Let’s Talk Compost

I take compost very seriously. It’s a vital part of a sustainable landscape and in the larger picture of our world. Here are some questions I am often asked on the subject:

What is compost?

Compost is aged and broken down organic matter, which in general contains the major macronutrients and the micronutrients needed for healthy plants to grow.

What is the difference between fertilizer and compost?

Compost acts as a fertilizer but it is much more. Most people think of petrochemical products as fertilizer. Fresh manure is another type of fertilizer which has not been composted. It would burn the plants if used freshly laid.

Why is compost a good thing for my garden?

Compost acts chemically to feed the micro-flora and micro-fauna found in the soil naturally, which in turn feed the roots of your plants. The compost acts physically as a bit of a blanket against erosion and increases the ability for the soil to retain moisture, sort of like a sponge.

How do I make good compost?

There are many compost makers that can be purchased.  Generally, broken down plant parts and food parts compost better if oxygen is incorporated into the process. This is why many composters have the ability to turn or move. In our case we simply layer the different kinds of compostable materials and occasionally thrust in a pitch fork to oxygenate the composting process.

Here is a picture of Winterbloom’s composter:

compost bins







Why do you have three bins for your compost?

The bin covered with the blue tarp is the bin that was filled last year. The tarp keeps it protected from the rain in the winter and the sun in the summer. The middle bin is the one that we are filling with compostable materials, such as garden clippings. The far right bin is the last year’s finished compost. That’s what we’re using right now for new plantings or to spread on our garden.

Biochar: A Hotel for Fertilizer and Moisture

7-22-2013 Phil in Biochar veggie garden 007Although it looks like powder to the human eye, Biochar is really extremely tiny honeycombed charcoal briquettes.  It is made from waste wood and agricultural products and is used as a soil amendment.

Its value for the home gardener is that it retains moisture and fertilizer in the soil. I mix it in at the same time as I am working in fertilizer. The Biochar “hosts” these vital nutrients until my plants are ready to use them. It has a neutral pH and I can store bags of it easily.

The larger picture is that Biochar, also called “dark earth,” “soil carbon,” or “terra preta,” is considered by some as another potential tool to help combat climate change. It is made by burning organic crop, wood, and yard wastes, or manures, at very high temperatures and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis.

This ancient soil-building method creates humus-rich soil that stores large amounts of carbon that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere. It’s also good for your garden!

If you’re interested in learning a lot more about Biochar, I refer you to the book, Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger, Ute Scheub and her co-authors are among those who believe that increasing the humus content of soils worldwide by 10 percent within the next 50 years could reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels.

Tall fescue – Festuca arundinacea

Tall fescue is a cool season perennial species bunch grass native to Europe. It is a coarse-textured medium to dark green grass, whose leaves are rolled in a bud (unlike the more flat blades we’re used to in the northwest). The plant appears quite vertical. It handles our long, wet, cool seasons very well and its deep root system also enables it to cope well with our dryer hotter months.

When mixed with other grasses in a pasture, or a coarse grassy lawn in the warmth of a western Oregon summer, it stands out because it tends to be green when other grasses have turned brown and gone dormant. It is well adapted to sunny areas. It has traditionally been an important forage grass throughout Europe because of its ability to stay green during the dry warm months and there are many cultivars which have been grown for different localities and uses. It has been used to some degree as an ornamental grass, for soil conversation, and as a phytoremediation (Phytoremediation refers to the natural ability of certain plants, called hyperaccumulators, to bioaccumulate, degrade or render harmless contaminants in soils, water, or air, such as lead or other toxic materials) plant. Because it naturally has a bunch grass type of growth rather than a creeping or quickly spreading habit, if grown as a stand, it regularly needs an addition of seed to fill in blank spots. In a ryegrass or bent grass lawn this Tall fescue is considered a weed, since its dark vertical and coarse texture stands out against the rest of the sod grasses. It does not mix well. It is not often grown as a lawn in its natural form, because it is so coarse textured and bunchy in appearance.

New varieties that are finer in texture and shorter in stature are known as turf-type Tall fescues and dwarf turf-type Tall Fescues. These fescues are good to plant for general sunny lawn use and are the most common lawn grass types in California. There are also Tall fescue-endophyte assisted varieties available. These varieties are very drought tolerant, disease resistant and also deter predation by insects and mammals. They may be good for lawn areas but are counter productive in pastures, since they’re poisonous to cattle.

Recently some of the turf-type Tall fescues have been developed to the point where several are purported to be spreading. This trait in a Tall fescue lawn is very advantageous, as the standard varieties need to be reseeded occasionally to fill in bare spots. There are several varieties of this group of sod type Tall fescues and they are all Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF). Some varieties of RTF do fill out fairly well, while others do not. This grass is still somewhat in the research stage but there have been some success in the RTF Sods, which are now available. They become thick, green and more drought tolerant as a lawn grass that will fill in naturally (except for the large holes) without having to be reseeded.

Here are some reasons why Northwesterners might become interested in an RTF sod for their own lawn:

  • Tall fescue tolerates more sun and heat before turning brown and going dormant. Most of our native grasses, and particularly the non-native ryegrasses, do go dormant when it becomes hot and dry. However, Tall fescue is not a grass that can be used in shade.
  • This particular selection of Tall fescue tends to crowd out other grasses more than our standard perennial ryegrass and so it has a more uniform appearance after several seasons than most sod types.
  • When damaged, this lawn can repair itself to some degree where many other types of sod would not.
  • Since RTF takes more sun and heat than other grasses, it can handle a south-facing lawn placed at a slight tilt toward the sun, with reflected heat from a sidewalk. This is the hottest aspect for most lawns and one where most grasses would develop dry, dead spots. Not Tall fescue! It seems to relish full robust summer sun in our climate.

Glorious Daphne! A Temporary Treat

This year our Daphne bush burst into profuse and fragrant bloom earlier than usual, due to our mild winter. Its lovely pink blossoms are wafting a wonderful welcome to all visitors. If we could bottle this sensational smell, we would call it something like Delicious Daphne, or Spring Siren.

Daphne odora 1 (2)

We are indeed fortunate here in the Willamette valley to be able to grow several species and varieties of Daphne. Most of them are fragrant; a few of them can live up to at least 10 years and one of them really likes it here well enough to self-sow.   I will focus here on our most well-known Daphne, Daphne odora (Daphne o).

This Daphne has glossy evergreen foliage that in the most common variety available, has variegated leaves. That means they are white and cream, so that even when not in bloom, this wondrous shrub is attractive.  Daphne odora begins to bloom here in March and in a really mild winter, such as the one we just had, it can begin blooming in February.  The fragrance is beguiling, and to me it is a mixture of lemon and jasmine.

It is especially great to establish your Daphne near the front door, so it can be enjoyed as you walk up to the house.  There are some challenges in providing just the right place to keep it happy, though:

  • The location must be well drained, and the ground must be slightly raised around it. Another option is to put it in a raised bed. It works best if the soil has been well worked up with compost. Daphne will die quickly in heavy clay and poor drainage.
  • Daphne odora doesn’t like to be planted in a situation where it gets reflected light in the heat of the day. It will pout, burn, turn yellow, not bloom well and slowly die.
  • Daphne o. doesn’t do well where it gets shade more than half a day. It will bloom only occasionally and the growth will be lanky and unattractive.
  • Daphne o. prefers good strong morning sun and some afternoon shade. It does not mind being planted where it must compete with smaller lower plants as this seems to help its drainage.
  • Daphne o. must be pruned right after it blooms to keep it from getting top-heavy and splitting. The best way to do this is to trim out the extending branches back to a bud. This is easily seen if one looks at the branches with a critical eye. Daphne o. Does not like to be severely pruned, so pruning lightly regularly is best.
  • Daphne o. does not like to be transplanted. I have yet to be successful at this and not have the plant die a year later.
  • The oldest Daphne o. that I have seen is 15 years old. It is not a long lived plant.  If you can get one to live past 10 years you are doing well.
  • Do not over fertilize them or they will only grow excessive foliage and not bloom. Just some good compost and mulch around their roots is all that they need.






The Five Most Common Landscaping Challenges

Over the years we have noticed these common landscaping problems:

Problem: The front entry is hard to find and/or not welcoming.


  • If the main entry door is on the front of the house but it is hidden by plants or structures; often the best solution is to remove those items that can be removed, such as overgrown shrubbery. Then do something with plants, pathways or structures (such as an arbor) to play up and or frame the main entry so that it is more obvious.
  • If, on the other hand, the real entry is around the side of the house and everyone comes to the wrong door, be it the back door, garage door or kitchen door, think of ways to downplay those doors and guide people around to the main entry door with an inviting path, or colorful plants.

Problem: The entertaining area is too small.


  • Consider how many people you’ll be entertaining in the area. This will help to decide how big a space that you will need.
  • Will you be cooking there? You’ll need to allow room for a fireplace, BBQ, fire bowl, outdoor kitchen materials, etc.  This will also help to determine the proper size.
  • Consider circulation from the kitchen to the entertaining space.  It is best to have them at the same elevation with no steps or stairs in between and as short a distance as possible between the two. Consider two openings between the house and the entertaining space for parties and bigger groups to make it easier for them to get in and out.
  • Consider the type of material for the surface of the space. If the door to the kitchen is up a few steps, then a good option would be an artificial or natural wood deck. An alternative would be metal supports with concrete paver surfaces.  If the kitchen door is level to the ground, then always go with a solid surface such as concrete, pavers or flagstone.

Problem: Trees or large plants are located too close to the house.

Solution: Often the best way to deal with this is to cut the tree or shrub down and grind the stump.  If it is too close to the house then the use of molasses or poison should work to kill the stump.  Avoid using poison if you can so that new smaller plants can be planted in the area.

Problem: The maintenance level of the landscape is too high for the client’s lifestyle.

Solution: This takes a whole reworking of the planting plan and often the use of more hardscapes (retaining walls, paths, patios), which of course require less maintenance than living things.

Problem: The drainage and grading were never properly addressed by the builder and/or previous owners and water drains toward the house and vents.

Solution: This can be a very large project if the soil needs to be regraded, because there are often plants and structures in the way.

Once this is addressed, the moisture out of place can then be redirected with drains to dry wells and French drains, along with intentional grading and raised structures.

If you’re facing any of these problems, Winterbloom can help. Give us a call or send us an email. We have solutions for your landscaping problems.

Water, Water Everywhere – Northwest Drainage Issues and Solutions

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we get most of our rainfall during the cooler cloudier months of the year (November-March). This means our rain water runs directly into the ground, as compared to other parts of our country, where rainfall occurs during warmer and sunnier months. This means less rain falls on the ground, because a lot of it is absorbed into the warmer dryer air, or caught on foliage.

Historically, much of the ground in the Northwest was covered by forest or grass. In both cases the soil was honeycombed with roots and holes made by moles, gophers, and other miniature creatures like earthworms. Up to three inches of naturally accumulated soil surface mulch caught and absorbed the moisture like a sponge and slowly released it over time into the soil. The foliage in the trees also absorbed a great deal of moisture, which then evaporated or slowly dripped down onto the ground.

Grass land eco-systems worked in a similar manner. Rotted grass roots and foliage absorbed and stored the rain water and released it slowly during dry season.

This natural moisture storage system worked until we started building lots of houses.

When a house is built, heavy equipment is used to excavate and to move all of the builder’s materials around the site. The holes in the soil, which used to act as conduits for the water running through the property, are suddenly squished by tires and feet and can no longer carry the water. The soil now resembles modeling clay or Pay Doh. Consequently, the water just sits on the surface of the soil. When there is just a little bit of additional rain water, it runs over the ground and is not absorbed.

Also, new house foundations and footings act as vertical dams for the surface and subsurface water. The result is the original rainy season water channeling system, which moved the heavy winter rain water through the ground, now is permanently altered.

Here are three important ways to help rain water flow away from your house:

  • Traditionally, we have prevented water from running off the roof directly into crawl spaces or creating unplanned water features in the yard by  installing foundation and roof drains, which take the water away to the street and then into streams and lakes. A better solution is to channel the water into dry wells or seepage ponds. More about that in an upcoming post.
  • Regrade the soil so that the water runs at least 10 feet away from the house. Doing this causes the surface water to run around the house to some lower point. This point could be your neighbor’s yard, a low point in your yard or the street. Again, if grading doesn’t solve the drainage issue, then installing French drains to catch the water gives you a better outcome. It may also have the side benefit of promoting good relations with your neighbor!
  • The third and most important step of all is to restore the original soil porosity.

To restore soil’s original porosity we must invite the earthworms and other small creatures back into the soil to make their holes. Creating a new habitat  for them will ultimately attract moles, who eat the worms, and also make nice drainage holes. However, most people do not want to attract moles, as they don’t like the unattractive piles of dirt they leave behind.

We can speed up the process, which on its own might take years or even decades, by incorporating at least three inches of good organic material into the surface of the soil and installing plants which strike roots and penetrate the soil to deeper levels.

Planting also helps decrease erosion. Bare soil erodes during any rainy period and especially so when it has low porosity. This erosion increases as the natural slope of the soil increases. Compost and organic mulch will also slow or halt this erosion. The plants slow down the power and drive or the raindrops and their roots help the rain penetrate into the ground. The mulch absorbs a lot of moisture and also invites earthworms and other small creatures to stay and eat the compost. While they’re there, they also pull the much down into their tiny burrows, helping us still more.











Water Features We Have Known

Water is essential to life; fills the oceans and calms our spirits in this hectic age.

Water flowing through a Winterbloom water feature also adds charm and appeal to landscapes and value to your home. Here are some examples from our current client portfolio. First, a time-lapse video of a work in progress. Our crew transformed a culvert-like water feature into a stunning addition to our client’s landscape:


Next, a Ramona fall delights the eyes and ears – right outside our client’s dining room window.

A Ramona fall trips from stone to stone.
A Ramona fall trips from stone to stone.

Finally, we started with a suburban slope and created a lovely fluid meander – here graced with autumn leaves.

From grace to grace
From grass to grace

Martin 3photo

Martin 2photo

We are Celebrating 30 Years in the Landscaping Business!

We started Winterbloom in 1983. My goal was and is to give our clients special places to enjoy with family and friends.

Winterbloom projects have been featured in Better Homes & Gardens’ Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living Magazine, Sunset Magazine and other local and national publications. It is EcoBiz certified and was given the Angie’s List Super Service Award in 2011. Most recently it was noted as one of the top landscape businesses in the Portland Business Journal.

That’s all great; however, our greatest asset truly is our employees. That’s why I threw them and their families an anniversary party at the Thirst Wine Bar and Bistro in downtown Portland. Please enjoy these glimpses into our fun.


There's a party here tonight!
There’s a party here tonight!
The menu
The menu
Phil Thornburg, Andy Coulombe, Brock Dallman, Josh DeGraff and Eric Bock
Phil Thornburg, Andy Coulombe, Brock Dallman, Josh DeGraff and Eric Bock
Miriam Bock, Samara Hand, Phil and Barb Thornburg, Winterbloom's 30th anniversary party, 2013
Miriam Bock, Samara Hand, Phil and Barb Thornburg
Kristin DeGraff and Serenity Coulombe
Kristin DeGraff and Serenity Coulombe
Dianna Weston, Mike Cvek and Dale Hickey
Dianna Weston, Mike Cvek and Dale Hickey
Cory Hand and Paul Bock
Cory Hand and Paul Bock
Andy Coulombe, Brock Dallman, Josh DeGraff and Eric Bock
Andy Coulombe, Brock Dallman, Josh DeGraff and Eric Bock
Dale Hickey, Josh and Jess Deloney
Dale Hickey, Josh and Jess Deloney