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  • Choosing Your Garden Gravel

    September 23, 2016

    There are many garden gravels to choose from and many applications for gravel in the garden. Making a poor material selection can be both dangerous and ugly. Fortunately, with proper planning and installation, gravel can be a wonderful and relatively inexpensive hardscape material.

    garden gravel side-by-side

    On the left: angular 5/8s minus gravel. On the right: round decorative pebbles.

    Why do you need gravel?
    Trying to suppress weeds in a planting area? Creating a walkway, patio or driveway? Creating a decorative dry stream bed? Or something else?

    angular garden gravel walk

    Walk ——> on a pathway made of compacted, angular gravel.

    A common challenge is simply selecting the right gravel for the right application.

    If you’ve ever visited a stone yard, you’ve probably fallen in love with many colorful gravels on display. The problem with many of these gravels is their shape. While using round stones in mixed sizes is ideal for creating a decorative dry stream bed, these stones simply do not compact into a safe, hard surface for pathways and patios. Soft mixes of pea gravel, round pebbles or even semi-angular pebbles with tumbled edges will turn into ankle-twisting walkways that neither a wheelchair nor a wheelbarrow can traverse.

    Mixed pink round pebbles

    Colorful round pebbles may look nice at the garden center, but they aren’t nice to walk on. Landscape fabric beneath them makes for an additional rolling, ankle-twisting, falling hazard.

    Instead, opt for something a little less showy for your walkways. Truly angular rock with lots of fines will compact into a solid path that also drains. These gravels are usually referred to by the size of the largest partical in the mix: 5/8s-minus or 1/4″ minus are two popular options for walking paths.

    angular gravel in formal garden

    Even a formal garden looks & sounds great with crunchy, compacted angular gravel like this.

    These are also used as an ideal base material for permeable stone patios and paths. In fact, in most applications they work better than sand, which is also a bunch of tiny, round particles that don’t compact well.

    What about gravel to suppress weeds?

    Many believe that covering a planting area with decorative rock will keep weeds from growing. But, weeds are tough and will easily push right through a permeable pebble or gravel layer.

    Landscape fabric & garden gravel renovation project

    The soil beneath multiple layers of landscape fabric & a thick covering of stones is hot, dry & hard as a rock. It’s going to take a while to rejuvenate this bed. Once the pebbles & fabric are removed, covering the bare soil with fresh arborist chips will help suppress weeds, give the bed a finished look, allow moisture to pass through the soil & invite soil microbes to return the this rock-hard garden bed.

    Too, a thick layer of stone placed over a planting bed may raise temperatures enough to burn tender plant roots below. While flame weeding over stone may be possible in some situations, running a flame weeder around plants may burn and even kill your garden.

    Should I put landscape fabric under my gravel?

    Covering the earth with landscape fabric and topping it with gravel path or patio is just asking for a twisted ankle or worse injury. That fabric is slippery. Stone on top just gets more slippery. Angular gravel that should compact into a safer walking layer, won’t tighten up over fabric. And round pebbles will roll worse than ever on that slick surface. Plus, in the wet season, water may end up pooling or sheeting in runoff streams when it can’t readily pass through fabric to the soil below.

    Landscape gravel & fabric clean up project

    Cleaning up a bed filled with trashy landscape fabric and dangerous round rock is hard work. Plus, it may take many months for the soil to rejuvenate. Once all of the slippery, rolling hazards are removed from this bed, it will be possible to safely walk & plant in this area again.

    Adding a layer (or overlapping layers) of landscape fabric between your garden bed soil and a topping layer of gravel isn’t going to do you any weeding favors in the long run. That fabric layer will eventually pop up through the stone and look like trash flags on your garden floor. And, the fabric will inhibit moisture from flowing into the soil, which can stunt or kill your plants and the living eco-system within the soil itself. Plant roots will readily grow between overlapping layers of any fabric as they attempt to find access to moisture above ground. As they weave their way through the layers, roots may become kinked and otherwise caught in a messy entanglement that’s hard to later remedy.

    So, do it right in the first place. Skip the fabric. Avoid the lure of colorful round pebbles. Install functional paths that will weather the test of time and mulches that will encourage rather than suppress the complex life beneath your feet.

  • Audubon Birding App Review

    September 16, 2016

    Lately I’ve become obsessed with the free Audubon birding app. I’ve had it installed for a while and until recently only used it occasionally, and I only used a few of its features.

    Then I moved to a birder’s paradise…

    Steller's Jay

    Steller’s Jays are gorgeous, if a bit obnoxious. This one may have been injured or may have just been hiding from the hawk that was screaming nearby.

    Now that I live near a protected estuary, open fields and mixed forest, I have a lot of bird neighbors. On even the dullest birding day,  I’ll awake to hummingbirds sipping fuchsia and salvia nectar just out my bedroom window. I’ll see falcons and vultures soaring on the thermals overhead. Bald eagles swoop from above as I gather blackberries for happy hour. Various hawks scream from the field just beyond our west wood. Swallows flock in at dusk to nosh on gnat hatches. Woodpeckers, jays, sparrows, chickadees, bushtits, nuthatches and cedar waxwings are a few of the regular visitors to a feeding station outside our kitchen window. And, often I’ll even scare up a great blue heron feasting on frogs in one of our ponds. All of that without even walking to the Padilla Bay shore trail where the list of birds expands far beyond my meager birding id skills.

    The Audubon Bird App comes in handy whether I’m trying to lure a curious downy woodpecker just a little closer or figure out which of the many sandpipers I’m seeing at the shore. Its many features help me identify and locate birds in my area, create a list of my sightings, learn about birding and bird photography and share with the greater birding community.

    Let’s say I see a woodpecker at my feeder, but I’m not sure which kind it is. I can use the “explore birds” function to search by the word “woodpecker” or by a shape or family. This tool will bring up images, descriptions and even audio snippets of the birds themselves. Unfortunately, it doesn’t share much about a bird’s diet, which would really come in handy for filling the bird feeders.

    Downy Woodpecker at Garden Feeder

    The Audubon app helped me determine that this is probably a female downy woodpecker.

    So, once I pull up the woodpecker I’m looking for and begin playing the audio clips, I can use that to lure birds closer. Almost every bird I’ve tried this on has responded. A red-breasted nuthatch was so intrigued it almost landed on my hand!

    Once I know which bird I’m spying (or think I’m spying), I can “add a sighting” to “my sightings.” This creates a diary of the birds that I’ve seen, and I can create “lists” within this diary to segregate sightings as I see fit. For instance, I have a “kitchen feeder” list and a “Padilla Bay trail” list. (If you want to use lists, start them early and be sure to tag your sightings as you create them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear you can assign sightings to lists later on.)

    Rufous hummingbird on Salvia

    During the breeding season, migrating rufous hummingbirds are abundant in our garden. These little bullies do battle with our year ’round resident Anna’s hummingbirds.

    I can also choose to share my sightings with the greater “nature” community, even asking for help identifying a bird I’m not sure about. (In the NatureShare feature you’ll see all sorts of flora and fauna posted. Not just birds!)

    Too, I can share geographical information about my sighting, which I have to imagine may help the larger birding community see migration habits as they change over time. If I’m so inclined, I can turn on location sharing to set my location, or I can share sighting areas manually. And, it’s easy to then quickly post the same image into Twitter or Facebook directly from the Audubon App; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to connect to business pages or Instagram, but hopefully that’ll come soon.

    If you have any interest in birding and have any room for another app on your smartphone or tablet, go get this birding app today. It’s available for iOS and Android. And it’s free for everyone. But do us all a favor and use that “donate to Audubon” feature in the app once you download it and fall in love.

    When you do join, please join me in the NatureShare community. Look for “gardenmentor.”

  • Leaves: Blow or Rake?

    September 09, 2016

    When we lived in the city, stinky, loud gas-powered leaf blowers drove us nuts. Cheap, fly-by-night lawn companies seemed to constantly blow all sorts of crap throughout the neighborhood — never pulling out a rake to gather and dispose of whatever they blew into the gutter or onto the next door neighbor’s property.

    Raking Leaves

    Raking is great exercise! In small residential gardens, a rake is probably all you’ll really need to keep up with leaf detritus.

    When my elderly mom reported on her almost-daily leaf blowing chores, we were more appreciative of her use of leaf blower. She lived in a residential neighborhood. But, hers was on a slippery slope, in a deciduous forest that shed leaves for months. And, she used a relatively quiet electric, plug-in blower. She also used a rake to gather up her leaves to make compost.

    Using a leaf blower in a forest

    When you have acres of forest that sheds leaves from summer through fall, a leaf blower really helps keep on top of all the work.

    When we purchased a couple of partially forested acres with a lot of gravel paths, I knew we’d need to acquire a few gardening power tools. I really didn’t want to be mixing gas and toting around a heavy petrol-powered backpack blower. And, a corded electric blower would require a ridiculous number of extension cords.

    Blowing leaves off gravel path

    When using a leaf blower on gravel paths, take care to use low settings that don’t send gravel flying. Raking can work on gravel, but again, take care not to rake your gravel into your leaf piles.

    Fortunately, EGO brand just released a light-weight backpack blower with a rechargeable lithium ion battery. It’s new-to-market, but a few colleagues had good things to say about EGO’s hand-held blowers, so I rolled the dice, and ordered the backpack blower. (Garden Mentors paid for the Ego Power+ Backpack blower. Fiskars did supply Garden Mentors for the rake shown for trial use.  Garden Mentors is not being paid or otherwise compensated for this article, except for the free rake.)

    Lithium ion EgoPro Backpack Blower

    Battery powered leaf blowers are less polluting than gas ones. They don’t emit fumes & are much more quiet. Plus, they now come in lightweight backpack models!

    So far the blower is working great. It took just a couple of hours to charge the battery. It is easy to assemble, well, except for the blower tubes, which require stronger hands than I have. But, it was a one-time assembly job, so no biggie. It’s easy to put on and to carry. I wish the “on” trigger had a locking mechanism; it gets really exhausting to hold that thing on while you blow leaves for an hour or two. (It is easy to rig it into a locked position if you don’t mind bending the manufacturer’s “rules.”) The manual recommended ear protection, but I found the machine so quiet that I took mine off, and my ears weren’t ringing when I was done. I did bind up my long hair, wear tall boots, long pants & big sunglasses for body protection. I had garden gloves on most of the time too. My back wasn’t tired or shaky and my weak hands weren’t aching after blowing leaves for a couple of hours two days in a row.

    And, yes, it will blow for a few hours at a time — if you use a low setting. If you put it on high or use “turbo” often, it will run out of juice quickly. But, it will recharge quickly too.

    Leaves make great compost material

    Whether you rake or blow, be sure to save your leaves for creating luscious compost!

    Raking up stray leaves or mounding them into a compost heap is the perfect job while we’re waiting for that battery to recharge. Rakes are still an important part of our tool arsenal, but getting up mountains of alder and other leaves just wasn’t going to happen without a little Ego boost (pun completely intended).

    Now to decide if we really need to buy a chainsaw before winter. (Ego, if you’re listening, we’d love to receive one of yours to try out!)

    In the meantime, get out there and start gathering up your fallen leaves. Once those leaves pile up and get soggy, getting them relocated to your compost pile will be a lot more difficult — whether you’re raking or using a power tool. Rake early. Blow often. And, keep those manna-from-heaven leaves to feed your compost-hungry soil!

  • Autumn is Coming

    September 02, 2016

    August went out with one big, wet, raging Hurrah! in our garden — a sure sign autumn is coming. All-night lightening, thunder and raging downpours hammering onto our roof and surging into leaf-clogged gutters turned the calendar page from August to September.

    Abundant rain runoff

    When a heavy rain hits hard following summer’s drought, streams are easily overloaded. Not the case in this well-managed culvert.

    Remnants of the storm lingered in the early September 1st morning. Streams raced through downhill culverts. Below, a previously low pond now lapped at its brim. And, the scents of autumn had washed away the dirt-dry smell of a departing long, hot summer.

    Cutleaf blackberry fruit & fall color

    As summer turns to fall, blackberries may still offer fruit, but its likely to be pithy. But isn’t the leaf color lovely this time of year?

    We’re certain to revisit hot, dry days again before fall really arrives in earnest.

    Queen Anne's lace seeds

    Flowers transform into beautiful seed pods by late summer. Soon, a windy day will send these Queen Anne’s lace seeds far & wide to sprout next year & offer ideal breeding grounds for beneficial soldier beetles & other insects.

    But early storms and other harbingers of fall are a good reminder that soon it will be time to get new plants in the ground, renovate (or transition away from) lawn, rake leaves, plant spring bulbs, mulch and all those other tasks best completed in our all-to-brief autumns.

    Aster subspicatus Douglas aster

    Wild asters like this Douglas’ aster (A. subspicatus) blooming at the shore is sure sign summer is winding down.

    Right now. Drink in the last of summer. Harvest. Preserve. Play croquet. Take a walk to soak up all the late summer goodness around you. Watch for bird migrations beginning. Pick berries. Chase frogs. Have fun!

    wild crabapples ripening

    Tiny wild crabapples begin to flush color as they ripen in late summer. Soon cedar waxwings, starlings & other fruit-loving birds will flock to the trees & gorge themselves on these sweet morsels.

    And make your gardening plans to hit the ground running when summer really, truly, finally says good-bye.

  • Accidental Apple Chip Recipe

    August 26, 2016

    We’ve got a lot of delicious, crispy, dried apples in the pantry to enjoy this fall and winter. How they got to this ideal snap-crisp state was a happy accident that’ll be easy for you to repeat, on purpose.

    fresh apples to preserve

    Pick, buy or forage for apples like these Gravensteins in mid-summer to preserve at the peak of freshness!

    My new neighbor gave us several pounds of apples from her orchard, which I put into our dehydrator intentionally. I cored and sliced the apples about 1/4″ thick, spread them in single layers on the drying sheets, set the machine to 135F for fruit, checked the relative humidity (about 50%), and anticipated the slices would be leathery and ready to store in about 9-12 hours.

    What I didn’t count on was eating a bad oyster a few hours later.

    Raw oysters

    I’ve always loved raw oysters, but it may be quite a while before I slurp another ones of these down. Just looking at this photo makes me queasy!

    (more…)

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