Monsanto kindly asks that you rake the forest.

Everybody has days when they realize their job is a pointless absurdity. Mine came the other day when I was raking the forest. Don't get me wrong- any kind of February work for a landscaper is a good thing, but I'm used to thinking that what I do is important. I regard landscaping as a nexus of Art and Science and often imagine myself poised heroically with a shovel in a Diego Rivera mural.

Daydreaming helps pass hours of endless raking.

On this day however, I was preoccupied with the silliness of what I was doing. A friend and long term client had taken pity on me and asked if I could squeeze in some late winter work into my busy schedule (har, har). A couple hours later I was on a little island near the Boise river raking up leaves and debris that had already begun to turn into wonderful compost over the winter. The adjacent homeowners had already cleaned their little sections of the island which just seemed to make my client's area just look, well untidy.

Cutting into this self sustaining natural system does have it's business advantages though. As an add on to my expert raking services, we also provide fertilization (which I will be sure to suggest for this little piece of Poplar and red twig dogwood riparian forest). I don't feel especially bad about it as we use organically derived, low nitrogen fertilizer but it does make think that there are probably better ways to manage our landscapes.

I'm currently working on a large community common area landscape redesign which I plan to write more about in the future. An important component of this design will be on site composting of all non-woody organic debris derived from the common area landscape. The idea is simple. Instead of hauling off the biomass, we can reduce it by a factor of ten or more through accelerated composting and reintroduce it to the beds as a nutrient rich soil conditioner. In my own landscape beds at home this has precluded the need for supplemental fertilization. This is a terrific way of emulating natural systems in an effort to create sustainable landscape maintenance .

I got the idea from raking the forest.

Juniper timber

My mother is convinced that nuclear testing in the 50's is responsible for a whole host of physical ailments amongst her generation. I often wonder if the 70's analogue would be the salad greens I ate as a kid that had been grown in creosote soaked railroad tie raised beds. Today we've got "pressure treated" lumber that's been treated with Chromated copper arsenic (CCA). Yuck.

Since untreated wood doesn't last long in direct contact with soil and treated wood poses likely health risks (especially in edible landscapes), I've stuck with using stone whenever there's a chance of decay. I was recently given the task of finding a replacement material to use in rebuilding old railroad tie steps in a neighborhood common area and was forced to reevaluate my assumptions about using wood in the landscape. Replacing a hundred or more steps with stone or a concrete product just wasn't financially feasible so I reluctantly began to look again at the lumber option.

At the lumber yard I glared at the mismatched, half rotten railroad ties and the green day glow pressure treated timber determined to find a better product. Back home on the computer I stumbled across a website praising the merits of juniper timber- an article that describes juniper fence posts still standing from the 20's. A little more research confirmed that juniper has remarkable anti-decay characteristics which makes the use of chemical preservatives unnecessary. I also learned that junipers are considered a "deleterious invasive native that threatens other ecosystems", and that the means of controlling juniper has historically been to use fire as there have been no commercial applications for the wood.

This has changed in recent years as mills are beginning to process the once unwanted trees into usable, dimensionable lumber. My Frank Capra moment came when I found REACH, a non-profit organization that runs a juniper mill in Klamath Falls. Their mission is to provide people with disabilities employment by manufacturing environmentally safe products for landscaping and agriculture. I'm nominating their juniper timbers as the feel-good product of the year.

I ripped out over a hundred railroad ties in various states of decay in the common area footpath and went on to rebuild several flights of stairs with the juniper timber. I'm pleased with the results and thinking about all the potential hardscape applications. As an added benefit, after cutting juniper all day I get to come home smelling half decent for a change.