Bainbridge Island is home to some of the most spectacular flora I’ve ever seen, and that naturally inspired my desire for a beautifully landscaped garden, because of course, I was going to become the best gardener you’ve ever seen. When we found our forever home, the previous owner had made it “sale” ready by cleaning up any old/dead growth, mulching and adding a few additional plants, it looked clean and simple, I knew I could handle it…I was wrong.
It was early spring when we moved to the property and everything was just beginning to wake up and grow, by the third week in our new home, the landscaping hadn’t just woken up, it was on a rampage and I was way over my head. Although I was familiar with some of the plants, I was clueless about most of them, in addition to that, quite a few new plants had sprouted up with a vengeance and were taking everything else over – suddenly our beautiful garden was overrun with Braken Ferns, Horsetails, Bamboo shoots and Blackberry bushes on the perimeter that were closing in fast…I needed help, and I found it through Valerie Francis Gardening Company (206-780-6990).
Valerie has lived on Bainbridge for thirty-five years. She was inspired to start her gardening business after spending a year and a half in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz when she was in her twenties, it was there she discovered she was happiest working with the land. Her love of being outside and working with plants drew her back to the field and she started her gardening business thirty years ago, she’s been servicing residential and commercial properties on the island ever since. A few years after she began her gardening business, she expanded her hands-on experience via the Master Gardener’s program (held in Port Orchard at the time). In addition, that love of plants has inspired her to start working with essential oils and their healing properties.
On Valerie’s first visit to our new home, she walked through the garden and pointed out what needed to go – the Braken ferns and Horsetail (both of a prehistoric nature), and very prolific, were threatening the manicured areas, her crew cut/pulled them just below the soil level (I use a small pair of clippers in-between her visits to dig into the soil and remove as I see them come up).
The bamboo is very pretty and makes a nice barrier, but it’s also very invasive due to its rhizome-dependent system. The spreading runners can pop up just about anywhere and grow extremely fast. They can eventually destroy your garden and hardscape. Instead of making ourselves crazy trying to get rid of the runners, we’ve kept a set of clippers by our back door (where the bamboo is) and on an almost daily basis we cut them (we try and dig the clippers into the soil to get as much of the runner as we can, but that isn’t easy where its popping up through the pavers, come winter, we’ll remove the pavers and dig as much of the runners out as possible, then cover the area in dark plastic, prior to replacing the pavers). This is a never ending process, so always think twice before planting bamboo.
Blackberries are considered a weed and can be quite invasive as well, they propagate by almost any means and are almost impossible to get rid of, but you can keep them at bay. They do have their uses though; they’re delicious and can be easily frozen for year-round enjoyment. They also provide plenty of food for deer and birds, which gives those lovely creatures something to eat besides your favored plants. However, the brambles can take over and Valerie recommends cutting them back or mowing them down, this won’t stop the growth, but it will keep it under control.
The garden isn’t all invasive plants though, we have Sword ferns, Rhododendrons, Japanese maples, ornamental grasses, Russian sage, Hellebore, Barberry, Gunnera, Black Mondo grass, Hydrangeas, Hostas and English lavender, just to name a few – but aside from the Blue Fescue (an ornamental grass), I had no idea how to take care of them.
Now that fall is upon us, I asked Valerie about care and preparation of the garden and she shared these tips with me:
Hellebore is a perennial with downward facing blooms and a beautiful leathery leaf, they’re also rodent and deer resistant. She recommends pulling any dead vegetation off throughout the year, but never cut them back. They’re great shade plants that prefer moist rich, well-draining soil.
Carex is a perennial grassy plant, she recommends pulling out the dry blades, but not cutting to the ground.
Fountain grasses can get quite tall, with feathery gold flowering stalks, she says not to cut to the ground, but as fall gets further, trim to shape – we like to keep the flowering stalks as long as possible as it adds color and movement to the garden.
Russian sage has a silvery color to the leaves with bluish-lavender flowers from June through September. Although the flowers are starting to fade we’re letting them die back naturally to keep color/texture in the garden as long as possible (you can trim the flower stalks if all color is gone).
Barberry is a hardy deciduous plant with a gorgeous orange-red color, they’re also very low maintenance. You can allow them to grow wildly, or shape them to your preference.
English lavender: when we bought the house in early spring, the plants were still mostly dormant and were very woody and ugly. However, as they began to grow, they were quite pretty, and created a beautiful shrub along our driveway (and survive with little to no water). As September rolled in, the flower stalks began to fade and bend over, exposing the gnarled inner branches. Valerie recommends cutting back the flowers down to, or into the foliage a little, you can also remove a few of the oldest branches if the plant becomes woody and open, as ours did. This will hopefully encourage new growth, however if your plant is old (ours are in the 10-12 year range) they may not respond and you’ll probably need to replace the plant.
Sword ferns are all over the island and truly beautiful, Valerie recommends not cutting them back until the spring when the new fronds, or fiddle-heads, begin to unfurl, then remove any dead or dying growth.
Gunnera (sometimes called Dinosaur Food and also known as prickly rhubarb) has large deeply-lobed leaves that can get up to 4 feet across and stand up to 8 feet in height. They really have a prehistoric look to them and my visiting nieces and nephews loved them. Unfortunately, we didn’t give this guy enough water over the long, hot summer, so we lost most of its gorgeous leaves by late August (they really, really love water). However, the “flowers” which are large brownish panicles filled with tiny red-brown flowers are still hardy and look great. The area they’re in will be very moist through the winter and we’ve decided to let nature take its course on propagating for next spring, as they die back, the seeds will detach and fall into the surrounding soil, in late October we’ll cover them with leaves, which will protect them and allow them to germinate through winter.
Blue Fescue is one of my favorite plants, the blue/sage color is gorgeous and they’re very low maintenance, you can simply comb out the dead blades with your fingers. They do well in container gardens too, in addition, they’re evergreen, which adds winter color to your garden. They have tall flower tipped stems from May to June, however if you’d like to maintain the tight mound appearance, simply trim to shape (removing the tall flower stems, but not the blades). One of the best features about Blue Fescue is that cats love it. They munch on it, running it through their teeth, which is like dental floss for them. Although my kitties aren’t outdoors, I still provide them with a potted BF inside the house, not only does it satisfy their vegetation cravings, it also deters them from munching my other interior plants.