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The Living Garden: A Sustainable Seasonal Resource for the Eastlake Community

A warm hello to the renowned Eastlake gardening community! I’m a local writer, horticulturist and owner of Flower Moon Gardens, an ecologically minded garden design-and-care business; this is the first installment of what I hope will be an enjoyable, useful, and empowering guide to making your garden a sustainable and welcoming haven for you, your friends and family, and the beautiful wildlife of Eastlake. I’ve been lucky to work at some of the world’s most beloved gardens, and now I aim to bring you practical advice, product and tool recommendations, industry tips, and a vision of what it looks like to garden for the environment first.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a stunner, particularly important to birds in fall. The fruit remains on the stems after the leaves have fallen, resembling lovely ornaments. 

As we approach fall, nature at large, and within our own gardens, prepares for rest. We don’t usually reach for a comforter for our beds until late September, but around us, plants are delicately constructing blankets of their own, while birds, insects and wildlife likewise align themselves with even the most subtle seasonal changes. What can appear as garden “mess” is, in fact, often proof of the complex processes by which plants “make their beds” for winter sleep. As leaves fall to the ground, plants create what old farming wisdom holds to be nature’s perfect fertilizer: each plant’s debris recycles its own material into the soil below, providing the exact nutrients and winter protection that it AND its pollinators need.

An example of why it’s smart to stop deadheading your roses in early fall – you’ll get beautiful rose hips! This lovely rose – Rosa ‘Dortmund’ I think? corrections welcome – is a food favorite of thrushes and finches. Pictured here in the Streissguth Gardens.

We can stop deadheading flowers now: as fall approaches, flowers become seedheads that are a key food source for birds and mammals, and garden ornaments for us, perfect for late-season vases. It’s key that our gardens begin to reflect a respect for natural cycles and their elaborate, perfect internal workings – many invisible to us but of life-or-death importance to smaller beings. Just as we would suffer without a cool season, our gardens and their inhabitants suffer when we undo all the work they’ve done to prepare their living spaces for the regenerative winter months. Here are some approaches to aligning your garden with the seasons which I’ve found satisfying.

  • As trees and perennials drop their leaves, it’s an opportunity to save on future fertilizer costs by simply raking this debris snugly under each plant and leaving it alone. A plant’s leaves are its own complete, slow-release winter meal, and many of the organisms that bed down in these leaves are beneficial insects that will emerge early in spring to nip your aphid problem in the bud! Adorable bumblebees, too, hibernate in fall leaves, sleeping cozily through the cold months in hopes of emerging in spring to raise young. Raking away these leaves or grinding them up them with a leaf mulcher can kill the vast majority of these well-meaning insects, and thus leave scant predators to tackle the spring emergence of less beneficial ones. Help them help you! (Another fun tip: blend up your extra kombucha scobys and water into the soil for a supercharged probiotic fall plant meal.)
This maple’s beautiful red leaves will make a great fertilizer for the maple itself if a 2-4″-deep layer is left around the base of the tree, to the dripline – and beneficial insects that rely on this maple for year-round food and habitat will thank you for “leaving the leaves.” 
  • Cooler weather is ideal for “divide-and-drift” projects, as plants can better tolerate disturbance in these forgiving temperatures. Non-woody (herbaceous), clumping perennials that bloom in spring or summer (peonies, astilbe, joe pye, salvia, echinacea, rudbeckia) should be “divided” now – dividing being the process of taking a border fork, embedding it into the root crown of the plant, prying the root mass into pieces and – voilà – you now have several plants to place as you please! “Drift” them into naturalistic placements by eye or (a fun trick) by tossing small stones haphazardly and planting where they land. This works especially well with bulbs.
This fork, available from Lee Valley Tools, can handle up to 150lbs of force applied without the head snapping off. Two of these, placed back-to-back and pried away from each other, can be used to divide peonies as described above and helpfully demonstrated here
 
  • As migratory birds prepare to travel south, it’s CRUCIAL that we don’t waylay them with permanent seed feeders, which can disrupt their natural migratory impulses and increase their dependence on unreliable human food supply. It’s good practice to decrease feeding as plants begin form seedheads – in fall, allow your feeder to stand empty a little more often until winter, to encourage birds to rely upon diverse local food sources and to travel when they’re meant to. A word about birdseed: the vast majority of birdseed is sprayed with pesticides that literally kill birds. It’s not necessary to elaborate on why this is a bad thing; just look for birdseed marked organic (glyphosate- and neonicotinoid-free) and choose no seed over poisoned seed. Some pesticide-free brands I buy are Prairie Melody and Cole’s (the latter is available at local nurseries).
Beautiful pink and white fruit of the PNW native Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), found here on Roanoke St, is a great winter food source for our thrushes, robins, grosbeaks and waxwings, but also, it is the ONLY food source for the larvae of the gorgeous Sphinx moth! Sphinx moths (Sphinx vashti) are specialists insects, which means they depend upon ONE species of plant to survive. The density of these shrubs makes a great screen and provides a protective habitat for birds as well. You can purchase Snowberries at Swansons. Make sure not to spray your Snowberry with any herbicides or pesticides and accidentally kill your Sphinx moth babies!
  • Because it’s now that seeds are naturally dispersed, fall is the time to sow native seeds, which when purchased from organic local growers are guaranteed not to be pesticide-coated and thus won’t poison your cheery little pollinators as they alight for a treat in the spring. Some lovely PNW native plants to sow in fall include Milkweed, Cow Parsnip, Douglas Aster, Red Paintbrush (Castilleja), Echinacea purpurea (purpurea is the most useful to pollinators, compared to the proliferation of other hybrid color options), Lacy Phacelia, and Gilia, and bulbs of Camas, to name only a few – I order mine from Northwest Meadowscapes! So often PNW gardens are full of handsome evergreens and low-maintenance woody plants, but lack flowers for the majority of the year, leaving bees and other essential insects with no food sources for great swaths of residential space. Add some wildflowers to your garden for all-around joy!
  • Perennials with strong structure make the nicest garden assets in fall and winter. Joe Pye Weed, so much more regal than its name suggests, inspires awe in the winter garden, hiding its bare legs behind clouds of grass seedheads that glow golden in the low winter light. Grasses like Calamagrostis brachytricha, Sporobolus heterolepsis, Nasella tenuissima and Eragrostis spectabilis create such effects, while shrubs like Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’ hold their form all winter. The attractive seedheads of Rudbeckia and Baptisia create stunning visual gestures of two very different sorts. All these can be cut back in spring around the time that green growth begins to emerge.
Goldenrod (Solidago species – this one is canadensis) is an incredible food source for small bees and harmless, delicate wasps. It’s also a major breeding ground for native ladybugs, which will demolish your aphid problem. Goldenrod is commonly thought to cause allergies, but this is essentially a myth, as its pollen granules are much too large to irritate the sinuses. Left standing through the winter (supported with string or bamboo stakes), Goldenrod makes a lovely structural statement alongside Joe Pye Weed, pictured here in the background. Joe Pye (Eupatorium species) is a North American native beloved by pollinators as well. Leave some up through the winter, and when you do cut it, leave 2-4 inches of hollow stem for bumblebees and other insects to find shelter in. 
Oxalis oregana is a beautiful native groundcover – and it’s evergreen! Perfect for a low-maintenance fall garden, this plant thrives in shade, glints in the rain, and bursts into plentiful white blooms in the spring that pollinators love. Pictured here in the Streissguth Gardens. 
Can you spot the bumblebee visiting the rosemary flowers? Especially in the fall, cool-season flower availability is so essential to bees. Rosemary is a great option, blooming in fall and in early spring. 
Asters (also pictured in the feature photo above) really need no introduction – they brighten fall so much with their abundant purple blooms erupting just as colors around them move towards contrasting browns and golds. They are a crucial autumn food source for bees when most flowers have died back, and they’re so cheery for cut arrangements. This one is Aster dumosus ‘Professor Kittenburg,’ also available at Swansons.
Be sure to keep an eye out for a Neonicotinoid-free label on all your nursery plant purchases, or you’ll poison your bees! 

I’m looking forward to bundled winter walks around Eastlake, and wishing you all a cozy, abundant hibernation. See you in the spring!

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the hard copy Eastlake News, Fall 2022.)

Written by Isabella Yeager

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