Thursday, December 26, 2013

Poke Salad Annie Had Good Reason to be Mean

     I was out for a run one nice morning this past fall - going my usual slow pace.  Two much younger and fitter women passed me and kept on going.  They were carrying water bottles and they stopped ahead of me and nipped into some green, healthy vegetation; popping out minus the water bottles.  I know the greenway that we were running on well and the plants that grow along side of virtually every inch of it.  So, I called out to them to stop and wait for me.  When I got to them I explained to them that they needed to retrieve those bottles and then run straight to the nearest public bathroom, about a quarter of a mile and wash the bottles and themselves well with soap and water.
     Without realizing it, those two had walked into a vary healthy patch of pokeweed and used it as a place to store their water bottles.  That's right poke weed as in poke sallet, and famed in the song 'Poke Salad Annie'.  Why, you might ask, would that be a problem.  After all, don't people eat it?  While it is true that people do eat it, touching it can be a real problem.
     Pokeweed is a common native plant found throughout much of the United States and eastern Canada.  Only a handful of western states and western Canada do not support this plant.  It is a large perennial herb that can reach eight to twelve feet tall in a single growing season.  It is commonly found growing in open woods, roadsides, damp thickets and clearings.  The plant itself dies down to the ground with a hard freeze, but the root remains viable and regenerates in the spring.
     The plant can be easily identified by its large smooth-edged leaves that can reach up to a foot in length and its thick fleshy stems that range in color from green to red.  Flowers are found in long clusters.  They are small white five-sepal flowers without petals.  The fruit emerges as long clusters of green berries that eventually ripen to a dark purple.
     The entire plant (flowers, berries, roots, stems and leaves) is poisonous.  Among the chemicals that the plant contains are water-soluble triterpene saponins including phytolaccigenin.  The plant also contains phytolaccin and phytolaccatoxin.  These can be broken down by cooking - thus the making of poke sallet.  Cooking requires boiling and multiple water changes.  However, if not properly cooked, they can cause abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and in sever cases convulsions and death.  Toxin amounts are greater in the berries and roots.  Thorough cooking breaks down these toxins, and that along with the plant's ready availability explain why it was a favorite food source among especially the poor in the eastern part of the country. 
     Most country people know that the plant can be eaten if cooked, but few people know is that it is not safe to collect.  Besides the toxins listed, the plant also contains a type of protein lectin that can cause serious blood cell abnormalities and an alkaloid, phytolaccin.  Serious cases of poisoning can cause anemia, heart rate and respiration changes, convulsions and death from respiratory failure.  The juice of the plant can be absorbed through the skin making it a serious dermal toxin.  It is more dangerous if the handler has any cuts or breaks in their skin.  Because of this, it should never be handled with bare hands.  Ironically, the heart and respiratory symptoms from poisoning can cause brain damage and subsequent mood changes.  Thus, Poke Salad Annie might really have been a mean enough to make 'the alligators look tame' because of eating poke weed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Get Your Tasks in the Right Order

I was recently approached by a couple of parents who are part of the group of officers of a 'parent owned' sports club. This club has been offering programs to area kids and adults for decades. They had been renting facility space for their club and had what seemed like an iron-clad lease. Recently, they were informed that they would no longer be allowed to use that space and were actually given a very short period of time to leave and to find a new 'home'. They found a property with some infrastructure already in place. This site would need additional work to bring it up to a point where it will provide for their needs.

What they did not really know is that it also would need work to bring it up to code. It seemed to be a logical approach to the problem at hand. They needed a new space and no longer wanted to be in the situation of being at the mercy of some other entity who could simply throw them out with very little lead time. Their next step most likely also seemed logical to them but might have created huge problems for them in their future endeavors. They interviewed and then hired a contractor, reasoning that the work that needed to be done, including the addition of a structural roof over a part of the facility, was the sole realm of a contractor. The contractor in-turn told them that the structural part needed to be designed by an architect and recommended one. So, they then hired the contractor-recommended architect.

This may not seem to be a poor choice in approach to the uninitiated. However, anyone who has dealt with projects within a city or county jurisdiction could probably tell you that this is really not a good way to go if you plan to have a successful project. First of all, you have no way to compare costs and no idea going into the project what you will ultimately be required to spend in order to obtain your final needs. I met with them and tried to let them know this, but ultimately this was most probably too late to help them. They had signed contracts with two service providers - the contractor and the architect - which they did in hast because they feared being without facilities and the damage that that situation might cause to their club.

A better way to approach this kind of problem is to first realize that projects involving land and structures cannot be expected to be completed quickly. These parents should have found temporary rental space to buy them time. The first step that I would have recommend they take is to hire a landscape architect or civil engineer to provide them with a due diligence study. This would give them some idea of potential pitfalls, legal and code requirements, time to completion and costs. I have often been able to determine, after doing a due diligence, that a site is not fit for the proposed use or that a critical utility such as electricity, water or sanitary sewer is not available and extending them is more expensive than the use can sustain. Sometimes the steps required to complete a project, such as re-zoning or a petitioned change in the land use plan, are just too time consuming and the project would take longer than the client can feasibly wait. It is better to find that out before the project is initiated or the property is actually purchased.

After the due diligence, the client can make an informed decision as to whether to procede with the project on that site or to walk away. If they choose to procede, the next step is to build the design team. You can do this by hiring one of the team and letting them put together the rest or by hiring the individuals separately. This team will most likely have a surveyor (to provide the boundary, topography and tree survey), a landscape architect (to provide the site layout and design and to provide site plan submissions), a civil engineer (to work with the utilities, stormwater and other aspects of the site development) and an architect (to provide the design of the structure). The architect will often then add a structural engineer and a mechanical engineer to their individual team.

Once a team is organized, the client will need to meet with them and they will need to produce a set of plans. These plans will have to be submitted to the local planning department for site plan review. This review will cover the site design and layout, proposed grading of the site, planting, tree protection, erosion control and stormwater design. It will also have elevations and proposed floor plans for whatever structures that might be proposed. Once site plans have been reviewed and approved, construction plans will need to be produced. These will also be reviewed and approved. These will provide the information that a contractor will need in order to build the site and the structures, including the architectural plans. With the approved construction plans, the client can then go to a number of contractors and have them bid on the the construction. By doing this, they get an opportunity to compare quotes and an opportunity to keep the cost of the project within a budget. They can also then have the opportunity to filter out contractors who simply cannot meet their time budget.

Obviously, my parent group will not have that opportunity. They are now at the mercy of the contractor who is free to continue to pile on costs. It is vitally important to a project to get the tasks required and the people who will perform them put together in the correct order. Otherwise, you risk a project that is either never completed or is completed over budget and hugely late.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are You Effected by a Land Development Plan?

     Is your land a part of a land development plan?  If it is, do you know what the projected use of your land might be for the current and near future?  What about for the more distant future like ten or even twenty years?  If your answer to any of these questions is that you do not know, it might be in your best interest to find out.  City and County planning jurisdictions often develop long range plans for the development of the property within their actual limits and often within their extraterritorial jurisdiction, land beyond their boundaries for which they have development control.  Their long range plans for your land and the the properties surrounding your land could greatly effect your ability to use your land now and in the future.
     I recently attended a pre-submittal meeting concerning a piece of land.  The owner was hoping to sell this property and the potential buyer was hoping to develop it for high -density residential housing.  The property was in a seemingly agricultural area but backed up to a new residential development.  There was another new development just down the street.  Unfortunately for my client, this piece of land was in a low density residential area on the land use plan.  The Town agreed that the area was most likely to become high density residential and even commercial in the future, but that is not the case now.  To develop this property for high density residential as my client wanted, the land use plan for the Town would have to be changed to reflect high density residential.  The property would then need to be re-zoned to high density residential and then a site plan provided, reviewed and approved.
     To develop this property as low density residential would cost my client more than leaving it vacant because he would have to provide water, sewer and roads within the site.  To apply for the change in the land development plan would also be costly and would take a minimum of half a year to accomplish.  It would also mean that he would be taking the risk that the Town's decision might be to not allow the requested change.  In the end, my client chose to walk away from the property and the owner placed it back on the market.
     Land development plans can be a very powerful tool for a municipality to use to control and direct growth.  Obviously, uncontrolled growth does not really benefit anyone.  It  can cause real problems for innocent property owners who simply want to use their land the way that they were permitted to utilize it when they first purchased it.  Consider for instance a property owner who bought land in the country and built a home expecting to be able to live out their life in a rural country setting.  Without a land development plan and zoning regulations, this property owner could very easily find themselves living on their land surrounded by high density housing, like apartments, and commercial development, like a shopping center.  This could seriously effect their quality of life and their property value.  They might find that they cannot even sell their land and are stuck with having to remain in a now undesirable spot because of finances that were totally controlled by someone else.
     With a land development plan in place, existing property owners are at least given a chance to speak out when a change in the plan is requested.  Without one, they basically have no rights or voice in how surrounding properties are utilized.  It is important to know if there is a plan in place that effects your land.  This might determine how you develop that land, but it might also greatly protect it from surrounding development.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fireworks in the Tree Tops

     I love to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is the epitome of summer to me to walk out on a hot July evening among throngs of people, find a place in the grass near the lake where the Town shoots off the fireworks and then wait and watch. You get to spend a pleasant evening among friends and to enjoy a lovely show.   The walk home on a greenway through the woods with flashlights to light the way is pretty special too.

Lovely bursts of 'fireworks' crown a sourwood tree on the edge of the woods.

     One tree that always reminds me of the Fourth fireworks is the Sourwood. First of all, it tends to be in bloom around this time of year - beginning in mid June and often lasting until the end of July. Plus, to me the flowers themselves look like fireworks. The trees have long white strings of bell-shaped flowers coming out in a grouping like fingers on your hand. Each clump of flower strings resemble the pretty white clusters of shooting stars that we see on the night of the Fourth. With time they gradually turn from a snow white to a gray as the flowers complete their blooming and the seed is formed, but the firework groupings remain on the tree well into fall.
     The tree itself is a lovely small tree that is native to much of the Eastern and Southeastern United States. It is named Sourwood because of the oxalic acid that is formed in its leaves. This causes the leaves to have a bitter taste. The leaves may be sour tasting, but they are a favorite of a number of the moth species normally known as orange fall webworms. These moths will often seek out a sourwood to lay their eggs and the tents can begin appearing with tiny worms as early as mid summer.
     The flowers have a lovely scent and are attractive to bees. In a good year with plenty of rain and therefore plenty of flowering, bees seek out the trees. Sourwood honey is considered to be one of the best honeys in the world and is much prized. It is a very light colored honey with a heady scent. In addition, the juice from the flowers can be used to make jelly.

August leaves with seed pods still in place
     Sourwood likes full sun to partial shade and in the wild is usually found either as an understory tree in open hardwood stands or as an edge tree - such as the edge of a woodland, along a road or near a stream in a bottomland.  It is the edge location that is usually the most noteworthy.  The tree becomes a mass of brilliant red in the fall but will often begin turning color as early as August and will retain its red leaves for several months.  Along bottomland areas, the tree is always found above the high water level and is therefore a great natural indicator of potential flood levels and also of soils that are well drained.  Sourwood will not tolerate saturated soils.
     The tree reaches fifty feet in height and twenty feet in crown diameter in good conditions.  When found in the open, it has a pyramidal shape, but in a wooded setting, the shape tends to be more open and irrigular.  Often the trunk is crocked and leaning and the foliage is fairly dense on the main crown of the tree.
     Sourwood makes a wonderful specimen tree, especially when it is placed on the edge of a grouping of trees.  It does not tolerate a great deal of foot traffic and is not a 'lawn tree', but it does provide a good deal of interest and color when used on the edge of a bedded and thus protected area.  In these areas, the tree will be hardier if not fertilized with a chemical fertilizer.  Use organic materials such as compost instead.  It is a somewhat more temperamental tree to transplant and therefore is not always easy to find in a nursery, but it is well worth the search.  The other option is to protect what might come up at the edge of any wooded stands that you have.  You might be pleasantly surprised to find a sourwood growing amid the other edge trees.
     Look to sourwood to help set the mood for summer and the Fourth of July with its lovely flowers, and then look for the added bonus of long and brilliant late summer and fall color.  In the winter, enjoy its interesting and twisted shape and gray bark, and then in the spring watch for the red tinted leaves to come out.  It is a lovely understory and edge tree for all seasons of the year.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Passion Flower - A Great Vine and Groundcover

     Mid summer is a wonderful time to enjoy picnics and fireworks as well as to enjoy the 'fireworks' of flowers both in your yard and in the wild.  One lovely native flower that celebrates the season is the Passion flower, Passiflora incarnata.  Also known as the Maypop, the Passion flower is a perennial vine with herbaceous shoots that grow out from a lengthy woody stem.
     This vine can cover a sizable area over time for an interesting ground cover.  When it reaches something it can climb, it will use axillary tendrils, a modified stem that grows out and coils around objects to allow the vine to climb and not fall.  As a ground cover, it reaches a couple of feet in height and over time will cover an area of about ten feet in diameter.  As a vine, it can climb to a height of as much as twenty five feet.  Leaves have three lobes and are a lovely shade of dark but bright green.  They are an average of three to six inches across and provide for a lovely texture addition to your garden.
     The plant is herbaceous but perennial.  Thus it will disappear in the winter, but return and increase, beginning to send out new shoots, in the early spring.  By mid June, it will be covered with exotic flowers that appear to be a fringe of purple hair surrounding and under a very unusual and somewhat raised combination of pistil and stamens.  Under this fringe of hair are ten purple to light pink 'petals' that are actually sepals.  Flowers close overnight and open by early afternoon.  This flower is the reason for the name.  The pistil and stamens together are said to represent the crucifixion of Christ otherwise known as the Passion.  The ten
sepals are said to represent the ten disciples, excluding Peter and Judas.  The five stamens represent the five wounds placed into Christ's body, and the knob shaped stigmas are said to resemble the nails.  The fringe of 'hair' is seen as the crown of thorns.
     Flowers produce a three to five inch egg shaped, green fruit.  Over time this will become more yellow and the outer skin will become dry and paper-like.  Inside are groupings of seeds surrounded by globs of sweet, sticky flesh.  These gooey morsels are edible and were used by native Americans for food.  They also used the flowers, leaves and stems as infusions and teas; they found them useful for their medicinal properties.  Passion flower is believed to provide relief from anxiety and sleep disorders, especially when combined with valerian and lemon balm.  The name Maypop comes from the popping sound that the fruit make when it is ripe and squeezed in order to open it.
     The Passion flower is native to most of the southeastern United States - ranging from Pennsylvania to Florida.  In the wild, it can be found in meadows and pastures and along the edges of woodlands and streams.  The plant prefers sun to partial shade and will tolerate almost any kind of soil from loams to sands and from moist to dry.  It will not tolerate saline conditions though.  The fruit is highly favored by a variety of birds and the plant attracts a number of butterfly species.
     If Passion flower should happen to favor you with its presence, you might consider finding a home for it.  I like to see it mixed with other native vines to create areas of bedded ground cover in place of massive areas of grass.  A good companion is the Virginia creeper.  No matter how you proposed to use it, Passion flower can be a welcome addition to your site.

Monday, July 1, 2013

'Leaves of Five, Let it Thrive'

   'Leaves of three' and creeping on the ground or up a tree means poison ivy,  But what does 'leaves of five' mean?  It means that you have a solution to a nasty, bare, shaded and or hilly area on your property.  It could also mean that you have a solution to a hot wall or an unattractive fence issue.  Just what is 'leaves of five'?  It is Virginia Creeper.
     Virginia creeper, as the name implies, is a vine.  It is also a native to much of the eastern United States.  This perennial, woody vine will creep along the ground filling in an area and acting as a ground cover, or it will climb up an over things like fences and stumps along its path.  Either way, it is a stunning plant and deserves to be considered for use on your site.
     The plant has leaves that are composed of five leaflets.  These leaflets range in size from two to six inches and are toothed.  As a result they resemble the leaflets of poison ivy with the exception of their numbers.  Because people fail to recognize this difference or simply do not look closely to the plant, they often remove or kill Virginia creeper thinking that they are ridding themselves of poison ivy.  Often both plants can be found growing wild within close proximity as well which further leads to the confusion.  Both are rather attractive vines, but one has a rather nasty after-burn.
     The vine has new shoots and leaves that begin with a red to burgundy tint and gradually transform into their bright green summer foliage.  In the fall the leaves again turn red to burgundy just prior to leaf drop.  They produce a fairly inconspicuous green flower in the summer from June through August which ripens into a blue berry in the fall.  This is a favorite for a number of songbirds including bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and turkey.  They are also sought out as food by mice, squirrel, chipmunk and even deer.  Deer will also munch on the stems and leaves.
     Virginia creeper makes an excellent ground cover and will cover an open area of ground.  The plant is native to new and old growth forest and especially forest margins, stream banks and fence rows.  It performs well on slopes and provides excellent cover to act as erosion control.  The vine prefers partial shade to full sun and acidic soil.  This is perfect in our area of North Carolina where the soil is made acidic through the organic layers that are composed primarily of oak leaves and pine needles.  Although growth is slowed, Virginia creeper will also grow in sandy soil and even in areas of higher salt content.
     To establish Virginia creeper on your site, you can either obtain plants or you can seed them if a larger coverage area is desired.  Plants are available at many commercial nurseries who also can provide cultivars that have been bred for specific characteristics such as brighter fall color or smaller leaves.  Seeds can be sown in the fall or in the early spring.  They should have three eights inch cover of soil or mulch and should be planted at a rate of ten seed per square foot.
     As no plant is absolutely without flaws, Virginia creeper has a couple of things that need to be remembered when being used on a site.  First, the vine can get out of hand and will need to be cut back on occasion.  It has been known to completely cover and kill trees by preventing them from getting enough light to their leaves.  It can also cover structures.  This can be prevented by an annual trimming back to keep it in check.  Also, be aware that although the berries are loved by wildlife, they are poisonous to humans and that excessive contact to the sap can also cause an allergic reaction in some people. 
     Use the Virginia creeper wisely, and it will reward you with great cover and beautiful fall color.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Leaves of Three, Let It Be!

     Leaves of three, let it be!  Hairy vine, no friend of mine!  These are a couple of popular sayings I'm sure we all learned as kids, and that we all have in turn taught our own kids.  People grow up fearing and hating the fairly common native vine.  It is the subject of scorn, weeding and herbicide.  Yes, I am talking about poison ivy.  That unwanted scourge of a plant that can be a vine but can also become a shrub.  I have been on job sites that had poison ivy that was chest height and so thick that you could barely pass through it.  I have also see poison ivy vines that were so thick that I jokingly suggested that we count them for tree credit.  I would reason with the planning people that they had a diameter breast height that met their criteria and therefore should be counted (I might point out that these people are often not amused by this kind of a suggestion).

Early spring foliage
    Just what is it about poison ivy that is so awful?  It makes a great ground cover and often is one of the first plants to colonize a disturbed site.  It grows well in full sun but also can take a good deal of shade.  The leaves are actually quite pretty.  They are compound leaves with three leaflets per leaf.  In the early spring, they come out with a bronze color and they again turn red in the fall.  Plus the leaves have a nice shiny appearance.  They have pretty little white flowers and produce pretty little white berries that are highly favored by many kinds of birds.
     The real problem with poison ivy is a chemical called urushiol.  This is a clear oil produced by the plant.  It is most prevalent when the plant is broken or damaged, but is also present on the surface of the leaves and even the bare stems of the plant in winter.  This oil binds to the skin and to other items that come in contact with the plant.  For example, you could be careful to avoid the plant and then find yourself coming into contact with the oil because your dog ran through some and you reached down to pet him afterward.  You could have a towel or a piece of clothing brush through it and then become exposed when you accidentally touched that same piece of cloth.  You could even become exposed by breathing it in because someone placed it into a brush pile and burned the pile.
     Seventy five to eighty percent of the population have an allergic reaction to the substance and if you are one of those people, you are likely to fine that subsequent exposures cause more intense reactions.  So what do you do if you find it on your property?  First of all, don't panic.
     Poison ivy responds well to broadleaf herbicide treatments with chemicals like 2,4-D and Round-up.  It also responds well to being cut.  I usually suggest to people that they keep a separate set of shears to use for poison ivy cutting, but if you choose not to do that you are not sunk.  Simply make sure to clean your shears thoroughly with a detergent after each use.  As for the person doing the cutting; wear a watch.  Make sure that you wash within 45 minutes to an hour after an exposure and that you use a good oil-cutting detergent and scrub thoroughly.  Dishwashing detergent works well for this use.  The rash that you get a day or two after an exposure will let you know that you waited too long to wash or that you missed some of the exposure spots.  By the way, once you have washed the oil off, you cannot spread the problem even if the blisters that come up break.  That is a myth brought on by the fact that different quantities of exposure become a rash at different times.  Thus you might have become exposed all in one day but the rash might take several days to show up.
     Poison ivy is just a plant.  It is not something to be feared if you know how to handle it.  Wash in time and avoid the rash!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Consider the Angle of Repose

     So often people feel the need to fight the grades that are natural to their site.  They think that they should have a large flat area where the natural grade of the site is sloping, or they want a slope to feature some aspect of what they intend to plant or showcase.  They want to put natural streams into culverts, or they want to create a stream where one does not exist.
     Obviously, these changes can be made and are made on a regular basis.  Sometimes the solution to a desired flat area is to create a steep slope above and below the flat area.  Sometimes the solution is to construct a retaining wall or two.  Sometimes the solution is to remove the top of a hill and use that soil to fill a hollow.
     I have frequently seen the constructed solution  take the form of reshaping the land to create steep slopes on one or more sides of a site.  This can be a very effective way to create privacy, by creating berms, or to create a flat central lawn.  All to often I have seen this done, though, without the aid of a trained designer.  In fact, many 'garden centers' and 'landscapers' offer grading services.  Frequently these outlets have people who might know how to operate a backhoe or bulldozer, but do not have any design knowledge or training.  Although some equipment operators have an inherent sense of how to form the soil, many do not.  As a result, I have seen a good deal of disastrous consequences.
     So just what can happen if a mistake is made?  To the equipment operator, it can mean his life!  I have seen equipment flip and roll trapping the operator in the wreckage.  More often, though, the disaster occurs after the grader is done and has moved on.  The berm or grade change is completed and maybe even seeded and then a storm rolls in.  Suddenly the soil that was barely staying in place has the added pressure of saturation and begins a downhill tumble.
Don't let this happen to you!
     Designing the grading of a site requires that the designer know the soil type, the rainfall for the area and the subsequent angle of repose.  Without this information, slope failure is a distinct probability.  The soil type determines the angle of repose which is the key to most failures.
     All soils are made up of small particles of minerals - the result of the breaking down of  rock that formed the site millions of years ago - and organic matter - the result of the breaking down of plants in very recent times.  Soils are generally classified as sand, silt and clay (with a fourth classification of gravel that is not considered to be soil) based on the size of the particles that make up the soil.  Sand is the largest of the particles and clay is the smallest.  When these soils are built up to create a steep slope, they will naturally only stay at the steepness defined by their specific angle of repose.  This angle is directed by the individual particle density, surface area of the particles, their shape and the coefficient of friction as they relate to the force of gravity that acts on them.  Attempts to form a slope steeper than the angle of repose of the specific soil of a site will result in that soil reverting back to its natural angle.  That angle becomes flatter when you add water to the mix because water reduces the coefficient of friction allowing the particles to slide past each other.  For example, a dry sand has an angle of repose of 35 degrees, but a wet sand has an angle of repose of 25 degrees.  That is why the contractor can walk away from a completed site and the disaster of slope failure will not occur until it rains.
     Make sure you know who is designing your grades and how much training they have had.  It is also helpful to get a soil analysis if a great deal of grading is being proposed.  Clients that refuse to pay the 'extra' for a soil analysis often take the burden of failure on themselves and find that the 'extra' paid for that analysis might have been a wise investment.  Don't let a lack of knowledge about your site and your soil cause you to be the next person facing disaster.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Creativity Challenge - the Sequel

     Last week I challenged you to be creative and think beyond the easy and simple.  I showed you an example of my work in which I took a site that had a simple but less than desirable solution and re-designed it to have a more satisfying solution.  The end result was a completed project that has been extremely  successful as a built development.
     What about your individual site?  Can you make use of features on your site to enhance it?  Take a good look at your site.  Is there something unique about it that you have maybe overlooked?  You might have even seen it as a problem and missed it as a possibility.
     I had a client who called me out to look at their site because it had a creek in the back yard.  "What do I do with this?" she asked.  "It's so ugly and it takes up so much of the back yard."  The back yard was indeed ugly, but it was not ugly because it had a creek.  What made the space ugly was the fact that someone had cleared to the edge of the creek and was trying to grow and mow grass in an area that was clearly wet a good portion of the time.  The grass was growing, but was thin and not holding the banks in place.  Undermining had occurred in a number of places and left large holes in the lawn as well.  I asked her if there was some particular reason why they were trying to have a lawn in this area.  Did they have children who liked to play ball there, or did they need to have the space for lawn parties.  As it turned out, they were growing grass there because that is what they thought was the thing to do.  All of their neighbors had large grass lawns.  With a bit of imagination and some work, they transformed this area into a paradise with small, flowering trees, sweeps of colorful plantings and areas of ground covers.  They no longer had to mow; although they did have to do some weeding and they had an amenity rather than an eyesore.
     I had another client who wanted to remove a good number of the trees on his site because he felt that the house was too dark.  His wife also wanted more light in the house but did not want to lose the trees.  The trees were an obvious advantage on the site and their removal would have seriously adversely affected the site.  They were amazed when I suggested doing some strategic limbing of the trees and even more amazed at the airiness that they obtained after the job was complete.

   Most recently, I have watched as a neighbor struggled with a large and quite dead cherry tree.  They cut off the limbs and worked their way down to the trunk eventually stopping at about three feet from the ground.  At this point they began to have trouble cutting it further to the ground so they left the tall stump.  Recently, they came up with the perfect solution.  They chiseled a hole near a crotch in the stump, filled it with soil and planted it.  Now a gladiola is blooming there.  Problem solved!  A stump became a very unique planter.
     Don't be afraid to be creative.  We all have creativity as a part of our makeup.  Let your imagination rule for awhile and challenge the conventions of the people around you.  So what if all of your neighbors have a grass lawn and a row of Japanese holly neatly hedged across the front of their houses.  If you don't find that to be pleasing or if it does not work with what you have on your site than feel free to do something different.  The people around you might not understand at first and they might criticize, but I would be willing to bet that eventually they will come to value your creativity and maybe even follow your lead.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Take the Challenge to be Creative

     My son completed and turned in his final project in his cabinet making class yesterday.  The project entailed clearly stating his intention, designing the intended project and then executing the design.  His intention was to make a chess board, reasonable considering that he is the president of his high school's chess club.  Furthermore, this chess board was to be made entirely out of wood from the scrap pile.  In other words, he intended to use what he had at hand rather than bring in new material.  This made the project a good deal more complicated, and the final product a good deal more interesting.
     I have clients who choose to take this route on a regular or on an occasional basis.  They choose to rehab existing structures or use sites that have had previous uses other than vacant ground.  This always makes the project a good deal more complicated.  I have in the past had to deal with sites that could not meet setback, buffer or easement requirements because existing buildings were placed such that they were in these parts of the site - sometimes because the site had been subdivided and sometimes because the zoning had simply changed.  This often leads me to have to file re-zoning requests, special use permit applications or requests for variance.  All of these are legal hoops that I had to jump through, but are not really physically hindering.
     I have also had sites in the past that had monitoring wells (wells placed on the site to monitor soil and/or ground water contaminants) and buried extras (one urban site had a number of 1950's cars buried under it and one had a deposit of medical waste).  I have even had a site where past foundations were discovered under the current foundations that were being removed to make way for the new use.  These very physical issues can create a good deal of extra work as my client, sometimes the contractor and I work to figure out how to deal with them.
     At the design level, physical aspects of the site should most definitely help to define the design of the site.  It is very easy to design the location of a building, associated parking, vehicle and pedestrian access and any additional amenities on a flat site with nothing larger than grass growing on it.  The designer is basically then working with a blank piece of paper, a clean slate.  It is much more challenging if the site has a major grade change or a rock outcrop, or a water feature like a stream or a pond, or a vegetative feature like a champion tree or an area of woods.  To obtain the owner's desired use out of these sites, the designer is challenged to be considerably more creative.  The end result, though, can also be considerably more interesting and desirable.
The entire site was utilized and a pond for fishing and swimming was added as an amenity!
     I was brought in on the design of a site, for example, in which the initial preliminary design showed a single double loaded parking lot (parking spaces on either side of a single 24' wide aisle) placed in a straight line and a row of townhomes placed along the length of either side.  The whole thing was to be raised up with fill soil to meet the requirement of placing these units above the 100-year flood line which added to the general ugliness of the design.  This design was boring, but it did meet the client goal of X number of units on the site and the local planning requirement of X number of parking spaces per unit.  I was privileged to have been allowed to re-design the site, with of course the same parameters, and to complete the design and construction drawings.  My design included a pond in the center of the site that allowed me to obtain the fill needed to raise the buildings but also accessed the clean water table near the surface of the site.  Encircling the pond were the townhomes and encircling them the drive and parking.  Thus each townhome had a public entrance to the loop drive and parking and a private interior entrance to the walks encircling the pond.  Ironically, my design actually cost less to construct than the estimate for the initial design and produced a pleasant place to live.  Residents got an amenity that provided them with swimming, fishing and walking recreation as well as aesthetics. It did, however, take a good deal more design time and creativity.
     Don't take the easy way out when designing your site.  Take the challenge.  You might really like the results.  Work with what you have on the site rather than ignoring it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Don't Dominate Your Site!

     My ex-husband died last night and it made me think about a lot of things.  Not all of our marriage was bad; in fact, some of it was quite good.  The really bad parts had to do with him trying to control and manipulate those around him, especially as he descended further into his dependency problems.  Your site, whether it be many acres or less than one, is very much like that too.  Attempt to manipulate and control it, and you will be in a constant battle over dominance.  Let it have its own nature and work within those directions and you will live in harmony with your site.
     I have seen people, especially with single family residences, work constantly to have their property look 'nice' in their definition of a pretty site.  They mow meticulously, edge along their curb, hedge and clip every shrub to within an inch of the 'perfect' shape (although I have yet to understand the reasoning behind creating great boxes, funny inverted cones or giant bowling balls out of their shrubs) and use ridiculous amounts of chemicals - both fertilizers and pesticides - in an all-out and on-going assault on their land.  The end result is indeed something very neat and tidy.  It is also something very unnatural and uninviting, and it is a harsh place for the owner who has to maintain it, anyone planning to spend any time there and for the environment in general.
     Does that  grass really look better with a perpetually severe low cut and a permanently blunt edge just back of the curb?  Have they really even looked at it, or is this simply ingrained into their psyche as the 'way to do things.  Does that roll of bowling balls culminating with an inverted ice cream cone really look better than a shrub that is allowed to maintain its shape?  Does an absolute monoculture really look better than something with multiple plant species?  These are questions that only you can answer.  Perhaps to you they really do look better.
The natural shape of the plants comes from and annual pruning.
     I would like to expand your horizons a bit though and ask you to look beyond this contrived and beaten site.  Every plant has its inherent mature size and shape.  Each has their own particular color, fragrance (even if it is simply the smell of the leaves), and blooming.  When thinking about your planting, why not consider the mature size and shape of each plant (shrub, tree and also herbaceous plant) that you intend to use.  If you want a conical shape, why not plant a shrub that will naturally grow that way and will reach a height that is close to the height that you need for that spot.  A choice like this does not mean no pruning; it simply means no hedging and minimal (most likely annual) pruning.  The same thing can be said for color.  If you want dark green, why not plant something that is naturally dark green rather than adding tons of fertilizer to your site to force your plant into that color.
     Do you want and need a lawn?  If so, does it really need to be a monoculture of a single grass?  What is  that lawn providing for you?  If your answer is a football field or a golf course, than that monoculture makes sense.  If you are using that lawn for occasionally walking across the grass and as a backdrop, then why not plant a mixture of grasses or better still a mixture of grasses and legumes for your lawn.  They will still function and be green when mowed plus they will not need to be mowed as meticulously or fertilized as often if ever.  Finally, have you ever noticed how pretty plants can be when they are allowed to tumble over hard features.  Grass and legumes can be just as pretty when allowed to tumble over a curb.  Edging is not a necessity; it is a style choice.
     Stop fight with your site and the plants that you use in it.  You do not need to dominate.  Try working within their inherent nature and you might find that you like the aesthetics you obtain.  You might also find that you like the reduction in work and stress.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Follow the Advice of the Expert You Hired. Don't Get Sold a Bill of Goods.

     I am often baffled at the amount of credence and trust that some people will give to various people around them.  How many times have you heard someone ask for advice concerning what to plant or how to amend their soil of the salesperson at the retail 'nursery' or worse still at the local home improvement store.  Why would that person be more likely to know anything more about those topics over the person asking?  They are most likely not involved in growing those plants that they sell.  Chances are that they are really nothing more than sales people.  Yes, occasionally you will come across a plant store that actually grows the plants that they sell and the people who work there would have a bit more background that would allow them to actually answer questions about the plants.  That situation is the exception though; not the norm.  Besides, there is a big difference between growing plants to sell in pots and raising plants on your site to maturity.
     I have a friend who engaged me to provide her with a bioretention pond design for her home site.  This pond was being built because her site was located in a watershed district and had a limit on the percent of the site that could be impervious.  She was hoping to enlarge her home which would have created a situation in which her impervious surface area was increased beyond her limit.  Bioretention is basically a place on the site that is designed in such a way as to capture surface water and give it time to soak, or infiltrate, into the ground.  To enhance this infiltration, the area is dug out and the original soil replaced with a soil mixture that enhances water infiltration because it contains a great deal of pore space.  The surface of this dug area, the 'bio' part, is covered with plants.  Thus my plan included a planting plan with a specific plant list.  Plants on this list were very carefully selected because they were capable of existing under the conditions that the bioretention would create.  They must be able to survive under both flooded conditions and extremely dry conditions.  After all, a bioretention area is designed to drain water into the surrounding soil, not hold it, and therefore when it is not filled with water it will become extremely dry.
     After my friend had planted her bioretention area she called to make sure that she had done the right thing.  She had gone to a retail nursery - in reality a local plant store - and found that they did not have the plants that were listed on my plan.  This is something that I had told her to expect when I gave her the plan and a listing of places where she could locate the plants on the list.  The sales lady that she asked told her that she should simply make substitutions; she did not need to use those plants.  She then proceeded to 'recommend' plants to buy and use instead.  As my friend began the litany of substitutions I was once again stunned.  One plant 'recommended' really does not grow this far south, although it would do quite well in Michigan.  One, if it survived which is highly unlikely, would grow great in extreme drought but die when water pooled around its base for the requisite 48 hours.  Another would die as soon as the basin dried up, which would be the majority of the year.  In other words, she had been sold a host of plants that would not survive and which she could not return.
     My question to her was this. Why did you bother to have me spend time on your plan if you were going to take the advise of a salesman instead?  That salesman was obviously out to make a sale period.  She did not know what you wanted or needed.  She simply wanted to make money off of your ignorance about that one subject and you readily fell into her trap.
     I see the same thing happen time and time again with salesmen and also with contractors who because they have built something have suddenly become the expert.  Are they really an expert?  What has their past performance really been like?  Did it hold up ten years down the road or did it need to be replaced or rebuilt?  If you are hiring an expert, follow their advice.  They do that for a living and most likely carry a good deal of training and experience to the table.  Don't get fooled into exchanging that expert advice for that of a good salesman (whether it be at the plant store or a pitch by the contractor).  That salesman is most likely to simply make a fool out of you and rob you of your hard earned cash.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Herbs Spice Your Garden and Your Pot

     Herbs in the garden can be very interesting and a wonderful addition.  They can provide color, scent and interesting texture as well as providing a wealth of useful seasoning to your table.  Everyone has their favorite 'go to' herbs that they use all the time in their cooking.  I always make a point of growing these herbs so that I have fresh spices at least during the summer and fall.  There is nothing better than going out to the garden just before starting a meal and picking what I need to throw into the pot.  Foods just taste better with fresh herbs.  There are other herbs though that I also add to my site and to site plans done, even for commercial and institutional locations, simply because they are a great choice of plant for the spot.
     I like to think of them in terms of permanent plantings, the shrub herbs, perennials, root herbs (including bulbs, corms and tubers) and finally annuals.  With these classifications in mind, I can then scatter herbs into a planting design or can create a more permanent year-round herb garden design.
Lavender in full bloom
The three major plants that I use for shrub herbs are lavender, rosemary and thyme.  Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is also called English lavender, although it actually originally came from the western Mediterranean.  It is an evergreen shrub with narrow and fragrant leaves that reaches three to five feet in height.  It prefers sunny dry locations and has showy purple flower spikes.  The leaves are used for medicinal purposes, teas, and scents.  Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is also an evergreen shrub with needle like leaves.  These leaves are a gray-green in color and are also fragrant.  Rosemary likes full sun and will reach a height of two to four feet.  It is deer and drought resistant and also has showy blue to purple flowers that bloom along the stems.  As an herb, rosemary is used to season lamb, pork, veal and poultry.  Thyme,  Thymus sp., is a small evergreen, sun loving shrub that can be as short as six inches in height or as tall as eighteen inches depending on the variety.  It has narrow gray-green leaves and purple, pink, or white flowers on small spikes.  Blooming is showy because of the masses of color rather that because of individual showy flowers.  Thyme is great when used to season soups, poultry and fish.
     Perennial herbs tend to be a bit less permanent than shrub herbs, but they still will come back over a multiple of years.  In this category are sage, sorrel and the host of mints.  Sage, Salvia officinalis, is an evergreen woody herb with edible leaves several inches long.  It reaches one to two feet in height and has gray-green leaves and blue to white flowers. As an herb, it is used to season poultry, sausage and soft mild cheese, and as a planting it is lovely in rock gardens and along plant bed edges.  Sorrel, Rumex sp., is a perennial herb that reaches eighteen inches to three feet tall. I prefers full sun and makes an interesting bed edge plant.  Flowers are an insignificant green or brown, showing up in the summer, but the leaves provide a nice texture change to the bed.  They are a three to six inch shield, often with red stems or veins.  Sorrel is used in soup and with chicken and egg dishes. 
The mints  - including peppermint, spearmint, orange bergamont mint, pineapplemint, and Corsican mint - Mentha sp., are all perennial herbs.  They grow from six inches to three feet depending on the variety and prefer partial shade to full sun.  Mint makes a great ground cover, although it can take over if not contained, and it blooms with stalks of small lavender, purple, blue and white flowers in the summer.  Leaves are a deep green to a light yellow green, and are the primary reason to grow mint.  The fragrant leaves are edible and used in a number of ways including teas, jellies, deserts and salads.
     Root herbs are often simply lumped  into a category of bulb, because most people to realize that there are different types of roots.  In this category are the Allium sp.  They are perennial bulbs that have blue to green tubular grass-like leaves, reach heights of one to two feet, prefer full sun and have globe shaped flowers that are in the blue, purple, pink and white range.  This genus includes garlic - Allium sativum, chives - Allium tuberosum, and onions - Allium cepa. 
Saffron Crocus in bloom
Saffron, Crocus sativus, is also a root herb.  As an herbaceous corm, saffron is a  fall blooming crocus related to spring crocus.  It reaches four inches in height and prefers full sun.  Grass-like leaves are crowned by purple flowers in the fall.  Spice is produced from harvesting the red-orange stigmas and styles from the female flowers and is used in rice, breads and ethnic dishes.  Plant them as a fall accent on garden edges.  Finally, a great plant in this category is ginger - Zingiber officinal.  This is a herbaceous perennial that grows from tuberous rhizomes.  Plants reach three to four feet tall and prefer partial shade.  They have bright green strap-like leaves and yellow flowers in the spring.  The rhizome is edible.  It is used in oriental and Mediterranean food and crystallized in and as a desert.
     Annuals are good for a growing season and can be planted like annual flowers.  Parsley, Petroselinum crispum, is a biennial or annual herb that prefers partial shade to full sun.  It produces edible, dark green, curly leaves that provide interesting texture to the garden and the insignificant flowers attract swallowtail butterflies who like to use the plant to lay their eggs.  Parsley is used as a garnish and in soups, stews and salads.  Basil, Ocimum minimum, is an  annual herb,  It reaches eighteen inches to two feet in height and prefers full sun.  The plant produces bright green or purple fragrant leaves which are used in soups, salads, stews and tomato based sauces.  Basil has small white to pink flowers in summer.
     Herbs in the garden provide interest closer to the ground.  They give added texture to your beds and provide lovely scents as well as lovely flowers.  Their bonus is that they also provide interesting flavor and scent to your cooking.  Add them to your beds or create a specific garden just for your herbs to spice up your life.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bedding Plants for Your Plate!

     Trees are the bones of a site.  They create the height and overall feel of the site.  They also work to alter the micro-climate by creating shade and altering the amount of wind within the general area around them.  Shrubs are the flesh of the site.  They bring the eye down closer to the ground and provide the visual screens and provide a greater sense of the scale of the site.  Shrubs also provide more color than trees for a good part of the year and bring green life closer to people on the site.  Both are still large and off the ground.  To complete the site you will need bedding and bedding plants.  They are the skin of the site.  They provide the opportunity for close-up interaction with the plants of the site and add  variety, color and texture.
     Most often bedding plants are composed of annual and perennial flowering plants and of bulbs and
Tomatoes can be colorful!
tubers.  You can also get color and texture by using food producing plants.  They also can be annuals, perennials and bulbs.  Even in a very formal site design with carefully hedged shrubs and closely clipped grass, vegetables and herbs can be used as bedding plants.
     In order to make your site work for you in this way, consider the mature size of the plants that you want to use.  Remember that many vegetable plants get fairly tall and that others spread out and take up a good deal of land area.  You might need to look into dwarf varieties of plants to get them to fit into your design.  Also remember that most food producing plants need full sun.  When choosing locations for your bedding plant vegetable plantings, check to ensure that the plants will receive adequate light to meet their individual requirements.  Finally, if you are using food crops for bedding plants, remember that you will probably need to provide them with more maintenance than in a less visible location.  This really translates to picking vegetables as they ripen, keeping them trimmed and keeping the areas under them mulched and weed free.  As bedding plants they will be much more visible than they would have been if placed in a more specific 'vegetable garden' location.

A pumpkin flower can be very pretty
   You can use plants that produce flowers and then fruit with the fruit being the ornamental aspect of the plant used.   For these plants, try peppers, tomatoes and eggplant.  All will fit in easily to the front or outer edge of a shrub planting and provide lovely color as well as produce.
     For colorful and showy flowers, try planting squash and their close cousins of cucumber, and any of the melons and pumpkins.  The flowers are lovely with five petals and bright colors in the yellow to orange range.  They are also usually large and, depending on the plant selected, often also edible.  With plants of this type, keep in mind that they are vines in nature and will spread out and take up large amounts of land area.  Provide for that need in advance.
     Bedding plants can provide interesting texture to your site.  For fine or ruffled texture, try using parsley,
Red leaf lettuce add color
thyme, rosemary and fennel.  The parsley will have the added advantage of providing habitat to swallowtail butterflies who will be attracted to your site.  Fennel provides a great deal of year-round color, and thyme has the added advantage of being unappealing to deer - in case deer browse is a problem.
     Finally, you can add color through leaves rather than through flowers and still have food production as well.  For possible leaf color plants, you could try Swiss chard with its flaming red stems, or cabbage and leaf lettuce with red and purple coloring.   
     Try finishing off your site with bedding plants that can also be eaten.  Make your site work for you to provide a beautiful garden and a fresh and appealing plate. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ground Cover for the Table!

     Food production and a showy pleasing landscape do not necessarily contradict each other.  You can have both and it can happen even in a commercial or institutional setting.  One way to make it happen is to replace some of that lawn grass with food producing ground covers.  You will reduce the time spent mowing and you will take land that is functioning only for aesthetics and turn it into land that has more value.  This is not to say that there will not be some maintenance involved; you will need to weed.  You simply will not have the amount of maintenance involved with a weekly mowing, a biennial fertilizing and the requisite weed control required with grass.

    A great choice for hot, dry, sunny locations is the creeping raspberry (sometimes called creeping bramble).  This is an evergreen ground cover from Taiwan.  The plants grow very low to the ground often only reaching two inches in height, although a more typical height is three to six inches, and they have a spread of three to six feet.  Leaves are five lobed, and they produce small, white, five-petaled flowers in the spring.  These flowers give way to small, red, sweet-tasting fruit.  This is a great plant to use on slopes that have occasional erosion issues as the plants form a dense mat.  Just make sure that they are not placed in wet spots.  Plant creeping raspberry two feet apart for an effective cover.
     Another small evergreen shrub that makes a great ground cover is the cranberry.  This is a great choice for cold climates, but will also grow in North Carolina.  Unlike the creeping raspberry, the cranberry is a North American native.  It grows two to eight inches in height and can reach a diameter of six to seven feet.  Cranberries require a sandy soil with plenty of organic matter and prefer to be near slow-moving acidic water such as a stream edge or wetland area.  They also require full sun.  The name actually refers to the sandhill cranes that were often found nesting in areas of native cranberry and to the resemblance that the flower buds and flower have to these birds - the name initially was craneberry.  The flowers are small and pink and they turn into small white berries that ripen into red ones.  Juice is made from both the immature white berries - white cranberry juice - and from the mature red ones.  They also can be used in baked goods, jellies and eaten raw.  The berries are very high in vitamin C.  Contrary to popular misconception, they do not have to be grown in a bog; it is simply easier to harvest quantities if the fields are flooded and the berries allowed to float.
     The lowbush blueberry is closely related to the cranberry and is in fact in the same genus.  Lowbush blueberries are a deciduous shrub that reach one to two feet in height.  As a grouncover, they have the added attraction of several seasons of color.  They have clusters of white bell-shaped flowers in the spring, blue fruit in the summer and bright red to yellow leaves in the fall.  They are also a North American native.  Plant them in full sun to partial shade (they can be found growing wild under oak and pine canopies) and in acidic soil.  Expect to do a fair amount of initial weeding, but once they are established, lowbush blueberries are fairly low maintenance.  To ensure good fruiting, plant several varieties.  The fruit are great fresh, baked into pies and bread, frozen or used in jellies.
     Two herbs also make great ground covers.  These are the Creeping Thyme and the Creeping Rosemary.  Both require full sun and both produce edible leaves that make great seasoning.  They are also both evergreen with showy flowers.  Expect them to reach a height of twelve inches and to provide a spicy scent to your landscape.  You can use them in areas of light foot traffic, but they will do better if not heavily trod upon.  Creeping thyme is best seeded to obtain a good coverage; plan on planting rosemary cuttings in the early summer approximately two feet apart.
     For areas that are not going to be walked on often, try replacing traditional grass with a food-producing ground cover.  It might just prove to be great for both your back in terms of labor saved and your wallet in terms of what you can bring inside to put on the table.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Shrubs Provide Fruit Too!

     Continuing my series on edible planting, I would like to move on to smaller plants.  Not all fruit bearing plants have to be trees.  Some could be shrubs.  We use shrubs for screening, foundation plantings for buildings, specimen plantings and hedging.  Why not make the choice to use edible shrubs where ornamental ones might have been selected in the past?  Edibles, like ornamental shrubs, come in a variety of sizes, shapes and growth characteristics.
     The first shrub that usually comes to mind when thinking about edibles is the blueberry.   This is a deciduous shrub that can reach only a foot tall or as high as fifteen feet tall depending on the variety selected.  Flowers are small, white bells that appear in the spring, and the fruit appears in the summer.  The fruit is a small, soft blue berry that is great fresh or used in jam, syrup and pie.  Two general kinds of blueberry are offered for sale:  the lowbush which also can be found growing wild in the woods throughout the area, and the rabbiteye which grows taller and is a bit less hardy.  Both prefer moist conditions, but the lowbush can grow in full sun to partial shade.  Rabbiteye need full sun.  Lowbush make good ground cover while rabbiteye are great shrubs.  In order to get a good crop of berries, you will need to plant at least two varieties relatively close to each other.
     Blackberries and raspberries are both considered to be brambleberries.  They are deciduous and produce biennial canes that can reach five to twenty feet in height.  Typically they are extremely thorny but thornless varieties are available.  These are closely related to roses and produce small, white to pink, five-petal flowers like simple roses in the spring.  In fact, wild roses are often confused with wild brambleberries.  The fruit is ripe in the early to mid summer and is small and very sweet.  They are great raw or in pies, cobblers and jams.  The plants prefer full sun and in the wild are some of the first to colonize an open site.  Because of their thorny and dense nature, they make a great barrier or hedge.
     Edible shrubs can also provide interest in the form of flowers.  Rosa rugosa, sometimes called Japanese rose is a lovely deciduous shrub that can reach four to eight feet in height.  It has compound leaves and needs full sun.  Flowers are two to four inches across and are fairly simple in form, often having only five petals.  They come in white, red, pink, yellow or lilac depending on the variety selected.   The shrubs make great hedges because they produce wickedly thorny branches and because they tend to sucker forming a denser mass of plant.  Blooming occurs throughout the summer and fruit, called rose hips, develop in late summer to early fall.  Rose hips usually develop to about an inch in diameter and turn red when ripe.  They are high in vitamin C and are great raw or used in jellies and sauces.  The flower petals are also great raw in salads or used in jam.  When selecting this plant, please remember that this is native to Eastern Asia and can become very invasive here in North Carolina.
     Pomegranate is another lovely flowering shrub that also produces fruit.  It is a deciduous shrub and is usually propagated from seed or cutting.  The species originates in the Mediterranean and India so it generally prefers a warmer climate than that in North Carolina, but there are varieties that will grow here.  Typically the shrub matures to a height of ten feet and prefers full sun.  The flowers are a showy red/orange reaching two inches in diameter and appearing in the late spring and on into summer.  The fruit is even more showy, ripening in the fall to a two to six inch red ball.  This ball is actually a leathery outer rind covering masses of red, juice filled arils that contain the seed.  These are eaten raw or are used for jelly and juice.
     Quince is a fruit that is not frequently found in American gardens of today but was once found in nearly every middle class homestead throughout the country.  The plants originated in the Trans-Caucasus of Southwestern Russia and Armenia and were introduced to Europe prior to the fourteenth century.  Flowers appear in the spring and are white or pink. They reach a showy two inches in diameter.  The shrub can reach fifteen feet in height and is deciduous.  It prefers full sun.  Fruit are pear or apple-like and are ripe in the fall.  They are not good raw, but can be cooked into pies, sauces or jelly.  They were the primary source of pectin for the Colonials which is why they were so widely used.
     Trees are not the only fruit producers that you can plan in your garden.  Shrubs provide fruit too!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Landscape Architects Provide More Than Yard Work!

     Landscape Architects work hard at very complex issues to provide their clients with quality design.  That design encompasses many aspects of the built site including such diverse tasks as master planning of the long term development of a site, designing and locating the various features or elements that will become the ultimate site (such as the drive or roadways, buildings, pedestrian and bike access, parking, stormwater structures, the shape of the earth and the plants that cover it), urban design, and working with municipalities and counties to obtain correct zoning and in some cases to define that zoning. We specify products to be installed on a site and design and detail items to be constructed on a site, and we help to design and plan urban communities.  Despite all that the profession encompasses, we suffer an image problem.  People simply have no idea what we do and how we can help them with their site.
     This problem might be a result of the lack of exposure and numbers that we have in the profession.  After all, there are approximately 16,000 licensed landscape architects spread out throughout the United States.  Licensed Architects number 104,000, and Civil Engineers have approximately 265,000 licensees.  Landscape Architects are simply lost in the shuffle.  This fact slapped me in the face once again this week.  Three separate things happened to really bring that to my attention.
     The first was an e-mail that I received from the North Carolina Board of Landscape Architects.  It was an official document defining the scope of the practice.  This defines the profession and the requirements to become a licensed Landscape Architect.  There has been a good deal of overlap of  three closely related professions with licensed professionals selling services that they were not necessarily trained to perform.  Architects often provide site design - even crudely delving into grading, drainage and planting - without the training and skills.  Civil Engineers are trained to do site design but not all aspects of the site plan and they tend to have a more mechanical approach to the whole design because design and artistry are lacking in their training.  By the same token, some Landscape Architects delve into building or roadway design beyond what their skills would dictate.  Then there are the landscape designers who have no training at all and who attempt to sell their services to do just about anything.  Fortunately, for sites that require a site plan to be submitted to a governing authority, they are excluded because they also have no license and carry no liability for anything that goes wrong as a result of their mistakes.  These cross-overs have become more frequent with a bad economy where people are desperate for work.
     The second reminder came in the form of requests from two women that I know from various parent organizations at my son's high school.  I am sure that they were well intentioned and attempting to show some deference to my profession.  I am equally sure that they had no idea just how insulting their queries were.  Both asked if I knew of anyone who could help them with their yard work.  One wanted a tree to be taken down and the other had shrubs to prune.  I actually did know someone and gave them a reference, but I only know that person because we happen to sing in the same community choir.  I honestly don't know of any yard maintenance people other then the usual number that any homeowner might come into contact with.
     Finally, I have had the privilege to jury entries to the Virginia ASLA awards for 2013.  There were over thirty and some of the design entries were simply amazing.  It really brought home the breath and scope of what we are doing as a profession.  I got to review designs of pedestrian malls, roof gardens and campuses as well as of farms and single family residences with amazing spaces.  I also got to see a number of intriguing site analyses and master plans.  What at first seemed as though it would be an insurmountable task became a huge blessing to me.  Bravo Virginia!  Your design work is fantastic.  It is a nearly impossible task to pick out a best from these entries.  It reminded me of just why I got into this profession and what we are capable of doing if given the chance.
     We cannot get the chance to be this creative though unless potential clients realize what we can do for them and how that differs from what closely related professions can provide.  ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects, provides a nice concise description of the profession; visit their website at:  You might just be very surprised to find out what we can do.  In the meantime, we as Landscape Architects need to keep plugging education and exposure.  We have a lot to overcome in order to be understood.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Beauty of a Small Fruit Tree

     Spring brings a good many changes to the landscape.  Grass begins to send new green shoots out through the dull tan winter cover, bulbs bloom, trees begin to sprout new green leaves and ornamental or small trees suddenly become covered with lovely delicate flowers.  Often those flowering trees are beautiful for a week or longer and then replace the flowers with green leaves and fade into the background to become an attraction one last time in the fall when their leaves turn color and fall off.  That does not have to be the case on your piece of ground.  You could choose to plant 'ornamental' trees that are also functional.  Why not plant small trees where you need them that also produce fruit.  You could still enjoy the spring blossoms and fall color, but you would also have the added attraction of fruit in the summer.
     When picking fruit trees, consider what you like to eat.  Although these trees will begin with small harvests, trees do tend to grow and you might find yourself with plenty of one kind of fruit.  Also consider your growing conditions, the shape of the tree as it matures and the amount of effort that tree might require from you to produce useable fruit.  Remember too, that fruit doesn't always have to look as perfect as that found in the grocery store to taste good and be useful.  That fruit looks good because of chemicals that you may not want to use.  Possible fruit tree choices for central North Carolina include apple, cherry, peach, fig and plum - to name a few.
     Apples and crabapples are both Malus genus and are actually only distinguished by the relative size of their fruit.  They produce a firm, rounded, sweet tasting fruit in the fall which is quite attractive as it mature adding an additional season of interest to the tree.  Apple trees have a rounded canopy that becomes more open with maturity.  They can range in mature size from eight to twenty five feet.  In the rose family, apple trees typically have delicate five-petaled flowers. 
Fig Tree in fruit
     The fig is native to the Mediterranean, but can be grown here in North Carolina.  It has large five-lobed leaves that provide a rough and interesting visual texture and a rounded canopy.  Typically figs grow between ten and thirty feet in height depending on the variety and require relatively fertile, well drained soil.  Unlike the other small fruit trees, figs to not bloom all at one time and do not bloom in the spring.  They bloom in the summer and flowers are relatively insignificant.  The fruit as it ripens into a deep maroon is really the show and they form and are available for harvest from mid-summer into the fall.  Figs also have a great deal of winter interest with their smooth gray elephant's hide looking bark.
     The final genus that I would like to present to you for consideration is Prunus.  Like apples, trees in this genus are in the rose family and thus have delicate five-petalled flowers.  They bloom in the spring with a showy display.  Trees in this genus that grow well in North Carolina are cherry, peach, nectarine and plum.  Apricot will also grow here with careful selection of a hardy variety, but like figs they originate in the Mediterranean.  In fact, as their scientific name - Prunus armeniaca - clearly states, they originated in ancient Armenia. 
     Cherry trees have an open vase shape with an interesting silvery textured bark.  They range in size from six feet in height to thirty five feet in height depending on the variety selected.  Fruit is small, ranging from bead sized to that of a diameter of a quarter.
     Peach and nectarine trees originated in China and South Asia.  They are closely related and therefore have similar characteristics.  They have a rounded open canopy and long narrow leaves.  Fruit on hybrid trees is fist sized and the trees reach fifteen to twenty feet at maturity.
    Plum trees have a broadly spreading rounded canopy and can reach twenty feet in mature height.  Many plum tree varieties have a purple tinge to their leaves which adds to their interest.  Fruit ripens from green into yellow or red and then into darker colors and adds to the summer interest.
Flowering Apricot trees
     Apricots have a broad spreading vase shape and will grow as small as four to eight feet in height for dwarf varieties to as large as twenty five feet in height for standard varieties.  Fruit is usually ripe in mid summer and does not ship well.  It does dry well though and that is the primary way to preserve the fruit for use later in the year.
     Many varieties of small or 'ornamental' fruit trees are available for growth in North Carolina.  Typically they need sunny, open sites with well-drained but fertile soils.  Plant them with their mature height and canopy width in mind so that they are not growing to a point where they are crowded.  Select the varieties that strike your fancy and wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Big Fruit Trees Can Work for Shade Too!

     I started a series of blogs concerning adding food producing plants into your landscape a couple of weeks ago.  The first two were devoted to nut bearing trees. This week I would like to turn your attention toward larger fruit bearing trees.  These trees provide three real assets to your site.  They provide flowering and/or color interest, fruit, and shade.  That is a lot of punch from a single plant.  Fruit bearing trees are not the tall shade trees that you will get from their nut bearing relatives, but they can get fairly tall.  While tall nut trees will reach 75 - 100', tall fruit trees will reach 20 - 30'.  That provides an interesting lower layer that is larger than an ornamental or a shrub.

Pawpaw fruit in the summer
     The first tree that I would like to bring to your attention is the pawpaw.  This is a lovely native tree that will reach 25 feet in height.  It was a favorite among the native American Indians and among our founding Fathers.  Thomas Jefferson actually loved this tree so much that he had seeds shipped to him when he was Minister to France.  The tree itself tends to look exotic and tropical with large oblong leaves and a pyramidal shape.  In the wild it grows along rivers and streams and at the edges of deep woods.  In your yard, try planting it where it gets light shade to full sun.  For the first year or two, you will need to provide some shade protection as the young seedlings are sensitive to excessive sun.  The trees will grow in the shade, and do grow in the woods under natural conditions, but they do not bear much fruit under shaded conditions.  Two trees planted fairly near each other will help ensure pollination. You will be rewarded with five inch long mango-like fruit that is great fresh or can be frozen as pulp and saved for later.  This is ripe and ready to pick when it is soft and smells sweet and fruity.
Persimmon have a lovely fall color
     The persimmon is another great native fruit tree.  This tree reaches 40 feet in height and has a more open and rounded canopy than the pawpaw.  It prefers full sunlight and is typically found on the forest edge in the wild.  The flowers are not as showy as some of the other fruit trees.  They are a small yellow-green waxy looking flower with four petals, but the fruit are showy in the fall.  The fruit are berries that gradually change from green to a deep orange.  Unripened fruit is very sour in flavor and care should be taken not to eat it in this state as it contains a tannin shibuol which polymerizes in the stomach.  The persimmon fruit have traditionally been used in puddings and cakes as well as eaten fresh.  The American persimmon is extremely high in vitamin C and calcium.
     For those wanting a more exotic or non-native tree, the mulberry might be a good choice.  Like the persimmon, the mulberry is a tree that produces a berry.  It has a rounded canopy and prefers full sun.  Depending on variety and location, the tree will reach 15 - 40' in mature height.  Flowers are insignificant, but the berries are prominent in the late summer, ripening from red into a black color when ripe.  Harvesting is best done by placing a sheet under the tree and shaking it when the majority of the berries are ripe.  I would like to caution you, however, about mulberries.  First, they are extremely attractive to birds who can create a sizable mess when the berries are ripe; so plant the tree away from things that you want protected.  The berries themselves stain everything that they come in contact with including hands if you are hand picking them.  Also, tree seedlings tend to spring up everywhere the birds have deposited the seed.  Expect to spend a good deal of each year weeding them out of places where they are not wanted.
     Finally, in the larger fruiting category, I would like to suggest the pear.  It is also not native, having originated in Europe, but it is a good reliable fruit tree.  The tree has an open rounded canopy and, depending on the variety, can reach 40 feet in height.  Blooms are in the spring and are showy and usually white.  Fruit ripens through the summer and is ready by late summer or early fall.  There are a large number of varieties of pear trees available and choice should be made based on your fruit preference and tree size requirements.  Pears are easy to grow and require full sun and a moderate amount of water.
     If you have a need for a tree that is smaller than the large nut or shade trees but larger than an ornamental, consider a larger fruit tree.  You might be delighted with the resulting tree and with the 'fruits of your labor'.