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Try out water-wise tips for gardening in the Northwest

by Diane Emerson

This time of year the soil is dry, and it is hard to keep up with your thirsty garden. If you do run your sprinkler often or hand water, you may think ruefully about the water bill, or worry about depleting your (and your neighbors’) well. It’s too hot to pull or hoe weeds. Between the watering and the weeding, it’s enough to send one to the deck with a tall cold drink and let the garden fend for itself.

Now that you have your drink, and are sitting on the deck reading the paper, here are a couple of options for you to ease your gardening life.

The first is drip irrigation run on timers. Imagine your garden watering itself, and all you need to do is walk around, listening for the faint drip of small quantities of water going right where it is needed; never on the driveway or the blackberries. Occasionally you may hear a larger stream issuing from your system, and you investigate the cause. Perhaps a tiny sprinkler cap has unscrewed itself, or a connection has become loose. It doesn’t take long to fix, and you can continue your leisurely stroll around the garden, picking a few cherry tomatoes, checking on the apples, and enjoying the birds splashing in the birdbath. Watering with a drip system not only deprives weeds of moisture, it also keeps the plant foliage dry, so fungal diseases like powdery mildew and blackspot are minimized. To get started, check out some YouTube videos, and stop by Ace Hardware or Island Home Center for information and all the pieces you need. If you have a really big garden it is possible you may have to have a setup where you move some hoses around and plug them into different zones a few times/week. If you are overwhelmed by the possibilities after looking at all the drip irrigation equipment in a store, you might hire an experienced person to help you. After one or two hours of their guidance you should be able to do it alone.

The second way you can make your gardening life easier is to practice sheet mulching for weedy areas, shrub borders, and new garden beds. Imagine walking around your well-mulched garden, with no weeds or grass poking their heads up and demanding attention. All is peace, while the mulch and cardboard do the work. You need never double dig again, and you can free up shed space by giving your rototiller to Granny’s. “What is sheet mulching?”, you may ask. It’s basically putting cardboard on top of weeds to smother them, with a thick layer of mulch on top of the cardboard to make it look great and hold the cardboard in place. This method works beautifully in new gardens with small shrubs or new perennials – where there is space for weeds to grow. It’s also a huge labor savor when you want to turn part of your lawn into a vegetable or flower garden. You just sheet mulch the area, then wait six months. Then, with a trowel, make small holes right through the mulch and decaying cardboard for your baby plants. They grow up with minimal weed competition, and plenty of moisture in the soil.

To get started with sheet mulching, you can save your own cardboard, or get extra from the cardboard dumpsters around Vashon town. I like the ones behind Ace and Pandora. You will want to remove the packaging tape, because it won’t decompose like the cardboard does (after 6 months to a year). Just sprinkle the cardboard with water to loosen the tape’s grip. For sheet mulching over grass, be sure that not one blade of grass is visible through gaps or holes in the cardboard. Once the grass is fully covered, then you can spread mulch over the cardboard. The first shovelfuls may move the cardboard out of place, so go slow at first. If the space is going to be a vegetable garden, use compost as mulch on top of the cardboard. If you are sheet mulching around established shrubs and perennials, 3-4 inches of wood chips will last much longer to deter weeds and hold in moisture.

Now that you know about the benefits of drip systems and sheet mulching, imagine yourself with your cold drink in your hand on a hot August day, strolling your efficiently well-watered and mulched garden, enjoying the beauty and bounty you had always imagined.

As fall begins, consider an eco-friendly lawn for both environment, curb appeal

by Diane Emerson

How’s your lawn doing? This summer, like the one in 2015, has been hard on lawns. For many, the only green plants visible now are dandelions, which makes them all the more noticeable. Don’t get me wrong, dandelions are great for pollinators, but can’t we have a nice looking lawn and a few flowers to help out the pollinators?

Indeed we can. The concept is variably called eco-turf, eco-lawn, bee lawn or eco-friendly lawn. It’s high time we took a good look at doing our lawns differently, because the word is out that these hot, dry summers could continue. Plus, the time leading up to fall is the best time to switch to a better kind of lawn: one that will stay green all summer with minimal water, no regular fertilizing, is mowed less often and never experiences toxic poisons like 2,4-D.

Think of it. No more high water bills or well worries. You might be able to let your lawn crew go, because you won’t need weekly mowing. Disease and insect damage are less likely, because eco-friendly lawns are usually a mix of grass and tough low-growing perennials, not a monoculture of a single type of grass.

It’s a beautiful vision. But can this really work on Vashon-Maury Island? Yes. It’s being done right now at Vashon High School. Take a closer look at the turf around the high school the next time you visit. The eco-lawn there is a mix of ryegrass, fescue, dwarf yarrow, English daisies, Baby Blue Eyes and a small amount of clover. Seeded in 2014, it is now well-established. The high school’s eco-lawn uses half the water of a typical lawn, requires two-thirds as much mowing time, minimal fertilizing and no toxic herbicides. This is good for both the quantity and quality of stream and aquifer water, the salmon in the streams, the school maintenance budget and the health of the students who plop down on the grass for a break.

Want one of these amazing new lawns for yourself? The low-cost way is to mow your existing lawn very short, hard rake the grass to expose the soil as much as possible, spread lime if needed and add half an inch of organic compost. Then, overseed with the new eco-lawn seed mix of your choice between mid-September and the first week in October, when the forecast calls for rain. Roll the lawn so the seed gets good contact with the soil and make sure the seed and baby seedlings don’t dry out until the rains are regular. You will need to overseed yearly until you like the look and feel of your new eco-lawn.

Or, you can start over completely: kill off your existing lawn, amend the soil and seed anew. If you choose this method, you have all winter to smother your current traditional lawn with cardboard or plastic. Or, you can rent a Bobcat from Island Home Center and Lumber to scrape off the grass and weeds, then modify the soil as needed. You could be ready to plant this fall.

There are two seed companies that can help you with your eco-lawn project: Pro Time Lawn Seed and Sunmark Seed. The list of seed mixes you can purchase is daunting, but one or both of these companies are sure to have exactly what you want, even your own custom mix. Here are some of Pro Time’s standard seed mixes, some of which may soon be available at Island Home Center and Lumber: Fleur de Lawn, Xeriscape Lawn Alternative, Deer Resistant Meadow Mix, Butterfly and Hummingbird Meadow Mix and Pacific Northwest Wildflower Mix. Sunmark has similar mixes. Here are just a few: Ecology Mix, Lawn Bloomers, Native Eco Turf and Native Pollinator.

If you can’t decide which one you want in time for this fall’s window of opportunity for seeding, don’t worry. You can seed in the spring when soil temperatures are 50 degrees or warmer. Whether you decide to seed in the fall or in the spring, the first summer after seeding you will need to water your new eco-lawn well, while the new plants are getting established. Once they make it through a full winter, you can cut back on the water. Then you can really enjoy your eco-lawn and its many benefits, including your new-found freedom from the tyranny of turf.

Diane Emerson is an islander and gardener. Garden Green is a community effort to reduce the use of toxic pesticides, supported in part by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. Visit for more information.

There are many ways to stay pesticide free during season of ravenous slugs.

In spring I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s poem about slugs. He calls them:

“A fat, five-inch appendage

Creeping slowly over the wet grass

Eating the heart out of my garden.”

Last year, our garden was inundated with black, gray and beautiful banana slugs. Not wanting to use pesticides, my husband, Michael Laurie, and I thought we could solve the problem with a bit of hand-picking in the evenings. We found quite a few. Michael squished his, while I gave the invasive grey and black ones to the neighbor’s ducks and relocated the native banana slugs far, far away (for them) in the nearby forest.

The slug community laughed at our feeble efforts as seedlings disappeared virtually overnight. At the Vashon Farmers Market, I referred to the replacement seedling packs we bought as ‘slug food.’ Until we could plant them, I placed them way up on top of our 200-gallon rainwater tank. Surely, I reasoned, slugs would never climb the five feet to the top of the tank. It only took a week for the slugs to get up there. How did they know?

Needing more guidance, I pulled up the phone interviews I had done in late 2014. As part of the effort to reduce pesticide use on Vashon, I had interviewed local farmers and gardeners about their favorite ways of dealing with garden pests, including slugs. Karen Dale, author of “Garden On, Vashon!” used beer traps and copper strips. Michelle Crawford of Pacific Potager hand-picked them in the evening. She said: “I used to pay my kids a penny a slug. They could find 50 pretty quickly.” Great idea. Too bad I didn’t have any kids to recruit.

Joe Yarkin of Sun Island Farm, ever creative, tried eating them like expensive escargot. The result? “They didn’t taste that great.” I can imagine. Nancy Lewis Williams shared: “I have sandy soil, and the slugs don’t like to cross it. I also advise spreading out your plants so there is not crowding. Keep grass mowed around the garden. In winter, I let chickens into the vegetable garden to turn it over and ducks to pick away at the slug eggs.” Ken Miller, local biochar guru, used cinder blocks for the walls of his raised beds.

“The slugs don’t like rough surfaces,” Miller said.

Rob Peterson at Plum Forest Farm used beer traps. Here is how you make them: simply put out dishes of beer in your garden. Use a container with a steep enough slope that the slugs can’t just take a sip and slither on — they need to fall in and not get out again. Slugs are not snooty beer drinkers; cheap and stale beer is just fine for them. And, surprisingly, they are even more attracted to the trap after a few slugs have died in it. Go figure.

It was good to be reminded of all those options. I ruled out Sluggo or any iron phosphate slug baits because research shows they kill earthworms. Also, the King County website for rating garden products, Grow Smart, Grow Safe (, questions its safety to pets and wildlife.

I decided to try copper strips as the most humane approach. Apparently slugs won’t cross copper as they receive a mild electrical shock when they touch it. We cleaned out Ace and Island Lumber’s stock of Correy’s slug tape and put it around all our raised beds and half wine barrels. Though the tape is sticky on one side, we made sure it would stay by stapling it at regular intervals. I also fashioned single-plant slug protectors by raiding the recycling bin for appropriate-sized plastic containers, cutting them up and making plant collars out of them. A ring of copper tape went around each one.

Putting up the copper tape and making the protective collars was a lot of work, but it saved our plants. Slug damage dropped considerably in the garden. I even saw a slug turning away from the copper strip on a raised bed. The other good thing was that it was a relatively permanent fix. Once applied, the copper tape stayed on the raised beds, and the plant collars could be reused for several seasons.

Later in the spring, shortly after we cut down a large patch of nettles near the garden, we were infested with slugs once more — even a few in our copper-protected beds. Hundreds must have been living happily in the nettles, and when we removed their food source, they took revenge on our vegetable garden. An intense hunting effort began. In one day, we picked over 170 slugs out of the garden. The neighbor’s ducks enjoyed the feast and we enjoyed the duck eggs the neighbor gave us.

The war continues, but I think we are winning. Persistence pays.

— Diane Emerson is an

islander and gardener.

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