Planting Trees

I make plans to add some serious foliage to my property.

I bought 10 acres of view property in Malaga, WA at the end of July, 2013 — the day after my divorce decree was issued. Although financial uncertainty delayed the start of construction of my new home, I finally got the builders out here in May, 2014, and building commenced. Although the shell of the building is done and all of my possessions are tucked safely indoors, the living space still has a way to go. While I wait for that to be done, I’ve gotten back to work on developing the land around my new home: cleaning up my vegetable garden, planting bulbs, sewing wildflower seeds, etc.

My lot is beautiful. It sits on the north side of the road — the side facing the Wenatchee Valley. On clear days — which is most of the time here on the dry side of Washington — the view goes on forever and ever. I see the Columbia River, countless orchards, the cities of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, the valley walls, and snow-covered mountains nearly year-round. This time of year, the fall color is amazing as individual trees and full orchards change into reds, yellows, and oranges. I built my home to take advantage of these views, with a total of 21 windows, most of which look out to the north, northwest, and northeast where the best views are.

Autumn View
I shot this photo on Monday morning from my Lookout Point bench, after the sunlight had filled the valley. The snow is back on the mountains I can see to the west. Click this image to see a larger version where more detail is visible.

The best thing about this view: it’ll never be blocked. The land drops down sharply near my property line into a deep ravine owned by the county as a wildlife corridor. Beyond it, where the land climbs a bit again, is a very large orchard owned by a local fruit grower. I picked this lot because of this situation — one thing I learned in the past (the hard way) was that if land in front of your view can be bought/changed by someone else, it will be. Even if the PUD did sell that low-lying land to a developer (or something worse), whatever’s down there will never obstruct my view.

The view on the other side of the road isn’t too shabby, either. Basalt cliffs, hundreds of feet tall, filled with bighorn sheep that sometimes wander down to graze on the bunchgrass that dominates the hills below them. The cliffs illuminate with a golden light at sunrise or sunset, especially during the summer months. Really breathtaking sometimes.

Cliff View
This shot gives you a good idea what’s behind my home, on the other side of the road. (Before I completed the RV garage space and driveway apron, my helicopter was parked outside.)

But although there are trees up in the cliffs and trees down in the valley, there aren’t many trees on the properties on my side of the road. My 10 acres doesn’t have a single tree over 10 feet tall. Instead, it’s mostly gently rolling hills with bunch grass and sage brush.

That’s good, to a certain extent. The views wouldn’t be perfect if there were trees in the way. But I would like some trees for shade, privacy from the road, and autumn color. Trees that are drought tolerant once established, trees that grow naturally in the area and will do well here without a lot of watering or maintenance.

Enter the annual Cascadia Conservation District Native Plant Sale. This program makes native plants available at affordable prices to homeowners in the area. It includes tall trees such as ponderosa pines, quaking aspen, rocky mountain Maple, and blue elderberry, as well as shorter shrubs such as red osier dogwood, serviceberry, mock orange, and woods rose. The brochure clearly indicates how large each plant will get, when it flowers, and whether it has edible fruit and/or attracts wildlife. This makes it easy to decide which plants to buy.

Actually, it doesn’t. I want to buy some of everything.

I plan on planting in a few areas. First, alongside the road behind my building. My building is set down in a sort of bowl below the road with no trees or bushes to block it from the road. It’s sort of a fishbowl effect with minimum privacy. Fortunately, my building faces away from the road so I don’t have to worry at all about privacy when I’m inside. But I’d like to get some when I’m outdoors, working in the garden, etc. And a row of bushy trees will not only give me that privacy, but cut down on the dust kicked up by the occasional passing car. (I should mention that there are only three driveways past mine on the road, so it isn’t as if there’s any real “traffic” up here.)

Quaking Aspen
Some of my neighbor’s aspen trees.

What to put up there? I was thinking of a mix of willow (which I’ve already got rooting from a friend in the area), quaking aspen, and red osier dogwood. (A neighbor already offered me some of their aspens — I need to go over and dig them up; after all the rain we’ve been having lately, it shouldn’t be too difficult.) This will give me the privacy/dust screen I want while providing early forage for my bees and vibrant fall colors later in the year. Although all of these do best with some irrigation, I’ve already got irrigation lines on that side of the driveway so it won’t be much of a chore to run another line up to the roadside. All of these varieties grow quickly and self-propagate.

I wasn’t going to plant anything beyond my driveway, but recent events have convinced me to extend that row of trees past the driveway, possibly all the way to the fence line that marks the end of my property. Unlike my neighbors on the other side of the road, my property stretches east along the road. Their lots stretch south up into the cliffs — in fact, they each own not only the cliff face behind their homes, but a bit of land near the top, which is impossible to reach by car or truck. (Not sure the value of that — unless you have a helicopter, of course.) My 10-acre lot actually stretches in front of three of their 20-acre lots.

Rather than have to see my neighbor’s rather unattractive roofline and bright, reflective chimney, I thought I’d plant some trees along the road to block my view. Some tall trees like ponderosa pines would fit in with the vegetation on the cliff side of the road and give me the screen I want. Maybe some blue elderberry and serviceberry so I can harvest some edible fruit at season’s end. I have irrigation set up on that side of my driveway, too, and can run the line quite far — I have excellent water pressure here — so getting all of these plants started and thriving should be pretty easy to do.

Since I plan to move my bee yard out toward the east end of my property next spring, trees out there will give the bees a nice screen from the wind and possibly a bit of shade. I’ll plant all kinds of flowering bushes around the bee yard so there’s foraging opportunities for them nearby. Maybe some snowberry, woods rose, and mock orange?

Not sure what I’ll plant on the view side of my home yet. I think I might wait until spring 2016, when I’m really settled in, to develop in that direction. Next year, I’ll be expanding my garden beyond the small area near my shed to include various locations in the immediate vicinity of my building. After all, if I’m going to plant around the building, why not plant things I can eat?

Beyond that, I suspect I’ll keep things close to the ground — that’s one direction that I don’t want a screen of tall trees. A wildflower field, kept vibrant through irrigation if necessary, might be just what I need. I’ve already got the seeds started.

Repurposing Old Bee Hive Boxes

Reuse, recycle.

A few months back, my beekeeping friend James told me he’d was able to get a bunch of used deep hive boxes for about $5 each. Knowing I used deep boxes — he uses only mediums — he offered them to me. I asked about the condition and he admitted that they were pretty beat up but could probably be usable with just a cleaning and fresh coat of paint. They were heavy-duty commercial boxes — the kind the migratory beekeepers use. I told him I’d take 10.

Beat Up Hive Boxes
These hive boxes are a little more beat up than I was expecting them to be.

I picked them up a while later. Although structurally sound, they were very beat up. James showed me one that he’d painted and it didn’t look half bad. Since the price was right and I had plenty of paint, I took them.

I spent one morning scraping the paint off four of them with a wire brush and then repainting them. They did look much better. But when I slipped some frames into one of them, I realized that they weren’t consistently sized; the frames fit too loosely and would require careful placement to prevent them from falling into the box.

This is my garden hive, so-called because I placed it near my garden. It was built with two of the used boxes and it’s pretty clear that they simply don’t fit the way they need to.

But it wasn’t until I placed the first box of frames onto a hive bottom — for a swarm capture I needed to permanently house — that I realized the problem couldn’t be solved with just a coat of paint. The top and bottom edges of the boxes were rough. This caused gaps between the bottom and the box and between stacked boxes. The gaps were large enough for light and air to pass through. That meant the bees would be busy filling all those gaps with propolis, thus gluing them together.

I used the four I’d painted and found the same problem with all of them. Although I didn’t want to invest more money in beekeeping equipment than I had to, it was clear that these boxes would not be suitable for long-term use. They’d need to be replaced.

I placed an order for five new boxes from Mann Lake, figuring that I’d begin swapping them out on my next inspections.

But what to do with the unneeded boxes?

The answer was in my garden, which was growing wild in the planters I’d bought and made: more movable planters.

Understand that bee hive boxes do not have tops or bottoms. All they have are sides. While I could simply place a box on the ground, fill it with soil, and plant something in it, that wouldn’t make it movable. It also wouldn’t keep the moles (or voles or whatever I have making holes on my property) from digging in from underneath to kill whatever was growing in the box.

So I did the same thing I did for my large pallet planters — I lined the bottom with wire mesh. I had a large piece I’d been using on the door for my chicken yard that I clipped off, cut to size, and lay inside of each of the three boxes I painted for my trial run. I used a staple gun to fasten the wire to the sides of the boxes. Then I placed the first box in position, put a layer of stray on the bottom, right over the wire, and topped it off with some potting soil. I planted corn in the box, covered the soil with some more straw (to discourage digging by birds), watered it, and left it.

The corn wasn’t supposed to germinate for 8-10 days, but within 6 days, it was pushing its way up between the pieces of straw.

Beehive Planters
A row of the beehive planters. You can see the corn poking up through the straw in the closest box.

I lined up the other two boxes on the ground beside the first. I planted corn in one and onions in the other. When the heat breaks, I’ll prep the remaining three boxes, although I may not plant anything in them until next year.

What I like most about these movable planters is that they’re making it possible for me to have a garden this year, before I’m ready to commit to a location for the garden. And while the bottoms might not be the most sturdy, they do make it possible for plant roots to reach through, into the soil below.

I just hope I didn’t plant the corn too late for a good harvest.

A New Sign

With a tiny garden.

Here's My Sign
My first stab at a house sign.

Way back in August 2013, I blogged about my first week as a single landowner. In that blog post, I showed off a picture of a temporary sign I’d made to mark my driveway for contractors and visitors.

I was proud of that silly, ugly sign — it was a mark of achievement. It was evidence that I was on the road to a new life. A better life without a sad old man holding me back. Maria, rebooted, version 3.0.

Old Sign
By May 2014, my once-proud sign was looking very sad.

Time went on. I put a little ring of rocks around the sign and added a solar-powered light for nighttime. In the autumn, I planted bulbs.

Then winter came. I moved away for about five months, first on a local house-sitting “job” and then on a frost contract in California. When I returned, the ground was dry and the few bulbs that had emerged were struggling. The sign looked forlorn and sad.

The sign wasn’t meant to be permanent. I was hoping that a friend of mine in Arizona who works with metal would make me a new sign, but the death of her husband and the aftermath kept her busy with other things. I’d need to find another solution.

I should mention that I had a neat sign back in Arizona. It was made out of sandstone with symbols and numbers carved into it. I’d bought it from an artist at a show in Cave Creek (I think) and it was custom made. (Wish I had a photo of it to share!) I was hoping to get something like that, but I simply couldn’t find anything.

Then, last week when I was in California again for work, I happened upon an art tile shop. They made house numbers and frames. I chose a style with a black frame, picked out my numbers, and had them assembled. I bought it home and mounted it on a pair of stakes I painted black to match and then I pulled the other sign — with some difficulty! — and replaced it with the new one.

Yesterday, I went to Fred Meyer for groceries and stopped at their excellent garden shop. I bought a bunch of flowering plants that should bloom all summer. I loosened up the soil, removed rocks, added compost and top soil. Then I planted the flowers around the sign. I covered the soil with a dressing of straw (which I have no shortage of), watered it good, and took this photo.

A New Sign
Freshly planted: my new sign and some flowering plants.

Not bad, eh?

Of course, the big challenge will be to keep it watered…wish me luck!

Scavenging in a Landing Zone

Sunflower seeds, right from the source.

The other day, I had a helicopter charter from Wenatchee to Ephrata. My landing zone was a harvested sunflower field.

Parked at the Sunflower LZ
I parked not far from the end of the irrigation pivot for the field.

The ground was rough but frozen hard. I landed with my skids perpendicular to the furrows where the plants had been lined up during the growing season. Thick dried stalks littered the field and, as I came in for my landing, I wondered how many would become airborne and whether they’d cause me any problems. Some did stir while other pieces of the harvested plants got airborne in my downwash as I neared the ground. But there was no danger. I settled down so softly, my passengers even commented on it.

“Smooth,” one of them said as he unbuckled his seatbelt.

My two passengers climbed out as I began the cool down procedure. They walked around the front of the helicopter, well beneath the spinning blades, and met the men they’d come to see alongside the road. I watched them cross the street and disappear down a driveway.

It didn’t take long to cool down the engine. It was 1°C outside. I brought the blades to a stop and climbed out to survey my surroundings and take another look at the ground near my skids. It’s a habit I have on off-airport landings — checking the skids to make sure they’re free of objects or terrain that could cause a dangerous pivot point later when it was time to leave. And, of course, I took a few pictures; I always photograph my landing zones.

That’s when I found out what I’d landed on. From the air, I’d assumed it had been corn. But there were quite a few big, round structures in the field and it didn’t take long to figure out what they were: the seed heads of sunflowers.

The Seed Heads

The Sunflower LZ
This Google satellite view tells the story of a big round field with a draw running through it and a smaller field in the corner where I’d parked.

This part of Washington is farm country. While they mostly grow tree fruit and grapes in the Wenatchee area where I live, out toward Quincy and Ephrata and Moses Lake they grow a lot of row crops. The corner of this huge field had its own little irrigation pivot. I don’t know what they grew in the rest of the field, but this corner had been sunflowers, and lots of them. I could only imagine how beautiful they must have looked in bloom.

Now there were just scattered seed heads lying around. Like any machine-harvested field, some crops are left behind.

I got to thinking about those sunflowers and all the seeds that were embedded in them. Hundreds in each seed head. They obviously didn’t want them. If I grabbed a bunch, pulled the seeds off, and scattered the seeds around my 10 acre lot in Malaga, there’s a good chance I’d get a few sunflowers for very little effort. My bees would be very pleased indeed for the late season pollen and nectar source.

I started gathering seed heads. They were dry but dirty. The stalks on some were quite long. I pulled out my pocket knife and sawed them off.

I’d gathered four of them and had stowed them under one of the back seats when I got a text message from my client.

“You can come in if you want,” it said.

Usually, I sit out at the helicopter and read while I wait for my passengers. But usually, it isn’t 1°C outside. I realized I was cold. I closed up the back seat, put my knife away, grabbed my iPad, and traced their steps across the street and into the lobby of the nursery/packing house they were visiting. After explaining who I was, I settled down on one of the chairs there, took off my coat, and read.

The Seeds

I brought the seed heads home from the airport after our flight and stowed them in a big shoebox in the garage. (Now I know why I saved that box.) I wasn’t sure how wet they were and I didn’t want bugs in the house or mice among the seed heads.

Today, I took them out for a better look. They were quite beautiful in an old, post-harvest kind of way. They were brown — not black, as we’re so accustomed to seeing in snack packaging. I’m not sure if they were brown because of the dirt or because of the type of sunflower.

Sunflower Seed Heads
Seed heads in a shoebox.

Sunflower Seeds
Harvested sunflower seeds beside the largest of the four seed heads I brought home.

I picked one up and, holding it over the box, rubbed it roughly with my thumb. The seeds began to dislodge and fall off into the box. About ten minutes of rubbing cleared them off the three smaller seed heads. I figured I had about 2,000 sunflower seeds. The final seed head would likely add another 1,000 or so.

The plan is to let them dry indoors in the box. When I’m sure they’re good and dry — and I honestly think they already are — I’ll put them in a bag. In February, before I leave for my frost gig, I’ll scatter them all over my property, keeping about 100 or so to manually plant alongside my vegetable garden.

But before I do any of that, I’ll likely soak a few of these to make sure they sprout. After all, there is a chance that they’re hybrids grown for some specific purpose — oil, seeds, etc. — and that the seeds themselves aren’t fertile. I’ll know soon enough.

3,000 free sunflower seeds. Not bad for a bit of scavenging.

Buying Native Plants

My order is in for spring!

I get a lot of mail here — a lot more mail than I got in Arizona. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Among the mail I got this week was a four-page newsletter from the Cascadia Conservation District. I’m not a member — at least I don’t think so. I think it just went out to everyone.

Quaking Aspen
I shot this photo of quaking aspen trees at my neighbor’s home last month. I ordered 20 bare root stock aspen trees and hope to have my own grove growing next year.

This particular issue had an order form for the 2014 Native Plant Sale. I was thrilled to find bare root stock of native trees at very affordable prices. For example, a bundle of ten 12-inch Quaking Aspen trees was only $15. The same price applied to other trees that interested me: Blue Elderberry (which has edible berries), Red Osier Dogwood (which has red bark in winter), and Woods Rose. And if I wanted Ponderosa Pines — which I do, but not right away — I could get a bundle of 25 trees for $20 or 200 for $120.

There were more options on the order form, but I just chose the ones listed above (except the pines). I chose them primarily because they’re fast growers and they flower at various times of the spring or summer. (My bees will like that.) As for the aspens — well, I just love aspen trees. I mean, who doesn’t? You can download an illustrated brochure of all the plants here.

What’s best about all this, though, is that these are native trees — not something from out of the area brought in to Home Depot or nurseries just because people like them. I think it’s important to landscape with native plants. Not only are they more likely to do better locally, but in this area, they’re likely to need less irrigation or soil supplementation.

The order form requires me to submit my order with at least 50% payment by February 14, 2014. But because I know I’ll forget if I put it aside, I filled it out today and will mail it in when I drive down to town later. Plant pickup will be on April 5, 2014. In the meantime, they’re also offering a “Native Planting 101″ Workshop in February, which I’ve already signed up for.

So yes, in April I’ll be digging a lot of little holes. But I’m excited about moving forward with landscaping on my property. This looks like a great way to start.