Saturday, October 18, 2014


New Camas planting, yesterday.

We have finally gotten enough rain that planting can start.  With a year to break down, the dead annual grass from last year is very easy to rake up, exposing fresh dirt, then the seeds are scattered over the surface and I rake them in.  Though I planted a little grass seed in the areas I planted last fall, most of the grass seed I purchased last fall will be planted in the next few weeks.  I also have the rest of the seed I collected this year, and last year's significant leftovers. As I was out mapping the area, I spotted this young Canadian goldenrod who must have sprouted just this year.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


"Standard view" this morning...

It has been awhile since I took a photo from this vantage point.  Most of the exciting developments are in the southern half of the property, at least with new little flowering plants and whatnot (that I hope survive this dry period of late summer).  Still, this view has changed a lot in the five years since it was planted.  Here it is in August, 2009.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Spring Seeds

Clockwise from the top--Grass widow (Sisyrhincium douglasii), Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum), Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora), Yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica...and some other mystery bulb seed), Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), Western groundsel (Senecio integerrimus), and Salt-and-pepper (Lomatium gormanii).  Starting clockwise from the Salt-and-pepper, they are listed in the order their seed was collected.

Even though we are pretty far north and it can get cold here, the native flowers start blooming in late winter with Salt-and-pepper in late February.  Several of these plants have been hard to start, and I have wondered whether the standard advice I have received for planting native seeds--planting in fall--doesn't take into account that all of the plants above have their seeds planted by summer in nature.  Could the dry heat and occasional rains of summer play an important role in their germination?  I decided this year to plant everything I collected before the Summer solstice in the first week of summer.  I have chosen areas that have nothing but native grass, so I can see if this gets better results than waiting until fall.  Let's do science!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Full Bloom

I was walking out through the prairie in late afternoon today, and was struck by this view--it actually looks like a mature prairie out there!  Years of hard work are starting to pay off...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Late Spring

Looking south--Clarkia, Wyeth buckwheat, and yarrow, blooming in the "new" prairie

There are many small plants just sprouted here that are invisible.  A great deal of taperleaf penstemon is coming up throughout these new plantings, for example.  Still, it is nice to have some reward in the first Spring of a new planting.

In banjo news, I have been experimenting with my gourd banjos.  First, I finished "Gourd Banjo #3" which was the rebuilt version of my first gourd banjo. 

It doesn't have the big sound of #2, but it is a sweet and probably more authentic sound--I suspect that the weight of the metal guitar tuners on #2 somehow anchors the neck so that it doesn't absorb as much energy from the body.  I noticed two things about #3 that I liked right away.  The first is that I really dug out a scoop between the body and the fingerboard and I loved having all that room to work my right hand.  The second thing was that the strings were higher, which should make it harder to play, but nylgut strings are not hard to push down, and the increased string angle seemed to give me a crisper attack. 

So, I realized that I had to alter those two aspects of my beloved #2 gourd banjo.  Today, I opened up more of a scoop (previously, the fingerboard went right up to about half an inch before the body--there really wasn't a scoop) and made a new bridge that raised the strings 2 mm.  Instantly, I had a crisper attack as with banjo #3, and the higher action was somehow easier to play.  That is a bit of a mystery to me, since I had understood that generally with plucked string instruments, you want as low an action as you can get without strings buzzing, but there is no doubt that this higher action is the way to go.  Though I wasn't buzzing before, I may have been bottoming out the strings on the playing surface when I hit it hard, which would certainly be a tone killer.  Anyway, the tone is cleaner and I find that I am more precise with this setup.  I am able to use a more vigorous right hand as well, which is fun.  Okay, back to recording, but this was an important improvement.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

More patience!

Palouse purple geranium (Geranium viscosissimum), blooming at last, today in the prairie!

Another story of native plant patience...There was a single mature Purple geranium in a copse of native rose and snowberry in the Northeast corner of the property when I moved here in 1991, but a neighbor's burning some weeds got out of control and burned the copse in about 1993.  Everything else came back except the geranium. 

It is a tricky plant to get a seed from.  They aren't ready, they aren't ready...and then these little seed catapults on the bloom come out of nowhere and send seeds flying.  I have found that seedlings don't like to be transplanted.  One year I had five plants sprout from seed I'd collected, I transplanted them out to the prairie and watched them die a slow death over the next two years.  I've had better luck over the last few years, seeding them directly, and now there are a bunch coming up all over the prairie, but I had never had a bloom until today. 

Around 1990 or so, the young daughter of my farmer neighbor Mark apparently got some seeds for geranium down by the Palouse River, and she planted them by her mom's vegetable garden.  When I was telling them my tales of woe about trying to grow geraniums in 2007, they took me to the side of their house, where they had several large bushes of geranium, and I came back when they went to seed, and planted maybe fifteen little spots of them in the prairie.  Three lived!  The other two look like they'll bloom next year, but this one clump has finally bloomed, just today. 

Monday, May 5, 2014


Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), blooming in the prairie this afternoon

In 1995 or 1996 (not exactly sure...), in the aftermath of a fire that went through half of my property, I made my first effort at planting native plants on a large scale.  One thing I did was plant a few plugs of Arrowleaf balsamroot, a common native plant in Eastern Washington.  Planting them is a delicate operation.  They have a long taproot that cannot be disturbed and so these little two-leaf sprouts would have a nine-inch conical plastic tube out the bottom that I had to cut away and gently fluff the hairy roots around the taproot and lay it gently in the hole.  Of the first five I tried, two lived, and both of those were chomped by the deer.  That's it--they were Spring of 2004, one of them--the one in the image above--put up a tiny leaf, or maybe one of the hundreds of seeds I spread around sprouted, or who knows.  For the next several years, two or three leaves would come up in this spot in the Spring, and then in the last few years there were quite a few leaves, but no blooms.  Suddenly this year, it bloomed!

So, twenty years from a sprout to flowers.  I now realize that the automobile-sized clumps you can see in the last remaining bits of prairie in Eastern Washington must be 200 years old!    

Friday, April 25, 2014

April in the Prairie

Prairie, looking southeast, 4/22/14

The new project in the south is encouragingly free of weeds and sprouting all sorts of promise.  The method suggested to me by the folks at the Palouse Conservation District and Thorn Creek Seeds (Jacie Jensen) appears to be the way to go (see posts last fall).  In short, you clear an area, and then rake back to expose dirt and plant the seeds on that.  Here is a little Silky lupine and a Lomatium ambiguum sprout from in among those pine trees...

I have been surprised in this area by several patches of Lomatium ambiguum that I didn't plant, as well as a patch of Upland larkspur that I didn't plant.  Today I spotted a larkspur bud there, just about to open...

I think the most stunning bloom at the moment, though, is from a clump of Red besseya.  The biggest clump was chomped by the evil deer (they chomp, but the plant is fine really), but this one escaped their onslaught.

It has been awhile since I have posted a shot from my standard view.  Here is how it looked this afternoon.  Spring!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Drainage Ditch Delphinium

Newly-transplanted Delphinium nuttallianum

An often-repeated rule of native plant enthusiasm is that transplanting is not a good idea, for good reason.  The reason for this is at least two-fold, that digging in a native plant location damages the environment and that dug-up native plants rarely survive anyway.  There is an exception to this rule, and that is if the plants are threatened and likely to be destroyed.  Then it's rescue.

There are several locations I keep an eye on, because there is pristine Palouse prairie coming right up to the road, with a bank and a gravel ditch between them.  Because the county drives these gravel back roads every year in tanker trucks, spraying these banks and ditches with herbicide, native plants in the drainage ditches are fair game for rescue, since they will soon be dead anyway.  They will spray again in another month or so.  Last year one particular spot had a sudden arrival of many, many Upland larkspur (Deliphinium nuttallianum), seeded from the prairie above.  Because I knew they were toast, I dug four clumps out of the gravel (because of the gravel, their roots were easy to extricate) to see if this would even work, and three out of four of them returned this year.  Possibly, the fact that I am only moving these plants about a mile means that the change in conditions is not that dramatic.  Nevertheless, the success of this project sent me back there today, and sure enough, there was another blanket of Upland larkspur in the gravel.  This time I got five clumps.  Ever hopeful.   

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Idaho blue-eyed grass, blooming in the prairie yesterday...

A lot of the excitement for me out in the prairie at the moment is not as showy as these lovely little native flowers, but there are shoots of all sorts of stuff coming up.  Clumps of larkspur I dug from the gravel of a drainage ditch last Spring appear to have survived, and Brodiaea douglasii is coming back with a vengeance...

You can't see much unless you look closely--click on the image to see it larger--but there are hundreds of little green sprouts here.  Each one is a Douglas hyacinth (aka "Brodiaea douglasii") that come up from a very deep bulb (I have never been able to move them, just encourage them to move north from the fencerow).  For years they are just a plain green shoot, but then they put on their show, which is pretty spectacular.  Similarly, in an area previously devastated by voles, the Sisyrinchium (aka, "Idaho blue-eyed grass") has spread itself and is well on its way to being a "drift."  All the green shoots you see below are Sisyrinchium.  These areas have so much exposed dirt because the dead annual grass from last year was raked off last fall.  A lot of seed is on there as well, but in the first year, it doesn't usually show until later.

The expanse of brown makes me seem like an unrealistic optimist, I suppose, but I see a lot of promise out there.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Violin tasting, part II

Violin by Magnus Anton Fichtl, Krems an der Donau (near Vienna), c.1775-85

My last violin tasting was in November of 2012.  It has been a wild ride since then.  I think this is my equivalent of a mid-life crisis, but not with my people, but my violin.  I had been married for 30 years to that 1840 C. F. Hartmann, and she was not an easy partner, but you work with what you have, right? [If you are coming to this later in this story, you can go to those 2012 posts and see what I'm talking about]  I've tried writing about some of this, but it's a little difficult--one transaction involved absolutely dishonest sleazy behavior on the part of a well-known individual, another involved some sort of issue between two dealers that I don't fully understand, but I think one bought a violin out from under the other who had thought the violin deserved a more respectable price and didn't approve of the quality of the transaction.  I'm in there just trying to get a decent violin with some soul, and I suspect that detailing either of those transactions could get me sued if I filled in the blanks.  Anyway, there are four violins in the story before I got to the Fichtl.

The end result is that I am now the proud owner of this magnificent Viennese violin, shown above.  I had never played a really good violin for any length of time.  I had ten minutes each with a late Stradivari (1730s) and a Stainer thirty years ago.  The Strad was weird--I could tell that there was some intensely lovely sound happening 15 feet away from me, but there was no intimacy whatsoever with that violin.  I understand why a modern classical player would love this sound, but I find that sound entirely too extreme.  The Stainer was exquisite, jewel-like in the treble, rich in the bass.  I wanted that violin, but I believe that I am on the path to that sound with this Fichtl.  It hadn't been played for 16 years when I got it, though it had been restored in the interim (I am told).  The first five minutes was disturbing--it was NASTY!  But, she is 240 years old and had been asleep for 16 years!  After an hour, there was this intriguing softening...Each time I played it, that softening moment occurred earlier and earlier...A luscious singing tone started coming out by the third day...It is still changing, even now...

After a week I took it to my friendly neighborhood luthier, and Paul Hill found a mellower spot for the soundpost, but he wouldn't cut a new bridge until I'd played it for another couple of weeks; he said that the tone was still too much in flux.  I wanted to show some of the subtle differences between the last three violins that are here, so I made a YouTube video yesterday.  Neither of these is unpleasant.  There is a little distortion in the computer mic on the third violin, but I urge you to ignore that--maybe that violin is a little louder or that was some weird fluke.  I am not at all sure this method delivers these violins all that accurately--the sound in the Fichtl appears all around me in a sheen that probably doesn't quite make it into the computer mic, the old c.1800 Saxon that started this adventure is as mellow and smooth as it seems here; though the sound is muted compared to the Fichtl, I still like it.  The mid-19th c. Saxon has a bite that the earlier Saxon doesn't have, but it doesn't have the chocolate-y richness either.  3/4/14 update--I added a clip on the end of this video demonstrating the Fichtl violin with the new strings and setup by Paul Hill, which turned out to be a pretty dramatic transformation.  I thought that would be an interesting comparison, to hear the effect of a great setup.  Anyway, here is a link to the video...

So, if you had been in the room, there would be this hard-to-describe effect of the Fichtl.  It has a whole level of sound that is just not there with the others, even before it received its final bridge and string setup.  After the setup...well, it's sounding pretty ideal to my ears...  I wish there were some kind of advice I could distill from my year-plus violin search, other than--cultivate a connection with an expert who can advise you when an awesome violin comes up on...eBay(!?!)...and says--you must buy this violin.  Another very knowledgeable expert told me--"With violins, you just can't expect to get a screaming deal--there are too many people out there who know more than you do, and you will end up with something with problems if you try to get a treasure for less than a retail price from a reputable dealer."  I can just say that, after some of the pits-of-despair that this violin search has taken me to, it is a profound relief to say that I will never have to go violin shopping again.