You’ll still need to remove the dead grass, but it should be easier to dig out or till under if you plan to use the sod as compost.

Vinca minor groundcover I've trialed for a couple of years in my yard. I know it will grow well!

The third way to go lawn-less is by smothering and composting right over the grass, a method called sheet composting or lasagna composting. The best time for lasagna composting is the fall, to allow layers of carbon and nitrogen materials to decompose n during the winter. The new garden bed will be ready for planting in spring. The OSU Extension Service recommends the following procedure:

Use 4-6 layers of wet newspaper or cardboard for the first carbon layer over the grass, followed by a one-inch layer of a nitrogen source such as manure. Cover the nitrogen layer with an inch of shredded leaves, straw, bark or other carbon material, and then add another inch of nitrogen from kitchen scraps or green plant material left from summer produce. Continue adding layers of carbon and nitrogen until the total height of your “lasagna” is between 18 inches and three feet. End with a carbon layer to provide protection from flies and other pests. If the pile becomes too wet during winter, cover loosely with a sheet of black plastic and anchor with rocks or stakes. The bed will be ready for planting when the layers have decomposed so the materials are no longer recognizable. What’s left should smell like fresh earth.

According to Michael Pollan, humans may have a preference for open, grassy landscapes encoded in our DNA from millions of years spent evolving on African savannas. He suggests the “Savanna Syndrome” explains why people have been hell-bent for centuries on remaking the wooded landscapes of Europe and North America to look like the grassy plains of East Africa. “[T]he urge to dominate nature is a deeply human one, and lawn mowing answers to it,” Pollan says. For many folks, “the lawn mower as civilization’s knife” and our lawn is “a hospitable plane  carved out of the wilderness.”

It’s time to rethink just how “hospitable” our lawns really are.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blooming heather: An important late winter/early spring plant for pollinators

The hall was cleared; the stranger’s bed

Was there of mountain heather spread,

Where oft a hundred guest had lain,

And dreamed their forest sports again.

But vainly did the heath flower shed

Its moorland fragrance round his head.

~ Sir Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” 1810

My flowering purple heather (Erica carnea) is an important late winter/early spring flower for pollinators in my garden. I counted five bees, including a fuzzy bumble bee, on some of

Erica carnea

my heather the other day. Although I often like to provide a boost of high-phosphorous fertilizer to my ornamentals when they’re in the early stages of blooming, heather does better in nutrient-poor soil, so I just let them “do their thing” with the bees!

Heather has a surprisingly rich history. Although popular today as a low-growing ornamental that attracts bees in early spring and butterflies in the summertime, gardeners before the Victorian age did not grow heather (also called heath) because it was associated with rural poverty. Indeed, heather is native to the European moorlands; its name is derived from the Old English word, haeth, meaning an untilled tract of land, and it is the root of the word ‘heathen,’ meaning someone living away from the church in the ‘wilderness.’ Heather grows so rampantly in the Scottish moors that it was used to make roof thatching, bed mattresses, and brooms. Sir Walter Scott was referring to the traditional use of heather as bedstraw in “Lady of the Lake.” Such practical uses for heather led to use of the Latin word, kalluno, meaning “to clean,” when separating Calluna vulgaris (common heather or ling) from the Erica genus heaths. The word, Erica, comes from the Greek ‘ereike,’ which means “to break or crush,” reflecting the belief that drinking heather tea would break up bladder stones.

Whether for medicinal purposes or not, heather tea tastes good! Here’s an easy “recipe” for heather tea.

In fact, heather has been used as a remedy for a variety of kidney and urinary tract disorders. A cheerier imbibed use for the plant, however, is for heather beer, crafted many hundreds of years ago before the use of hops by the peoples of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles, and produced now as a trendy artisan ale in a few English and Scottish breweries. A Scottish legend tells the story of a father and son, last remaining members of the Pict tribes who were conquered by the Scottish kingdom around 843 A.D. The king offers the father and son amnesty if they will reveal the secret of brewing their heather ale, but the father chooses to give up his son’s life and his own, rather than reveal the recipe to outsiders.

Robert Louis Stevenson tells this story in a poem called Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend (1890). The first stanza makes it clear how beloved heather ale was to the dwarf-like Picts:

            From the bonny bells of heather

They brewed a drink long-syne,

Was sweeter far than honey,

Was stronger far than wine.

They brewed it and they drank it,

And lay in a blessed swound

For days and days together

In their dwellings underground.

In the last stanza, after the father watches his son thrown off a cliff into the sea, he turns to the Scottish king and cries out:

            “True was the word I told you:

            Only my son I feared;

            For I doubt the sapling courage

            That goes without the beard.

            But now in vain is the torture,

            Fire shall never avail:

            Here dies in my bosom

            The secret of heather ale.”

A recipe for Highland Heather Ale.

Erica carnea "Ice Princess"

Heather was gaining horticultural value at the same time Stevenson wrote Heather Ale, not because of beer, but due to increased interest in gardening with alpine plants. For the Victorians, heather symbolized solitude because it thrives in rocky, wind-swept highlands. According to Scottish folklore, heather is stained by the blood of war, and white heather grows only where no blood has been spilled; thus, white heather symbolizes good luck and protection. In the 1880s, Queen Victoria popularized the long-held Scottish tradition of brides carrying a sprig of white heather for luck.

Planting and caring for heather

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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:

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)


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)


Chocolate lily (Frittilary affinis)

Chocolate lily (Frittilary affinis) 

Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)

Tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)

Wild onion (Allium cernuum)

Wild onion (Allium cernuum)


Blue blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Blue blossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis oregana)


Western Wild grape (Vitis californica)

Western Wild grape (Vitis californica)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!/

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
  • 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
  • Categories

  • Archives