Gardening with Jennifer: The Great Northwest: An August Place to Be Outdoors...and in your Garden

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An example of moss as a ground cover
Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
By Jennifer Rotermund

August is the month that we Northwesterners live for.

August makes the weather we put up with the rest of the year worth while and allows us to join ranks with the rest of the nation’s participation in a season they call Summer (remember that word?). Given our abundance of of parks, forest land, mountains, lakes and beaches, August is also the month that many of us flee the climate-controlled comfort of our homes to spend time outdoors - not just the BBQ in the backyard kind of outdoors, but the take a ferry boat to an island, hike up to a mountain glacier, sea kayak in open ocean waters kind of outdoors. August is the month that our photos on Facebook and Flicker impress our friends around the world; we live for it! And why shouldn’t we? Our Summers are regrettably short, and unless you ski, snowshoe or just really enjoy camping in the rain, you have to soak up Summer in the Northwest while it lasts.

Ferns and Vanilla Leaf Plant
Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
But sometimes all of this going and doing has me want to stay home - not going anywhere or doing anything - and instead, enjoy being in my own garden. Since I’m so crazy about plants, its times like these stay-at-home reflective moments that I fantasize about living in the forest. Caught up in one of those Bambi meets Alice in Wonderland moments, I picture myself walking out my back door, greeting birds landing on my shoulder to say hello while I sit in a grove of wise, old-growth trees sharing with me the insights they’ve gathered over hundreds of years of life. And just as I’m about to burst out into song - because in these fairy tale moments, I have a perfect singing voice - that guy down the street who owns the Harley Davidson goes thundering past my house. The sound I had been imagining was a nearby river, full and raging, is back to simply being the traffic on I-5 a few blocks away...and just like that I’m back in the city. There’s no getting around the urban environment in which most of us live, but we can bring some of that forest life to us. We can re-create the fantasy that we experience in August, when we disappear into the surrounding woods (even if only in our mind’s-eye) in our backyard.

Typically, when I hike, my destination is something a little more unusual or grand than what I experience in my daily life. I hike almost up to the glaciers on Mt Rainier to observe the alpine wildflowers in a high meadow at nearly 8,000 feet of elevation or I emerge after a couple dozen switch-backs at a lake nestled near a mountain peak in the north cascades that is still surrounded by ice and snow in mid-August. I love these unusual experiences. But I recently became enamored with this idea of returning my backyard to urban forest, of attempting to re-create some part of the landscape that once existed on my property before my house and I arrived. (No small goals here. Crazy? Perhaps...). So rather than heading up into the mountains, lately I’ve been hiking in the nearby lowland forests, just beyond the suburbs encroaching on the foothills, observing mother nature’s landscape design work and learning from her.

Devil's Club, Sword Fern, and Indian Plum
Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
Here are a few things I’ve observed:

1. Moss is our friend. Many of you who know me will not be surprised by this statement. In fact, it has been a longstanding fact that I am the wrong person to complain to about moss growing almost anywhere in the northwest. Birds use it as nesting material, its a wonderful moisture-retaining layer of organic material that keeps the soil alive and lush, it keeps weeds down, is soft to walk on and comes in a wide range of beautiful shades of green (none of which clash with each other).

2. The forest is full of beautiful food-producing plant life: To all of you wanna-be urban farmer types stuck with partly or mostly shaded garden beds, I say revolutionize your concept of farming and grow native plant edibles that thrive in shade. Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.) flowers and berries, Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) root, are just a few examples (there are also some highly poisonous plants in our forests and prairies, such as Poison Hemlock and Death Camas so consult with a plant expert before you go foraging edibles, plants or seeds). Also, when you see these native edible plants, don’t go pulling entire plants out of the forests and natural areas where you find them. That’s a frowned upon, in many cases illegal, and your chances of successfully transplanting these plants diminish when you rip them out of their natural environments. Instead, harvest some berries on the trail then go find a good native plant nursery and purchase whole plants from them.

A "brush pile" in the forest created by a wind storm.
Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
3. Native plant gardens can be varied and beautiful: I don’t mean to exclude the wide variety of amazing ornamental, exotic plants that thrive in our gardens which are native to England, Japan, South Africa, or some mountainous region of South America. They’re wonderful and lovely, but so are our local forest plants. And, our local native plants are accustomed to our never ending rains, our strange November and February deep-freezes and our August droughts. There’s no need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the exotics, when the natives are more cost effective and hardy. Far too often our experience of native plant gardens in urban settings involves a few scrubby stands of Oregon Grape in a sea of diseased Kinnikinnick ground cover. Its no wonder that most of us turn to exotics! But native plant design in the garden can be so much more exciting than that.

4. Re-creating a forest environment automatically creates wildlife habitat: This may seem completely obvious, but as an urban dweller interested in wildlife gardening, if your only exposure to the concepts of how to attract birds, bees and butterflies to your backyard come from what you’ve read in educational materials from the National Wildlife Federation or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, you may not realize that those suggestions (such as building a simple a brush pile from sticks) come from naturally occurring situations in the forest (such as fallen tree branches and nurse logs).

A forest landscape
Photo by Jennifer Rotermund
I have, over the years in life, adopted the Buddhist principle of following the path of least resistance. It’s less stressful and tends to work well naturally. More than anything, this is the reason why I intend to bring the forest back to my urban yard. It wants to be wild. And with a little planning, it won’t be wild with dandelions. Would you like this for your garden too? In Shoreline, we’re particularly fortunate to have several businesses that cater to this specific idea. Don Norman of Go Natives Nursery  supplies a wide variety of native plants and work in close partnership with native plant grower Nancy Moore of Obelisk Garden Design, who also provides native plant garden design services. My business, Gaiaceous Gardens  provides installation and maintenance services for these gardens. Let’s work together to bring the native forests and wildlife habitat back to our own yards. Everything we need is already right here.

Jennifer Rotermund is the owner of Gaiaceous Gardens (an urban farming and wildlife gardening business with a teaching garden/urban farm and certified wildlife habitat located in Shoreline). She is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Habitat Steward and is a Docent with the Kruckeberg Garden.


Janet Way August 11, 2011 at 8:39 AM  

Hi Jenifer,
This is a very lovely article about the benefits of recreating a native garden.
But I'm trying to figure our where the photos were taken? Are these in your yard, or one you've designed or from a local park?

We do of course have many local parks that are "native" habitats, though most are not completely pristine and do need encouragement from community stewards to rid them of invasives and help increase native diversity.

But a very nice presentation and photos - Thank you! Janet

Carl Dinse August 11, 2011 at 5:38 PM  

I'll have to take some pictures of my parent's backyard, it's mostly native forest, however I'm not sure what all is growing there that isn't supposed to be there.

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