Resilient gardens: Planting for the future | Garden Notes

Barbara Faurot
Posted 5/19/22

Resilient gardens work in concert with nature. They take advantage of their surroundings and support native wildlife. They also embrace the ways plants actually want to grow.

Sarah Fairbank, WSU …

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Resilient gardens: Planting for the future | Garden Notes

Detail of the Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica “Vanessa”) featured in the Port Townsend Visitor Center garden. Leaves are deep green in summer, then turn to crimson, gold, and orange in fall.
Detail of the Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica “Vanessa”) featured in the Port Townsend Visitor Center garden. Leaves are deep green in summer, then turn to crimson, gold, and orange in fall.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Faurot
Posted

Resilient gardens work in concert with nature. They take advantage of their surroundings and support native wildlife. They also embrace the ways plants actually want to grow.

Sarah Fairbank, WSU Extension Master Gardener, explains that a resilient garden is well adapted to its setting, requiring less maintenance by the gardener. “It doesn’t need to be ‘just so,’ with neat shapes and patterns. It’s less formal-looking and more natural, and serves a clear purpose in the landscape.”

Natural plant forms, drifts of perennials or grasses, and layers of duff — leaves, conifer needles, twigs, moss, and other organic matter — are all part of the aesthetic appeal. Many of our local public parks and gardens illustrate these principles, offering biodiversity and rich habitat for pollinators, songbirds, and other wildlife. 

Rain gardens are among the best examples, balancing function and form. They collect, absorb, and filter stormwater run-off from rooftops, roads, and other impervious surfaces. Clean water soaks into the ground and eventually reaches our streams, marshes, and marine waters. 

Sarah volunteers to look after one of the many rain gardens in Port Townsend. It offers her Uptown neighborhood a diverse display of flora, including Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry), Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster), Iris tenax (tough-leaf iris), Miscanthus (silvergrass), and Anaphalis margaritacea (pearly everlasting). 

In this small garden, Sarah observes 18 species of beneficial insects and pollinators. So in addition to aesthetic beauty, the garden helps with overall ecosystem health and biological pest control; attracting lacewings that consume aphids is just one example.

The triangle-shaped park opposite the Port Townsend Visitor Center on Jefferson Street functions in a similar way, but features plantings appropriate to its location. Surrounded by asphalt, hot sun, vehicle exhaust, wind, and salt air, it also serves as a rain garden, helping filter runoff before it reaches Port Townsend Bay.

The visitor center garden was created to replace an asphalt parking area. Russell Jaqua’s metal sculpture ”For Willene,” donated by the late artist and his family, is a welcoming focal point. A team of volunteers from the Kiwanis Club, led by Steve Taylor, is helping to weed, spread mulch, and maintain the garden. 

“We’d like people to know that the visitor center park is not a formal garden,” Steve explains. “It’s supposed to be a low-maintenance deal.” In the first few seasons, the team is learning which plants do well in this harsh environment. 

The garden features a sun-loving and resilient deciduous tree, Parrotia persica “Vanessa” (Persian ironwood). Bronze and burgundy leaves in spring will turn to dark green in summer and to crimson, gold, and orange in fall. Flaky gray bark shows in winter, then spidery red flowers emerge on bare stems in late winter and early spring. 

Other original plantings include evergreen and deciduous shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses, ground covers, and eco lawn and rain garden seed mixes. 

Many of these original plants such as Sesleria autumnalis (autumn moor grass), Rosmarinus officinalis “Autumn Blue” (upright rosemary), and Berberis thunbergii “Crimson Pygmy” (Japanese barberry) have done particularly well, but others have not. The swale planted with rain garden seed has been overtaken by some grasses and rushes — yet it still functions effectively to capture and filter water as part of the rain garden system. 

Sarah, who assists the volunteers at the park, suggests “it’s helpful to evolve with the plants. Learn what works and doesn’t, and make adjustments to suit your microclimate.” Over time, the volunteers remove plants that aren’t doing well and others that are spreading too assertively, like Juncus patens “Elk Blue” (Elk Blue rush).

“The point of the garden is that it is resilient,” says Steve. The garden will evolve with the plants that prove to be low-maintenance survivors. 

Brian Reid, Port Townsend’s operations manager for streets, storm water, and sewers, is grateful for the volunteers. “It’s a huge help to my team. Steve and the team from Kiwanis do such a great job.” 

Brian’s team helps by delivering mulch and picking up the weeds that the volunteers have cleared, while also handling their main responsibilities of waste water and sewer management, mowing, and tree trimming throughout the city. 

“We definitely need the help,” adds Brian. “Volunteerism is key. It’s great for everyone to help out and make our town look awesome.”

In most resilient gardens, once new plantings are established, little irrigation will be needed. In periods of extended heat and drought, it’s best to water thoroughly but infrequently to encourage roots to grow deeply in search of moisture. Coarse organic mulch or “living mulch” ground covers will help retain moisture, improve soil, and moderate soil temperature throughout the year. 

Sarah concludes with the tried-and-true approach of “right plant, right place” — selecting the plants that are best suited to each garden’s unique conditions. “Ultimately, this approach results in a beautiful, functional garden with less intervention by the gardener,” says Sarah. 

The rain garden Sarah maintains will be part of the Jefferson County Master Gardener Foundation’s Secret Garden Tour June 18 along with seven other hidden local gems. Tickets go on sale May 18. For details, visit jcmgf.org/secret-garden/. 

Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.

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