Friday, June 27, 2014

'Toxic Gardens', What Can We Do To Break The Cycle?

If we don't do something now we will poison our planet, kill the animals, kill our fellow man and end all life as we know it.  We have scientists who have documented the disappearance of Alaskan Glaciersthe suffering of the Arctic Polar Bearsthe increasing severity of storms and thousands of other problems that are a result of man's existence on this planet.  These doomsday sayers and the media love to excite and scare the hell out of people every single day by telling us everything we do is contributing to the death of our planet.  That is pretty heavy stuff for a husband and father living in New England.

A high school friend posted a New York Times Op-Ed on the 'toxic brew' of chemicals in our yards.  While this article does pose some ideas, it is another attempt to scare us into making a change.  I continue to be amazed at the socially conscious who believe that scare tactics and promising cancer or compromised endocrine systems will effect any change.  We need to provide simple, manageable ideas that busy people can implement easily in their homes and gardens.

OK...  I agree that we are a major contributor to the planet's problems, but, as a race, are we  obtuse or are we just not willing to put in the small effort to improve the health of our environment.  I don't know much about changing weather patterns or underweight Polar Bears, but I do know there is a lot we can do in our gardens.  While our individual effort may not make a difference, it will be our collective effort that will make a positive change, and really we should do it because it is the right thing to do.

While I am not perfect and many people preach that we should use no chemicals, here are some simple ideas to make a difference, though by no means is this an exhaustive list.  If you have other ideas that are easy to implement, I would welcome your comment.  

Number one on my list is that lawn care company that comes by four times a year to fertilize your lawn.  You would be shocked to know what is in these formulations, and if you are not using an agronomist or someone who specializes in lawn care, they probably don't know what is going on your lawn either.  For a little more money many companies offer organic fertilizers and minimal chemical usage, and if your company doesn't, find one that does.  The cheaper the service the more prevalent the use of chemicals.  Spend a little more for organic feeding and instead of having them cover your yard in herbicides and insecticides have them only treat areas that are a problem.  I have a service that only spot treats weeds that become a problem.  Most companies put down a preemergent herbicide every spring over your entire lawn, but most of us know where the crab grass comes in or the sunny spot that gets weedy.  If one child gets an ear infection, you don't give everyone antibiotics.

Also, insecticides are completely unnecessary in lawns.  Almost all of the insects living in lawns are beneficial and when you start unbalancing the insect populations, other insects can start to cause problems.  There are some effective and safe products for grubs, which many people have to deal with.  Ask your provider for a list of products they are using and choose the better options.  If you do it yourself, do some research and be careful about the deceitful use of the word 'organic' and minimize or eliminate phosphate which causes so many problems in the environment.  One of the best organic products out there is Milorganite, which has been used safely for years.

The point is that you may not know all that is being put on your lawn.  Call your lawn care provider and put together a better plan with better products.  Is it worth the cost of a night out with the family?

There are many great options to add healthy products
to your garden.   ©Espoma
Number two is non-lawn herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and every other 'cide' or chemical used in the garden.  Healthy gardens that are managed well, watered properly, pruned carefully and well-loved will have very few insect or disease problems.  Fungus issues in lawns, plants and trees are often the result or poor air circulation or too much moisture.  The classic is black spot on Roses.  If a Rose is in too much shade or gets watered by a spraying irrigation system, it will develop black spot.  This applies to all plants, if you put the right plants in the right locations they will be healthy and require minimal care and certainly not require annual showerings of chemicals.  If you do need to provide additional nutrition or additives to your garden, Espoma is a great company that offers all sorts of natural fertilizers and amendments.

You don't have to go this far,  you or your
contractor can leave the clippings.
Number three is to mulch grass clippings and let them stay on your lawn.  Grass is about 5% nitrogen, so that lowers the amount of fertilizer you need, and as it breaks down it provides organic matter back into your soil.  The clippings add moisture and help protect the soil from drying out to quickly.  This is easy and you will spend a lot less time hauling around barrels of grass clippings.  This is the simplest and best idea for a healthier lawn and your landscaper can do it too.

Number four is watering less often and for longer periods.  I believe that overwatering is not only costly, but it causes more problems in the garden through disease.  Conversely, irrigating for a few minutes every day only allows the water to penetrate a few inches into the soil.  This makes the plants send their roots to the surface to retrieve water and not deeper into the ground.  The result is plants that are not drought tolerant as they source their moisture at the surface rather than deeper in the soil.  The water deeper in the soil from longer irrigation does not evaporate as quickly as surface water and is available for the plants over a longer period.  Don't rely on the timer, get out in your garden and poke a few inches down in the soil to see if there is any moisture.  Unless I am on vacation, I never turn on my irrigation timer, and I have only watered a couple of times this year.  If your irrigation comes on more than once or twice a week, you need to make some adjustments.

Also, water in the morning so that the cycle finishes no later than mid-morning.  This gets water to the plants before the day starts and allows the early sun to dry leaves which will minimize disease.  Plants watered constantly at night will bring all sorts of health problems requiring chemical remediation,  while watering during the day is a waste of money and water, as much of the water will evaporate and never get to your plants.

Number five is to provide proper care to your plants.  Plants that are cited properly (sun and soil quality), well fed and watered, properly pruned (if necessary), will be happy and free of disease.  Most times it is plants that are stressed or suffering from disease that attract damaging insects.  You can stop this cycle that leads to chemical dependancy by properly caring for your garden.  Good plant care companies offer IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs for people who can't care for or don't know how to care for their plants.  Through regular visits, these companies monitor for disease or pests and treat only as necessary to keep the garden in balance and they will inform you if the conditions are not optimal.

Number six is to compost your food waste for the garden.  Sometime soon, I will take this step.  With a simple rotating tumbler, mixing in your food waste with broken twigs and brown leaves provides wonderful compost for beds and vegetable gardens.  Books are written on how to do this so I won't spend the time explaining.

If we could just take these steps, think of the millions of tons of chemicals we could stop producing and letting leach into our water supplies, rivers and oceans.  I am not an activist, but we have become so dependent upon these products and services that just aren't necessary.

Start by calling your lawn company or buying a safer product if you do it yourself.  You don't have to start wearing hemp clothing, eating quinoa or going to the Southern Ocean to fight Whale poachers, just make a few changes in your own yard.  Every little bit counts, if not for your own peace of mind and health of your family and pets.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fothergilla : A Great And Often Overlooked Spring Flowering and Fragrant Shrub

A few young "Mt Airy" plants in full bloom.  ©2014BDG
There are so many plants to choose from and so often people end up using the tried and true performers.  Nurseries know this which is why they are packed every spring with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Japanese Maples, Hydrangeas, Yews, Hollies and Dogwoods and many more native and non-native plants.  The cycle is self-perpetuating, as many contractors, who also design, prefer to choose plants they know will survive as well as plants that are readily available at their local nurseries.

Close-up of the blooms with no flower petals, these are
the stamens (male sexual parts) on display. ©2014BDG
The palette of plants can get very narrow, yet there are so many other plants that are just as reliable, and they can be even more dynamic and interesting in the landscape.  As a designer who has a true passion for plants, I try to incorporate many of these 'other' plants into designs and often it takes different contractors who will find plants not as commonly used in the landscape. This is one of several I will cover this summer.

Fothergilla is one of these hardworking plants that does very well in our climate and soil, and while it is not a rare plant, it does seem to get overlooked.  It tends to flower early (April - early May), before most other shrubs.  As it flowers before it leafs out, the plant can put on a tremendous flower display, yet the flowers actually have no petals as the display comes from the male stamens.  The fragrance is pleasant and sweet and can fill a garden on warm spring days as you are starting to work outside.

Dwarf "Blue Mist" shrubs  ©Millican Nursery in NH
After a few weeks of flowers, nice sturdy oval leaves emerge that hold a green to blue-green color throughout the season, depending upon the plant cultivar.  Then late in the fall they put on one of the best shrub displays of color with yellow, orange and red leaves.  To get the best color they need to be in a part to full sun location.

The plants prefer a moist location but do well in a range of soils and moisture levels with the hotter locations requiring ample water.  Taking a clue from its native habitat it is best with some shade or in an understory with good light.  Hardy in zones 4-8, it is reliable from northern New England down to the mountains in the South.

Fothergilla fall color ©Monrovia
The native Fothergilla (southeastern US) is called Fothergilla major, and is a big and broad shrub growing to 10' tall and equally wide.  If you have the space or back up on woodlands, these can be amazing shrubs for three full seasons.  Most people in the suburbs where I work don't have 500 sq ft to spare for a grouping of these large spreading shrubs, so there are many cultivars that are compact and perfect for smaller gardens.

A smaller species, Fothergilla gardenii, has several cultivars more suited to smaller gardens, and breeding between gardenii and major has produced many dwarf cultivars under the x intermedia species.

When designing with shrubs I am always looking for plants that work hard with interest throughout several seasons or provide interest during particularly quiet seasons.  This shrub provides varying interest for three full seasons and you can't ask for much more in New England.

Following are some of these plants available around New England:

Fothergilla major - 10'x10' large native

Fothergilla gardenii - dwarf species 4-5'

Fothergilla gardenii "Suzanne" - a real dwarf 3'x3'

Fothergilla gardenii "Blue Mist" - Bluer leaves to 4-5'

Fothergilla x intermedia "Mt Airy" - 5-6' dwarf readily available

Fothergilla x intermedia "Red Licorice" - 5-6' Bright Red fall color

Fothergilla x intermedia "Blue Shadow" - 5-6' deep blue/green leaves

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bad Mulch + Lousy Application = Dead Plants!

Time for my annual diatribe against bad quality mulch and poor (read ignorant) mulching practices.  When I say ignorant, I am referring to 'professionals' who are paid and should know better.

I know my last post was negative too, but that's what happens when it is April and you haven't had any warm spring days and you still have several feet of snow on the back deck.

This is one of my favorite pictures, a 15' Dogwood with
a 2+' high 'Volcano' of mulch applied last year.
I look forward to see how it flowers and leafs
out this year. ©2014 BDG

Let's start with a positive… properly applying good mulch to your gardens each spring is one of the best practices to keep your gardens healthy, happy and beautiful.  A good quality, natural mulch without dyes, that has been aged for a season or two, will quickly add organic material to your soil without robbing it of nutrients or moisture.  For a more detailed summary of mulches and proper mulching practice, read my post from last spring called, Reed Versus The Volcano (Tree Volcano That Is).

Basically, use good mulch and apply a thin layer each spring.  Two-three inches is more than enough in shrub borders and around trees, while half that is needed in perennial beds (compost is preferable to bark mulch here.)  By the end of the season, the mulch should be mostly broken down.  If you have left over mulch in your beds in the spring, rake it over to loosen it up and add a very thin layer of new mulch on top.  The key factor is that the mulch application does not raise the level of the bed year over year.    This 'volcanization' is what kills plants and trees over time.

Following are some images over recent years that track the demise of plants as a result of improper mulching and bad mulch.  The time differential is one year, that is how quickly mulch can suffocate and kill.

I promise an upbeat and positive post next week, it can't still be cold..

Last year's spring mulch application, a solid foot of
mulch was added.  ©2014BDG

This spring before mulching, half the plant is dead.
No question as a result of the mulch.  ©2014BDG

Last year after mulching.  You can see stump in
 background from tree that was removed a year earlier.
These trees have been 'Volcanized' for years.  Those are big
trees and the mulch is almost 2' high.  When the
trunk goes straight into the mulch and not
flaring out then it is WAY too deep ©2014BDG

This spring before mulching, they removed one tree and
left one unhappy tree.  ©2014BDG
This is what the second tree looked like
last year before being removed this
week.  "Dead Tree Standing"

Friday, March 28, 2014

I Declare Today The Ugliest Day Of The Year!

This snow pile is over 30 feet tall with every imaginable
piece of trash.  The line that separates the light from the
dark makes it appear like a glacier.  ©2014BDG
While at the mall today I saw the piles of snow from the winter, and they opened my eyes and mind to this time of year when everything looks so bleak and dirty.  As these mountains of snow melt, the concentration of dirt, sand, trash and other miscellaneous items is so concentrated as to obscure what is actually hiding beneath.

These ugly piles are 30-40 feet high and you wonder if they will ever melt and let us move on to spring.

The peak in the background is over 40 feet tall.  This part is so dark
 it looks like soil.  ©2014BDG

With Spring almost a month behind last year the interminable winter seems to not want to let go.

The garden looks so sad with little growth as the snow just receded
over the last weeks.  ©2014BDG

It has been a hard few months and with winter not ready to give way to spring we cannot enjoy much of what is happening outside.  However the are a few glimmers of hope that the renewal of spring is coming.

"Tommies" starting to break through and show their color. ©2014BDG

Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)  flowering over a month later than last year.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Throw Out The Color Wheel," When Designing Landscapes.

Sweeter words were never said during a seminar at the recent New England Grows show, and with spring coming soon (I hope), I felt this was a good topic to discuss.

David Culp
, a horticulturist, plantsman, designer and lover of all things garden-related lectured on his recent book, The Layered Garden, and put forth many of his theories and beliefs regarding garden design.  I was relieved to hear someone, who was obviously passionate about plants and gardens, not lay out one rule after another about how to build a garden.

My favorite line during his lecture was to "throw out the color wheel!"  Can I have an amen!

Simple analogous colors and white are a
soothing, cool combination.  ©2014BDG
Now before I get too far and some people get a little twisted, let me put this in perspective.  As a designer, I believe that gardens and landscapes should be built for the enjoyment of the owner, as well as friends and family that they bring to their homes, and not the designer or any publications.  All good designs are derived from a well developed process with rules for materials, construction techniques and plantings.  Many of these rules must be obeyed, but many can be bent or broken.  While this is not  definitive discussion of color theory, it is intended to get people to focus on what appeals to their own tastes.

Chartreuse and violet form a bright
complementary combination. ©2014BDG
While this topic can expand into all sorts of areas, lets just focus on color.  The most passive approach is to take color cues from nature, with native plants this can be very dynamic with regard to color and texture.  Often people think that native means boring but that does not have to be the case.

The color wheel is used by designers and it is the basis for combining colors in the house, garden, painting, clothing and any other field that uses color.

The most basic rules to the color wheel are that analogous colors work in combination and complementary colors work in combination.  Analogous colors are those close to each other on the wheel.  While colors in nature rarely match the wheel, orange/yellow and red/purple are examples of analogous colors that work together.  Complementary colors are those on opposite sides of the wheel such as red/green, blue/orange and yellow/purple. A mix of analogous colors will appear more gentle and subtle, while complementary will have significant contrast and make each color stand out.

Pink and yellow do not fit the 'rule' but I love it in this
Lantana and you also see it in a lot of roses. ©2014BDG
When I think of the many uses of complementary colors I think of wonderful yellow/purple plant combinations, or the Christmas red/green colors.  On the less attractive side I am reminded of the hideous New York Mets orange/blue uniforms or the worst combination ever to hit the home and clothing industry of brown/turquoise.

But here is the rub, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and others may like what I don't like.  Once people have an understanding of color they can make their own choices.  Take a look at this page on Cornell University's discussion of color for a very basic introduction.  The modern day mother of color in the garden is Gertrude Jekyll, and for more on her life and work you can check out the website of her estate at Gertrude Jekyll.

Those lovely NY Mets uniforms.  Technically right
and by the rules, but you have to be a Met fan to
love these. ©
There are so many more levels to using color and more complicated combinations on the color wheel, as well as discussion of hue, warm/cool and much more.  My point in this post is that no matter how many rules and constructions there are, at the end of the day it should come down to what appeals to your eye.  Go to a paint shop and 'borrow' a bunch of chips.  Find colors and hues that really appeal to you.  You can buy tester colors and put them on paper for a closer look.

Do you like hot oranges, yellows and reds but also like pastel pink and violet.  There are ways to lay out plants to make a crazy combination like this to work, but it involves breaking the rules, and I don't care.  

Pink, blue and yellow works in the stark, early
season garden with no other plants.  ©2014BDG
I like color in my garden and my home and that is my tendency while designing, to incorporate as much color throughout the season into gardens.  I don't have a beige or white wall in my house, but I know that many people like simple color schemes or white gardens.  Knowing what you like and sometimes kicking rules to the curb is the best solution.  

The color wheel is an important place to start in any form of design, but it is important not to be tied down because you can always throw out the color wheel!

White will often make other colors stand out and
be more prominent.  ©2014BDG