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  • Why Do Garden Water Testing

    July 08, 2016

    When your garden includes ponds and streams, water testing is probably a good idea. Earlier this year, we attended a seminar on retaining and recycling water in rural locations. One of the conservationists who spoke made a point of saying (paraphrasing): “There’s no such thing as a clean babbling brook on our rural properties anymore.” His point being human development and agriculture have contaminated a lot of the running water on land.

    Water gathered for testing at lab

    Looking at the color or clarity of water doesn’t tell the whole story.
    Lab water testing can take the mystery out of your water.

    When we purchased our new property that includes a couple of ponds and a small creek that receive water from livestock land uphill and then empty downhill into a county ditch that then empties into a slough that then passes into a protected wildlife estuary, I put in a call to the Skagit Conservation District for help getting information on our pond and stream water quality.

    Padilla Bay sunset in July

    Being a resident near a gorgeous protected estuary is an honor & a responsibilty.

    Our goal wasn’t to start raising koi in the ponds or to drink the water from it. Rather, we wanted to get a good understanding of whether the water would be toxic for the dogs that jump into it and drink from it. We wanted to be sure that the existing population of native tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, water insects and predators would continue to thrive. And, we wanted to understand what level of nastiness might be both passing into and out of our property via the existing water ways.

    tadpole metamorphosis to froglet

    Native Pacific tree frog transforming from tadpole to frog in our pond.

    Our local conservationist helped connect us with a local water testing lab, Edge Analytical. Edge helped us choose a few tests to run to set a healthy baseline on our water. We began with basic tests for things like nitrates and fecal coliforms. Certainly, we could run any number of additional tests, but both the conservation district and the lab suggested these were where we should start. Both told us to expect some naturally occurring levels of coliforms as any open water has animal traffic, and, well, shit happens. (more…)

  • Lawns & Mowers

    July 01, 2016

    Relocating to lawn-filled acreage means we need lawn mowers! A few years ago we had eliminated the last of our Seattle garden’s lawn. Our new garden in Mount Vernon, WA came with about an acre + of rolling lawns. That takes a lot of mowing in spring when rain and sun take turns pushing new growth everywhere!

    Garden Mentors founder driving John Deere lawn mower tractor

    Driving the John Deere lawn tractor is fun & makes hauling things up & down the hill easier. But, we hope to use petrol-burner lawn mowers less as time goes by.

    Our new home came with an old John Deere lawn tractor. Yes! We have a tractor! But, as with most things on this new property, it’s a fixer and went into the shop for repairs recently.

    Fortunately, our friends at Fiskars* sent us one of their fantastic reel lawn mowers as a bit of a housewarming gift. And, it arrived a day after the John Deere went in for repairs – perfect timing!

    Garden Mentors founder driving John Deere lawn mower tractor

    Pushing a Fiskars Stay-Sharp™ reel mower is easy — even on a hillside. (See that apron Robin’s wearing? Stay tuned for more about this great Roo Apron product we were given to trial**. That’s a topic for another blog post to come!)

    Originally, we had intended to use the Fiskars Stay-sharp™ Max Reel mower under some the lower, weeping trees on the property where it’s really tough to drive the John Deere, and we had planned to use it on our septic mound where minimal weight impact is important. Yes, we can drive the motorized mower over the mound, but the area is small, so we’d prefer to keep as much weight off of this bio-filter as possible.

    But we decided to put our new reel mower to work when the abundant lawn clover began blooming profusely in the most-used part of our new lawn. We traverse this lawn multiple times a day. It’s a great fetching space for our dog, lounging space for us and while it does slope slightly, it’ll be a fun croquet and lawn bowling space. (more…)

  • Hummingbird Rescue

    June 24, 2016

    Have you ever had to rescue a hummingbird?

    This week a couple of our many hummingbirds decided that our open front door was an invitation to explore inside. They’ve been darting about just outside the door for weeks now, feeding on blooming Acanthus, Fuchsia and other tasty nectar sources.

    Acanthus blooming

    Blooming Acanthus is a hummingbird favorite in summer!

    And, based on flight behavior and the chirping I know Annas do as they approach their nests, it’s likely there’s a nest not far from the door too — high in a Serbian spruce. So, it wasn’t terribly surprising that one would make their way into the house. Still, it was quite a worrisome moment. Never have I touched a hummingbird, let alone rescued one!

    So, what happens when a hummingbird comes inside?

    hummingbird rescue required

    This hummingbird looks injured, but really she’s just a bit shocked to have met with a window – surprise!

    Well, this pair both flew straight for our large windows, which stopped them in their tracks. And, whether they were stunned by the impact or simply surprised, both froze with wings expanded into a corner of the windows. The contractor working on our house gently gathered up the first and released it into the air outside. I followed, carefully lifting the tiny bird and cupping her in the palm of my hand. She was awake but remained frozen, likely playing possum. In fact when I opened my fingers wide outside the door, she would neither fly away nor latch onto the Acanthus in front of her. So I delicately set her inert body on the soil of a hanging planter, high above the ground where predators probably wouldn’t reach her. Yet, she still didn’t move.

    Thinking this might be an interesting photo opportunity, I grabbed my nearby phone, began to focus it near her, and bzzzzt! she was gone.

    Want to learn more about living and gardening with hummingbirds?

    Join me on Saturday, June 25, 2016 at Swanson’s Nursery in Seattle for a free seminar at 10am. Seating is limited, so be sure to arrive early!

  • Ornamental Grasses Demystified

    June 17, 2016

    Choosing the perfect ornamental grasses for your garden can be challenging for a number of reasons. In fact, while some plants may have the word grass in their name, they aren’t actually grasses.  Instead, they may be sedges, rushes, lilies or any number of other non-grass plants. And, while there’s a grass or grass-like plant to fit just about any environmental garden challenge, determining the right one for your spot may be overwhelming.

    Black Mondo Grass flower

    Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) is actually more closely related to asparagus! It has the fun texture of ornamental grasses & unique black coloration, but it isn’t a grass. It spreads slowly in the garden & tends to play nice with others. The showy flowers are a big hint that it isn’t a true grass.

    In the world of grasses and grass-like plants, there’s much to choose from. Some are evergreen. Some have showy flowers. Some need deep shade. Some want hot, dry sunlight. Others, like it soggy — seasonally or always. Many will rot in wet. And, many can be weedy and even invasive. So, how to choose? (more…)

  • Changing Gardens

    June 10, 2016

    As most Garden Mentors clients and blog readers know, spring has been a time of big change for me — including changing gardens. Usually in June I’m writing articles about transplanting tomatoes, harvesting garlic scapes and what’s stinking up the garden with its fly-attracting bloom. This year my June gardening focus has completely reset. My well-studied garden in Seattle is now in the hands of others, and my new garden north of Seattle in Skagit County is challenging me with all sorts of opportunities — some welcome and some not-so welcome.

    Deer in the garden

    Wild animals like deer are abundant in our new garden. Raccoons, rabbits, chipmunks, field mice, moles and voles are just some of the mammals scurrying about. Lots of vultures, hawks, herons, ducks, hummingbirds, cedar waxwings and other birds make our garden their home too.

    Because we now live in the country on a couple of wild fauna-filled acres, my tomato patch is growing in containers on a deck. And, because we were so wrapped up in all things buying-selling-moving-houses I didn’t start my tomatoes from seed this year. Instead, I picked up some healthy starts from our local co-op. It may seem ridiculous to grow just a few veggies in pots on a deck when I’ve got acres to work with, but as a seasoned pro, I know that biting off projects in realistic chunks is the best way not to get too overwhelmed. So, a couple of tomatoes it is this year. (And maybe a cucumber, but I can plant those a little later.)

    Preparing garden bed

    Once he pulled away the abundant landscape fabric, Bob put a beatdown on the clay with his fantastic IsoCore Fiskars pick-axe (provided to Garden Mentors by Fiskars for free to trial; we have received no compensation for using this axe or mentioning it in this post).

    We did bring along one very special tree from our old garden. (more…)

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