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Himalayan blackberries

Posted on August 22nd, 2012 by Ecoyards

Blackberries ripening.

It’s August in Seattle, and that means one of the most hated noxious weeds in Northwest becomes one of the most endeared. Summer means a lot of things in Seattle, but picking luscious blackberries (and other fruits) ranks among one of our favorites. For about 11 months out of the year, when you’re not eating them in pies, Himalayan blackberries pose a royal headache. They spread rapidly and densely, are difficult to control and cause loads of damage to other vegetation, trees and the environment. Yet for several weeks during from late summer to autumn, they bear such complex sweet-tart fruits that it’s hard not to love them _ especially served with vanilla ice cream.

Picking berries. All photos by Ecoyards.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been keeping an eye on blackberry stands as I’ve driven or walked by alley ways, vacant lots and streets, checking to see if the fruit’s color to ripen from red to black. There’s a massive stand of blackberries in the field of an abandoned nearby school that produced hundreds of fruit last year; so on a recent afternoon, my friend Lisa, her daughter, and I hit that school field with several buckets in tow. We each had pie or muffins on the mind when we began picking in the blazing sun, enduring prickly thorns and bramble-induced scratches as we tried to reach for the juiciest, plumpest, darkest berries. Plenty of fruit hadn’t yet ripened from red to black. But, it was a productive day nonetheless. At the end of an hour, our fingers were stained with deep purple and we each had picked about 8 cups, enough for both blackberry pie and muffins!

It’s hard to call a plant with such tantalizing berries a noxious weed, but Himalayan blackbery ranks high as a damaging, invasive weed. In Washington state, they’re considered a Class C Noxious Weed. Homeowners aren’t required to control this widespread weed, but it is recommended that they be controlled in natural lands and protected wilderness. Himalayan blackberry spreads fast in open areas, like vacant lots, forest lands and stream channels. One plant inventory of Seattle’s public forests found that Himalayan and evergreen blackberry were the most invasive species in those forests.

Blackberry pie.

Himalayan blackberry outcompetes native vegetation; grows thick and dense, with canes reaching about 20-40 feet long; and prevents the establishment of trees like the Pacific Madrone or Douglas Firs. Himalayan blackberry, known as Rubus armeniacus, is not native to the Northwest. It’s actually a native of Western Europe (not the Himalayans), according to this factsheet produced by The Nature Conservancy. Experts say it was likely introduced to North America in 1885 as a cultivated crop and naturalized along the West Coast by 1945.

It’s possible to pull the weeds by hand if you have small patches of them. Generally you can take up the entire root ball. Larger, more expansive stands require cutting the canes and then pulling them up by their roots. You can also mow blackberries to keep them under control (cut them when the plant begin to flower, if you’re going to do it only once). You’ll have to keep up the cutting each year, however, otherwise they could grow from the crown even denser and nastier than the year before.

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Lawn care during dry weather

Posted on August 22nd, 2012 by Andy

Dry, brown lawn in August. Photo by Ecoyards.

It’s almost a given around Seattle that lawns turn brown during the dry summer months. It’s too expensive to keep watering grass during the summer, so many of us in the Northwest choose to let the lawn go dormant knowing it’ll bounce back in the fall. There’s good incentive to lay off watering lawns during the summer months. Seattle, for example, charges three tiers of water rates from May 15 to September 15 when water is in greatest demand and shortest supply; customers are charged progressively more as their water use increases.

Brown lawns aren’t necessarily dead lawns. Turfgrass goes dormant as a survival mechanism. Lawns can tolerate about 4-6 weeks without water without experiencing too much stress or damage, if the temperatures are fairly even. If the mercury skyrockets, you’ll likely to see some damage in about 3 weeks or less. Turfgrass goes dormant to protect themselves from drying out. In this protective mode, it sends what available moisture it has to its crown, roots and rhizomes. The grass stops growing and turns brown.

Here are some tips for how to care for your lawn during dry conditions:

  • Keep off the grass if possible. Walking on the grass can stress it out.
  • Dormant lawns don’t need fertilizers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the grass won’t be able to take all that food in.
  • Improve the soil during the spring and fall by aerating, topdressing and overseeding as appropriate. Healthier soil means your grass has more moisture available to it root system during the hottest months.
  • Keep grass high, leave clippings on the grass to add more moisture to your lawn.
  • Weed as much as you can during the spring, before the dry months arrive. Weeds hog up precious moisture and nutrients that grass needs.
  • If the drought persists beyond a few weeks, it’s a good idea to give your lawn a deep weekly drink (about 1 inches). That may not be enough to turn it emerald again, but it will help it stay alive. Water in the morning so you won’t lose water to evaporation.

Reference: Managing turfgrass under drought conditions

 

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Fire-resistant landscapes

Posted on August 20th, 2012 by Andy

Wildfires raging throughout the West this summer have gotten us thinking a lot about fire-resistant landscapes and how homeowners can help protect their homes from wildfires. Lightning often start fires but so, too, do people. Wildfires can start from campfires that aren’t properly put out, home sites that aren’t well maintained, and vehicles or equipment that create sparks.

Native kinnikinnick is one of dozens of plants considered “fire-resistant.”

There’s a lot of good information out there about how to protect your home from wildfires, including this recent blog post on Firewise Communities. Among the top recommendations is to create a “defensible space” around your home, or a safety zone of about 30-feet around your home and all structures. This is especially important for rural homeowners who live in areas where forests meet the edges of communities. The 30-foot safety zone should be clean, free of dead plant material and lean. Fire officials say to rake up dry leaves around the house and under decks and porches; prune trees away from homes; keep roof and gutters clear of flammable debris; and use fire-resistant plants where possible. Check out this brochure from King County for a good illustration of the different zones you should keep around your house.

The Washington’s Department of Natural Resources also offers these techniques for creating fire-resistant landscapes:

Use plants with high moisture content (deciduous) nearest the home.

Trim tree branches away from the home.

Prune trees at least six feet above the ground to reduce the changes that a fire on the ground will spread into tree tops. This is important if you have a lot of trees on your property.

King County has a great native plant database where you can search for different types of native plants that considered fire-resistant. Or check out this good pamphlet (PDF) on fire-resistant plants for the Puget Sound basin. Fire-resistant plants are described as ones where you get little seasonal accumulation of dead vegetation; have loose branching habits and are non-resinous if they’re woody plants. (Resinous trees include cedar, spruce, fir and pine). Many fire-resistant plants are also native to Washington, which make them easier to care for and less susceptible to diseases.

Some examples of fire-resistant trees for the Puget Sound area: cottonwood, maple, birch, cherry, flowering dogwood, vine maple, and crab apple. Fire-resistant shrubs include: Oregon grape, serviceberry, salal, mock orange, rhododendron, azalea, nootka rose. Good perennial choices include yarrow, hosta, iris, geranium, trillium, lamb’s ear, beard tongue and coreopsis. Groundcovers in this category include hens and chicks, stonecrop, verbenia, winter creeper and kinnikinnick.

In this video, local gardener Cisco Morris talks about how to create fire-resistant homes.

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Good bugs, bad bugs

Posted on August 18th, 2012 by Andy
seattle bugs, ecoyards

Photo by jpockele via Creative Commons License.

They’re squishy. They’re slimy. They have weird spiky things coming out of their heads. Bugs are unsightly creatures, and creepy to boot. But many of them are fairly benign in the vegetable garden; some such as ladybugs, damsel bugs and lacewings are beneficial. The good bugs eat the bad bugs that chew holes through your plants, so take time to figure out which ones you can keep around. This pocket guide can help you identify which ones are the good bugs. The Southwest Community Land Trust also has an excellent Bug Book that describes both good and bad bugs, has photographs of the damage they can do to plants and details how you can encourage the good ones and discourage the bad ones. The book also offers recipes for natural homemade sprays (garlic and chili pepper, for example) that can be used as an alternative to insecticides.

The Bug Book lists quite a few good bugs, including lady beetles (or ladybugs), praying mantids, soldier beetles, lacewings and damsel bugs. To attract these beneficial bugs, add nectar- or pollen-producing plants to your garden: daisies, dill, marigold, fennel, calendula, alfalfa, sunflowers, parsley, lemon balm, anise, zinnia, angelica, yarrow and coriander.

According to the Bug Book, here are a few bad bugs and what to do about them in your garden:

Aphids suck the juices off leaves, and sometimes spread plant diseases. As adults, they’re pear-shaped. Solution: control by spraying aphids off plants with a stream of water from the garden hose. Also plant dill, nasturtiums or calendula to attract aphids to those plants and away from other plants.

Cabbage loopers love to chew holes in lettuce, cabbage, celery, collard greens and tomato plants. They’re most damaging in the larvae stage, as green caterpillars. Solution: hand pick the bugs off the underside of leaves and throw them away; use row covers to prevent adult cabbage loopers from laying eggs on your plants.

Cucumber beetles as adults are very damaging to squash, melons, eggplants, tomatoes and peas. The adults are striped or spotted, and are yellow with black stripes or spots down its back. Solution: Hand pick the bugs off plants, spray with a garlic and pepper spray mixture; remove all weeds and plants from the garden at the end of season.

For more information (and photos) of good and bad bugs, here’s another good  detailed guide. Here’s also a handy good bugs pocket guide from Oregon State University that you can print out.

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Seattle greening its landscape

Posted on August 17th, 2012 by Andy

Oregon grape, native Pacific Northwest plant. Photo courtesy of heystax via Creative Commons License.

Green Seattle has always been on the forefront of promoting native plants and encouraging the removal of invasive weeds to support a healthier environment. But now, the city is taking it one step further. It is proposing to write such requirements into the city’s building code. Planning officials are in the process of getting public input on potential green code provisions which they say will address climate change.

Apparently nothing is set in stone yet, and the city is taking public input until Aug. 27, 2012. These proposed code revisions could bring major changes in residential and commercial landscapes across the city. The code deals with a number of construction issues, including encouraging building materials to be salvaged and so on. Several provisions in the draft code attempt to create healthier landscapes and encourage water conservation by mandating certain high-efficient irrigation practices and requiring mostly native Western Washington plants be used for new landscapes or those that are replaced. What are your thoughts on these proposed changes?

Specifically, the draft provisions say when you create new vegetated landscapes (or replace an old one), you must submit a plan showing that you’ll remove existing invasive species and “that 75% of all new plantings will be native to Western Washington.” It’s not clear from the draft documents online whether this provision would apply to very large properties or small single-family homes as well. Plants native to this region are better adapted to the local conditions and require less maintenance, water and fertilizers; the city says it wants to create healthier landscapes by removing invasive species and encouraging native plants.

The draft provisions also call for smart irrigation systems that can sense how much rain has fallen, and after about 1/4 inch, have the ability to stop the sprinkler system. It also would  require the systems to use certain technology to conserve water, including low precipitation rotary nozzles, sprinkler heads with internal check valves. Landscapes that are greater than 30,000 also have other restrictions, including having a system labeled WaterSense.

 

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Rain barrel questions

Posted on August 17th, 2012 by Andy

Rain barrel. Photo by Ecoyards.

We’ve been enjoying unusually warm, dry and sunny weather in Seattle lately. The lack of rain means it’s a great time to tap your rain barrels to water your plants. Most of you know that rain barrels are used to catch rain water and store it for later use. We get a lot of questions about rain barrels from customers, so we’ve tackled a couple of them here.

Can I use my rain barrel water for vegetables? Unless you get your water tested, there’s really no way to know for certain whether the water that runs off your rooftop and into gutters and then your rain barrel is completely safe for edible plants. The water could contain heavy metals (depending on what’s in those roof shingles), or fecal coliform and other bacteria from bird or other wildlife droppings. The safest bet is to use the water for non-edible plants only. If you must use the water on vegetables (depending on your personal comfort level), here are some tips: water close to the ground through a drip system; keep the water in the soil and away from fruits, veggies or foliage; avoid watering lettuce or other plants that are grow close to the ground; and always thoroughly wash your produce with drinkable water before eating. The city of Seattle’s Rain Barrel Guide recommends not using rainwater for plants if your roof is made of copper, or if it has wooden shingles treated with any chemical such as chromated copper arsenate to make them resistant to algae, moss or lichen.

How do I prevent overflows during storms? Install an overflow hose adapter, which allows water to flow through a small hose and drain to a nearby lawn or landscape bed. Make sure you direct it away from a basement or your foundation.

How much water can I actually collect from my roof? A general rule of thumb says that you can catch about 600 gallons of water for every 1 inch of rainfall on a 1,000 square foot roof. If you want to do your own math, the city of Seattle has a good formula in its rain barrel guide to help you out.

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Annual bluegrass weed

Posted on August 15th, 2012 by Andy

Annual bluegrass

If you take a close look at your lawn, you’re likely to find one of the most common weeds around: annual bluegrass, or poa annua. Annual bluegrass can cause headaches for golf fairway managers and homeowners who desire a smooth, manicured lawn. There are many types of annual bluegrass, both annual and perennial. This weed starts germinating around late summer, and is extremely difficult to control because it sends out lots and lots of seeds. It forms fibrous roots, dense clumps and can grow pretty tall, over a foot in height.

It’s difficult to control to remove, because it grows in turf, and can often outcompete other warm-season grass seeds. Poa tends to thrive when you mow your lawn too short, when you water lightly and too often and when you overfertilize. So the best way to control annual bluegrass is to keep a healthy turf. Washington State University Extension recommends using low-phosphate fertilizers to reduce seed production;, improving soil by aerating (though not when it germinates); and provide deep, infrequent watering.

 

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Water conservation

Posted on August 14th, 2012 by Andy

August is a good month to review ways to conserve water in the Seattle landscape. Despite our reputation for rain, summers in Seattle can be extremely dry. During summer months, the city of Seattle (and others in growing populations) tiers its water rates, which means the more you use, the more it costs. So there’s incentive to save money by saving water. Here are some ways to conserve water in your landscape:

Evergreen huckleberry. Photo by Ecoyards.

Pick drought-tolerant or low-maintenance plants. Rosemary, oregano, lavender, sage and other herbs are some obvious choices, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Consider beautiful woody shrubs such as viburnum or the strawberry tree, which has glossy green foliage, white flowers and red berries; flowering perennials such as astilbe and penstemon; or edible fruiting plants like the native evergreen huckleberry. Take a tour of the Waterwise Garden at the Bellevue Botanical Garden to check out more ideas. You’ll be amazed at how lush and beautiful a garden can be while still conserving water and reducing the need for fertilizers and chemicals. Now is a good time to start thinking about what you might want to plant in the fall.

Install an efficient sprinkler system. We’ve written before about how a smart sprinkler system can save you time and money. It can prevent sprinkler overspray and other water problems, such watering too much or too little. Ecoyards has been working with customers get water rebates from the city of Seattle by installing smart, water-saving sprinkler systems. Read more about how we helped one customer get $480 in irrigation rebates earlier this year. If you’re not ready for a sprinkler system, or you have a much smaller area that needs watering, consider a drip irrigation system. A drip system saves water because by slowly applying it directly to a plant roots. If you do water by traditional garden hose, try to do so early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid water evaporation. The city of Seattle has a lot of great resources to help you save water.

 

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Snails, snails and more snails

Posted on August 9th, 2012 by Phuong

Brown snail introduced from France in 1850s as food.  Photos by Ecoyards.

I had the unpleasant task this morning of hand-picking about a dozen snails from my garden. It seems like these little hungry creatures multiplied overnight, but in reality I’ve ignored my garden during these busy summer weeks and allowed the perfect conditions for the mollusks to grow. I left plenty of damp, hiding spots for them, and plenty of overhanging weeds; for example, I left a tarp in one corner of the garden, which provided perfect cover for the snails to grow and I’m growing plants they particularly love.

Common brown garden snails, otherwise known as Cornu aspersum or Helix aspersa) are a menace because they feast on both living and decaying plants, and they grow rapidly. Plus they’re kind of slimy and gross. Brown snails were brought to California in the 1850s by the French as food (yum, escargots). They love young tender shoots and seedlings, and herbaceous plants that grow close to the ground (strawberries, artichokes, tomatoes). They also like to eat lettuce, marigolds, dahlia, beans, basil, and other veggies. They don’t like woody ornamental plants, such as lavender, rosemary, sage, geraniums, begonias and nasturtiums.

Snail’s mucus.

OK, so what can you do when you’re overrun by snails? Hand-pick them off your plants, fences and walls, and crush them. (This morning I threw them into a garbage bag, and tossed a few into the street for the birds). Hand-picking isn’t the most appealing method for those pest-adverse gardeners, but it really is the easiest and weirdly satisfying. In the past I’ve also tried trapping snails and slugs by putting out a little container of beer at ground level; I’ve never found beer-trapping to be that effective, but others report otherwise. You could also use a little sugar water and yeast to get the same effect. Your container should be deep enough so that snails don’t just crawl out of the sides. (There are plenty of YouTube videos describing how to make one of these beer traps). The experts at the University of California say such traps aren’t very effective for the amount of time it requires; you have to constantly replenish the beer (or other trapping liquid) and they only draw the pests within a few feet of the container.

If hand-picking and beer-trapping aren’t for you, studies have shown that copper barriers can work in repelling snails from containers and raised beds. Supposedly the copper works because the copper reacts with a snail’s slime and effectively “shocks” it and messes up its nervous system. You can wrap copper foil around a tree trunk or planting boxes to keep the mollusks away. If you use these barriers on planting boxes or raised beds, make sure you don’t have any snails or snail eggs inside the container before installing the barrier; one friend discovered that her copper barrier had trapped snails inside her raised bed.

Plenty of garden stores also sell snail baits that are toxic to snails, but the ones containing metaldehyde are also poisonous to cats and dogs. There are some baits containing iron phosphate (i.e. Sluggo) that are safe around children and wildlife. Read the directions carefully and time the use properly (they’re usually not as effective during very hot, very cold or very dry times of the year).

My take-away from this morning’s snail hand-picking session is to do a better job of keeping my garden clean. I’ll try to remove  boards, weedy areas, stones, branches close to the ground where snails thrive. Unfortunately, my vegetable garden is located close to our fence and garbage cans, when boxes and such tend to pile up. Inevitably, snails will come even if you keep a clean garden, so hand-picking will be just another routine.

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Bloedel Reserve

Posted on August 8th, 2012 by Phuong

The Ecoyards grandparents were in town recently from Michigan, so we decided to take them for a visit to The Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. There are a lot of wonderful gardens in the Puget Sound area, but this is an impressive 150 acres of beautifully, meticulously landscaped grounds. There’s also a lot of see, so give yourself several hours to wander around and explore the Japanese garden, the moss garden, the French country-style estate home and the reflection pool.

Our toddler had a blast, touching moss-covered rocks, running along wooded paths, checking out the waterfalls and trying to find ducks and geese in the pond. We were impressed by the magnificent and massive rhododendrons that were in bloom, by the woodlands filled with native Northwest plants such as oxalis, viburnum and western azaleas.

Here are a few photos we took on our tour:

A lush carpet of native oxalis.

Rhododendrons in full bloom.

The former Bloedel estate home, now the visitor center. .

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