Along the back fence of my garden I have a tricky spot. A dry woodland border of sun that’s tucked under fir trees. The ravine behind the fence slopes up and the fence intersects where the wild woodland ends and my cultivated area begins. So it’s the edge of a woodland, but sunny, and hot. Very very hot. The soil is sandy and drains instantly. Growing plants there has been difficult.
Sandy Acidic Soil in Full Sun
Normally, we Northwest gardeners don’t mind soil that’s sandy or acidic. It’s better than clay or heavy silt. Sand means well draining, acidic means we can grow the usual native rhododendrons, pieris, and camellias. Even hydrangeas. But those shrubs are usually tucked into the woodland and receive some shade. Not this border. It’s on the edge of a native woodland but facing full-on southern sun all day.
A False Start
At first, years ago, I started off thinking I’d plant a tropical woodland. I wanted big leaved plants that I could see from far away on my patio. So I planted a ‘Teddy Bear’ magnolia, acanthus, and cannas. They loved the sun but the problem was the soil dried out too soon. I added compost and amended the soil. But, when it rained, because they were canopied by fir trees, they received little natural water. The compost didn’t hold enough moisture, even in rainy winter. The border was a problem. A big problem.
So I took a different approach. I planted a more California-type of garden, what grew in the dry areas of sunny zone 9. Cistus, lavender, ceanothus, sedum, even penstemon. I tried redtwig dogwood and boxwood hebe for structure. It was a mild success. But moles moved in and created a huge network of tunnels around the shrubs and perennials, creating air pockets and weakening the plants. The cistus died from those air pockets, the penstemons leaned and reached for the light. Some plants lost foliage.
How to Garden Despite the Wildlife
I let the moles be. Well, that’s not totally true. I put poison worms in some of their tunnels. Some died and I think one has moved to my sunny island bed, I’m not sure. Regardless, I try to garden on despite it all, despite these little creatures working against me. Not long after the moles moved in, I noticed a rabbit constantly near or in the bed. It was adorable, true. But I’m sorry, the little rabbit, while cute, was a pain. It chewed on some plants and the destruction sometimes depressed me.
For instance, when a new purple-leafed ninebark (physocarpus) established itself, a mole came in, tunneled around, and weakened it. There was sudden leaf die off at the branch tips. It struggled. I’ve since pruned and have rearranged the soil around it. One thing, maybe good or bad, was one of my dogs got to the rabbit and it perished.
So this year, I’m going to add more compost and put in replacement plants that died. Someone on a plant group mentioned manzanita (arctostaphylos) and that coastal native might be a good addition. I’m also thinking salvia, I’m thinking more sedums. We’ll see how my little dry woodland border does this summer. I hope for the best. It would be satisfying, after all of this effort and thinking, to see a healthy, happy collection of plants from my patio.