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.