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.