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Okanogan Highlands - good groundcovers / mulch?  RSS feed

 
Erica Wisner
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Hi all,
This is the first in a series of questions about how to manage landscapes in a sort of sub-alpine/arid climate.

What plants are easy to cultivate, not listed as invasive, and make good soil-builders or mulch for this climate?

Constraints:
- Rainfall is listed at 11 to 12" annually in the valley; we may get some extra dew and cloud-condensation frost up here, but we have a very dry summer.
- Snow on the ground for 6 months most years; when there isn't, like this year, it freezes 2 to 3 feet down in the soil.
- Frost-tolerant: gets down to -20, so deep-rooted frost-tolerance or frost-tolerant seeds are a big plus.
- Soils: glacial and volcanic silts, some expansive (swell when wet), turns to 'moondust' where disturbed in summer.
- Irrigation water: available, well water is slightly alkaline. Rough titration is ordinary grape juice turns violet-indigo-blue when I rinse out the glass, but not when I make up the concentrate. Herbal teas with citric acid fizz.

In my particular case, I have a snow-melt pond on site, so some wetland/bog plants could be appropriate too. I'd love to remove some plastic 'mulch' that has been used around the pond, and replace with groundcovers (visible in last picture below).

This discussion might be relevant to other upland / arid climates.

The fun part is we have a bog on a bench on top of a scarp, our mountain is on the wet side of a dry valley, second valley after the rainshadow of the Cascades.

I'm posting to the Rockies forum because we're definitely into basin-and-range territory here, not the lush rainy forests of the I-5 corridor.
But it feels like there's a missing chunk of dry inland territory between 'cascadia' and 'rockies.'

For reference, I just uploaded a whole multi-season sampler of pictures of our area. You'll see greenly wooded valleys, sparse woods, sagebrush slopes, and valley bottoms with orchards, row crop, and the ever-present cottonwood and willow.
ErnieAndErica.blogspot.com

Here are a few images for those who don't like blogs:

Late summer thunder, looking down into the valley from about 2000 feet elevation:


Frost and sun (this is in our actual yard at 3200 feet or so)


Early spring (with pond in background):

 
Erica Wisner
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Looks like my spring picture glitched.

If you can't see it, go to:
http://ernieanderica.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-quickening.html

Thanks!
 
Erica Wisner
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If you want a good look at the ground itself, here's what these flowers are coming up between.



Are these called shooting star? You can see a lupine in the corner too.

I think the 'mulch' between them is a combination of pine needles and sparse, dead grasses.

I recognize native plants from the west (coastal) side of the Cascades:
Typical forest / brushy slopes:
- Oregon grape
- Kinnickinnick- the groundcover with red berries, sometimes called bearberry
- Snowberry (the bush that looks kinda like red huckleberry, but makes its paired leaves all random shapes up and down the bush, with white non-edible berries.)
- Wild rose - the kind(s) with ridiculous quantities of tiny thorns, about 1/2" to 1" hips.
- strawberry: native varieties present but rarely seen to bear fruit
- Grasses (as you can see)
- Elderberries seen at lower elevations, might grow this far up if helped?
- Pine: ponderosa, I'm told also white pine
- Occasional fir or spruce
Wetlands:
- Red osier dogwood in wetlands / pond banks only
- Cattails and rushes in ponds
- Willow varieties both upland (small shrubs) and lower in the valleys (big, almost elm-shaped varieties with lots of yellow withes)
- occasional cedar or hemlock in very wet areas; weeping willows and curly willows cultivated near valley ponds.

Invasive or persistent in open / disturbed ground:
- thistles (several kinds)
- wooly mullein (pioneer in holes in plastic or mulch)
- dock (probably yellow dock)
- plantain, pinapple weed, rhizominous grasses especially in watered garden
- lots of small coniferous trees starting to get crowded 20 yrs after logging; but we want to maintain as many of the big trees as possible and some denser ones for windbreaks.

Plants that have learned on vacation or here, but were not common in the wetter climates further west:
- Lupine - sparse
- Sagebrush - a plant here and there at our elevation
- Tamarack / Larch (the deciduous evergreen)
- Balsamroot (yellow flowers, large arrow-shaped slightly fuzzy-tender leaves)
- Potentilla (common in our boggy area)
- White-barked (aspen?) member of poplar family common in upland 'draws' and bench shelves
- Sumac is more common here than on the west side, though it will grow there

Want to ID but haven't yet:
- small bunch-grasses
- small-needled conifers that I can't distinguish
- white, sweet-smelling blossom almost like mock-orange, in wetter draws on next ridge west of us

Plants that have done OK with some hugel help (rotted wood water-reservoirs) and infrequent watering:
- Marshmallow by pond margin
- Potatoes, tomatoes, beans (favas, runners) in garden (more frequent watering, smaller tomato varieties to bear before frost)
- Blueberries, survived their first winter so we'll see how they did with this nasty one we just had.
- carrots, over-wintered and seeded out
- potatoes, onions, garlic over-winter with good early snow cover but don't know about this winter's dry, hard freeze.

Plants that thrive in watered areas:
- snow pea, chickweed, dandelion (self-seeding)
- radishes, lettuces, spinach, garlic, beets, weedy brassicas, bok choi (annuals)
- cultivated strawberries persist for years when carefully bedded down with straw covers for winter by neighbors.

Common local resources:
- horse(s) and chickens; other folks keep sheep, cattle, lamas , goats, ducks. Canada geese visit in season, deer and quail run the roadsides year-round. Bedding / dung often available from neighbors on request.
- Dead-and-down and standing dead wood in forest; lots of lichens. Thinning this out and burying some for hugel-storage, some (less rich/rotten) for firewood, to reduce ladder-fuels for fire danger.
- Utility-line wood chips, mostly coniferous
 
Ariel Leger
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I live just north of the border in the Okanagan (yea it's got an 'a' up here) but at a much lower elevation (closer to 400'). I got an amazing book for plant ID called "Plants of Southern Interior British Colombia" by Roberta Parish, Ray Coupe, and Dennis Lloyd. Its kick ass. If you don't already have it, it may help you ID those grasses and such.

traditional ground covers are had out here because it's so damn dry. If you aren't irrigating, and are trying to establish a ground cover out in the open, it's hella tough. Depending on what kind of soil conditions you are looking to create with this ground cover, you might be able to get some woodier dryland plants going without too much trouble (think sagebrush, lavender, etc). If you chop n' drop those you can get a really nice fungal duff going for a future orchard.

how are those hugel beds doing btw? I'm putting a few in this year. seems like a really good way to conserve water in this climate.

Cheers!
 
John Polk
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I think that you are on the extreme west edge of this Pollinator Guide. (The next guide west of there includes the higher Cascades, and the Olympics - too wet for you!)
It might give you an idea of some of the native plants you're finding. Also, very useful for attracting them with habitat & food.

I will be going out there (east of you - Colville/Chewelah area) to look at some properties soon. I want to see it without it being buried in snow. Lovely area, but as you mentioned, lack of water. Makes it difficult to plant without a well thought out game plan.

 
Ann Torrence
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Definitely a shooting star, one of my favorite wildflowers

Arnica is another herbaceous plant that ought to do well, and looking at the pollinator list, mertensia. I recall a lovely stand of lupines in Grand Teton National Park, not so far outside your ecotone.

I've harvested elederberries at 9,000' feet here, so it's worth trying.

Camassia is another interesting plant we are trying here, much more native to your area. I have always wanted to try Lewisia, but it's just not going to work here.

Are you open to non-natives? How high a ground-cover? I kind of cheat and look through the Stepables.com website for ideas since they have them sorted for all kinds of conditions. Thymes, the low-growing potentilla, sedums all come to mind.
 
Erica Wisner
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@John and Ariel - Thanks for the book and guide recommendations! I have been looking for applicable guides; I already have resources for the western/coastal plants so that's not a worry. Finding out about the inland/eastern neighbors will be wonderful. I'm downloading the pollinator guide right now. We already know we need more early-spring pollinators up here, the in-laws asked if I wanted to try boosting that aspect of the garden, so we have not just permission but a request.

@ariel: I have visited this 'okanagan' you speak of, and sometimes forget to revert to the O spelling on returning home. We sometimes fly out of Penticton on work trips, we're only 1/2 hour south of the border.

I like the chop-and-drop woody species idea - that would be more wind-resistant than the lighter hay and straw materials I've had trouble with. Kind of like a low-moisture miniature coppice system! Could also be good for wattle-and-daub projects, maybe windbreaks and such.

I have just been wondering if I can pollard or coppice the existing willow in our bog.

@Ann: Elderberries would be SUPER exciting. Love harvesting them, and Ernie used to do a very lovely elderberry tonic - not a cordial, but a light, fresh-flavored fruit wine.
Is camassia the same as camas? How do I find starts?
I tried a few that were sent up from a friend in Oregon in a corner of the bog, not sure the specific variety, but the looked iffy in terms of surviving the long and harrowing transport-and-transplant process.
Nurseries we used to use near Eugene are a 9-hour truck ride that seems intimidating even as a mammal. I can't imagine what the plants think of the experience.

I can't quite see tearing up existing colonies up here, if I were to find any. Is there a native nursery that caters to the eastern Cascades or basin-and-range replanting crowd?
I'm signed up to volunteer at a plant sale near here in early April, so maybe that will be a good connection.

I don't mind non-natives, for example I'm going to try commercial blueberries and see if they can integrate into the native scrub.
I don't want to start something going rampant, however, if it's a known nuisance.
I would personally love to have nettles by the pond but I doubt the in-laws would agree. So cat-tails, osier, and willow seems more sympatico. (They complain about the mullein, too - I think mulching and thistle control, with pollinator plants that make attractive flowers, and getting some deciduous trees established again, will go a long way toward the desired aesthetics for their hard-earned retirement homestead.)

So I guess I'm looking for native species that are rampant but 'acceptable,' and for non-natives that thrive in clumps.
I could also use suggestions for non-native annual nitrogen fixers, or soil-builders generally, that would tolerate the low water levels here, but "might" be killed off by deep frost. Ideally, they'd tolerate -10 but would die around -25 or -30. That would allow for some self-tending soil production, and patches that survive under mulch, but limit the risk of long-term overcrowding.

I'm typing "overcrowding," and realizing that is a wet-climate problem.
Achieving overcrowding here would be a minor miracle - only happens in wet or irrigated spots as far as can see.
But we do get annoying colonies of thistles, that extend those rhizomes to distant water sources and out-compete anything that might otherwise find a niche near the water. Rhizominous grasses also love taking over in the garden.
Might be a reason to target rhizominous crops like sunchokes and iris, and/or to 'finger' the water's edge in the pond to create more adequate moisture areas so that root-type stuff can outcompete the thistles. I have an offer from down in the valley to divide some showy iris, and the yellow flag ones do fine up at the summit lake above our elevation.

I have heard that arnica could grow here, in fact does grow not far from here (Michael Pilarski mentioned a harvesting spot somewhere up here). Not sure how I cultivate it.

Clearly I must go for long rambling walks, and explore.

Many thanks, and keep it coming!
yours,
Erica W
 
Ann Torrence
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Camassia=camas, kamas, quamash
I bought bulbs from Van Engelen last fall, pretty cheap, minimum of 50 if I recall.

Another place to get ideas is High Country Gardens in Santa Fe. They are at 7,000' so it doesn't map exactly to where you are, but they know drought and cold.
Ornamental perennial buckwheats, nepeta faassini, some of their yarrows might have similar species that are native or can propagate from a few of their starts. I've seen a lawn with the no-mow buffalo grass studded with crocus, blue fescues and oenethera that was spectacular. We had a dry parking strip of their thyme that did well at 5000' feet.
Love the sterile nepeta for bees.

I'm starting arnica seeds right now, they are in the frig, stratifying themselves. Got them from Fedco.

One other idea I saw somewhere that I can't recall: culinary sage used as a 2' high ground cover. It was gorgeous, they used a variety with a purple tinge to the leaves, made a carpet across the planting area. It might have been in France this last summer. That would die back in the winter, not evergreen, but sage is pretty tough stuff and you could mask the die-back of spring bulbs with it pretty well.

Might try day lilies for your barrier zone. I got 150 for cheap from Smokey's Daylililes last fall, unlabeled random fans. Daylily flowers are delish.

(If it sounds like I went overboard on bulbs, it was a big birthday last fall, so I gifted myself 1,000 bulbs to commemorate it. The daffodils are just starting to poke up and being a certain age ending in zero is just a little easier to take.)
 
John Polk
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Is there a native nursery that caters to the eastern Cascades or basin-and-range replanting crowd?

Here is a guide to some Native Plant/Seed Nurseries in WA.

Quite a few in eastern WA. Some are exclusively native, while others are mixed native/exotic.
Might find one reasonably close to you.
 
Erica Wisner
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Anne, John: Thanks for the nursery suggestions, and the more plant ideas. I think 1000 bulbs is a wonderful birthday present. Have eaten daylily, my nieces would love it too.

Adrian - I realized I ignored your 'how's the hugel' questions.
I do feel like the hugels extended the irrigation periods nicely. We were gone for several weeks at a time, at least twice over the summer. Can't entirely tell because the in-laws kindly set up a sprinkler, but I didn't lose much other than the salad stuff that was bolting anyway. The potatoes on the shady side of the hugel were marvelous and lush, even first year, and I am going to plant a lot more this year in whatever I can get established. Tomatoes and mediterranean herbs on the sunny side, salad on the shady side, onions did great in the full sun and favas were happy all around the base. I had some volunteer succulent salad greens that came in a pot with the tomatoes, too, which crawled right up the hot, dry side where not much else grows. Hope it comes back. I would love to find more succulents that are edible, for colonizing some of the dry patches. Basil and leeks got buried by the potatoes, the potatoes on the shady side really went crazy. For the first year which is supposed to be mulch-building, I feel like I got a heck of a lot of food and got to watch some very healthy plants without a lot of work all season.

I am moving more toward partially-buried hugels, or hugel-and-mulch basins, because of the drying issues. The two small ones I tried to establish late in the season last year didn't do terribly well, but I hope to build on them this year.
I like Paul's idea that texture can create dry sacrifice zones and concentrate water for good growing zones elsewhere. I appreciate his logic for larger wood piles meaning longer water storage. But until I get my hugels to the point where I have a workable pathway on top, building tall ones means I sacrifice both dry peaks and a pathway down in the swales. I am short and lazy (at least compared to Paul). I want things I can pick on about 2 half-days of attention per week. And I want to be able to reach things without climbing all over them.

The hugels helped:
- reduce the watering frequency to about half or less. Plants in the lower part of the hugels did great; the upper part was mostly mulch and weeds. But weeds make good mulch, and some of them (lamb's quarters) are as tasty as the salad greens I ignored all spring.
- I had troubles with a tunneling vole who loved to eat the same things I do - can't argue with his taste, but my runner beans took about 4 times longer to grow and I lost quite a few. Raising plants up on trellises, or eventually on small trees, may help a lot.
- I am excited to see if the rhubarb and horseradish come back after our nasty, killer frost this year. We had 2 months of deep winter with no snow, and I was gone for part of it and didn't mulch over them or anything. But they were very healthy all summer.


So my plans for this year:
- Add at least one more hugel or hugel-swale, deeper and more volume, during the moist spring weather. (If I can't capture the thaw itself, at least the logs are still kinda soggy when they go in.) I want to get going on rows where the dirt from one gets piled onto the last one, more touch-it-once return on each shovelful. If we get a ditch witch up here for some plumbing work, I may steal a few hours on it too.
- See if I can get the neighbors to donate more woody matter so I can hugel outside the fence as well as inside.
- Try to establish some shade trees or shrubs for both garden and pond, which may be tricky as it was a dry winter and we could easily run out of water this year. Neither well has run dry yet, but if it did this would be the year. Ernie has some native and climate-suitable fruit-bearing shrubs picked out (seaberry, maybe currents, maybe elderberry, blueberry; cherry, apples, pear).
- Try to establish a nursery zone and better plant propagation skills, so that I can start trees earlier or in time with rainfall.
- Try to establish more non-attention-hog plants on the higher parts - sunchokes if my seed stock survived, and maybe some deliberate mulch-weeds.

Our area doesn't get wind often, but it does occasionally get gusty big breezes that strip all the mulch away. So I am going to more whole-plant mulch layers, on top of smaller stuff like manures etc. I think I can keep layering and have the small stuff mostly fall through. I could also do a bit more work around the fence to reduce wind, but without making the fence itself vulnerable to wind-throw.

(My in-laws did the fence, I think it's just treated wood shoved in the ground. They looked at the rainfall and realized that it would take something like 10 years for a fencepole here to experience the same amount of rotting moisture levels we get in 6 months on the wet side. So bare poles may last long enough for a retirement fence- longer than needed, to judge by the partial paddock fences they no longer use. Some of it may have concrete footers, but I don't want to count on it holding the added weight of being turned into a trellis or windbreak.)

Hmmm....
The other thing I'm doing is spending time work-trading with a local farmer, to get more experience with the overall climate and growing season. Access to surplus starts, and food on a cycle that's about a month ahead of up here, are nice perks.

Does that answer? I should post a full update with pictures on my blog once I can see how it's doing, and get into the next phase. ernieanderica.blogspot.com.

-Erica W

 
Ariel Leger
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Sounds like you have a good year ahead of you! I'll send some pictures of the hugel bed I build for funsies
I agree about the digging in of the hugel beds. It is just too mesic out here and as I too am one of smaller stature, I don't want to have to reach too far or walk all over the hugel to get at the plants. I was planning on digging in about a half meter or so and then mounding wood (fresh cherry, apple and pear as well as dry rotted douglas fir and misc. fruit wood) until it was waist high. then cover with dirt. I don't think I'll make it much more than 1.5 meters wide for easy double reachability. I was also considering burying some logs in vertically to make a sort of retaining wall for a hugel-raised bed.
anyhow I can only imagine how difficul this is to picture so I will post pictures once it is built.
 
Barbara Greene
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Hi Erica,

You did see a mock orange, they grow all over up here at Pine Creek, our elevation varies from 2600- 3000 and also elderberries grow anywhere there is some moist soil, even higher than where we are, so you may be able to grow them where you are.

Julie from OHA, has been doing "hugel" "holes" for a few years now, Jason and I helped her install a larger one last fall, several cords of wood, manure etc, dug out with her husband's back hoe, she has a great blog all about her experiments: http://woodforfood.blogspot.com and she also has great looking blueberry bushes!

Talk with Mariah Cornwoman (if you haven't already) about cover crop seed ideas, she has such a vast database in her head about this area!

If you are open to having the Conservation District folks come out, they had and may still have a pasture management grassland expert, who will for free, come survey your land. A few years ago, she came out here and gosh did she know every single grass or weed that was growing here AND she sent me a very detailed report a few weeks later, with suggestions to help the native grasses along! It was really great!

Thanks for starting this forum, I will stay tuned!
Barbara
 
Julie Ashmore
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Hi Erica,

Reading through these responses (with lots of good thoughts to consider), one suggestion that really stands out to me is Ann Torrence's -- culinary sage used as a 2' high ground cover. This is a fantastic idea for our climate and would combine nutritional benefits with your ground cover needs. I'm hoping to try it out this year, as I have some areas that need a ground cover too! I've been looking for ideas on what to plant in the areas where I'm sheet mulching over St. John's Wort. Temporarily I've got just cardboard with leaves, but of course I need to replace the vegetation or I will wind up with St John's Wort again. In some wild places I will aim for native sagebrush, lupine and yarrow, but in other places it might be fun to have culinary sage going.

Don't forget that lupine is a great native nitrogen fixer. I find it hard to seed save from the plants though, because it seems to be such a short window between having mature enough seed and the point where they "pop!" Then the seeds are dispersed and it's too late to collect any. One relatively local source for native seed is Rainier Seeds Inc., KMiller@rainierseeds.com, 800-828-8873, and they have an incredible variety. Of course there is also Methow Natives, much closer -- Rob Crandall, 19 Aspen Lane Winthrop, WA 98862 (509) 341-4060. If you are looking for a grass-type, permanent ground cover, bluebunch wheatgrass and idaho fescue might be nice to include in the mix. The bunch grasses have incredibly deep root systems and therefore are great for building organic matter underground, over time. See http://okanoganhighlands.org/education/grasslands_summer, where you can download Don Gayton's PowerPoint on Grassland Ecology and Grasses ID. Look on Slide #10 of the main PowerPoint for a photo demonstrating the gargantuan proportion of root system to grasses.

By the way, our rhubarb is showing signs of life, even after the no-snow super freezing temps -- yeah!

Good luck with everything, and thanks for generating this great discussion.
 
Erica Wisner
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I will have to go check our rhubarb! We had one in its 3rd winter, and one that was new last year but it was a big, fat root transplant from Skeeter so it might have some strength in reserve.

I like both lupine and culinary sage as suggestions. and the others - but yarrow hardly needs planting around here!

I don't know that I've seen our lupine bloom, though I've seen it happen along the roadside on the way up. Maybe we are getting browsed really heavily?
Could you do something like they do in nut orchards, put a tarp around it like a barber's cape, or a bag around it, when it gets close to ripe?

I've also seen seed-sorting machines diagrammed, though I imagine lupine's a pretty tiny seed to separate.

-Erica
 
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