Monthly Archives: April 2019

My Garden with Andie

I met Andrea (Andie) Ptak, five years ago in a class for bloggers where I learned, unrelated to the class, (but maybe the most useful thing to come out of it) that she had converted her yard into a native plant garden and certified backyard habitat.

When I drove up to Andie’s house in South Seattle last Saturday for an interview in honor of Native Plant Appreciation Week, this week, she was standing outside surveying her work.

Her front yard was abuzz with low flying bees working the Lithodora. “It’s not native but the bees like it,” says Andie who is in her mid-sixties. “I leave the dandelions alone, at least until there are more flowering plants,” she adds, noting the few dandelions that spotted the yard. (Dandelions are after all a native, and the bees first food coming out of hibernation.)

Andie is talking a mile a minute pointing out all the natives – native violets, native bleeding hearts, native irises, more than I can quickly write down.  All these plants I’ve heard and seen pictures of but never been able to find. “It’s very hard to find natives at nurseries,” Andie says, “You have to wait for the native plant sales.” And those only happen a couple of times a year. I know. I’ve been trying to cultivate a backyard habitat since my daughter was in preschool. A butterfly garden sounded good; it would take food (native plants), water and shelter, but it never went anywhere.  

The sales are daunting. Full of pots with straggly bits of green in them – it’s hard to know what you’re buying or what to do with it unless you’re an expert.

And Andie is. She’s a Certified Master Urban Naturalist, a titled she earned in 2015 through an intensive 6-month program at Seward Park offered by the Audubon Society. Completion required doing a major project, and hers was a Native Plant Super Saturday that she organized at the park.

She also wrote about gardening with native plants for the blog that she started back when I knew her, The Green Queen of Moderation. It has tips on being sustainable and thrifty and not feeling you must be zealous about it; that’s the moderation part.

Next, we head to her back yard which is about six times as large as the front. Both were just pure grass she tells me, when she and her husband Aaron bought the place. Not even a tree. Now there are native and fruit-bearing trees and bushes throughout. Andie’s yard is about half native, half non-native. If the non-natives are not invasive, they’re fine. About a third of the back yard is covered in wood chips and serves as a dog run for their two Golden Retrievers, Paprika and Cayenne, “The Spice Girls.”

The dogs follow us into the back yard living up to their names. Paprika, the older dog, is mellow and sweet, and Cayenne, about seven months, is excitably jumping on me almost every chance she can get, which is flattering. Andie keeps warning her off, finally calling Aaron to take her away.

“Maybe you should have called her Cinnamon,” I offer.

The garden in back has meandering paths, with bird baths, yard art, a trellis enclosed patio, and other seating areas. It’s just starting to come into bloom. There are more natives back here from flower to fern to ground cover to tree. Hidden within this garden is a loosely fenced-in food garden with large blueberry bushes, a ground cultivated for planting vegetables, and another area with raspberry canes. 

Why native? So many reasons, Andie says, they support the pollinators. That’s a big one as she writes in her blog, “As our population grows, mankind encroaches on the natural world, pushing out species of both plants and animals—some to the state of extinction. There’s not a lot I can do personally to save the tiger or polar bear, but I can make sure that area songbirds have plenty of food and a place to nest, and that bees and butterflies have sources for nectar.”

Native plants also conserve water, she adds, because they’re acclimated to our climate of wet winters and dry summers. And they’re beautiful. “They’re not as showy as the non-natives,” she admits, “and they’re hard to cultivate in pots, and that’s likely why they’re hard to find at the nurseries.” 

They’re also not as straggly as I feared.  Her natives are thick, growing in dense clusters. Andie’s yard will be lush come summer. They spread and reseed themselves, says Andie. She also helps them along by dividing and replanting. What started as just a couple of small pots picked up at a native plant sale has spread to cover nearly every inch of her yard.

Native plants are low maintenance once established, which is what attracted me to them, but they’re also slow to grow.

I started by planting a few natives in one bare spot in my yard, throwing water on them regularly as they took root.  But I never really had time to cultivate them. Sometimes years would go by with barely a weed being pulled. Now, these many years later (my daughter is about to graduate from college), they’ve taken off. They’re crowding each other out. The Tall Oregon Grape, Low Oregon Grape, Inside-out Flower, Sword Fern, Columbine, Kinnikinnik, a Mock Orange, which everyone loves, and a Red-Flowering Current. Only the hardy Salal didn’t take. Go figure.

The Red-Flowering Current went from being a couple of feet tall to over six feet and almost as wide. Recently trudging home from work, I came upon it in bloom spilling forth pinkish red blossoms that lifted my spirits. Then if that wasn’t enough a hummingbird was zipping around them.

Seeing Andie’s garden, I’m inspired. Maybe a backyard habitat is still within reach.

And about the non-natives, she says, as I’m leaving, summing everything up, “You can live here if I don’t have to do too much for you.”

Andie’s Native Early Blue Violet
Native Iris
Native Bleeding Heart
My Red-Flowering Current (that humming birds love)

Native Plants seen in Andrea Ptak’s yard:

Trees

Black Hawthorn

Red Twig Dogwood

Shrubs

Evergreen Huckleberry

Mock Orange

Red-Flowering Current

Low Oregon Grape

Ferns

Sword Fern

Ground Cover

Oxalis

Early Blue Violet

False Lily of the Valley

Kinnikinnik

Wild Strawberry

Inside-out Flower

Flowers

Columbine

Bleeding Heart

Iris

Camas

Lupine

Fleabane

Asters

Penstemon Azures

The Tale of the Swale on Yale

South Lake Union is home to forward-thinking environmental design. One of the most innovative design features, a form of green infrastructure, is what’s known as the Swale on Yale. It’s two swales actually (one in the 400 block of Yale St. and the other parallel to it on Pontius St.), and it’s about to swell to two more (just south of both locations in the 300 block of both streets).

The swales give South Lake Union a bit of moorland feel, but beyond the aesthetics these stretches of grassland are working to treat Capitol Hill storm water roadway runoff before it reaches Lake Union.

Technically the swales are known as the Capitol Hill Water Quality Project, a public private collaboration between the city of Seattle and Vulcan Real Estate; KPFF Consulting Engineers also played a key role.

“When the swales were planned (in the early 2000s),” wrote Jason Sharpley of Seattle Public Utilities, in an email exchange, “there were no regional scale biofiltration swales treating stormwater from ultra-urban roadways that we were able to find.”

“Typically, swales were used on a more limited, roadway scale to treat and convey stormwater runoff from the adjacent roadway.”

The project was so unique that the Seattle Design Commission created a special award, an “In the Works “ Excellence Award, that they won in 2011. The swales came online in 2015.

Working swale on the 400 block of Pontius St.

“Since completing the first pair of swales there has been a lot of interest and there may be new systems in other cities.”

Seattle’s steep slopes helped propel the innovation. “We have the right topography for this,” says Dave Schwartz of KPFF Consulting Engineers. The slopes make it easier to divert water to where you want it, which makes cleaning it easier too. And that’s what the swales do, filter and clean. They’re made up of densely planted grasses, “a mixture of sedges, which have edges, and rushes, which are round,” says Schwartz describing his mnemonic means of distinguishing them. 

They clean roadway runoff that “includes everything that you see, and don’t see, that is on the roadway,” says Sharpley.  “This includes brake dust from cars that carries copper, dissolved metals from galvanized fences, and bacteria from wildlife and pet waste. The swales and pretreatment that make up the Swale on Yale system do a good job of removing a significant portion of the pollutants.”

The Swale on Yale couldn’t have been done without developer help, says Schwartz, stressing the huge role that Vulcan Real Estate played in making the public private partnership happen. Vulcan provided technical and profession assistance along with contributing about $1.3 million toward design and construction. Most critically they provided the easement to the city. Developers are playing key roles in creating environmental projects that provide a greater good, says Schwartz, noting another public private project under the Aurora Bridge, rain gardens catching bridge water runoff. “Not all try to just make money and destroy the world,” he added.

Planted in rain garden soil which is a bonus for filter, the grasses catch toxic sediment from the water as it takes its time to mosey through the swale, at least nine minutes.

But even before the water reaches the swales it’s run through a diversion tank that uses centrifugal force to flush out “floatables,” a nice name for trash such as cups, straws, and cigarette butts.

From the diversion tank, controlled amounts of water are released into the swales evenly so as not to overflow them and to keep their integrity intact.

The swales then drain into a discharge pipe and the water is released to the lake.  “The water is not drinkable,” says Sharpley, “but significantly cleaner than when it entered the swale.” 

New swale plantings on the 300 block of Pontius St.

The two new swales will come online once the plants mature. For now they look like woven works of art running between the sidewalk and roadway. Once they are put to work, the system will be able to treat the full design flow of 7.2 cubic feet of water per second, which is more than 3,000 gallons a minute. The older swales treat half that capacity today. The full swale build-out will treat 435 acres of storm water runoff from Capitol Hill’s 630-acre basin.

The Swale on Yale captures the dirtiest water from both small storms and the early runoff from larger storms. Thanks to this pioneering green infrastructure, Lake Union is much cleaner than it otherwise would be and could become cleaner still with even more projects like the Swale on Yale.

The Swale on Yale — 400 block, with city workers maintaining it.