New Camano garden tour celebrates homeowners’ wildlife habitats

  • By Debra Smith Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, June 4, 2008 6:29pm
  • Life

What may matter most at Kitty and Stu Smith’s place is what you won’t see.

No blackberry brambles, no nettles, no lawn.

That’s remarkable, considering that not too long ago, this chunk of wooded property on Camano Island had an abundance of all of the above.

Today it feels naturally beautiful, as if it has always been this way. That’s the point.

“Our goal was to preserve as much as we could and add in a way that looks as if it was never added to,” said Zsofia Pasztor, a landscape designer who worked on the project.

The Smiths plan to open their garden to the public this weekend as part of a new tour focused on backyards designated as wildlife habitats by the National Wildlife Federation.

The Camano Island Backyard Wildlife Garden Tour is free. It includes properties on the north end of the island, including the garden of state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and her husband, Basil Badley.

To become certified as a wildlife habitat, homeowners must provide the four elements animals need to survive: food, water, cover and places to raise young.

The federation encourages people to reduce the size of their lawns, add native plants, stop using pesticides and conserve energy and water.

More than 700 gardens on Camano Island are certified, said Sandy Koffman, spokeswoman for the tour, which will feature eight homes.

In fact, so many are certified in the area that the federation named Camano Island the 10th Wildlife Community in the nation.

The tour was organized to draw in a few more, and to show people yards can be beautiful and good for wildlife.

Gardens on the tour run the gamut from groomed perfection to natural plantscapes. People can become as involved as they want or they can keep their yards simple, Koffman said.

“People think wildlife habitats have to look messy,” she said. “They don’t.”

The Smiths fall on the more extensive end of the spectrum. She called their garden “the poster child of plant restoration.”

The couple wanted an easy-care environment where they could sit outdoors, relax and hear the birds.

What they had was a wooded lot choked with low-growing brambles, nettles, ivy and a lot of grass with patches of “mushy, dry, moldy and green,” Kitty Smith said.

A previous owner had planted many flowering bulbs that ended up as naked stems, thanks to the deer.

The restoration project took years and involved the painstaking removal of invasive plants.

The couple hired a local design and building firm, Frog on a Log Parks.

It took five days for the company to measure every plant on the property taller than an inch. They created a map 9 feet long so the good plants would be preserved, said Pasztor, one of the owners of Frog on a Log.

Months of hand-digging followed and the company took out “containers and containers and containers” filled with debris.

When the undesirable plants were pulled away, Pasztor found a treasure trove of plants, such as tiny madronas, native ferns, flowering red currants. All had been trying to make their way through the tangle of blackberries.

They also found Pacific Northwest orchids, a plant that’s becoming rare as more people choose to “park out” their wooded property, clearing it of undergrowth.

Plants were added too, including a coral bark maple, lots of big rhodies, and a cryptomeria that starts out arched and slowly rights itself.

This garden isn’t meant to be exclusively native plants. A colorful garden filled with favorite irises graces the front of the bluffside property. Many of the choices have special meaning to the couple, including a swath of California poppies for Stu and a crape myrtle for Kitty, a native of Florida. The crape myrtle was grown from seed in Oregon so it will survive this area’s winter, Pasztor said.

It sounds like a lot of work and money, but the Smiths said it’s worth it. So does Pasztor.

“I feel we owe a lot to our environment,” she said. “We tend to look at it like we own it and we can do whatever we want. Slowly it’s sinking into people’s minds that maybe there’s something wrong with that attitude. It’s a selfish and short-sighted thing.

“We need to be thinking about what we have and what we owe to future generations.”

Now for what you will see at the Smiths’ place: hummingbirds, blooms loaded with bees and two at-peace humans.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or Visit her blog at

Berries be gone

Getting rid of blackberries — what a nightmare. There’s no easy way to do it. Blackberries produce huge quantities of seeds and birds are more than happy to help plant them.

Most troublesome are the canes, which can grow 25 feet long and take root when they touch the ground.

Zsofia Pasztor, a landscape designer with Frog on a Log Parks, digs out the roots. It’s tedious but effective.

The WSU Master Gardeners recommend cutting down the blackberries, digging out the roots with a shovel or mattock, and then covering with a layer of cardboard and a thick layer of wood chips.

You could also try using goats, which eat blackberries. A rent-a-goat service such as Rent-A-Ruminant, based on Vashon Island, (206-251-1051,, delivers goats.

Rent-A-Ruminant charges $825 a day plus a $260 minimum fee for traveling and setting up the goats. The goats don’t eat the roots, but they do eat most of the canes; what they don’t remove, owner Tammy Dunakin clears down to the ground.

Goats also think ivy is a real treat.

For large areas, consider renting a dozer or calling someone like Don Young at Brush Wrangler in Marysville (425-238-9225). His company uses special equipment that cuts down and grinds blackberries and other heavy brush into mulch.

New tour

A new garden tour is kicking off this weekend.

Purrfect Pals of Arlington, a nonprofit cat shelter, plans to offer a garden tour to raise money for its activities.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Seven locations primarily in the Marysville and Stanwood areas.

Tickets: $10 at a number of Snohomish County businesses; for a list, go to

Information: 360-618-0417

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