Friday, December 28, 2012

Take Stock Now for Spring Changes

     I can always count on certain things happening at certain times of the year.  They almost define those times of the year for me.  I come to count on, for instance, receiving my first Christmas card the weekend after Thanksgiving.  My cousin always manages to get her cards out so that they arrive on Sat. after Thanksgiving.  This marks the beginning of the pre-Christmas season for me.  I know that I will receive cards until the end of the month and then get two to three in Jan.  I also look forward to the receipt of seed catalogs.  They begin to come at the end of Dec. just after Christmas.  In fact, I have already received three for the year and they came this week.
     I would guess that I probably get more catalogs than most people because of my profession.  Even if I might never order from any particular company, I love to get their catalogs and I love to pore through them.  It is interesting to see what is currently available and what people are looking to plant.
     The end of the year is a great time to take stock of your site as well.  A site is a very dynamic thing with plants that are perpetually changing.  Even the greatest designed and the best maintained site will have fatalities and plants that over time just do not work. Often, the reasons for their failure are most unpredictable.
     In my own yard, for instance, I have had a great deal of loss due to animals.  Deer seem to think that my property is their own personal salad bar.  This can be helpful - like the hillside of English ivy that came from next door and has been cropped by deer into submission.  This can also be problematic - like the Indian hawthorne and strawberries that have been grazed into nonexistence.  What the deer leave behind, the squirrels eat.  I have lost tons of bulbs this way including garlic, saffron crocus and onions.  Somewhere in my yard or the forest behind it are squirrels with some very bad breath but very low cholesterol.
     As things grow, they create shade for areas that might have previously been sunny.  This also leads to some decline and loss.  Likewise, trees growing up lead to more opening and sun along their edges where undergrowth has previously been shading the area.
     In my yard, I have identified the next focus of work.  It is an area that has been grass, but it has over the last couple of years declined to virtually nothing but bare soil.  Knowing that I intend to focus my attention to this area in the spring, I have covered it with leaves.  This will act to kill out whatever might still be growing there.  In the spring I intend to turn this area under and then seed it with a mix of shade-loving perennials.  It will be a very different look than it has had in the past.  By spring the leaves that have been raked into this area should have had a chance to begin breaking down.  This will make the soil much more friable and fertile when it is turned under and tilled.  That in turn should help with the seedlings as they attempt to become established.  In the meantime, I have all winter to dig the trench and place the bricks that I intend to use for the edge on both sides of this area.
     Take stock.  What is it that your site needs?  Do you have areas that need some work?  Now is the time to figure that out and decide what to do about it. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Don't Just Fall for the Latest Fad!

     I have watched over the years as popular trends have swept through the 'landscape industry.'  These are things that have become the latest fad that landscape contractors and landscape designers find as money making items that they push and sell.  They are not necessarily things that the land and sites need.  Fortunately, they are most likely to be employed on single family residential property.  Larger sites tend to require, because of municipal codes, licensed Landscape Architects and therefore are less likely to sport these frivolous trends.
      Several years ago, the trade publications came out with the idea that easy money could be made by selling irrigation.  People like to see green grass they reasoned and it is pretty easy to install.  Design is fairly simple and does not need to be sealed by a licensed professional if it is for small applications like single family residential use.  Companies jumped on the bandwagon and irrigation systems were sold with a vengeance.  Then drought hit various parts of the country and people were urged to shut their systems down.  Municipalities began to give incentives to their citizens for using plantings that did not require water and even hand watering was severely restricted.  In reality, even if water shortages had not curtailed this sales pitch, the use of irrigation in this kind of setting is very rarely warranted.  In my nearly thirty years of private practice as a landscape architect I can count on one hand the number of projects that I have been involved with that actually needed irrigation, and those were grossly impacted sites with vast areas of roof and pavement.
     With irrigation on the outs, the industry moved on to lighting.  Every site should be lighted for safety from intruders and for safety of passage through the site at night became the argument.  Again this was a fairly easy service to provide and it generated a good deal of profit to the company that was selling it.  Energy shortages fortunately slowed down the progress of this sales gimmick.  Excessive site lighting actually creates deep shadows at the edges of the lighted area with lighted areas causing the eye to dilate. This creates great places to hide and actually works to aid the criminal element in their work.  In addition, it makes leaving the site much more difficult because the eye takes time to adjust to varying light levels.  It is actually safer to not have a brightly lit site.
     More recently the trade publications have been pushing two money making schemes.  One is a no-brainer in that there is virtually no way to make a mistake and the work is temporary and will return annually.  That is the selling of outdoor Christmas decorations.  The idea is that a client is sold the decorations and services the first year.  In subsequent years the contractor will store and then reuse the decorations, charging only for the time to install them.  For some people this is a great idea.  The contractor most likely has a good deal more experience doing this kind of job and also most likely has better equipment.  It is an expensive extra, but if you have money to burn it can be a time saver.
     The second scheme that I am seeing often recently is the sale of retaining walls.  I am not talking about 10' or 20' high walls that hold back massive amounts of hillside.  Landscape contractors and designers cannot place retaining walls that are structural into a site without the design of a licensed professional.  As a result, they are selling walls that are no more than three feet high and are acting merely as decorative features.  In most cases they have no other function.  If you are being pressured to add retaining walls, or if the Jones down the street have added them and you feel the need to keep up with them, my advice to you is to give it a good deal of consideration.  If you really want to add them, go to a licensed professional - like a landscape architect - and get professional design help.  Don't let the 'garden center' down the street sell you a bill of goods.  Too often these walls, while costing the poor homeowner a great deal of money actually act to devalue their property.  They are often not needed, cause a confusing and unattractive site and create a hazard.
     The advice that I would like to leave with you is that you think before you act on the advice of a landscape contractor or designer.  Decide if what they recommend is really needed or just a ploy to separate you from your cash.  If it is really needed, consider hiring a licensed professional.  The up front fees might be higher, but the long-term value to your site will more than be paid off by this action.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Save Your Soil and the Planet

    Global warming is a complicated problem with many different aspects to be considered.  A number of the aspects involve things related to the site.  Planting trees, for instance, can help to capture excess carbon that has been released into the atmosphere.  Soil is another major factor in the complicated issues of carbon.
     Soil contains huge amounts of carbon.  In a natural state, carbon builds up in the soil from the deposit of plant material on the soil surface from natural functions like leaf and stem drop and tree fall.  This organic matter is broken down and carried into the upper layer of the soil, otherwise known as the topsoil, through the activities of soil macrobes and microbes.  In fact, the top couple of feet of soil contains three times the amount of carbon that is held in the atmosphere.  In the soil, this carbon helps to enhance plant growth.
     Unfortunately, this carbon is easily disturbed and released causing increases in the atmosphere.  Disturb the soil and/or remove the permanent cover and the organic matter that holds this carbon is more accessible to breakdown by soil macrobes and microbes. They then release the excess carbon into the air in the form of carbon dioxide.
     This phenomenon has been observed for centuries.  The great cedars of Lebanon that were so highly prized by the Phoenicians were massively harvested and hauled away.  The land did not recover and regrow.  Instead, places that were denuded very quickly lost soil fertility and the ability to support regrowth.  The same phenomenon has been observed in Central and South America.  Areas that are cleared of trees for agriculture or other uses very quickly become barren and incapable of supporting regrowth.  The carbon in the soil is rapidly broken down and then lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  The soil becomes hard and devoid of fertility.  Reforestation becomes a slow and difficult process that requires a good deal of outside organic matter because it is no longer available naturally on the site.
     Soil erosion is an even greater problem.  Not only is the organic matter more exposed to breakdown, but what might remain is easily lost to downstream flowing water and spread into areas where it is least needed.  Soil left behind is often that layer below the topsoil layer.  This layer is devoid of carbon and does not easily support plant growth.  Thus, stabilizing the soil again requires the import of organic matter onto the site.
     Unfortunately, people disturb the soil in a number of ways.  They remove trees in order to harvest the lumber, clear land in order to farm and raise livestock and clear land for urban growth.  All of these activities act to release carbon into the atmosphere.  All of there activities also act to render the soil incapable of easily supporting plant growth which is a major way to capture carbon released into the atmosphere.  A vicious cycle of carbon loss ensues.
     Planting a tree, or grass or some other cover for the soil is a major defense against global warming.  Obviously, not producing greenhouse gasses is the primary defense, but not allowing them to be lost to the atmosphere from the soil is also a big part of the picture.  Those plants that cover and protect the soil not only help to capture carbon from the air; they also work to help prevent it from being removed from the soil into the air.  So, if you want to help reduce global warming go out and protect your soil.  Plant it with something!  Better still, add compost (which contains lots of carbon) and then plant it with something!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Help Slow the Effects of Climate Change!

     The Nov. 2012 report on climate change for the World Bank indicates that a majority of scientists now believe that the climate will heat up by an estimated four degrees Celsius by the end of the century.  This will have serious effects on the world as we know it.  Dry regions will dry out more, wet regions will become wetter, overall temperatures will increase leading to more heat waves and weather patterns will become more erratic.  Severe weather will also become more prevalent and more severe.  This is no longer something that can be ignored or disputed.  It is real and it is happening.
     The first thing that needs to be done is that we as a people need to learn to curb our carbon emissions.  We have become far too dependent on energy and material possessions and far to careless with how much we use up.  But then, as many people are quick to point out, the economy depends on the use of energy and the purchase of goods and materials.  This makes the problem much more complex.  Adding to the mix is the vast difference between developed countries and those that are developing.  At this point in the consideration many people simply throw up their hands in resignation deciding that there is nothing that they can really do other than maybe a few minor changes in their life to save energy.
     There is something that is very simple that all property owners can do.  It takes only a short period of time initially and a small amount of annual maintenance.  For this small outlay of effort you will not only assist in the fight to slow global warming, but you will also provide a wonderful aid toward your immediate and personal well-being.  This simple act is to plant a tree and then to work to keep it alive, growing and healthy.  Your tree will act to capture some of that carbon that is being release into the atmosphere causing warming.
     There is a simple relationship between the trees that you plant and the carbon that you capture.  Consider the following examples:

     If you plant a slow growing hardwood like a Chestnut Oak -
          it will capture 1.3 lbs of carbon / tree / year in its first year,
          5.5 lbs of carbon in its tenth year and 10.8 lbs of carbon during year 20
     If you plant a medium growing hardwood like a Red Maple -
          it will capture 1.9 lbs of carbon / tree / year in its first year,
          11.2 lbs of carbon in its tenth year and 23.2 lbs of carbon during year 20
     If you plant a fast growing conifer like a Loblolly Pine -
          it will capture 1.3 lbs of carbon / tree / year in its first year,
          13.2 lbs of carbon in its tenth year and 30.8 lbs of carbon during year 20

     Obviously the older and larger the tree the greater the amount of carbon that you will capture.  Thus if you already have healthy trees, do what you can to keep them alive and well.  Clearing land for whatever purpose does effect the carbon and the climate.  If you have open land that can be planted in trees, please do just that.  The world will be a better place for your effort.  You will also benefit from your act to increase the forest cover in your immediate surrounding.  You will have cleaner air to breath and the calming emotional effect that trees create.
     So, if you want to help in slowing down global warming, go plant a tree!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Should You Pave the World or Plant It

     I have clients and acquaintances who feel compelled to pave every possible inch of their property.  They think that any areas left to grow are going to require maintenance, and they do not want to have to provide or pay for it.  The reality is that they will have to provide maintenance - whether they choose to plant something or choose to pave an area.  There is nothing that is absolutely maintenance free.  Asphalt will last approximately 12 -15 years.  Concrete will crack and break up often in as little as 10-15 years and typically last 20 - 27 years.  Gravel has to be continuously added to areas done in gravel because it breaks up and sinks into the soil.  And yes, grass requires mowing and plant beds and ground cover areas require weeding.  Plus all planted areas require replanting at some point in time.
     What people rarely consider when choosing paving over planting are some of the other factors besides maintenance.  Paving can definitely take foot and vehicular traffic, but it also will alter the micro-climate of your site.  Typically it will make the site hotter in the summer because it absorbs more solar insolation (incoming solar radiation) than plants and because it does not transpire.  Plants take water out of the soil and lose it into the atmosphere around them through transpiration which then acts to cool the area.  Plants also shade the soil which helps to regulate heat.  In the winter, paving will typically freeze more quickly and take longer to thaw than planted areas because the soil is acting to regulate the temperature of the surface in the planted areas.
     Paving is a disaster on the storm water flow of an area.  Water is simply passed on down stream because it cannot enter the soil.  As it flows over paving, water picks up speed.  This is not the case with water that passes over planted areas because the vegetation with its many surfaces and stems coming up out of the surface act to hold it back.  Water allowed to flow faster becomes a major erosion factor.  That water flowing over paving not only hits the edge in greater quantity it hits it with greater force, often taking a good deal of material downstream with it as it flows away from the paving.
     Those planted areas also act to filter dust and pollutants from the air making the area immediately around them cleaner and healthier to be in.  One tree, for instance, can remove up to 26 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air in a year.  A grassed area of 2500 square feet produces enough oxygen to supply the needs for a family of four.  This is not the case for paving.
     Although it is hard to quantify because everyone has a different sense of aesthetic, paving is not as pleasing to look at or inhabit.  People naturally gravitate to planted areas to stay for a period of time and use paved areas for passing through.  They are not often places where people care to remain.  Studies have been done that confirm the psychological benefits of green areas.  People feel calmer and more relaxed when they are surrounded by plants than they do when surrounded by paving which acts to elevate their stress levels.
     With all of the negative aspects of paving, it becomes difficult to justify the maintenance argument.  Is that little bit of maintenance saving really worth the sacrifice?  I would suggest that it is not and that proper design of the planted areas will probably result in a site that does not require much more maintenance than paving.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Missed Opportunities to Work with Nature

     A couple of created storm water features near my home and office have grabbed my attention lately.  Both are related in that they are associated with a nature preserve and in that they are not functioning as they were intended.  Both seem to have suffered from a lack of understanding concerning many of the natural systems involved in the cleaning and release of storm water.
     The first one was actually completed about a month ago and just recently a sign proudly proclaiming that it is a raingarden was added.  The sign has a pretty photo of a real raingarden that looks like the photo from the state storm water web site.  Unfortunately, the project is most definitely not a raingarden.  In fact, the only thing that it has in common with a raingarden is the use of a couple of plants that would survive in one.  The garden is located at the exit end of a pipe that drains water from a series of roof drains off a park building; so it will be the recipient of a good deal of water.  Unlike a raingarden, though, no effort was made to dig out the area and replace the existing soil with a media that would function to hold water and no effort was made to create the grade of a rain garden that would allow water to actually collect and infiltrate into the soil.  This garden is simply an area below a pipe that has been cleared of leaf litter, surrounded by a row of stones and planted with a group of plants (some of which would actually never survive in a raingarden).  The entire garden slopes away from the pipe so virtually no water will ever be slowed down enough to enter the soil and will most likely be more prone to eroding now that it has been disturbed.  What a missed opportunity.
     The second feature is actually a storm water detention device that was built by the Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) a couple of years ago.  When it was constructed, it was planted with a combination of cattails and willow.  By good fortune and plenty of naturally available seed, a mass of pine seedlings had taken hold along the entire street-side bank.  A sizable number of green frogs had taken up residence and the device was well on its way to becoming a functioning temporary wetland.  It also functioned as an occasional stopping place for a number of waterfowl.  It had in a couple of years gone from an ugly device that held algae filled water and grew mosquitos into a pretty little wetland that actually functioned to clean the storm water and release it slowly into the drain provided.  The cattails, the willows and the pines all worked to clean water in the pond area and to remove it slowly through transpiration.  Because they were working in this way, the mosquito population had gone down noticeably.  In other words, it was actually functioning in the way that a good storm water detention device should function.
     Unfortunately, this week a private contractor came to this detention basin and cleared it out.  Every living thing within the basin was dug out with a backhoe and all of the pine seedlings - which had reached a height of approximately four feet - were cut down to the ground.  The frogs and other wildlife that had been using this pond area are nowhere to be seen.  I predict that this device will once again be filled with smelly, algae filled, mosquito infested water.  Several years of good productive growth was lost.
     What a shame it is when well-intentioned people make terrible decisions because they do not know how water and nature function. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Where's the Color?

     A friend of mine was walking in the woods the other day and asked me, "Where's the color?"  He had seen lots of very colorful leaves along the road going to the park, but once he was in the park there seemed to be very little color.  He was actually a bit disappointed not to be wowed from the color along the path.
     Imagine his surprise when I pointed up.  The color in a forest is not at eye level, it is above your head in the canopy.  There is plenty of color along the road for the same reason.

     First of all, the bulk of the leaves are in the canopy, which for a mature forest is above your head.  There are plants that grow under the canopy and some of them do change color, but the main body of leaves is above your head.  Along the road, trees will have leaves going all the way to the ground.  This is because the road creates an opening in the forest allowing light to enter.  Trees will grow leaves where there is enough light to support their needs.  So, along the road the canopy in not only above your head it is in a vertical plane paralleling the road.
     The color in the leaves is also a function of the kind of tree and where the leaf is located on the tree.  Some trees will simply always turn yellow.  No matter where the tree is located or what is going on with the weather, they will simply turn yellow.  This is because they turn yellow when the days grow shorter.  With a shorter day, they are not able to manufacture enough chlorophyll and over time they use up the chlorophyll that they have stored in the leaves.  As the chlorophyll amounts drop in the leaves, the other two pigments in the leaves - carotin and xanthophyll - begin to show because they are no longer masked by the green of the chlorophyll.
     Other trees actually manufacture pigments based on the amount of water that they have in their system, the amount of warm sunshine they get during the day, and the amount of nighttime cooling.  The red pigment, anthocyanin, is produced in the leaves of certain trees when they are exposed to warm, bright fall days so that they can produce a good deal of sugar and then cool nights where temperatures drop below 45 degrees, trapping the sugar in the leaves.  These trees will actually not color evenly.  Each part of the tree will change color depending on the amount of sun and cooling that they receive.  Thus leaves at the top of the tree that get more sun will be more colorful than those in the lower parts of the canopy that are shaded by the upper canopy.  Likewise, leaves at the top of the canopy will also be less protected by the surrounding leaves and more subject to temperature drop.  This is also true along the edges of clearings like the area along a road.  Thus the brightest colors will be at the top (or along the roadside).
     Most people will appreciate a fully yellow tree, but they will be much more excited by a bright red one.  Red is simply a more intense color that draws the eye.  If it is exciting red leaves that you are searching for when you are wandering in a forest, then you will need to walk with your head tilted back a good deal of the time.  The brightest color is up in the canopy.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pink Light in a Forest

     I love to spend time wandering in the woods and have left a good deal of my own property wooded as a result.  In fact, I have created a woodland garden.  This began with the basic mature hardwood forest that remained after the construction of my house and after the felling of a number of trees due to a hurricane that passed through the area soon after I moved in.  Although the garden might appear to be simply an area that was left to grow wild, on second glance even the casual visitor might begin to notice strategically located groupings of native woodland perennials and shrubs living under the canopy.  The curving set of steps leading down the hillside to the creek might also be a dead giveaway that this is not simply forgotten wild land.
     In the fall, the prime attraction is without a doubt the tree canopy.  By the end of summer even the hardiest of woodland flowers have disappeared and the color and attention is primarily in the plants that produce berries.  Most of these berries are gone when the leaves begin to turn color.  They have been greedily eaten by the hosts of birds that swoop through.  The eye and attention is most definitely upward, and the color is most prevalent on the edges of openings where the leaves are more inclined to be effected by frost and to be more visible.
     Closer to the ground the forest will still be shady in the fall although the amount of light does increase as the season progresses.  One delight that I like to see this time of the year in the forest is the bright pink of the Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium).  This plant turns an amazing pink that looks as if someone has turned on light behind every leaf.  It is not a big plant.  In fact, they only reach about five feet at maturity, which adds to the delight and impression of light because the leaves are at eye level and the entire plant can be readily.  Instead of viewing the leaves from underneath, as is the case with tree canopies, you are actually able to view these leaves from the top of the leaf and at close range.  Added to this, is the fact that the plants will often still have clusters of deep blue (almost black) berries.
     This is a great plant to use in your woodland garden for more than just its fall wonder, although the color is incredible.  The plant is native to the North Carolina woods and begins the year with clusters of white flowers in the late spring.  These lead to clusters of berries that attract a number of birds and mammals for food.  It also provides good cover in its tangle of branches for many of these animals.  Finally, it is a relatively easy plant to grow.  Plant your Mapleleaf Viburnum in well-drained but moist soils in areas that get partial shade and they will thrive.  I like to put them in clusters of three to five for effect, but even singly they are a most delightful plant.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Do you know what is in your storm water?

     With a sizable area of the country sitting in storm water left behind by hurricane Sandy and a winter storm, I would like to again focus on storm water.  This week I would like to ask you:  Do you know what is in your storm water?  I would be willing to bet that a number of people who never thought about storm water before this week could now answer that question - at least to some extent.
     Storm water is water that has hit the ground through rainfall.  In a natural, not man altered environment, the bulk of this water will infiltrate into the ground, work its way through the soil and into the water table and may eventually emerge back on the surface having been cleaned by the soil as water in creeks, streams, ponds and ultimately the oceans.
     Man has interfered with this system through his building of structures and paving of roads, parking and walks.  As a result, we have more storm water to deal with when we have rain.  This storm water washes downhill instead of soaking into the soil.  When it does, it picks up a good deal of contaminates - both natural and man caused.
     Rain falls through the air near the earth and as it does, it collects gasses that can be dissolved in the water.  The primary gas that is picked up in the fall to earth is nitrogen.  This is an element that is greatly needed by plants.  In nature this is the primary way that nitrogen is disseminated into the soil.  When impervious areas are created, rain does not soak into the soil and is instead concentrated and allowed to run off into streams.  Nitrogen in concentrations cause algae in water areas like slow-moving streams and ponds to grow rapidly.  As it dies, it decomposes and the process of decomposition robs the water of dissolved oxygen.  This leads to the death of fish and other organisms that depend on that dissolved oxygen.
     A similar kind of die-off can occur when soil is allowed to flow off a site as erosion.  The soil left unprotected dissolves in water running downhill.  It clouds the water killing aquatic plants.  When the plants die off and decompose, they too use up the dissolved oxygen leaving none for the aquatic organisms that depend on it.
     Storm water also tends to pick up anything that will float in it and anything that will dissolve in it as it heads downhill.  That translates to picking up garbage that might be laying in the path of the water.  This also means that it picks up all kinds of waste that can be dissolved into the water.  Water flowing off farms and yards will pick up excess insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.  Water flowing off parking lots and streets will pick up fluids like motor oil that might leak out of cars.  It will also pick up whatever people might toss out onto the soil like paints, solvents and other chemicals.
     Water washing downhill will also pick up whatever pathogens might be left on the soil surface.  In a natural system, waste from the animals living in the area will be broken down and treated where it is deposited.  With the addition of pets and livestock to that natural system, excess pathogens are deposited.  Cats and dogs, along with livestock like cattle, pigs and poultry can provide huge increases in the bacteria and other pathogens that end up in the surface water if people are not careful to pick up and treat the waste from their animals.  After all, those animals would not naturally be concentrated in one area.
     It is important to remember what will end up in the storm water.  Everyone has to deal with that water at some point in the system.  We all need to work to keep that water clean and safe.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Do you know where your storm water is going?

     As we face the very real possibility of a weekend dominated by remnants of a hurricane merging with a winter storm, I would like to ask you the following.  Do you know where your storm water is going?  If you know that it vaguely goes downhill but know very little else about it, you are not alone.  Very few people know or really even care where it goes as long as it goes away from them.  Most people want enough rain to keep their grass and trees green and healthy in due season but not so much as to pond and flood.  Unfortunately, rain is not always that controlled and refined.  It frequently comes in great amounts or stops coming at all for long periods of time.
     Rain is sometimes better classified as 'feast or famine'.  That is where storm water management becomes important.
     Rain hits all kinds of surfaces when in comes down.  In a natural environment, it hits mostly plant canopies and soil.  The exception to this is in places where rock covers the surface.  Even in the rocky natural setting, rain hits the ground and has the opportunity to infiltrate down through the soil and eventually into the water table.  During a light rain, most or all of the water hitting the ground will soak in.  During a heavy rain, some will soak in and the rest will run off downhill until it reaches a concentrated area such as an intermittent stream or a creek.  Even the water that runs off is slowed and as it flows downhill allowed additional opportunities to infiltrate due to the plants and humus layer that covers the surface of the soil.
     People don't tend to live on pristine sites.  They construct houses, pave driveways and walks and alter the plants covering the soil.  Roofs and paving create areas where water in incapable of even reaching the soil.  These areas are impervious meaning that no water can infiltrate into the soil.   People cut down trees that otherwise would have helped to direct the water down their trunks and into the soil and plant areas of grass which does allow for infiltration but at a different rate.  In addition water traveling over the soil flows at a different rate, usually much faster, after the site has been altered.
     The end result of all this activity is an increase in water leaving sites and filling creeks, stream bed and bank degradation and downstream flooding.  To many people this is the inevitable by-product of human habitation and this is worsened by a thriving economy that fosters building.   
     This excess water doesn't have to leave your site.  Consider adding measures to collect it and allow it to stay on your site where it was intended to remain.  A couple of easy and obvious do-it-yourself choices are great possibilities.  The easiest and most obvious measure is to add a rainwater collection barrel to the end of your downspouts.  This collects water from your roof and makes it available for future garden watering needs.  You can also consider adding a rain garden.  This is a garden designed to collect and store water in the soil and release it through the evapotranspiration of the plants in the garden.  Finally, you can use permeable paving in place of the impermeable paving choices (such as concrete, asphalt and gravel) most frequently used for drives and walks.
    Every drop of rain collected and retained on your site is a step toward helping return the streams of your area to a healthy state.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beautiful Color Now - Beautiful Color Later

     Fall is a beautiful time of intense color.  That color permeates your impressions of every aspect of your life during this season.  First is the intense blue of the sky on a clear day and the amazing shades of gray as storms roll through.  Dawn and sunset colors somehow seem to become more intense during this season as well.  The greatest amount of color is obviously from the color change happening in the leaves of trees and shrubs.  This is a daily change and creates a sense of excitement because the landscape changes daily during this season.
     Not only do the colors change, but the quantities change as well.  Leaf drop begins in late summer with a small percentage of leaves, especially those from trees with larger sized leaves like poplar, dropping in response to decreased levels of available water.  The heat from the summer causes trees to utilize more water from the soil with increased metabolism and to lose more of it to transpiration and thus there is a water table level drop in the soil regardless of the amount of rainfall.  This leaf drop is further enhanced when the days begin to become noticeably shorter.  Thus by mid October, regardless of the temperature, there are a good 10-20 percent fewer leaves on the trees than there were in mid summer.  As October progresses, there is a noticeable daily loss which is further enhanced with the first and then subsequent frosts.  As a result, the forest canopy changes daily by mid October adding to the daily interest of the season.
     Coincidentally, this leaf drop just happens to occur at just the right time for fall mulching.  It also just happens that for a good many of your mulching needs this is just the right material to use.  Mother nature provides just what you need when you need it if you let her!  This is the perfect stuff for mulching most of your tree, shrub and flower beds.  I recommend raking your first flush of leaves - which also happen to be the ones from trees whose leaves break down the most easily right into your beds.  Don't hesitate to place a nice two inch layer evenly around  your shrubs and trees.  For those people who do not like the look of leaves, you can place an inch and a half of leaves and cover it with a half inch of mulch of the type that has the look that you prefer.  Remember to check in a week or after the first heavy rain to see what your actual mulch depth might be.  It will compact as the leaves flatten and begin to break down.  You might actually need to add more and it is easier when it is readily available.
     For roses and other flowers and vegetables that are highly susceptible to fungal issues, do not try this method.  Leaves raked straight from the lawn into the bed will only act to increase your mold and fungi issues.  For these plants, you can still mulch with your own leaves, but you will need to let them go through the processes of composting first.  In many cases it is just easier to use sterilized mulch instead.
     The second wave of leaves, the ones that are predominated by oak leaves, are still important and useful.  I recommend that you not use them right away.  Place them aside to compost over the winter months.  They will make the perfect black mulch for your bedded areas next spring when you will be wanting and needing to replenish the mulch.  They will also provide a wonderful black compost for your lawn areas.  Use the most broken down of the compost on your lawn as a spring additive and the least broken down in your beds to enhance the mulch layer.
     Nothing that your land produces needs to be hauled away as it is all useful in its own good time!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Compost Makes It Better

     What makes a great soil?  Soil is a combination of broken down earth's crust in the form of minerals, organic matter and living organisms.  In fact a good undisturbed soil typically has a layer of organic material on top of a layer of topsoil - which is mineral soil and organic material mixed.  These two layers cover the subsoil which is basically just the mineral soil without the organic matter.
     Topsoil occurs when living creatures such as worms and ants carry organic material from the soil surface down into the layer where they live.  They work to break down that material during their normal activities.  As the particles get broken down, fungi and bacteria that exist in the soil kick in to further break down the material.
     When we endeavor to plant an area we do a couple of things.  First, we disturb the soil structure because we dig into it.  We also alter the way that organic matter is left on the soil surface and the kind of material that make up that layer.  Quite often we remove the organic material that would normally fall on the soil completely.  We haul off grass clippings, rake away leaves and throw away things weeded out of the soil.  This often alters the number and health of the creatures that live in that soil.
     You can help to re-create the soil process by adding organic matter to the top of your planted soil.  The best way to do this is to place a thin layer of compost onto the surface of your soil.  Consider adding compost over all of your soil.  You can easily do this at the two turns of season - spring and fall. 
     For lawn areas, toss or use a spreader for this endeavor.  Let the compost fall onto the grass surface.  It will tend to fall through the leaves of the grass and end up on the soil surface at the base of the grass blades.  From here the soil organisms will take over and carry it down into the topsoil layer.
     You can also do this in your bedded areas.  The timing is basically the same.  You are basically adding compost at the time of the year when you are going to mulch.  The compost can be placed instead of mulch if desired.  In this case place a two inch layer over the bed.  The other option is to place a half to one inch layer of compost on the ground and then cover it with an inch to an inch and a half of mulch.  The key is to reach a cover of two inches.  Do not exceed this amount as you will cause a situation that could lead to overly wet and moldy conditions.
     Where to get the compost?  You can buy it either in bulk or from home improvement stores in bags.  You can also make it and use your own.  Either way, compost on the soil will greatly enhance the soil and your plants will be healthier for it.  If you do add compost, remember that you are adding nutrients to your soil.  That means that you need to use considerably less fertilizer or if you are using a good high organic content compost you should not fertilize at all.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Old Friends for Indoor Winter Color

     We are now in that in between season.  It is not summer any more but not quite fall yet.  A few leaves are turning color, but it is not because of frost.  This color change and the beginnings of leaf drop has to do with shorter days.  Now, before the first frost, is the time to dig up those plants that you count on for indoor color during the winter.  You remember, the ones that came out of their pot last spring to spend the summer in the sun.  For me, it's the big four - amaryllis, ornamental peppers, paperwhites and poinsettias.  If you haven't saved them through the summer, maybe this is the year that you make these favorites permanent friends rather than just winter visitors.
     I have plants that will in the next day or two be back in pots that are at least twenty years old.  I get a jolt of nostalgia when I dig them out of the ground and bring them back into the house - remembering who gave them to me or why I bought them and when.
     For those who have used these plants as annuals in the past, here is a run-down of how to keep them as permanent friends.
     Amaryllis is a lovely bulb that if you got it as a Christmas present most likely came from South African or other tropical origins.  That is why it does not survive in you garden over winter.  This year, when you get new bulbs, enjoy the flowers, but after they are finished, save the bulbs.  When the bulbs have finished flowering, cut the flower stalk near the base - take care that you don't damage the leaves.  In the spring after the chance of frost has ended, put your bulbs outside in a sunny location.  You will find that they do best if left in the pot.  Water them regularly and fertilize them as needed.  Four months before you want them to bloom, you will need to force your bulbs to go dormant.  You do this by bringing them into a cool (around 55 degrees) dark place and stop watering them.  I just stick them under the house.  Timing depends entirely on when you want blooms, but never let your bulbs go through a frost.  Check the bulbs weekly, but after an eight to ten week period, you should see the beginnings of a green sprout.  You can now bring your bulb back out into a warm sunny spot.  Water them, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings so that you do not cause your bulbs to rot.  If you re-pot your bulbs, make sure that the pot is no more than two times the diameter of the bulb and that when you plant the bulb a third of the bulbs is above the soil surface.  I like to bring my bulbs in this time of the year.  That way, they bloom during the dead of winter when I need the lift of spirits.
     Ornamental peppers are actually a hot miniature variety of regular hot peppers.  As such they are edible although fiery.  You can grow them year round easily by simply keeping them in their pot.  I move the pots out to a sunny location during the summer and back into a sunny location indoors for the winter.  They are a tropical plant, so just make sure that they are not allowed to go through a frost.  If you want to encourage more blooming, pick off the peppers; otherwise, the peppers are lovely if allowed to remain on the plant to dry out.  To renew the plants as they age, I simply open a dried out pepper and sprinkle the seeds around the old plant in the pot.  As the new seedlings grow you can cut the old plant to the soil line and enjoy the new ones.
     Paperwhites are actually a narcissus bulb just like your other daffodils.  As such, they can easily be planted in the ground and left there to bloom in early spring every year.  They are used as forced bulbs at Christmas time because they do extremely well in pots.  If you choose to bring them in to force, dig them up after the leaves have gone dormant and keep them in a cool dry place.  Three to four weeks before you want them to flower, plant them in a pot, bring them out into a sunny location and begin watering them.  They need only about three inches of pot space and virtually no care.  When they are done blooming, like all daffodils, let the leaves die back on their own so that the bulb rejuvenates itself.
     Poinsettias are the queen of the holiday season, but with hybridization have become the winter-long choice for color.  I leave them in their pot and let them spend the summer out in the sun.  Bring them in before the first frost (it is better not to let them experience temperatures below 50 degrees) but to similar light conditions, and keep them out of cold and drafty places.  A sunny window is the perfect place for them.  To get them to turn color, ensure that they get an ever increasing time of no light at night.  In other words cover them if they are going to be in a sunny window in a room that will have lights on at night.  You can use your normal sundown time as your guide, but they will basically need about 14 hours of darkness to set their flowers and for the bracts to turn color. 
     Keep your winter color plants year-round, just be sure to take care of them as the season changes.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pick Up Fall Color!

     The intense summer heat is finally easing off.  We no longer are having to worry about every day that we go through without rain and I find myself no longer praying for every odd thunderstorm that might remotely pass by.  In fact, we are getting rain and have morning dew again!  Something that happens every year about this time but that always amazes me because it is such a complete reversal.
     Unfortunately, the garden always shows the effects of a long hot summer by this time of year.  Leaves begin to thin on the trees - even though they have not really begun to change color, some begin to fall.  Grass gets a bit ragged looking unless you have a cool season grass.  More noticeably, flowers reach their seasonal blooming period end and the garden becomes one of stalks and green leaves.  The weather is beautiful and we naturally want to see color in the garden to match the weather, but many plants are just simply worn out by this time of year and are winding down toward a time of future dormancy.
     There is, of course, always the choice of the big three - the 'go to' flowers that you see everywhere for fall color.  These are in universal use and are highly dependable.  These include roses, chrysanthemum and  sasanqua.  Roses are especially pretty when the temperatures lower.  For fall color make sure that you are using roses that bloom more than once a year as those tend to only bloom in the late spring or early summer.  Most of these will bloom right up to the first killing frost and often the colors and scents become more intense later into the fall.  Chrysanthemums are a herbaceous perennial.  They suddenly appear at home improvement and grocery stores in pots and many people use them as a fall annual - planting them for their blooms and then pulling them out after they finish blooming.  They can actually be left and will bloom faithfully every fall for years.  Sasanqua is actually a camellia and produces lovely flowers beginning in early fall and often blooming right into December.  They make a lovely evergreen shrub with glossy green leaves and a nice oval shape, but the flowers in the fall are their special bonus.
     I like to use a few other flowering plants as well.  Two lovely perennials will go through the summer and well into the fall, often right up to the first killing frost.  One is the black-eyed Susan otherwise known as Rudbeckia.  It has lovely daisy-like yellow flowers and is amazingly hardy.  The other is the aster which, like Rudbeckia prefers full sun and can take hot dry soil.  Asters are also daisy-like and bloom in a number of colors ranging from blue to pink and purple.  Both of these flowers are easily available in any garden center.
     A bit less known but definitely worth planting are a handful of fall blooming natives.  Look in open fields and other odd bits of open land and you will most likely see tickseed (Bidens aristosa) blooming at this time of year.  It is a lovely annual that reaches three to four feet in height and becomes a solid yellow when it reaches full bloom.  Flowers have eight petals and are delicate but reach two inches across.  Also in these kinds of open and disturbed areas you are likely to see partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  I has a delicate compound leaf and a yellow pea shaped flower with red stamens.  It also is an annual and will actually begin blooming in July but will continue to flower into October.  If your soil holds water, Lobelia - either the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) which blooms red or the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) which blooms blue are a great choice.  Both are perennials that will bloom well into the fall but begin in mid summer, and both shoot up flower spikes.  Individual flowers are held horizontally along the spike.  Finally, ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is a lovely fall blooming perennial.  It can reach nine feet in height and will bloom an intense purple.  These natives are not necessarily available in the local plant store, but you can get them to grow on your site by seeding them.   They also do not easily lend themselves to neat, tended beds, but they are gorgeous in large rambling plots of mixed flowers.
     One last trick for fall color is to use a nice ornamental grass.  These can sometimes be found in plant stores but can also be grown from seed.  For great fall color, try pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).  It is a very drought tolerant grass that reaches three feet in height.  It normally has a blue-green foliage, but sends out a profusion of pink fluffy plumes in September which it holds until Dec.
     So, go out and enjoy the cooler weather!  While you're outside, plant some great late blooming color to help you to enjoy the season.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Which - Ryegrass or Rye Grain?

     I frequently have sites that are under construction through the summer and then ready for planting in the fall.  A fall planting means that certain kinds of seeds, if planted when the rest of the planting is done, will not germinate until spring.  This can alter the type of grass that I specify or how it is planted and it can alter the way in which other seedings are done as well.
     For a fall grass seeding, I can either ensure that a cool season grass is planted or that the planting regimen is modified to meet the demands of the season.  Cool season grasses for American lawns generally include fescue, bluegrass, bentgrass, and perennial ryegrass.  For most of the country now is a good time to plant them.  They will generally germinate at temperatures in the mid 70's and go dormant at temperatures below 50.  So, time your planting accordingly.  Immature seedlings can be damaged or killed by freezing temperatures.  Perennial ryegrass will take five to ten days to germinate, fescue  - seven to twelve, bentgrass - ten to fourteen days, and bluegrass fourteen to thirty.
     There are cases though where the site really dictates that I use a warm season grass for the long term cover.  Ideally, warm season grasses should be planted in the late spring or early summer.  For a fall planting, they should be planted at least sixty days prior to the anticipated first frost.  Under extreme circumstances, I will specify the planting of a bermudagrass in the late fall with the intention that it not germinate until spring.  In this case a late planting can occur as long as the seed in unhulled and a good cover of clean grain straw is used.
     With somewhat off season timing of seeding or with the planting of a bermudagrass in the fall, I can get a nice instant green lawn with the use of ryegrass seed (Lolium multiflorum).  This can be planted with the bermuda or other grass seed and will germinate in five to ten days.  It literally is the solution to instant green.  Later the intended grass can fill in.  This is an annual grass so the plants will not live for a second season, but it is being planted in this case as a temporary plant.  It will need to be mowed throughout the winter and can produce seed that will germinate the following year if mowing is not done in a timely fashion, but you will reap the benefit of a green lawn that holds the soil in place until the intended grass has a chance to germinate.
     For those lawns that are warm season and plugged or sprigged, annual ryegrass can help to hold the soil until the holes have filled in.  It can also be planted when those lawns go dormant to keep a green lawn throughout the winter.
     I often have other areas that are seeded on a site that are not grass.  These might be wildflower plantings or seed mixes intended for a specific use like that used in the bowl of a bioretention area or mixes used for dry sites that will not support a good lawn.  Most of the seed in these mixes will not germinate in the fall, but often fall planting is desirable.  For many of the seed used, being subjected to the freezing and thawing of winter actually triggers germination.  For others, fall seeding might be desirable simply because of timing.  For these fall seed mix areas, I recommend that a seeding of rye grain (Secale cereale) be spread either with the seed mix or on top of it.  Rye grain, sometimes called cereal rye, will germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees and will help to hold the seed and soil in place until spring.  It also will act to enhance the soil by capturing nitrogen and recycling potassium.  Ryegrass should never be used in these situations because of the possibility of re-seeding.  Make sure that you get the right kind of seed, or you may end up with a grass that becomes a pest.
     Regardless of what options you take, fall seeding is possible and even in many cases desirable.  Just make sure that you keep in mind the ultimate goal of the seeding, and that you utilize the seed that will provide you with that need.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fall Seeding Considerations

     It is mid September and seeding season in upon us.  That means that it is the prime time of the year to be putting down fall germinating seed.  This is seed for things that grow primarily in the cooler seasons of the year or seed that fair well on the ground for an early spring germination.
     The first fall seed choices that come to mind to most homeowners are the cool season grasses.  People in this area of the country look to plant fescue, bluegrass and rye grass (both annual and perennial) in the fall.  They are looking for a nice green lawn throughout the winter.  Even people who have warm season grasses like zoysia often choose to over-seed them with an annual ryegrass in the fall.  This gives them a nice green lawn throughout the winter.
     A chance conversation earlier today has me once again asking the question.  Why?
     Why do you need or want to have large areas of grass that requires a great deal of water and maintenance?  Are you using that grass for sports?  Do you do a lot of entertaining on your lawn?  Or is it like the majority of lawns in the country merely a green foreground.
     Why does all of that grass have to be green - regardless of the season.  Does green grass in January really look great or does it actually look kind of out of place?  Would that natural wheat color of a dormant warm season grass be just as pretty?  It most certainly would be a lot less work!  Do you really enjoy mowing that green grass in January?
     For the majority of homeowners, a green grass lawn is something that they feel they must have.  It has been drilled into their brains for several generations.  The idea of a green grass lawn actually traces back to the idea of a manor house.  Large estates had green pastures in front of the grouping of buildings that made up the estate with maintained gardens placed between the buildings and the pasture.  These large expanses of grass were kept short by the presence of sheep and cattle and were actually a working part of the estate.  Suburbia does not have these large expansive estates, but we still have the vestige of their imprint in the grass lawns that seem to be a prerequisite to every acceptable home.
     Very few people who live in suburbia actually raise sheep or cattle and very few use their grass lawns for sports or entertaining.  So, again I ask why?  If that area out of your property is going to take some but not a great deal of foot traffic, do you really want or need grass?  Some people like to mow and fuss with grass; so for them grass is therapeutic.  For the rest of us, there are other choices.
     Fall is a wonderful time for planting clover.  It can be seeded alone or in with a grass mix.  By planting it in the fall, you get a stronger and healthier stand of clover in the spring.  White clove can take some foot traffic, and some mowing, but should not be fertilized.  It is a legume and fixes nitrogen from the air.  Adding fertilizer will often kill it.  The advantage in having a white clover "lawn " is that it typically only grows a couple of inches (4-8" so if you do not plan to walk in it much you could simply not mow) and does not need to be mowed often, it blooms in the spring and summer providing pretty flowers and a nice scent and it does not need to be fertilized.  It does attract bees and this does need to be considered when thinking of planting it.  Clover will be dormant when the temperatures fall below freezing, but so will your grass.
     Another possibility is to replace that grass lawn with wildflowers.  If your current lawn is mostly dead, or in the case of my friend from earlier today mostly gone due to erosion, you might want to consider wildflowers.  There are innumerable mixes available to you - some with plant varieties selected that do not get taller than 8 - 12 inches if you still want that manicured look.  These can readily be sown in the fall and will germinate in the spring.  If this option is what you decide upon, I recommend that you plant rye grain and your wildflower seed mix so that you get an immediate green soil cover.  In the spring the rye will die off and the flowers will take over.  Make sure that your mix has annuals and perennials unless you plan to re-seed every fall.  Once your wildflowers are established, plan to mow them once a year in the fall after the seed heads are ripe to keep the tree seedlings down.
     Fall is a great time to think about your yard and what you might want to plant in it that requires seeding.  If grass is not something that you need to have, consider other options.  You might just find that you like your yard better when you are enjoying flowers blooming there or are no longer a slave to it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Mother Earth's Intestines"

     Yesterday we got a heavy rain that led to some urban flooding.  This was actually a very welcome event for our area as it has been locally very dry and the trees were beginning to wilt.  I am always amazed when I walk past people's yards after a heavy rain like that.  Some people have tons of earthworms that suddenly emerge seemingly out of nowhere.  Others do not have a single one.  This may not be something that you normally look for, but I see it as a sign of the health of the soil for each individual site.
     A healthy soil is teaming with organisms.  Among the most prevalent and obvious are earthworms.  These blind miracle workers are literally what my Dad used to call "Mother Earth's Intestines".  They are more digestion system that they are anything else.
     Earthworms are essential for a healthy soil.  First of all, they hugely act to reduce the amount of organic litter on a site.  A worm can literally consume half its own weight each day.  That means that all those leaves, blades of cut grass, dead insects and whatever other organic stuff ends up on the soil  can be eaten and removed by worms as food.  In the process, the worms remove this stuff from the surface and carry it underground.  There they grind it up and digest it.  Eventually the undigested matter is deposited into the soil as worm castings which act to greatly enrich the soil for plant growth.
     Worms also move through the soil.  When they do, they create tiny tunnels which are reinforced by a slimy mucus that they use to aid in their forward motion.  These tunnels are hugely important to a healthy soil in that they allow for both air and water to move into the soil.  This is a much more effective method of aeration of a planted soil than by physically, mechanically aerating it.
     Without worms, we would have massive amounts of organic matter piling up and hard, infertile soil that provides a poor host for plants.  So, they should be welcomed and encouraged.  Worms are actually quite prevalent - poor soil may have as many as 250,000 earthworms / acre but a rich fertile soil may have up to 1,750,000 / acre.  That's a lot of little creatures all working to make your site better by making your soil better.
     So why do I look for worm numbers after a rain?  There are a number of theories for why they come to the surface.  One theory is that they are surfacing because the soil is saturated and no longer has enough oxygen for them to breath.  Another theory is that they are using the wet surface conditions to move more quickly to another location than they could have had they stayed underground.  Yet another has to do with the carbon dioxide from all the soil organisms dissolving in the rainwater to create carbonic acid which irritates the worms.  Regardless of why they come up, their presence is a good indicator of soil health.
     The more worms the better!  They keep their numbers in check depending on the amount of space and organic matter available.  A site that has lots of worms most probably has good numbers of other soil organisms as well and therefore good fertility and aeration.  It also probably has good rainwater infiltration.
     What about those sites with few or no worms?  They might have been killed off by insecticides or their numbers might have declined because of a lack of organic matter or a poor, hard, dry soil.
     So, go out and look for worms.  If you don't see any, you might try encouraging them with a nice meal of grass cuttings and shredded leaves.  They love compost and will reward you with great soil.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Think Carefully Before you Spray

     Agrochemicals can be wonderful and truly helpful both to the small householder and the large farmer.  Herbicides can reduce or eliminate the need for weeding.  Insecticides can help to prevent plant or crop loss due to insect infestation.  Fungicides can reduce or eliminate issues with fungi both on your plants and in the soil.  In each case, agrochemicals are acting to assist people in their needs.
     Care must be taken; however, to ensure that they are used properly and that they are not used excessively.  Obviously a chemical whose function is to kill insects will also have an effect on the human system with human exposure.  Less obvious but still an issue is that a vast majority of chemicals produced to kill weeds will also have an effect on the human body.  Even the chemicals found in many fungicides can adversely effect people.  That is why many of these chemicals carry warning labels that proclaim their potential to cause harm.  Some are even restricted to use only by people who are properly trained and hold a license.
     Remember that you can be exposed to agrochemicals by three different manners.  First, you can breath a chemical in when you or someone in close proximity to you sends it out as a spray or fog.  To use a chemical in this way it is reduced to a fine particle that can float, at least for a time, through the air.  As such, it is readily taken in when you breath in.  Second, you could absorb the chemical through your skin.  This can happen when a spray lands on your skin or when the chemical in either a liquid or a powdered form lands on the pores of your skin.  Absorption will continue as long as the chemical stays on your skin.  This can be a long time if you do not realize that you have had any exposure and do not act to wash it off.  A good example of an accidental exposure would be if you were to brush against a plant that has been treated with a chemical dust.  You might see the dust as a powder, but if the dusting is light enough you might not be able to detect it.  You could potentially go hours with that dust on your skin before it gets washed off.  Finally a chemical can be ingested.  This can happen when it is applied to something that you might eat and than that food is not properly washed or is harvested prior to the prescribed waiting period after the application.
     Improper use or excessive use of chemicals can adversely affect wildlife as well.  They can easily be exposed in the same way that humans can.  More of a concern, is that they can also be unwittingly exposed through the movement of the chemical from where it was applied to elsewhere in an ecosystem.  Rain and the run-off that happens as a result of rain can have an amazing impact on where a chemical can wind up - in extreme cases taking chemicals hundreds of miles from where they were first applied.
     When I first moved into my home, the yard and woods were hopping with toads.  I literally could not walk across my grass without encountering them and I needed to stop often when mowing to move them out of the way of the lawn mower.  My neighbors across the street live dramatically up hill from me.  They began to subscribe to a chemical lawn service.  They chose to get the full treatment; so at least once a month a spray truck came and applied either fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide or herbicide.  Their lawn looked beautiful.  There was not one single brown patch, eaten area or weed.  Within a year, you could not have found a toad on my property if you had searched non-stop for twenty four hours.  Why?  Because the chemicals that they were using were traveling down hill with each rain and entering my property.  Ironically, where the storm water entered my site I had no weeds, no fungal issues and saw few bugs.  Sadly, some of the things that I had planted and tended died due to herbicide exposure.
     That chemical that you use today could easily be washed downhill tomorrow in a storm.  From there it could soak into the ground and become a part of the groundwater for the area downstream of the application site.  It could also keep traveling and end up in a stream and from there into a creek.  It could go on into a river and even be carried in a diluted form all the way out to the ocean. 
     I am not proclaiming that we should do away with agrochemicals.  What we need to do is to use them wisely, in moderation and with thought as to where they might ultimately end up.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Need for Green

     The word green is being bantered about a lot lately.  Save energy and be green.  Treat storm water and be green. Use recycled materials and be green.  To me, green has a very different meaning most of the time.
     I have found that I often have conversations with people that tend to follow a previously worn path, one that is decidedly not green.  There is a body of people out there who believe that plant material should not be used close to any structures or even on sites away from buildings.  They will tolerate grass, as long a it can be easily mowed, but that is about it.  I work with developers of rental property who argue that they do not want trees or shrubs planted near their buildings because they see them as a maintenance problem and a potential hazard.  I have commercial property owners who want me to try to find a reason to remove anything existing and most definitely not plant anything back because they do not want to block the view to their business.  I have homeowners who don't want anything more than a lawn in front of their homes because they are afraid that trees will fall on their homes in a storm and that crooks will hide behind shrubs and use them as easy access to break in.  And let's not forget school and church properties who don't want to spend the extra money to have plants because after all the building is the most important thing and plants are just an after thought that can be 'value engineered' out of a project budget.
     All of these concerns are valid in their own way.  None of them take into consideration the human factor.  What is it really like to live, work or play in a place that has no plants.  Is it really worth saving on a maintenance or a construction budget to eliminate trees and shrubs from a site.  Will removing the trees from a site really save that structure from natural disaster and removing the shrubs really stop break-ins? Do those trees blocking the view of a retail building really prevent customers from visiting that business?
     There are a lot of findings that point to the commercial value of having trees on a site.  Trees increase property value.  This is not usually disputed.  There are even tree value calculators that will calculate the dollar value that each tree adds to your property.  A well planned and maintained planting of trees and shrubs increase no only the property value but the likelihood that a property will sell easily.
     There are also the purely physical aspects that those trees and shrubs provide.  They act to modify the immediate surroundings of a building acting to cool it in the summer and break the cold drafts in the winter.  I've even see BTU breakdowns of what plant material on a site can save.
     What you will most likely not see is a study that determines what those plants do to the people using those spaces on an emotional level.  Although I have seen studies that link IQ with the exposure to trees and nature in the developing minds of children, the feeling of well-being that a person gets just from seeing green is just not something easily quantified.  On the other hand, where do you choose - instinctively to be when you go outside?  Do you prefer to stand in a large paved area or under a tree on a green lawn with some shrubs possibly flowering nearby?  Ok, this is a bit extreme, but you can definitely get the picture.
    What I do know is that sites in which I am allowed to use plantings rent or sell faster than those that do not - regardless of how nice the buildings might be.  Places where green is encouraged and flowers bloom tend to attract people.  Barren spaces remain empty.  Retail and office buildings that have green surrounding them tend to also have increased people traffic using them even when the view of the building is somewhat obstructed.  People are somehow inherently wired to want to be surrounded by green.  Not everyone will choose the same green - some would choose an open pasture and others a forest - but virtually no one chooses the barren paved space.  Think of what makes you happy the next time that you choose to take green out of the picture.  I'd be willing to bet it will be put back in.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Know your Landscape Consultant

     Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine very proudly showed me her newly planted yard.  "Isn't it great?" she asked.  I looked around at the swath of Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia (a thinly evergreen shrub with small white flowers that attract masses of bees), the Southern Magnolia (not a dwarf hybrid variety, I might add - think 90' tall and 40' in spread at maturity) planted three feet from her front wall, the large area planted in Blue Rug Juniper, apparently as a ground cover, and all of the other assorted odd ball plants.  I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but it looked terrible.  But then beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and to someone who had just spent several thousand dollars on this mess it was gorgeous.  There was no real design.  Nothing really related to anything else and most of it denied the presence of a house being there at all. What was worse, it was going to be massively overgrown for her site in a couple of years.  There was no permanence in it.
     "This was done by a landscape designer," she proudly proclaimed.  "If you want, I'll give you her name and number.  She didn't even charge anything - the plan was free.  All I had to do was buy the plants from her company and have them install them."  I didn't have the heart to tell her that she had undoubtedly been massively ripped off.  That 3 gal sized Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia was currently going for $4.50 a pot wholesale and installed by a reputable contractor would have cost her $30 each because there was a glut on the market (she paid $75 each installed and she had a dozen of them - tell me she didn't pay for the plan) and that most of the other stuff was a combination of plants that were very inexpensive and for the most part reduced that year because they had been overproduced by the nurseries.  Her landscape designer had unloaded a ton of wholesale overage stock on her.  This is not to say that she couldn't have gotten a good design using inexpensive stock - even exactly what she had planted in her yard.  She just needed someone who knew the plant material and how to use it.  A bit of design knowledge and ability would have helped as well. 
     Needless to say, last year she hired someone to rip it all out.  Why?  Because she couldn't see out of any of her front windows, her foundation was being cracked and the place looked like you needed to enter it with a machete - except of course for the large area of ground cover that had died and come back to life in the form of healthy crabgrass.  Once again she has had it all replanted - by another landscape designer.  I give it ten years.  Fortunately for her, some of it has died already.
     Few people understand the designations floating around out there concerning their site and it's design.  Even fewer know what it takes to be trained and what the various trades offer.
     A landscape designer is usually very informally trained by someone with whom they work.  They might have started out just being interested in gardening and gone to work with a landscaper or someone doing grounds maintenance.  Or perhaps they started out working with a retail nursery - most of which buy their plants already grown out and ready to sell.  There is no formal training and no licensure.  A landscape designer does not even need to know how to read to do their job.  They simply place plants on a site - sometimes on a drawing and then a site and sometimes the drawing is not even provided.  Some are quite good at what they do and have a great sense of design and feel for the plant material, but that is not necessary for them to call themselves a landscape designer.
     A master gardener is another designation thrown around a good deal.  People like to think that they are getting superior assistance and advice if they are getting it from a master gardener.  They are getting a more trained person in a master gardener than in a landscape designer.  Most come into the avocation with an interest in gardening.  The program is actually a Cooperative Extension Agency program and usually requires 40 contact hours of training - that's right, the equivalent of one normal work week.  In exchange for the training, the gardener agrees to volunteer their gardening expertise and services to the program.
     A Landscape Architect is a licensed professional who at the minimum holds a degree in Landscape Architecture, has completed a period of internship and has passed a rigorous licensure exam.  While they do provide planting plans, they are also involved in site planning and design development for parks, campuses, churches, housing developments, commercial and office developments.  They deal with the land in terms of how it is shaped (called grading), where and with what force the rain water flows over a site (called storm water or drainage design), how soil is contained on the site during construction (called erosion control), how the elements such as the buildings, driveways, parking and walks are located on the site (called staking), and how the site elements are to be constructed.  They have a good deal of training in design and in the related fields of horticulture, geology, micro climatology, earth science, environmental psychology, geography, ecology, architecture, industrial design and fine art.
     Anyone can call themselves a landscape designer and in many cases their help is all you need.  Unfortunately, if the designer goofs, there is no recourse because they are not licensed.  You get to tear it out and do it over at your own expense - like my poor friend who will be doing that again shortly.  It is illegal to call yourself a landscape architect without a license and that license guarantees that the professional you hired is actually trained and regulated.  So, when you are in the market for a design professional, make sure you get the expertise you need for the job required. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Right Variety for the Place

     A few year ago, a friend and client of mine asked me to recommend a grass for him to use on his new home site for his lawn.  His next door neighbor knew that he had been getting consulting assistance from a landscape architect and had gotten into the habit of frequently asking him about how his yard was coming.  He took my advise and bought the seed to redo his lawn and of course his neighbor came right over to find out what he was doing.  He explained to the man that he was re-seeding his lawn because he had only used a temporary grass - annual rye - to hold the soil until he could seed.  When he had first needed to plant, it was not a good season for seed to germinate.
     His neighbor very eagerly asked him what kind of grass he was planting.  Now at this point I should tell you that the man has a bit of a sense of humor and a touch of devilment to him.  He told his neighbor that he was planting fescue.  True enough!  What he did not tell his neighbor was that he was planting 'Bonsai' Dwarf Tall Fescue.  This is a hybrid fescue that grows approximately 2' a year and is very thick and naturally has a lovely shade of dark green.
     His neighbor promptly went out and purchased grass seed - Fescue 'Kentucky 31' to be exact.  This is a seed that was first collected for commercial use from a field in Kentucky in 1931 - hence the number designation in the name.  It was collected for use as a pasture grass and as such has the beneficial property of growing 4' a year.  It is not a thick grass and does not develop a very dark green color, but who cares when they are feeding it to cattle?
     I had warned my client to be careful to not over-fertilize his lawn once the grass was established and to mow it at a height of 3".  He would most likely need to mow every 7-14 days depending on the weather.  His neighbor, having gotten maintenance information from him concerning his grass, tried to follow the same pattern.  Within a couple of weeks of planting it was obvious that something was grossly different.  My client had a beautiful lawn that took infrequent mowings and was dark green.  His neighbor had a yellowish green lawn that made hay if he tried to wait to mow it on the same schedule as my client.  There was an obvious line at the property line!
     I don't know if my client ever told his neighbor what had happened.  I do know that he kept him guessing for a very long time and enjoyed the baffled looks he got from his neighbor.
     The point is that not all grasses are alike.  You must choose the right grass for the right use and place.  In this case, both lawns were southeastern exposure slopes with light shade for part of the day.  In North Carolina that is not an ideal situation for tall fescue but it is not terrible either.  Fescue was brought to this country from Europe and really prefers a somewhat cooler climate.  As a pasture grass, it was obviously bred for growth - the more green top for feed the better.  The older fescues were bred for just this purpose.  Using them for lawn means that you will be fertilizing and watering them like crazy to get a dark green and that you will be mowing often.  No so with a hybrid like 'Bonsai'.  It was bred for use as a lawn grass and was selected because of it's pretty dark green color, thick growth habit and most especially slow rate of growth.  After all, if you want to enjoy a lawn do you really want to have to mow it every 5 to 7 days?  Choose wisely and if all else fails get advise from a reliable source.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Importance of Site Grading

     Yesterday I made a site visit to a project site that has been under construction since last fall.  The buildings were complete and really looked great.  Unfortunately, I could not say the same thing for the site.
     The contractor had made a real effort at the beginning of the project to set the correct grades around the corners of each new building and to meet the correct finished floor elevations specified, and he had placed the various elements like the buildings, drive, parking and walks in the correct places.  This means that the basic structure of the site was correct.  Where he missed the mark was on the site grading - most especially on the finish grading.  One building that was placed at the top of a hill was already having water problems because he graded the area around the building such that he created an artificial dam that prevented the water running off the roof from going on down the hill.  Another had areas where water was already undermining the foundation and the retaining wall near it's entrance because he had piled soil in the area that should have been formed into a swale.  A third had water flooding their heating and cooling units because he had failed to provide the swale that would have allowed the water to get out of the area around them.
     People often ignore site grading or assume that they cannot change what they already have.  They don't begin to worry about it in many cases until it begins to create a water problem during rains and then they figure a quick fix with a shovel will do the trick - maybe add a little rock for good measure.  In the above case, the contractor had a set of plans designed by a Landscape Architect that showed him precisely how to grade this site and he completely ignored it.  Often that is not the case with a family home.  It is not unusual for the same problems to be created by a contractor on a house site and the owner then not know how to solve the issues that arise.
     If you have water problems or places that are being washed away in each rain, please consider what you have to lose.  Hire a licensed design consultant to help you solve them before they become a serious property value issue.  The cost of a  Landscape Architect is not nearly as expensive as the cost of repairs.
     In the case of my project site, the contractor and the owner will get a report on the things that were not constructed correctly and the contractor will fix the problem.  I can guarantee that the cost of fixing the problem will cost him more than I will have earned in design fees.  In the case of a home, once the contractor has walked away those repair costs are on the owner.  The owner can end up spending a great deal less by simply hiring a licensed Landscape Architect to prepare the plan so that a contractor hired to fix the issues has some direction. Once the contractor is finished, it is well worth the small extra fee of having the Landscape Architect do a final inspection and ensure that the plan has been completed as designed.  Without that, once the contractor leaves the job the mistakes made are on the owner.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Adding Energy Benefits to Your Site!

I live and work in a house that I designed to be passive solar.  It was built 16 years ago and has been saving me energy costs ever since I moved in.  For example, I am currently sitting in my office on the south side of the house with its bank of windows and it is 99 degrees outside, but my air conditioning is not running and I am quite comfortable.

Some of what went into this house to make it passive solar can obviously not be translated into use for existing structures - which comprise the majority of residential property on the market.  Obviously, once a home is built, you cannot change it's orientation, the direction that it is facing, nor can you easily add heat sinks and trombe walls. 

You can, however, change the planting of your site.  In fact, a good portion of what makes my home passive solar is actually green and growing out of the ground outside my window.  Start with trees!  The bulk of the sun beating down on your house in the summer comes from the southwest and can be blocked or modified by trees.  Who hasn't noticed the difference in temperature on a blistering day when they step out of the searing sun and into the shade.  Remember though that you are more than likely going to have to consider two major power demanding seasons.  Winter eventually comes and that shade can become a problem.  Thankfully Mother Nature has an answer for that.  Deciduous trees planted on the south to southwestern side of your house will go a long way toward comfort control.  Chose trees that are not too fast growing as they will tend to be weaker and to break in those violent summer storms.  Also choose trees that have a nice rounded mature crown without becoming too tall as lightening is drawn to the tallest thing around and you do not want to bring it close to your house.   Trees that reach a mature height of 60 - 75' will work great for your shade factor.  They should be planted such that their projected crown width is taken into consideration.  You will want to plant them at a distance of about half the projected crown width plus 15 - 20'.  This will allow them to grow and still allow you to have adequate ventilation around your home thus preventing issues with moss and mold.

For example, a willow oak will get to 60 - 70' tall and 50' in crown spread.  It makes a beautiful shade tree with a lovely rounded crown and withstands urban pollution well due to its small leaves.  I would plant a willow oak 40' - 50' away from a building and on the southwest side if I wanted to use it for summer shading.  The easiest way to determine which direction that might be is to watch for where the late afternoon sun hits the house in the summer.

As hot as it can get in the summer, winter can also be a brutal season that chews up fuel.  By planting deciduous on your southwest building face, you are ensuring that it will also get winter sun.  This is important for winter heating.  In many places, winter winds can also be a problem.  Depending on your location, you might also need to consider planting a winter wind break.  For this you will need to plant evergreens on the north and northwest side of your home.  Remember to maintain enough distance from your home to allow for ventilation and crown development.  For a windbreak, plant evergreens such that their projected mature crowns will join to form a solid green wall.

Finally, shrubs planted along the foundation of your home are not only aesthetically pleasing, they are great for added climate control.  They act to aid in crawl space or foundation slab cooling in the summer through shading and as added insulation in the winter.

Nothing living is ever permanent in nature so plan for that.  Plant several trees instead of just one.  I prefer to see several kinds of plants - whether trees or shrubs - go into each grouping.  After all, if your prized oak planted on the southwest side of your house is hit with oak wilt and you have three of them eventually all three will die.  It is not as serious a problem if you happen to have an oak, a maple and a hickory.  One might go but you still have two others to take over.  Just make sure that you replant when one is struck.

With a little thought and some planting, you too can have a passive solar site and be a part of the 'green' movement.  It may be a new label, but it is a tactic that people have been using for ages to control their personal home environments.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What difference does one tree make?

There is a older white home sitting off from a road that I routinely travel.  This house had a beautiful and sizable red maple tree in it's front yard.  This tree was in fact the primary thing that you noticed when you looked at this house.  In the summer, this house was hidden behind a beautiful crown of green leaves and cooling shade.  In the fall, the tree was a blaze of red that set off the white of the house and the green of it's roof.  In the winter, the bare branches of the tree added character to the otherwise simple farmhouse.

Last year a thunderstorm tore out a sizable branch of the tree.  The tree was still alive and healthy and it still provided a great front for the house, but the passerby also was drawn to the view of the hole in the side of the tree.  The tree was obviously hollow and was visibly disfigured.

Last week another thunderstorm attacked the tree.  This time, the remaining crown was broken off and lay like a fallen soldier in the front yard.  A couple of days later, the trunk was cut at the base and the remains of the tree were carted off.

Now the house is sitting alone and bare.  No tree is in the front yard and the house is all that you see.  Now it is obvious that the white house is run-down and in need of repair.  There are no leaves to frame the house and there is nothing to shade it in the summer.  In one brief moment, the property lost it's character, a major source of climatic buffering and a valuable asset.  I cannot help but notice the radical change from beautiful and shady to open, old and run-down.

People often do not realize the importance of trees in their lives and on their land.  The people who owned this house could have avoided the sudden loss of property value and the other benefits of this tree if they had just planted a couple of additional trees near this one a few years ago - or even a year ago, when the branch was broken off.  It would have given them some growing time while allowing the old tree to protect the new young trees as they grew.  It is important to realize that nothing living is permanent and no tree will live forever.