Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Upcoming Native Plant and Wildlife Gardening Programs: from Helena, MT to Gillette, WY

I have a few speaking engagements this spring in that I am really looking forward to in Helena, MT, Hamilton, MT and Gillette, WY.  If you live near these towns, I hope you can make it.  The garden programs will be a lot like my blog, but live, and without cats.

Here are some details:

Helena, Montana:  Kelsey Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society 
Tuesday, March 13, 7:00 pmLewis and Clark Library, Helena Montana
Free and open to the public!

Program title:  Gardening with Montana Native Plants for Montana Native Wildlife
For more information, go to

Hamilton, Montana:  Green Thumbs Up Gardening Club
Thursday, April 12, 2:00 pm
Bitterroot Public Library
Contact Susan Duff for more information 961-5455

Gillette, Wyoming:  Wyoming Master Gardener Conference 
Friday, April 27,  8-9 pm, Gillette College
Program Title:  Gardening with Native Plants 

This conference is open to the public and you do not need to be a Master Gardener to attend. The conference will bring together authors, Master Gardeners, vendors, horticulture experts, keynote speakers, and backyard gardeners to share enthusiasm and knowledge.
To view the complete conference agenda, click here.

I hope to see you at one of these programs!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Junebug Wins!

Junebug has been elected as the 2011 Cat of the Year!  Thank you to all that voted this year, the race was closer than in the past, Natalie and Alex were in it until the end.  However, Natalie, might point to the low voter turnout.  I can’t help but wonder if civic-minded readers of Montana Wildlife Gardener have been occupied with the GOP nominations or something. 

Junebug now wears the crown as the only two-time Cat of the Year champion (Junebug won the title by a landslide in 2010).  I would have posted the news sooner, but the little Bug is facing some health issues, and we wanted to make sure this announcement was made when she could enjoy her victory.

We announced the award this weekend.  Natalie had no comment.  Alex ran manically across the room, jumped and clung to the side of our favorite cloth settee.  It was as if he had no idea what we were talking about.  Junebug played it cool; cool as the other side of the pillow.  
Junebug waits patiently for her reward.  Yes, she is that small.
For her victory, she was rewarded with her favorite between meal snack- diced venison trim, and a small bowl of blood.
Victory in 2011!  Does Junebug taste a three-peat for 2012?
Thank you all for voting, and support your local Humane Society, or ours!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to remove a lawn; part 2

Spring is coming and I know a lot of people are thinking about expanding or planting a native plant garden. Inevitably the first question is about site preparation and, specifically what to do with the lawn that is between them and their wildlife and native plant garden destiny.

How to remove a lawn is by far the most often searched phrase that leads people to my blog, and that post (titled the same) is far and away my most viewed page.

I thought I’d update the post with some more information and details based on questions I receive on this blog, in my speaking engagements and from mine and my wife’s native plant, wildlife and sustainable garden coaching business, Butterfly Properties (yes, my last name is German for "butterfly").

Like painting a house or so many other things, success is only guaranteed by the mundane tasks of preparation.  Site preparation is the inglorious hard work that is the most important part, but often the part that gets short cut.  And what is true for painting a house is true for gardening and native plant landscaping.  Frustration, failure, dissatisfaction or disillusionment can often be traced back to skipping steps and taking short cuts in site preparation.  In gardening terms, specifically in a native plant garden  that comes down to getting rid of the existing lawn and keeping it out.

In defense of the sod cutter. 
Sod cutters are hard to use, they are loud, they run on gas, and they are the best tool for the job.
Although meticulously removing sod is always my suggestion, I am always met with questions where people would like an alternative.  An alternative that many perceive is easier, more earth friendly, cheaper, quicker, etc...  around here (Missoula) for the last few years, "lasagna" gardens or sheet mulching has become very popular.  Initially popular, that is, it becomes very unpopular when people have to remove it, or deal with weeds in the lasagna.  Typically what leads to failure is not giving the lasagna garden time enough to work, not dealing with the existing weeds, our climate, or a combination of the three.
The idea of a lasagna garden is a nice one, and one that should be left for the idea book. A lasagna garden can work, I know, but I don't recommend it.

In my blog (and in our garden coaching business) I advocate for physically removing the lawn and I still do.  This is the thing most people are resistant to do, but I think it is still the best and most effective way.  It is also the quickest, and depending on you method, it could be the least resource intensive.  You can dig it all up with a hand sod lifter or even a square bladed shovel and then compost it on site- This has to be one of  the most, if not the most, resource un-intensive methods for lawn removal.

Composting the sod does take time and a lot of space (depending on the quantity of sod you are removing).  Also if you are going to go this route, dry the sod out (under a tarp or something and them screen the soil off  first. 

The inevitable questions:
What about solarizing? Using cardboard?  Using a rototiller? Turning the sod upside down?
There is always someone that will say it worked for them, but there are probably three other people out there that have a different experience.  We have removed a lot of lawn, and the sod cutter (in one form or another) is always our method. My wife and I have landscaped public areas, little parks (like the Native Plant Garden at 8th and Grant), and other places that get very little maintenance, and the essential steps to ensuring that the areas stay weed free are below.

The typical steps (from How to Remove a Lawn):

  1. remove the sod
  2. remove any weeds the sod cutter missed
  3. wait a little while to see what germinates or grows back than remove that, too.  
  4. cover soil with newspaper or cardboard
  5. apply mulch
  6. plant

Although I provide more detail on other aspects of lawn removal here, these are some questions 

Is it hard to use a sod cutter?  Yes.  It takes work, depending on your soil (or lack of soil, like in many Missoula yards) it can be a beast of a job.  I am not saying don’t do it, just be prepared. One of the biggest mistakes people make is removing too much soil, and this leads to a lot of extra work.  
It is critical to set the sod cutter at the proper depth- you don’t want to remove perfectly good soil, just get below the rooting depth of the grass. 
Although you can plant right away, it's better to wait and see what comes up. But don’t wait too long, because you will be inviting anything and everything from germinating.

Is lawn edging necessary?
Yes, unless you really enjoyed removing the sod and want to keep doing it for years to come. 
Edging is very effective, if installed correctly.  Buy the biggest (deepest) kind possible.  Aesthetically, metal edgings looks the best, steel or aluminum.  Metal edging has the smallest profile and creates a nice clean look. Although I like steel the best, it is the most expensive and the hardest to work with.  For most homeowners, I suggest plastic edging.  The main criticism with plastic edging is from when it is improperly installed and it sits up too high.  This is a problem for a several reasons.  First, aesthetically, it is ugly.  Second, if it is too high, it can work its way out of the ground through the freeze/ thaw cycle.  Third it is ugly.  Fourth, if it is set too high, it may allow rhizomes and runners to get underneath and invade the lawn-less area.    Did I mention that if you set it too, high it is ugly?  Just set the edging so it is just proud of the surface of the soil.  If installed correctly, you shouldn't really notice it.

One great source for lawn edging in Missoula is at Home ReSource.  It always seems like they have some there and it is a great thing to re-use.

The final suggestion is about the size of the project.  This is another thing that can lead to disillusionment.  Only remove what you can plant in the near future (could be a week or season, depending on your time and goals)- don’t embark on too big of a project.  I'd rather someone gets satisfied completing a small project and has inspiration to continue, instead of attempting something too large and being overwhelmed by trying to do too much. Unfortunately, the only way to know what is too big or too small is to try.
Having said all that, another mistake is not building beds big enough!  Decide how big a bed you think you need, draw it out, wait a little while, than double it.  No one ever says "I wish I had more lawn” when they are removing some. 

The good news is, like with more gardening projects, you can add more later (or remove more lawn that is).

Monday, February 20, 2012

2012 Garden Projects

It is time for my annual assessment of what I said I'd do, and what I hope to complete in the new year.  Now is a great time to make lists and review what worked last year and what didn't.  I like to review everything from vegetable garden plans, to seed starting and landscaping ideas.  This is actually one of my main reasons for a maintaining a blog- to be able to organize and record all these things- it is truly an online garden journal.

Last year, this was my plan:

  • Make a new 3 bin composter
  • Plant some trees in decadent aspen stand. I am thinking mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina), but we'll see. The aspen have performed admirably, but it is time to move on. Plus, we have the same number of aspen in our garden, they are just in different places.- Done!

  • Prune the white clematis (Clematis ligusticafolia) on the garage, again a bigger job than you'd think.
  • Rearrange some plants in the front prairie, including getting rid of a green rabbit brush (Ericameria viscidiflora) and adding more shrubby trees close to the house.  Done!
  • Replace urbanite in front of the greenhouse and on the side yard that has settled too low. Replace it with larger chunks. It became painfully obvious this past week that these low spots were too annoying to live with
  • Start some native plants in the greenhouse. Always a good goal. I want more sticky geraniums (Geranium viscosissimum) in the garden (photo on the top of the post).
  • Make a "cut-off" trail in front of the onion bed. The area near the grill shed is kind of a congested area in the garden and by adding this new trail/ path, people will be able to flow better.  Done!
  • Stream 2 nest box cameras simultaneously this year. Last year I streamed the chickadee camera, and later the flicker camera. While I am at it, maybe I should invest in another camera to stream the nuthatch box- done in 2012!
According to that list I accomplished about 50% of the things I wanted to do.  But along the way, I added more projects, including:

There were probably a few other things I am forgetting, so it was not a total failure!

This year, I hope to do a few things I promised to do last year, and some more.  So, here are my projects for 2012, in no particular order:
  • Make a three bin composter- I have been saying this for a few years, and this year it will happen.  I will do it or else it will be on the 2013 list of things to do!
  • Prune the white clematis on the arbor behind the shop (always ion my list of things to do, sometime I do it).
  • Install a nest box camera inside the nuthatch box (I did this already this morning, so I am kind of cheating on my list).
  • Move the apple tree to the north east corner of the vegetable garden so its gets more light and water.
  • Moving the apple tree will require relocating the rain barrel and path, then a little re landscaping ion the new and former location
  • add a little fence or wall between the outdoor dining room and the hammock area (in the bottom right hand corner of the photo below).  This is one of these problem areas, that I am always reworking.  Maybe a little something in the way of hard-scaping will do the trick

  • Install power out to the greenhouse.  This has been on my list for a few years, whether I write it down or not.
  • Add some more shrubs to the front of the house- I've been working on this for a couple of years and I think it is starting to come together.
  • Replace urbanite in front of the greenhouse and on the side yard that has settled too low. Replace it with larger chunks. It became painfully obvious last year that these low spots were too annoying to live with (it turns out, it was easier than I thought it would be to ignore this!)
  • Connect the urbanite path in the back all the way to the alley.
  • Continue my insect collection- this has been so amazing and rewarding.  

  • One more project- I can't believe I forgot this one- a fence for the front yard.  I've been collecting vintage, double-hoop, woven wire fencing from Home ReSource for a year for this.  I haven't worked out the details for the design, but when I'm done, I'll be sure to post pictures.

As always, lots to do.  Every year, at some point I struggle to think of projects, and when I sit down to make a list the projects are all there.  

A garden is never finished.  Thank goodness.