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.