Saturday, May 26, 2012

Repurposed potting bench/ garden sideboard/ room divider/ trellis

Everyone has a little problem area in the yard- a spot where nothing has seemed to work out the way you’d hoped.  I have many of these areas, and this year, like almost every year, I am trying to fix it.  In my 2012 garden project list, I thought the fix for this might be to introduce a little hardscaping- hoping this would be the solution.  Up until now, I have tried the softer approach, a built a little hill, added some different plants, and even added a tree, but it still didn’t look and feel right or at least they way I wanted it.  Maybe this won’t work either; and that’s fine.  I think of landscaping as identifying and solving problems.  
So to help define and divide the space between the dining room and the hammock area, I built a combination buffet and potting bench.  This solves a couple of real needs we have in the garden.  Although we have a potting bench, it gets a lot of use and a lot of sun and heat.  We often have a need for a bench that is in the shade.  Also, we need a buffet- a sort of table for serving food and drinks (or even displaying plants for sale).  We often use the potting bench for this type of activity, but the potting bench is kind of tucked away in our narrow nursery (the 6’ wide space between the shop and the fence).  
Having a buffet in a more open shady area would invite better flow in the garden and is next to an area where people already like to congregate. The reason I am providing all this information is so perhaps readers can envision parts of their garden in terms of how they use it, or would like to use it, and solve the problems through identifying issues and seeking resolution, and being as specific as possible.

Back to the solution…
I initially thought about a fence panel- that would provide immediate separation of the two spaces and provide interest.  I use fence panels a lot in our garden and recommend them to others, too.  They add interest, can mimic important architectural elements of the house or fences, and provide a cohesive feel to the yard.  But a fence wouldn’t help with the buffet issue.

So, I came up with the idea for a potting bench.  I could have mimicked the bench we already have, but I thought I’d try something different, and since I like a good re-purposing project, I went to Home ReSource for some information gathering, and material procurement.  I was just looking for interesting things that caught my eye, and specifically an interesting (and useful) sink.
They must have read my mind...
Soon I found a sink- and then the plan came together. 
Not long after that, I had a door, some shelf brackets, a towel rod, painted cedar 4x4’s and 5/4 decking, and ideas.  I came home and began drawing the project up.
The result is this re-purposed potting bench/ buffet (or sideboard)/ trellis/ room divider. 
Before adding the potting bench, dining area is on the right.
With the potting bench, dividing the two rooms.
So, as you can see from the pictures, I used old porcelain over cast iron sink, and a floor drain for the potting bench.  I installed a floor drain to the side of the sink to let soil fall through when potting plants to a bucket that is suspended below the drain using a couple of cup hooks.
The sink also drains into a bucket too. Low tech.
I removed the glass from the windows, so the top of the door could be used as a trellis for the white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) to climb. I painted the door to match the other structures in the garden and provide protection from the elements. The door is actually the same color as our house; not that I particularly like that color, but we have extra paint.  

I added arches to the top and bottom to the door to make it look less door-like. And, by making the shelves extending  past the width of the door, the shape of the door is broken up.
Otherwise the bench is made from cedar deck boards and 4x4 posts, all planed and sanded down to bare wood that will turn a light grey with age, and match the other cedar furniture in the garden. Even though I built this bench from recycled and re-purposed materials, it is built to be functional and sturdy- it is not a decorative garden ornament.
The towel rack on the side holds, well, towels, but also garden tools.
This repurposed potting bench adds a focal point to this spot in the garden, divides the spaces and creates much needed and used storage, serving and potting space.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

a little blue flax goes a long way

Blue flax (Linum lewisii) has a place in our garden.  Mixed in with a variety of other plants in our front yard prairie it plays a nice supporting role (in the photo above you can see the blue flowers in the background).  However, it does get a bad name since it can be aggressive, and a lot of people think of it as weedy and unwanted.  All too often around here a "native plant garden" is a patch of blue flax and maybe a big basin sage (Artemisia tridentata).   Indeed, if left unchecked, it would probably dominate our yard, but with some simple care, I like it in the garden.  It is an easy (perhaps too easy) plant to grow, it is not palatable to deer, extremely drought tolerant,  and the electric blue flowers appear all spring and summer after a rain.

So, because of the potential to dominate I implemented a strict Four-Point Blue Flax Management Plan at our house.

  1. Out with the old
    • The young plants seem the most at home and the right scale for the garden, so annually, I remove the old plants, or those older than about two years.  In the wild, the ones I've seen around here are all pretty small, too.
  2. Grow it with grass
    • Blue flax looks really good mixed in with taller grasses, like bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata).  It is the right scale and the color really stands out.  
  3. Keep it out of ground covers
    • Although it looks good with tall grasses, blue flax will tend to look weedy around small stature plants, and ground covers like rosy pussytoes (Antennaria rosea).  
  4. Don't let it dominate the view
    • Finally, if it is near anything more interesting which is probably anything except bluebunch wheatgrass, I pull it out.  

Fortunately my friend Kathy from my favorite wildflower nursery, Blackfoot Native Plants, in Potomac, Montana, eagerly takes the ones I pull (to sell at her nursery).  Below is a bucket of freshly managed blue flax ready for pick-up.

So, a little flax goes a long way, and in our yard, it often goes 20 miles to Potomac.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Native Plant Guides

Everyone is gardening or thinking about their gardens now- especially vegetable gardens.

In Missoula, we just passed the average last frost date (though looking at the forecast it might frost later this week) and as a result of surpassing this momentous calendar date, the most common discussions I’ve been hearing/ having at the office (apart from fish and wildlife stuff is) “I put my plants out”, “did you put your plants out?”, “Is it too late to put my plants out? “, “When should I put my plants out?”, “I’m putting my plants out this weekend.” You get the idea- gardening is on people’s minds now.

Also, a lot of people have been working on their native plant gardens. So as a result, I’ve been getting a lot of requests for book recommendations for field guides, and pictures of what to put in their gardens- especially for guides to Montana native plants. There are lots of books out there, and everyone has their favorites, but these are a few of my favorites, and it’s my blog, so here you go.

Field guides:
Vascular Plants of Montana, Robert Dorn
This is a dichotomous key, and lacks the colorful photos, but it is the best, and it is a handy size. It includes a glossary, and wonderful line drawings. You do need a little botanical background (or a willingness to learn!), as far as dichotomous keys go, this is a really easy one and even has some natural history in the descriptions. It is by far my most used book, and it is the reference I always use. Get it and you will not regret it. Here’s a tip- all the cool people just refer to this book as “Dorn”, don’t tell them I told you.

Along the same lines as Vascular Plants of Montana, another great book, though huge, is Klaus Lackshewitz’s Plants of West-Central Montana, aka, “Lackshewitz”. This is the reference to use when you can’t find it in Dorn (See what I did there? Dorn.).

Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Wayne Philips
This is a wonderful book and is a great complement to Dorn’s vascular Plants of Montana. Wayne is the past-president of the Montana Native Plant Society and is truly a special Montana plant resource. His knowledge of the plants, their habitats, natural history and even their place in cultural history come out in the thorough descriptions and comments.   It is really easy to use and you can quickly identify species based on their flower; however that is also its drawback- if the plant is not in flower you might have a tough time.

Wildflowers of Montana, Donald Schiemann
Wildflowers of Montana is a beautifully illustrated book showing over 350 species of plants and over 400 photograph.  The range maps in Montana are excellent and the descriptions of the plants and their habitats are very good.  This is a great complimentary book to the ones above.

Seed starting:
The bible by Sheila Morrison:  The Magic of Montana Native Plants, A Gardeners Guide to Growing over 150 Species from Seed.

There is no substitute. This book, self-published by the Clark Fork Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society’s own Sheila Morrison, is the ultimate reference on how to germinate almost anything. Sheila also published one of the other most used books on my bookshelf, 29 Bitterroot Trails.

So, get out there and botanize. Grab your copy of Dorn and hit the trails, especially the ones in the Bitterroots using Sheila’s guide to get you there.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Birding Workshop, Becoming and Outdoors Woman- June 22-24

Here is a great opportunity for beginning birders “to learn to identify birds through field marks, sounds and habitat,” said Liz Lodman, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks coordinator of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshops.
I am pleased to be teaching a session on backyard birding, where I will cover creating habitat for birds in your yard, a discussion of appropriate feeders and ways to provide housing.

The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program is a fantastic program run by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. I’ve had to opportunity to teach classes to this group in the past and it has always been a wonderful experience.

The birding workshop begins Friday evening, June 22, at the Ninepipes Lodge near Charlo, and runs through noon on Sunday. Experienced bird watchers from across the state will share their knowledge of Montana’s birds and will lead morning and evening bird walks. The workshop also includes a bird and wildlife watching tour of the National Bison Range.

“Wildlife viewing is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities,” Lodman said. “This workshop will be a great opportunity to learn the basics you need to actively enjoy bird watching.”

Register ASAP, these courses always fill up fast!

The workshop fee is $98, and includes all meals during the workshop. Participants are responsible for their own lodging. To register, visit Or contact Liz Lodman by phone 406-444-9940, email:;

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Chickadee hatching has begun!

Here is a little video showing the fourth black-capped chickadee hatching from its egg- with a little help from its mom.  The other three hatchlings are only a few hours old.  You can watch them live anytime by clicking here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Garden project update: the list gets smaller

This is just a short update on the status of some garden projects.  I have finally completed two items that have been on my annual project list for a couple of years- one is making a new compost bin, and the other is pruning the white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia) that grows on an arbor and trellis on the back of my shop (see above).

In the photo at the top of the post, now you can actually see the arbor and trellis on the back of the shop- prior to pruning, the clematis engulfed the whole thing.  Soon, it will all leaf out and probably grow back thicker than before, but for now, I can wallow in a little sense of accomplishment.  In that same photo, my wife is taking a break from compost sifting and admiring her compost station (see below).

Anyway, here is the list from earlier in the year, and the following items I have now completed:

I was so happy to get this off my project list that I wrote a post about it, and coincidentally, completing this project fell on International Compost Awareness Week!
  • Prune the white clematis on the arbor behind the shop 
See photo at the top of the post.
  • Install a nest box camera inside the nuthatch box
Good thing I did this, because this is where the chickadees are nesting this year.  Click here to watch the live, streaming video from inside their box.  The eggs (7) should start hatching anytime now!
  • Move the apple tree to the north east corner of the vegetable garden so its gets more light and water.
In the photo below the apple tree (Honeycrisp, in case you were wondering) is now in front of the rain barrel on the left.  This location is next to the vegetable garden.
  • Moving the apple tree will require relocating the rain barrel and path, then a little re-landscaping in the new and former location
The photo below shows the re-aligned urbanite path to accommodate the apple tree and the slightly different location of the rain barrel.  It is a subtle change, but moving the path over a couple of feet really changed the feel of this little spot.  I like it.
The following items from the list are still pending.  Number 1 below is in the works, so watch for a blog post when I complete that project.
  1. Add a little fence or wall between the outdoor dining room and the hammock area. 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
  2. Install power out to the greenhouse. This has been on my list for a few years, whether I write it down or not.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!)
  5. Connect the urbanite path in the back all the way to the alley.
  6. Continue my insect collection- this has been so amazing and rewarding. 
There is a lot more to do, and there will certainly be some unanticipated projects, and that's fine.  It is good to have goals and it is also good to revisit them and gauge progress.  Happy gardening!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

International Compost Awareness Week

Who knew there was such an event this week?
Compost has been on my mind recently- I just completed a new compost bin and reorganized our composting station. Based on some questions I've gotten, it sounds like there is interest and that people have basic questions about home composting.  So, in the spirit of International Compost Awareness Week, my wife and I decided to co-author a post to get the word out and hopefully to inspire some intrepid composters out there to get after it.

Composting is a very simple process that people have been using in their gardens since, well, since people started to have gardens. But, unfortunately, if you read articles online about composting, it is easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged by all the information about the do's and don'ts.

WHY compost?
Soil does not only come from a bag at the home center.  Like many things, it all begins at home.

Composting plays a big role in our garden, our home and our landscape's sustainability. Apart from diverting waste to the landfill, composting kitchen scraps, yard waste and vegetable garden waste is a critical component of maintaining nutrients and resources locally; very locally- within our own yard.  By composting plants and leaves, you are taking the nutrients you have given them and put them back into use.

Composting can save a lot of money- you have the ability to make your own garden soil, and it is really a very simple process.

Compost is a great additive for soil structure problems.  For example if you have clay soils, adding compost will help make it less clay-ey and better drained. Likewise, if your soil is rocky and too well-drained, compost will help you to retain soil moisture. It is the truly magic fix all.  Sort of.

HOW to compost.
Unfortunately, the mystery and details that surround composting  keep people from doing it.  You can read up on all the minutiae about C:N ratios, proper temperatures for optimum composting, worm composting, compost bin types, compost accelerators, etc...  and it is easy to get overwhelmed.  In its simplest form, it is just a pile that allows air, water, bacteria, microorganisms, and invertebrates (worms, insects, etc...) to feed on and interact with food and yard waste to break it down and turn it into soil.  It goes on everywhere in the world- with or without people maintaining it.

Keep it simple and just do it.  You don't even need a fancy bin.  A pile will work just fine.  Forget temperatures and ratios.

Key points:
1. Keep it turned.  This is just literally turning the pile over with a shovel or pitchfork a little at a time on a regular basis. Turning it exposes it to oxygen so the microbes and insects can stay alive and do their important work.
2. Keep it moist.  Some parts of the year in Missoula you have to water it like it was a plant or a pet. It is a living thing after all. We have a micro-emitter in our compost that is in-line with our vegetable garden, so it gets watered automatically during the warm months (June-September).  
3.  Keep it warm. Put your compost heap in a south facing location. A well-tended compost pile will generate its own heat and won't even freeze during the winter. Even dedicated compost tenders sometimes struggle with the temperature in Missoula, so help yourself out and put it in the sun.

What goes into the compost?  Everything expect meat (fish and fish parts are fantastic, though) and oils.  Paper, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and even filters, vegetable garden scraps, yard waste, leaves, cut grass (unless it has been sprayed with herbicides), yard cuttings (unless they have been sprayed with herbicides) etc...  Another thing we are careful of are weed seeds and rhizomatous grasses- our compost might not get hot enough or stay hot enough to kill these, so typically we send those to the landfill.

What about manure? Although manure is really helpful for your garden and compost pile, be careful of adding animal manure to your compost, because if the source animal ate anything that had been sprayed with an herbicide, the herbicide has most likely traveled through that animal and come out in the manure. This is surprisingly common.  We recently learned the very sensible trick of doing a quick test on manure: all you have to do is plant some bean seeds in a sample of that manure. If it has herbicides in it, the bean will sprout and then get very sick or die. If the bean is fine, then the manure is fine and you can compost it.

Does compost smell? Not if you're doing it right.  If it does smell bad, then something is wrong; most often the compost pile needs to be turned so it can get more oxygen.

How do you know when it's done? At some point, you will have a big heap of "stuff", some of which is compost and some of which is still decomposing scraps- not everything breaks down at the same rate.  This is where the screening process comes in.  Shovel your mix onto a screen of some sort, shake it, and the "finished" part will separate from the "unfinished" part (here is a link to a post showing the sifting or screening process).

Below is a picture of the compost that has been screened and is now ready to put on the garden.
Here is the un-composted stuff that stays on the screen.  This part hasn't finished being digested by worms and bacteria, so it goes back into the active bin.
Although composting is easy, it is also interesting and fun.  If you want, you can get more involved with your compost pile. For example, monitoring the temperature of the pile is easy (use a soil thermometer) and you can track how active the pile is, and track how different additives and actions increase the rate of decomposition (high temperature= fast composting).

You can also test the nutrient richness and composition of your compost with a soil test kit (we love ours, see below).  We test our vegetable garden soil to evaluate its pH, and the relative quantities of N, P, and K and it is a lot of fun.  It takes the mystery and guesswork out of diagnosing plant and soil issues.  For example, most of our raised beds suffer from a lack of N.
So, it is easy to think that the compost is nitrogen poor, too.  We don't routinely add manure to our compost (too afraid of pesticides in the sources), but we do add fish waste (entrails, etc...), which is a fantastic source of N.  When I tested freshly sifted compost yesterday, I was surprised to find that the fresh compost is actually very high in N and P.

So if our compost is rich in N, and we add it to the garden beds, why are the garden beds still low in N? They are a couple of things at play.  One is that the compost is initially high in N and P, but as it gets watered (and plants grow in it), the nutrients leach out (or get taken up by the plants). Since we don't know what type of N (and its availability to plants), it could be that it is all getting used quickly. So we also add blood meal to the raised beds during the growing season.

Another important tool for the garden (not just compost testing) is good record keeping.
But this is starting to get a little bit over-nerdy, and our original point was just to say:  composting is easy!  Put your kitchen scraps in a sunny place in a pile, turn it occasionally, and eventually you'll have compost and you won't have to go the garden center to get it.

So, from your friends at Montana Wildlife Gardener, we wish you a joyous International Compost Awareness Week!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Composting station

 I finally got around to making a new compost bin and reorganizing our composting station.  And as you can see from the picture above, Marilyn, the compost maintenance supervisor, has already taken to it.  The old composting area was sad.  A two-bin system that was always full, and a variety of other bins to hold soil and materials waiting to compost.  The area was cramped, inefficient and not really well thought-out and designed.
The new system is 3 times the volume, and although the last one lasted us 12 years, the new one is much more solidly constructed.  I generally followed conventional plans for a 3-bin composter, but I made the frame of it using 4x4's and used half-lap and other joinery for stronger construction.
Obviously, the new bin is painted- this is for a variety of reasons:
  1. I used a variety of different woods (all recycled and purchased from Home ReSource the best building materials re-use center on the planet), including 2x redwood decking, 5/4 cedar fence boards, and pressure treated 4x4's for the base.  So, to make it all look uniform, I painted it.
  2. I also wanted to tie this compost bin into the color scheme of the other garden buildings like our greenhouse, tool closet and even the back of the shop (below)
  3. Finally, I wanted this area to be a welcoming and inviting place for my wife to do the composting (she does really enjoy this- I am not making it up).

But, since I was not just building a compost bin- I was designing a station.  So, I wanted to accommodate all the tools, sifters and screens for composting.  I built a rack for the compost fork, and shovel, and lined the walls around the area with re-purposed hooks- hose bibs and knobs; apropos for the garden.  Hanging on one of the knobs (below) is my wife's favorite composting tool- a rake head, evidently very useful for screening.

One of the big improvements to the station is a sifter to fit on each one of the bins.  This is in addition to a screen that we use over a wheel barrow (hanging to the left of the compost bin).  The sifter is just a screen (you can see the red frame of the screen) with casters on the bottom that rides in a frame (the black thing below).  This frame fits over the bins- depending on which one you are using.

Here is a short video where you can see the sifter in action!

I am glad that I finally built this new composter- it has been on my annual garden project list for several years, and, for whatever reason, I never got around to building it. Though it is great to be able to finally cross it off the list, the most rewarding thing is that my wife is really excited about it, and she has a place that is organized and well-designed for composting fun.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wyoming Master Gardeners Conference follow-up

Thanks to the Campbell County Master Gardeners and especially Lori Bates, Patsy Larson, Mary Ann Wilson, and Rich Kistler for inviting me to such a wonderful conference. 

I really enjoyed meeting so many Wyoming Master Gardeners and learning a lot about the progressive water conservation and sustainability efforts in the city of Gillette (in collaboration with the Campbell County Master Gardeners!).  

We enjoyed the trip and even got a chance to do some botanizing around Devils Tower, including seeing this bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) x Gambel's oak (Q. gambelii) hybrid, a local phenomenon.   Although bur and Gambel's oaks are geographically distinct now (their ranges don't even come close to overlapping), the hybridization is a likely result of some past sympatry.  

Here are some links to things I discussed in my talk:
Thanks again, and I'd love to have the opportunity to visit Wyoming and the master gardeners in the future, so keep me in mind for future talks or presentations- especially if it is during antelope season!