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.

During the summer I imagine myself as having long stretches of time in the winter to work on brilliant, paradigm changing landscape design ideas. More often than not come January, a good month after my crew has performed their seasonal mutiny, I find myself alone swinging high in the branches of a tree.

I usually prefer to perform arborist work in the winter (and with a ground crew), but on this day several weeks ago I was struggling to climb a Sycamore tree after a heavy snow. Sycamore trees have smooth bark and can be tricky to maneuver around in dry weather. With a foot of snow on the elephantine limbs, it was proving to be next to impossible. From the look the little old lady next door was shooting me, it was probably verging on the obscene as well.

I made it 3/4ths of the way up the huge tree, stopped to catch my breath & had a look around. I noticed something I hadn't seen at ground level. In this older neighborhood I could see a distinct difference between the trees in the front yards as compared to the ones in the back. Most of the trees in the front yards were in pretty bad shape, whereas the ones in the back were healthy. It was easy to see what the difference was: the trees in the front yards had been given bucket truck tree "care" but the ones in the back (i.e. the ones the bucket truck "tree care providers" couldn't get to) were specimens of health and forest grandeur. Tree climbers don't do extra, unnecessary work like hacking off the top of trees.

But I get it. People get spooked about big trees hanging around their homes. They have visions of gigantic limbs falling through their roofs and crushing loved ones. They call Mr. Bucket Truck to bring these trees down to a "safe" height by topping, reducing and generally ravaging the tree. The irony is two-fold. First, the tree reacts by going into overtime to regrow the lost crown (convenient for Mr. Bucket Truck next year). Secondly, multiple new limbs emerge Hydra-like from each cut and are weakly attached to the tree at wound points that allow disease to infiltrate the tree. The very efforts intended to make the tree safer often do just the opposite.

I'd spent considerable time with this particular home owner trying to convince him that his trees were in great shape and only needed basic pruning. He looked dubious but finally seemed to acquiesce to my firm belief that the trees did not need to be "lowered". I still haven't got paid so maybe I didn't convince him?

UPDATE: I got paid.


As many of you know, in response to a recently published opinion piece, I've come under investigation by the Committee for the Restoration of American Plants (C.R.A.P.).

Let there be no question, I am here today to tell my supporters and detractors that I unequivocally confirm charges that I employ non-native plants liberally in nearly all of my landscape installations.

Many consider these non-natives to be threatening, invasive and noxious. I however, have found them to be hard working, dependable and eager to live alongside native plants. Those rare exceptions where non-natives have not worked out hardly prove a general rule.

We should embrace plant diversity and celebrate... wait, excuse me. There seems to be some individuals at my door...


The thing I probably like most about landscaping is that you're never quite sure what you'll be doing day to day. Take for instance yesterday. It was 7:34 a.m. & I had just shelved myself on the chair in front of the computer, preparing to be "productive"- when I saw that I had a voicemail on my phone. It was my friend Dan telling me that he and most of his crew were down with one of those creepy viruses and could I fill in to place rock for another landscaper he was subbing for. He'd been using my skid steer anyway and the other landscaper was Teri Sims (aka "The Garden Artist") whom I'd worked with in the past, so I said sure and threw on some grungy Carharts and headed out to east Boise.

No sooner had I gotten on to the freeway when it started raining. Rain plus the clay we entertain ourselves as calling "dirt" around here equals something with the consistency of thick snot. The not-so-suppressed 10 year old in me started getting excited about the prospect of sinking the John Deere in a huge mud pit in the backyard of some upstanding neighborhood. Besides, for once I was charging hourly and could forget about my usual preoccupation with margin.

Strapped in the skid steer, straining to understand Teri's instructions above the clatter of the diesel engine, my insouciant attitude evaporated along with my confidence. Setting 500 pound boulders with forks is hard enough when it's my design I'm trying to implement, but here I was trying to wrap my little brain around her vision & I was struggling. "Serves you right creep" I said to myself, remembering my impatience instructing my own crew when they were in the skid steer. The truth is, when I set rocks in front my crew I usually only get it right about half the time. But that's the beauty of being the "designer"; I reserve the right to change my mind (even if it's the boulder that's chosen to change it...).

Resigning myself to be exposed as a fraud, I took a deep breath and did the best I could. For the next two hours, Teri patiently pointed and explained as I clunked around like an over sized ape with no fine motor controls. Predictably, I got stuck trying to place the last rock. Not fun. Rather embarrassing actually.

I finally got the tractor extricated from the mud pit and Teri was gracious enough to pretend that I had set all the rocks just the way she wanted. In truth, I've always been a little jealous of "The Garden Artist's" super-landscaper pseudonym. But she's earned it, if nothing else than for the patience she showed towards me.

Now about that invoice...

Native plants?

In the group of abused landscape terms, Native plants should file a restraining order against most of us in the green industry. In the parlance of our greenspeak, we stretch and deform the phrase like silly putty to make a point or to fit the sensibilities of our audience. It's particularly amusing to watch two green industry professionals use the term as a kind of litmus test, dodging and parrying like two strangers at a party discussing philosophy or religion. And just as terms such as "spirituality" and "solipsism" have largely been bleached of any specific meaning, the phrase Native plants has been assigned its own identity crisis.

I make this observation without any antipathy for the use of native plants in the landscape. In fact, using native plants is a fantastic way to reduce water, fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Plants that grow naturally in a geographic area are adapted to the ambient rainfall, soil type and zonal nuances of a specific region and generally don't need the life support system that makes up such a large percentage of our billable work in the green industry. But what is the criteria for defining a plant as being native? Is it a plant that once happily grew where your house now sits before all the top soil was scraped off and sold? A plant that's native to North America? Or is it a one gallon something or another at the grocery store that's marketed with a crossed out water drop and has a link to the Audubon society?

In the early 90's I worked as a wildland firefighter, initially on a hand crew and later as a first response helitack repeller in central Idaho. In the tiny window between the cooling ash of summer's fires and autumn's early mountain snowfall, we were given the job of preventing erosion in the recently burned areas. Massive sediment delivery into riparian areas can be devastating for fish habitat so our job was to cut down the burnt remains of trees and install them horizontally on the steep mountain slopes in an effort to temporarily mitigate erosion.

The longer term solution, re vegetation in these fire affected areas, is remarkably sophisticated and serves as an example of a particularly strict version of what Native plants means. Restoring an area to pre-fire condition means replanting with varieties that are as genetically as close as possible to the original plants. Calling a nursery in California and having two thousand one gallon Pinus contorta delivered to central Idaho is like wiping out all the Smiths in southwest Boise and replacing them with half the Smiths in South Bend, Indiana. There may be some distant relationship, but the unique qualities that defined the Smiths in Boise can't be replicated by the new comers. Broad genetic variation within a species is the first line of defense against extinction. Government agencies and private firms carefully collect seeds and propagate plants in an effort to maintain the unique genetic qualities of local, native plants.

Writing this, I'm looking out at our backyard and witnessing the beautiful collapse of the season. The gorgeous display of fall color from our very non-native trees peaked about a week and a half ago and I see the landscape slipping back into the monochromatic gray that defines our winter in southern Idaho. I try to imagine what our acre looked like before wagons began clunking down the Oregon trail a few miles away from our home. It's an image that's not too difficult to conjure as a short trip south will take you into an endless repeating motif of sage, bitterbrush and rabbitbrush. I'm not immune to the stark beauty of the high plains desert, but this natural landscape has a face that only a Minimalist, an ecologist or a chukar hunter can completely love. In all fairness, we're told this area was also covered in large clumping grasses before overgrazing, yet taken as a whole, I'm pretty sure that I don't want to return my backyard into jack rabbit habitat.

The truth is, in Boise our options are pretty limited if we try to adhere to a strict definition of what constitutes a native plant. Even the tough-as-nails Celtis occidentalis, one of Boise's few true native trees, can only be found in limited areas naturally where, in a convergence of botany and geology, large sandstone or granite boulders collect and concentrate water for the trees. We just have to face it: if the Amazon basin represents one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, we sit somewhere on the other side of the spectrum.

The arborist/science major side of me likes the idea of returning a piece of land back to its former condition, but the artist side stubbornly refuses to have his design options so cruelly curtailed. As is usually the case though, I think the answer lies outside of the argument. While two plant geeks might endlessly debate the relative merits of Chrysothamnus nauseosus (incidentally the most accurate scientific name for a plant) versus Ceanothus velutinus, the truth is that the true culprit in most landscape installation is turf grass. Planting most anything else will generally result in water savings and a decrease in the overall need for chemical input. I was once chided by a Horticulturalist friend for having a clump of bamboo (Phyllostachys mannii) next to our house in the front yard. I was compelled to point out that this particular clump of bamboo, known for its drought and cold hardiness, was surviving on very little supplemental irrigation; a point I couldn't make about the 1000 square foot swath of turf in front of the house.

In my own designs I tend to use a hybrid approach, using true local native plants intermingled with non-native, non-invasive & drought tolerant varieties. While there will always be a place for restoring original, native habit- driving through an average neighborhood I'm struck by just how much basic work still needs to be done to improve most landscape designs (enter token "sustainability" Meta tag here) . I've watched landscapers install turf against concrete on a south facing aspect and blame billbugs on the visible heat stress (and then charge the client for the chemical "solution"). The discussion of what constitutes a Native plant is largely academic in nature compared to the many obvious steps we can take to make today's landscapes less dependent on a constant life support system of fluid and chemicals.


I've been running by the same monstrosity of a shrub at least three times a week for the past five years, smugly wondering if the owners knew that their once interesting Contorted Filburt (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') had reverted to just a plain old, overgrown Corylus avellna.

It wasn't until my wife brought us a home a bucket of hazelnuts from her father, did I realize those annoying ball bearing-like seeds may have been worth paying closer attention to.

On my next run I casually scooped up a few, took them home and cracked the sweaty nuts open to reveal that they were indeed, hazelnuts.

I contacted the owner, got permission to Harvest, and headed back to the shrub with visions of the liqueur I would make from my barrels of hazelnuts. No death knell or threat to the international Agribusiness, an hour later I had roughly a mason jar's worth of nuts to show for my effort.

I'm left wondering how many Corylus avellna shrubs one would need to make hazelnut liqueur.

Green Wall construction revisited

Fresh off the relative success constructing my first "green wall module", I was eager to get started on a true "green wall".

The first decision I had to make was where to build it. I try to avoid experimenting on my customers so it had to be somewhere on our
property. We'd raised chickens over the summer and were long overdue for building a coop, so I decided to try and transform a huge eyesore of a lean-to out back into my new palace de pollo.

We framed in the walls, installed a door and built the green wall in essentially the same manner as I'd constructed the module. One notable difference was the installation
of EPDM to keep irrigation water from seeping into the OSB backing. Cedar & wood polymer decking were used for the structure and off the shelf Netafim was used for irrigation.

I mixed together a combination of potting mix, bark, fine scoria and vermiculite until it looked right (don't ask me how I knew). Shoveled in and held in place by a commercial grade
layer layer of weed fabric, the soil-less medium was ready for planting. At least I thought it was...

Three quarters of the wall had been planted in sweeping Art Nouveau patterns of color and texture, when it finally dawned on me to check the irrigation. After running the water for two hours it became obvious that something was very wrong. The bottom portion of the green wall was completely saturated, whereas the top was still bone dry.

I knew I was looking at the deconstruction of several days worth of work to understand the cause of the problem. Deciding it had been an experiment DOA, I pulled out plants, weed fabric and planting medium to get a look at the irrigation.

What I saw was that in the process of installing the planting medium, the Netafim dripperline had been pushed to the back of the planting shelf. Complicating matters even more, I had obviously overestimated the horizontal movement of water in the planting medium. If that wasn't enough, the horizontal shelving I had installed at an a 45 degree angle was collecting the irrigation water and "pulling" moisture away from the roots of the plants.

I reached three conclusions from my Green Wall autopsy:

1. The Netafim needed to be much closer to the roots of the plants,
2. the planting depth of the green wall needed to be decreased by at least 50%, and
3. the horizontal shelving needed to be reinstalled at a 90 degree angle to the wall.

I installed two layers of Expanded polystyrene insulation panels to cut the planting depth, reworked the irrigation and put everything back together. Again.

Happily, the changes seems to have worked.

To finish the project, we constructed an andesite rock veneer and parapet in preparation for the next stage of the project: an extensive Green Roof.

The chickens seem to like it

Cold frame

We moved into our current home seven years ago having fallen in love with the one acre spread of trees and water. Looking less like the high desert of Boise and more like a small slice of transplanted rural England, we set into making our mid-70's home (baby blue inside and out) slightly more livable.

First on our radar was replacing the 30 year old
sliding aluminum door off the dining room. With the inexplicable Good Sam club sticker left on, I carried the massive Nixon era artifact off to a place behind our shed. I had plan.

This plan had to wait until about a month ago when we saw the first sign of the coming apocalypse foretold by the Mayan calender. Our local Fred Meyer had stopped carrying arugula. What was next we asked ourselves? No potable water? Gangs of mohawked marauders roaming the streets?

After a fairly successful foray into growing our own vegetable garden this season, we decided to build a cold frame to grow our own greens for the winter. It was time to pull out the old sliding door.

The idea was simple. The double paned glass was no longer efficient enough for the home but I reasoned that it would work well for a cold frame. I set to cleaning and deconstructing the slider and a half a day later I had something that looked less like a cold frame and more like a bomb shelter entrance. Never the less, I was pleased with the results and went inside to enjoy a victory dinner (including of course, an arugula salad).

An hour later I was standing outside looking at the ruined remains of my brilliant idea. Sometime over the course of the hour the glass had shattered into a gajillion pieces. For the benefit of my 5 year old son I decided not to burst into sobs and instead set my mind to figuring out how to fix it.

A few years back I had bought a greenhouse kit that, I'm still ashamed to admit, I was unable to put together. I blame it on instructions that were written in a Coptic-Mandarin hybrid. There were still hundreds of aluminum framing pieces and various sizes of hollow core polycarbonite sheets sitting around the garage. It was time to admit I was never going to put the kit together, so I took the various pieces and rebuilt the cold frame.

Now the cold frame looks like solar panels to our bomb shelter,but at least we'll have fresh spinach and arugula when the end comes.

Green wall module

With the near ubiquitous press Green Wall and Green Roof construction is receiving in the garden and design magazines I subscribe to, I felt as though it was time to build one for myself.

Expensive, proprietary wall and roof systems are nice because the engineering and the functionality have (hopefully) been worked out. The downside is that they are expensive and proprietary.

I like the idea of building something new with materials that are easy to find and that are relatively inexpensive. Gathering some left over wood polymer decking, 1/4" metal bed edging, weed fabric and netafim irrigation parts, I built a 3' x 3' "green wall module", mounted it to our shed and watched to see what would happen.

The good news is that the plants are thriving and it looks pretty cool. I didn't anticipate the amount of water drainage, however, and future green walls will have to be constructed with a mind to recirculate the water and pay closer to attention to water proofing the module.

Patio extension for spa

This morning we finished a natural flagstone patio extension that allows for easy entry into a newly installed spa. We left the backside open for panel access and an area for the cover to fold into.

During our initial customer consultation, some thought had been given to using a concrete paver product for the construction of the patio extension. Based on our observation of severe efflorescence in locally manufactured concrete pavers recently, and our affinity for natural materials, we suggested using a locally derived andesite flagstone.

The majority of the patio was dry set on a sand base with the patio edges and the small retaining wall set into mortar.

Stage 2 will consist of building a small privacy screen around the spa and rockwork, with thoughts for softening the whole installation later with plants.