Saturday, December 20, 2008

Season's Greetings!

My oh my. Winter has come to Puget Sound wearing a thick white coat this year! It’s quite the sparkling wonderland out there right now…. beautiful to take a walk in or just gaze upon from my window.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to be stuck in traffic or go without power (knock on wood), which of course greatly diminishes the appeal of snow…. and I do hope you have not had to suffer those things yourself.

This is the season that always brings me reflection on all that has happened during the previous 12 months, a list which seems longer each year at the same time that the months seem to fly by faster. How that is possible, I don’t know.

But I do know that I am very grateful to you all for helping to make 2008 a good year for Green Light Gardening and for me personally. I have enjoyed working with each of you, and I feel fortunate that you have given me the opportunity to be part of your garden plans and projects, whether large or small. I have also learned something from each of you that I take with me to the next garden and the next season.

Speaking of next seasons, my 2009 fees and rates will remain the same as they are now, including the "carbon footprint discount" for residents of NE Seattle. Also, the choice of appointment days will increase for all clients. For the past 2 years, many of you have put up with extended waits for consultation appointments and design services because of my limited schedule, and I want to express my sincere thanks for your patience and loyalty. I recently made the decision to end my weekly commitment to Seattle Tilth, and instead do occasional education work for them in order to devote my time more fully to Green Light Gardening.

Another change that I think you’ll enjoy is that I plan to resume my annual “Open Garden and Plant Sale” in 2009, after a 2-year hiatus. As a token of my appreciation, all 2007 and 2008 clients will receive a free plant of their choice from my home nursery! I will be getting back in touch later this winter when the date is set for this event. Hope to see you then, if not before, and thanks again for your business and referrals!


Assessing Cold Damage to Plants

It’s natural for Pacific NW gardeners to worry about their plants during this unusually long cold snap, and there’s no doubt that it’s likely to damage some of our garden plants. The lack of previous hard freezes during the fall caused many plants to remain in their active growth phase rather than going into their usual dormancy, so the sudden drop in temperature was a big shock. Also, for the past few years many gardeners around here have been “pushing the envelope” with much success, in terms of growing plants that are not normally hardy in this zone. This weather may be the end of those tender beauties.

However, it takes time for the real degree of damage to become evident, and many plants that look absolutely pathetic after a freeze like this can bounce back completely and be just as beautiful as ever. This means patience on your part! Waiting can be difficult, but it’s the best thing to do before assuming the worst and deciding to give one of your shrubs or perennials the heave-ho.

Knowing the ways that plants respond to a hard freeze, and how they recover, can help you assess cold damage and make good decisions about what to do:

Rolled-up leaves. The moisture in the air drops very low when we have day after day of near or below freezing weather. Plants conserve moisture by keeping their stomata closed, which are little “breathing holes” on the underside of their leaves. Many evergreen plants also curl or roll-up their leaves, which makes them look like they’re dying. Rhododendron, Camellia, Sarcococca, Evergreen Clematis, Choisya, and other shrubs like this should perk up again once our typical mild and wet winter weather returns, though they may not bloom as profusely as normal.

Brown leaves and stems. Some evergreen plants, such as Hardy Hebes and Phygelius (Cape Fuschia) can suffer dieback of their outermost branches and leaves, which makes them look dead. However, the roots and crown of these plants are likely to be just fine, and will send out a bounty of new growth once spring weather returns. Even though they look unsightly now, leave the old dieback just as it is until you see the tiny green buds emerge. Then cut back the branches to just above those new buds, and by summer they’ll look as good as new.

Snow itself can be a good thing when the temperature is below freezing, because it can insulate flower and leaf buds from the cold and wind. However, the incredible amount of snow we've received can also pose some problems for evergreens with flexible branches, like the plants mentioned above. The weight of the snow, especially as it begins to melt or if rain falls on it, can bend the whole shrub to the ground and sometimes even break branches completely. To safely knock off the snow, use a soft tool such as a kitchen broom, and gently push the branches up from below so that snow falls off the lowest branches first. That way, the lower branches won't be overloaded when you knock the snow off the upper branches.

What about container plants? Because they are much more exposed to cold air and wind than if they were in the ground, the roots of container plants can freeze and die. However, many of these plants can survive the cold and bounce back completely. In general, the roots of most plants are much more cold hardy than their branch and leaf canopy. To prevent as much damage as possible, wrap the pot with bubble wrap or an old blanket, cover them with Remay or an old sheet, and move the pot up close to the house or into the garage until the deep freeze is over.

Weather like this is one reason I always advise clients to wait until spring to cut back their grasses and perennials, because the dead foliage helps protect the crown of the plant from cold damage. It also helps provide a place for beneficial insects to overwinter in your garden, where they will be ready to gobble up any spring pests that arrive. Last but not least, the spent flowers and leaves of many of these plants are a very attractive feature to the winter garden.

There are other factors that can affect the amount of cold damage to plants, such as water logged or parched soil conditions, exposure to wind, and the depth of snow insulation. Because we do tend to have these deep freezes every few years, I usually don’t include many marginally-hardy plants in my garden designs. But if you have questions about cold damage to your specific garden plants, I’ll be glad to provide advice and guidance.

Many plants look beautiful in the snow!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fall and Winter Garden Tasks

It may seem like gardening season is over now that the weather has cooled and rain is starting to fall regularly, but fall and winter are actually the best time of year to accomplish many garden chores.

Fallen Leaves: A Gold Mine!
Yes, that's right- the leaves that are piled up in your yard are a great asset to your garden. Here are a few ways they can be used:
1) Rake the small or medium size leaves directly into your landscape beds. Leaves add many nutrients to the soil as they slowly decompose, and will protect your soil and plant roots from heavy winter rain and erosion. Pile the leaves very lightly around the crowns of perennials and roses to protect them from freeze damage, but do not smother them with a thick layer. If you have a Big-leaf Maple or another plant with huge leaves, the leaves should definitely be chopped up into smaller pieces so that you do not end up with a matted mulch that sheds water and smothers plants.
2) Winterize your vegetable beds with a 2-3 inch layer of leaves, to protect soil nutrients from being washed away by our heavy winter rains, and prevent winter weed seeds from invading. Keep the leaves from being blown away by pinning some bird netting, burlap coffee bags, or other "breathable" material over the top of the leaves.
3) If you have an outdoor wooden worm bin, fall is a great time to harvest the finished compost and re-bed the worm bin with moist, fallen leaves. And remember to save a few garbage bags fun of leaves for the next time you'll need to re-bed it, which will probably be spring or summer when dry leaves won't be available. Fallen leaves are the natural habitat for red-wiggler worms, and make the very best bedding for outdoor bins in my opinion.
4) Add leaves of all sizes to your yard waste compost bin(s), or rake them into a big pile in an inconspicuous corner of your property. Keep the pile damp but not soggy, and within a year or so they will have decomposed into the finest compost you can imagine. Spread the finished compost on your ornamental or vegetable beds.
5) Leaves are a great ingredient for sheet-mulching, which is an easy method of turning part of your lawn into garden beds. The first layer of newspaper or cardboard goes on top of the lawn (cut the grass super short first). Then pile on a 6-8 inch layer of leaves, a 1-2 inch layer of finished compost, and top it all off with a 3 inch layer of wood chips to hold everything down and prevent winter weeds from invading. An easy way to stretch your compost- buying dollars. Fall is the very best time of year to get a sheet-mulching project going, as moist soil conditions will speed the decomposition of the dying grass underneath the mulch.

Look for Tent Caterpillar Egg Cases

We haven't had a bad outbreak of tent caterpillars since around 2004, but it's still a good idea to take a look at the bare branches of your trees and shrubs at least once during winter, to see if there are any egg cases attached. The egg cases look like dirty gray, plastic foam-like bands and masses, and are usually attached to the smaller shoots and twigs. Some of their favorite targets are fruit trees (including Crab Apple), Raspberry and other cane fruit, Alder, Cascara, Birch, Hawthorn, Rose, Spiraea, Potentilla, and even English Laurel. Beneficial insects that prey on the caterpillar larvae began to catch up with the caterpillar invasion after the first year of a bad outbreak, but that first year can do a lot of damage, especially to young trees. The egg cases can be peeled off very easily with your fingernail, even though I know this sounds yucky. They're actually very dry little discs so you won't get gooey I promise! It's much much easier than spraying with a dormant oil spray and doesn't harm beneficials, it doesn't cost a cent, and will pay off in much fewer problems on your plants during an outbreak. The common belief is that tent caterpillar outbreaks are on a 7 year cycle, but it doesn't necessarily happen that way.

Remove Deadwood from Evergreen Shrubs

This is a great time to examine your Rhododendron, Azalea, Camellias, Pieris, Ceanothus, and other broadleaf evergreens for deadwood. It's normal for some dead branchlets to accumulate over time on the interior of broadleaf shrubs, as it's usually just a result of an increasing amounts of shade in the center of their leaf canopy. However, deadwood that builds up in large amounts can itself block a significant amount of sunlight, cause overly-humid conditions, and eventually contribute to a decline in overall health. The good news is that it's easy to see deadwood in a broadleaf evergreen, and easy to remove it. For dead branchlets that are pencil-sized or smaller, you may not even need your pruners- try reaching in with a little pinch and twist to snap them off cleanly. But always use your pruners or pruning saw for anything bigger. It's kind of fun to do this kind of cleanup, and you'll be surprised how much better your shrubs will look too! One important note though- don't remove 100% of the deadwood! Why not, you ask? Well the answer is for your fine feathered friends, the birds. Many perching birds, especially hummingbirds, prefer to roost and preen on deadwood rather than live branches. And getting to have their beauty adorn your garden far outweighs the unsightliness of a handful of deadwood!

Assess Deciduous Trees and Shrubs for Pruning Needs
Without their leaf canopy, the branch structure of deciduous trees and shrubs is much easier to assess. Winter is a great time to reduce or eliminate diseased or crossing branches, and improve the gracefulness of the branching structure. Thinning cuts are almost always a much better choice than a heading cut. Thinning cuts are made at the outside edge of the branch collar, at around a 45 degree angle from the trunk. Always use a sharp bypass pruners or a pruning saw, and go slow. Making a sharp, clean cut allows the plant to compartmentalize the cut, and seal out pests and disease.

However, not all trees and shrubs do well with winter pruning. Plum, Cherry, and other stone fruit trees have a tendency to become susceptible to diseases, and/or to put out water sprouts or sucker growth if they are pruned during the dormant season. These plants do much better with summer pruning, done in July or early August. Japanese Maple and many other Maples also do well with summer pruning, as they have a tendency to "bleed" sap excessively when pruned during our mild winters here in the Pacific Northwest. Even if you do need to delay your pruning until summer, winter is a great time to tie a colored ribbon or string around the branches you need to remove, so you'll save time and error when sumer rolls around.

No matter what time of year you prune, never remove more than 30% of the total live canopy of any tree. In fact, I advise clients to try to stay within 15-20% whenever possible. Removing too much live wood can cause trees and shrubs to go into shock from the disruption to their food-making capacity. They can begin a cycle of unsightly water spouting and root suckering, limbs that are usually not well attached to the tree, and increased susceptibility to pests and disease.

If you'd like to learn more about pruning your own trees and shrubs (and you live in Seattle), set up an appointment with me for a hands-on pruning lesson to get the knowledge and confidence to do it yourself. Check out my website at for more information.

Tool Maintenance

High-quality tools can last many years, especially with a little care. After using them, do a quick exam and cleaning of your tools as you put them away. First scrape off any loose dirt or mud, give a quick scrub with a nylon brush or cotton rag, then be sure to dry them off- tools put away wet will rust, making the surface rough and much harder to dig or cut with.

Check the blade edge of shovels for any big nicks, and use a flat mill file to re-bevel the blade to match the original manufacturing if needed. Also check for rust, which can be cleaned up with a wire brush, sandpaper, or steel wool. Hanging them up instead of propping them against a garage wall protects their blades from rust and keeps the surrounding area safer too.

It's amazing how much easier pruners are to use when they're sharp, and how much cleaner the cuts are on your plants. You can take these to most small hardware stores to be sharpened for a reasonable price, or do it yourself (and be careful). Find the original sharpening angle used by the manufacturer, and use an oiled whetstone only in one direction, not back and forth. One of my New Year's resolutions in 2004 was to sharpen my pruners more often, and I can tell you it's been well worth the time every year for the 5 years since then. If you schedule a pruning lesson with me, I'll be glad to show you some quick and easy tips during our session.

If you're storing any tool for winter, put a heavy coating of WD-40 or machine oil on the blade. A little furniture oil on wood handles is good too. If you're heading back to the garden soon, put a light coat on and wipe any excess off before using.

Real Curb Appeal

This is one of my favorite native plants for shade, Mahonia nervosa (Low Oregon Grape)

Front yards can be pretty small in most urban-size gardens, and the area between the street curb and sidewalk (called the parking or planting strip) is sometimes the biggest space for a front garden. Yet these strips can possess several difficult characteristics: they're usually far from a water spigot, have poor soil, and are in full sun with reflected heat from the surrounding pavement.

However, all these obstacles can be overcome! Improving the health of the soil, choosing the right plants, and shading out weeds with densely planted shrubs and groundcovers can create real curb appeal for your home and garden. (not to be confused with the overplanting techniques in the HGTV show of the same name, which result in a "maintenance migraine" and plant decline)

Sunny planting strips can be used as a combination herb-and-ornamental-garden by planting Lavender, Rosemary, Yarrow, Verbena, or Salvia (Sage), mixed with Cistus (Rockrose) and Sedums of any kind. These plants are all quick to establish and grow, and provide flowers from spring to fall. They'll all need to be watered during their first 1-2 summers, but then will thrive with only what Mother Nature delivers.

For part-to-full shade strips, Mahonia nervosa or M. repens (Low Oregon Grape), Sarcococca ruscifolia (Sweet Box) and all species of Epimedium (Barrenwort) species are hardy evergreens that provide a cool and peaceful look, and fragrant flowers from January to May.

Trees are a great focal point in a planting strip, and will provide shade for their own roots and the plantings beneath, which will reduce water needs for all. In choosing a tree, first look at what may already be in the planting strips on your street. Continuing a theme that's already present can have a unifying effect for the block.

For small planting strips, Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem" provides fragrant summer flowers, grows only 15ft. tall x 10ft. wide, and makes a nice evergreen screen. For larger planting strips, Gingko biloba (Maidenhair Tree) Parrotia persica (Ironwood) and Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) are in the 25ft x 20ft range with gorgeous fall color, and beautiful structure and bark that is best revealed in winter.

Avoid Prunus species (Cherries/Plums), as in our area they're increasingly hard to keep healthy and free from bacterial and fungal diseases in our region.

To improve soil conditions, till 4-6 inches of compost into the top foot of soil in the entire strip if you are starting from scratch. If you are adding trees or shrubs to a strip that is already partially planted, use compost as a top dressing after the strip is completely planted. Adding compost just into your planting holes used to be the norm, but research has shown that doing this can actually stunt root growth, and cause roots to circle around and around in the "good dirt" until the crown of the plant is strangled.

After planting, using 2-4 inches of mulch to suppress weeds, retain water, and reduce compaction. Medium-large wood chips are the best mulch to use around all trees and shrubs. The finely-ground cedar bark (aka "beauty bark") looks more uniform, but it compacts over time to form an impenetrable barrier to rainfall and air, which are vital for plant root health.

Remember to leave room in the planting strip to get out of a car and walk through comfortably. And before you put a shovel to the ground, it's very important to make a few phone calls and online searches. The Seattle Dept. of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle City Arborist have created a list of approved trees, shrubs, and groundcovers for strips and traffic circles at, or call 206-684-5283. SDOT requires a planting plan to issue a permit, but tree-planting permits are free. Last but not least, call 800-424-5555 to have underground utility lines (water, electric and gas) located and marked for free. These steps are well worth the effort to ensure that you'll never have to remove what you have planted and cared for.

Remedies for the "Green Wall"

When large, evergreen shrubs are planted in landscape beds right next to the foundation of your house, they frequently end up blocking windows, entries, or pathways with a "green wall". Rhododendrons and Camellias are often the culprits in these cases for several reasons: they've been very popular as foundation plantings for many years, it's hard to imagine them at 6-18 ft when they're purchased in pots, and the walkways of many homes are built so close to them that it creates a very narrow garden bed.

The green wall can be frustrating for several reasons: having your garden view and sunlight blocked, rainwater dumped on you when brushing past, or feeling that the approach to your house is unsafe. The urge to do some major pruning on the "offender" can be pretty strong.

However... the green wall will get worse quickly if large heading cuts are made on branches, which stimulates immediate growth in all directions. Leaves are a plant's "food factory", and this is its survival response in order not to starve to death. So the result is that instead of 1 or 2 branches in the way, you may end up with 8! Genetics determine the plant's mature size, which it will continually strive to reach no matter what we do.

The art of pruning does have several solutions that work with the plant's nature instead of against it. (always more successful than just ordering it in vain to "halt!") Making thinning cuts to branches modifies the green wall, yet allows the plant to grow to its mature size and retain its basic natural form. However, if the plant is in need of serious rehab, the thinning may need to be done gradually over the course of 1-3 years in order to keep the plant in good health.

If you live in the Seattle area, I'll be glad to schedule a pruning lesson to help you get started on implementing any of the following solutions:

1) Plants growing in front of windows can be thinned throughout their framework, retaining their height, but creating a pleasant and safe view through their branches.

2) Plants blocking pathways or entries can be thinned to have a tree-like structure from ground level to 7 ft. At that point, they can be allowed to grow to their full width.

3) Another solution for plants blocking pathways is to thin the depth of the plant's structure throughout to create a fan-like form. This allows the remaining branches to reach full height and width, and creates an informal espalier.

The first step in any pruning strategy is to remove excess deadwood, which is usually clogging up the interior of the shrub. You'll be amazed at how much more beautiful the plant looks immediately, and its simpler structure also makes it easier to decide which live branches to remove in order to achieve the end effect you want. See the Fall Garden Task blog for a detailed description of how to successfully remove deadwood.

I recommend pruning off no more than 15-20% of the shrub's total live leaf canopy in any 1 year period. Many books recommend 30%, but I disagree. You may be able to get away with doing more than 20%, but remember that you may not... so only take that chance if you are willing to take the risk of serious plant shock or worse.

Years ago, I learned a great tip from Cass Turnbull, founder of Plant Amnesty, a great non-profit pruning education organization. To make sure you are not removing too much live growth, always pile up your prunings near the shrub instead of stuffing them into the yard waste bin right away. That way, you can easily keep track of the size of the pile in comparison to the shrub, and you will definitely lessen your chances of removing too much!

Rhododendrons and Camellias can be pruned most any time of the year, but doing it now will cost you some of this year's flowers. It's just fine to prune during bloom and bring the flowers inside to be enjoyed, or to prune immediately after blooming is finished.

Last but not least, remember that Rhododendrons and Camellias have a very shallow, fibrous root system, and therefore need more frequent watering than deep-rooted plants, yet still need good drainage. If they are under the eaves of your home, they may need supplemental water even in winter. They can also suffer root suffocation if more than 1-2 inches of mulch is put around them.

This type of root system also means that even large Rhododendrons and Camellias may be able to be moved to another place in your garden, where they can grow to mature height and width without being in your way at all!

Or, how about moving the walkway out further from the house in order to create a generous-sized planting bed?

Another source of pruning ideas is Plant Amnesty's flyer entitled "My Rhody's Too Big", available by calling 206-783-9813 or through This helpful organization also has pruning flyers on everything from Abelias to Wisteria, and a wonderful series of pruning classes. Consider becoming a member so you can receive a discount on pruning classes and get to attend their fabulous member potluck "Meeting of Like Minds" events!

Being around plants is good for you!

Folks that are passionate about gardening know that it benefits their lives in many ways: the pleasure of creating beauty, eating homegrown foods, easing stress, getting a good workout, or just taking in deep breaths of fresh air. But until recently, most of these benefits were documented only with anecdotal evidence, and very little was known about the effects of just "be-ing" in the presence of plants without actually gardening.

In the past 10+ years though, several universities and other groups have done controlled studies on the effects that plants themselves have on human behavior, emotion, and physiology. One study showed that just by sitting in a park for 20 minutes three times a week, breast cancer patients suffered less side effects from chemo, had less depression, less fatigue, and recovered more quickly from surgery. Another showed that blood pressure levels fell for healthy people just by walking through a botanical garden, and that students given tests in a room with houseplants maintained lower blood pressure during and after the tests.

Most dramatic to me is the study that showed that prisoners who could view the countryside from their cell windows instead of the prisonyard went to the prison hospital less often, for shorter periods of time, required less medication, and were more cooperative with hospital staff. These people could only use one of their 5 senses to interact with plants (sight), yet it still had a dramatic effect.

I'm sure in the coming years, there will continue to be more and more direct evidence of the benefits of just "be-ing" around plants- if you're lucky enough to get to use all your senses to interact with them, all the better!

A Bulgarian Journey

I had an experience in the summer of 2007 that added a new dimension to my life and my work. Early in that year, a client and friend invited me to begin an association with the Worldwide Orphans Foundation ( WWO is a non-profit organization that is headquartered on the east coast and has been developing a variety of wonderful programs to improve the life of orphans all over the world since 1997.

WWO asked me to design a new "nature play" area for the Mika e Dete orphanage in Pleven, Bulgaria where they had recently expanded their Early Intervention Program, which is nicknamed “The Granny Program”. The Granny Program provides a surrogate grandmother for children that are in serious crisis, and it provides income for the retired Bulgarian women who are hired as Grannies. They spend several hours a day in the orphanage, 5 days a week, nurturing two “grandchildren” for a year or more, and the results have been dramatic; children who are totally withdrawn emotionally and physically become cheerful, active, and healthier within a relatively short time, due to the tremendous power of the love and caring they are given. It is hard work that takes patience, and the 10 Grannies at the Mika e Dete orphanage were working with an additional challenge: no outdoor play area for the children.

The former playground had become a debris-strewn and abandoned woodland meadow, and all the play structures had been twice stolen (for the metal) during very hard economic times after the end of the Soviet Union. With no public parks close by either, the only outdoor experience possible with their surrogate grandchildren was walking down the city sidewalks. So the Grannies approached WWO with the request for an outdoor play area where they could spend quality time with the children.

There are 240 children in the orphanage, most in the age range of infancy to 3. The majority have been temporarily removed from the custody of their parents by the state and are not up for adoption. For these children, the orphanage is functioning as a foster care/social service agency with a goal of helping stabilize and reunite the families. Many of the children, even those who are not in severe crisis, are somewhat physically and/or emotionally delayed due to neglect, abuse, or severe poverty. Spending their lives indoors gives them little ability to develop a direct relationship with nature, and makes it very difficult to develop large motor skills and strength. This sad situation formed my basic design goals for the new nature play area:

• to give all the children a safe place to experience nature, and develop a meaningful relationship with birds, insects, and other creatures.

• to encourage imaginative free play that also helps them develop the physical skills of climbing, balance, and running.

• to provide a welcoming and comforting environment for time spent with their Granny or a caring staffer, and for the children to socialize with one another.

The design also provided some unique challenges for me. Since I had never visited the site, I would have to design the play area based only on photos of the site and some rough dimensions. In addition, I knew very little about Bulgaria! So my first step was to delve into research on its history, plants, people, and customs. This provided me with a lot of inspiration, as it is a fascinating part of the world, with a rich cultural heritage. I quickly realized that the former playground’s woodland meadow would be the perfect setting, as this region’s summers are very hot and all young children overheat easily in the sun. Also, many traditional Bulgarian stories, fairy tales, and songs take place in a woodland setting, with the trees, birds, and animals providing the delightful subjects. Since manufactured playground structures would likely be stolen again, my instinct for creating natural play features (which guide all my child-friendly garden designs) would come in handy. And so the ideas sprang forth… "fallen" logs to sit on, a portable swing that could be easily carried out by the Grannies, tree stump tables and stools, paths to guide kids into wandering through the woodland, a sandbox, comfortable seating for the Grannies, a place for performing songs and dances, and a pretend “creek” with wooden bridges crossing over it.

The plan also grew "wings" within WWO, and a few months later a dozen people from various parts of the USA had come forward to join the new Service Ranger program and volunteer to build the play area. So plans were made for me to travel to Pleven from July 21st-29th to coordinate the installation and lead the volunteer team. I was also asked to conduct some nature classes for slightly older children (5-7) from the Detelina orphanage, which is in another part of Pleven.

My first look at the site confirmed that it would indeed make a great play area for the children, despite the construction rubble scattered everywhere and the drought in the region which had caused most of the existing wildflowers to finish blooming early and dry up. I was also delighted to discover that orphanage staff had created a small vegetable garden in one corner, where they were growing peppers, tomatoes, and a few perennials. The WWO Service Ranger volunteers ranged in age from 9 to 74 and included several doctors, child psychologists, a professor, pastor, and graphic designer. But on the first day of work we were faced with the hottest day in Bulgaria in around 150 years. I’m glad I didn’t know that 45C is equal to 113F until that day was over. And believe it or not, the 90-95 degree days for the rest of the week seemed like a piece of cake!

The installation went well, with several orphanage staff pitching in to help with the clean up, materials delivery, and other tasks. Their good humor and hard work helped to further the spirit of camaraderie in the group. We expanded the vegetable garden and worked plenty of good compost into the soil so that staff and the Grannies could grow more food, cut flowers, and herbs with the kids. We used materials found on the site to create features for the play area: decorative concrete pavers made the foundation of a bench for the Grannies and steppingstones for the winding paths through the trees and open areas, and the previously cracked and dangerous concrete pad where the playground equip had been was patched and became an astroturf carpeted “stage” for playing, singing, and dancing. Also, the larger bricks and concrete rubble were used to create the edging for new, mounded beds where we transplanted native Roses. A colorfully-striped hammock became the portable swing. Tree rounds from a local woodlot became 4 “dining sets” of tables and stools, set here and there between the trees, and the native wildflowers and meadow grasses will spring back to life around them once it starts raining again.
After excavating what seemed like hundreds of pieces of brick and plaster out of a concrete-lined pit in the center of the space, we bought in a dump truck full of real ocean sand (seashells and all!) and set more “fallen logs” as the seats around the new sandbox edge. The existing narrow ditch that directed runoff to a drain was widened to be a meandering, shallow swale, dotted with river rock here and there to resemble a small stream. And when one of the orphanage staff built two wonderful, arched wooden bridges to set across it, I was inspired to give the garden the name of a song from my own childhood: “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go”

Each day during the installation, I took a mid-day break to teach a nature class for several 5-7 yr olds visiting from the Detelina orphanage. I brought with me some nature coloring books that I had made, along with finger puppets and photos of birds, plants, and animals that are common to both Bulgaria and the Pacific NW. All were a big hit with the kids, who excitedly told me how they felt about these creatures and plants. We dug in the garden to plant seeds and bulbs, and explored the play area to find snail shells, a blue butterfly, a ladybug, and an amazing metallic-purple color beetle. Having no translator for most of the hours I spent with these children gave me the good fortune to experience that nature has its own language, which can be communicated and shared though pictures, pantomime, and many happy smiles of understanding. A photographer from the Pleven newspaper visited on the first day, and lo and behold we landed on the next cover page in full color. On the last morning, we were interviewed by a reporter from the Bulgarian National Radio.

Later the whole WWO Service Ranger team gathered with the Grannies, staff, orphanage director, and many of the resident children to have a celebration and garden parade. Having the new nature play area filled with happy and curious children, their hands and feet in the sand, lying in the hammock swing, scrambling over the bridges and having imaginary tea parties at the little tables, with Grannies and staff smiling down at them…. this was the best reward I could ask for...

My entire Bulgarian journal has been published on the Worldwide Orphans Foundation website ( at the “Share” link.