Archive for April, 2008

Grouping Plants by Need

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

One of the four legs of a healthy garden is the availability of water. In nature, ecosystems and plant life evolve around the availability of water and the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Trees shrubs and wildflowers actually assist in water retention by providing organic material (in the form of dead leaves and branches) to compost, nurture the soil, and the plants. Clearly a component of moisture retention is the presence of organic material, and another component is how much water actually lands on the ground. In nature, plants don’t survive that can’t live with what’s available. Most American gardens are not designed with available rainfall in mind and require supplemental water. It is the varied needs of the plants we yearn for, and our lack of awareness of these needs that lead to much of the disease and loss of plants in our garden spaces.

   Every plant evolves in a unique ecosystem comprised of, amongst other thing, specific soils, water availability, humidity, light, and air. Soils can vary tremendously from one location to the next in the ratio of sand, clay, stone, organic material, humus (topsoil), level of acidity, levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium, and trace minerals and elements. The make up of the soil, and the topography of the land, severely impacts moisture retention, and where water goes when it lands. Knowing the needs of the plant material you are working with, and amending the soil to the needs of the plant are the first steps to making sure the plants needs are met. Grouping plants by soil preferences would be the next, for example, acid lovers with their own kind, wetland plants together, drought tolerant plants in another group, always with consideration for light needs of course.

The Right Plant in the Right Place

Monday, April 21st, 2008

    When selecting plants for a garden space, the conditions of the garden have priority over any other consideration. Though this may sound backwards in a culture based around “I want what I want when I want it”, it makes perfect sense when put in context. An extreme and perhaps obvious example:  I may want an orange grove, but if I live in New York City, unless I have the space and am willing to employ the tactics of Louis the Fourteenth, bringing the trees into an arboretum every winter, I just don’t have the weather conditions to make that happen. Therefore, most garden design will be predicated on existing conditions and whatever we can do to influence the so that the plants we select will thrive. If we want a chemical free garden, and save the expense of constantly replacing fading plant material, the plants must thrive.

   The basic conditions to be monitored to sustain plant material are water, soil, light and air. The two elements we have the most influence over are soil and water. Light and air not so much, though global warming may be evidence to the contrary on a wide scale. The primary test of any landscape designer, landscape architect or landscape maintenance company is whether they bother to soil test. Any designer who does not consider existing soil conditions and moisture is not worth their salt. For that matter any lawn care, or landscape maintenance company that does not soil test at least once a year should be replaced immediately. Amending soil without testing is like a nutritionist recommending a diet without exploring what a person eats and what their physical condition is.

  Once you have an assessment of soil and moisture conditions, you have the basis for plant consideration. The next priority is what do you want? Presumably, anyone reading this text will have environmental considerations near the top of the list. Minimal, water efficient plants or even xeriscaping may be next, and certainly the inclusion of native plants if not a completely designing with natives will be high on the list, as local ecosystems have been built on and are sustained by, the presence of native plants.

  If you must have a lawn, try to keep it simple and restricted to where it actually will be used by children and visitors. Large areas that had been dedicated to lawns in the past are better served by native wildflower collections from an aesthetic and environmental stance. The sheer energy it takes to care for lawns make them undesirable from an environmental stance

  The look of the garden to some extent will be determined by the architecture of the home, and whether the home is in an urban, suburban, or country setting-the surroundings will determine what kind of transitions the garden space will need to make to “belong” or look like it fits in. Again, there may be limits to what you can have versus what you want. If you live in a cold climate and want a tropical look, you will be working hard (like Louis the Fourteenth and his ilk) to get it, and the energy and effort the garden will need to be sustained.

  Soil can and should be amended organically to help sustain the plants, and irrigation and drainage adjusted to this end as well. Water can and should be recycled from rooftops, impermeable surfaces, and grey water either into the garden, back into the home, or both as water is and will be a more precious commodity.




Why is it so Important to Have a Master Plan?

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

     As long as people have been creating, there has been a debate regarding whether spaces should be designed intuitively or with a master plan in mind.  The beauty of the intuitive, do what feels good kind of creating, is  you just do it and because it is a creative process, you the creator are mostly happy with it until you outgrow it. However, some of the most lasting creations architecturally and in landscaping, were not created with this approach as the basis. Almost all great gardens and spaces were at least structurally laid out with great forethought and planning.

    If a space is to take all the varying needs of the surrounding architecture, the preferences of the user(s), efficiency of execution (and therefore lower cost), the needs of the ecosystem and the need to have as minimal negative impact as possible, than balancing these varying needs will require a great deal of thought and planning.

    A real life example; a home that has an existing garden and layout that worked for the client for years needed to be redesigned.  The whole property needed to be more usable by creating a unique play space for a five year old, an enlarged outdoor living room in which to entertain, and a dog run with in ground composting for dog waste. On the eco-friendly side, the property needed rainwater recycling added to an existing irrigation system, a space for kitchen composting that won’t be vermin ridden, and the property needed to be made safer through the removal of some poorly rooted trees.  Of course, all this had to be done within a limited budget and without ripping up to much of what is already on site.

       Though it would be possible to execute this project piecemeal, without a long term plan, it could not be done efficiently and within budget. The trees were in tough locations that needed to be accessed with a cherry picker, the property was only a third of an acre. The need to locate the tanks for rainwater storage, deal with the dogs, and get the play area built before the child grew up all demanded at least an understanding of how the different “rooms” would relate to each other once completed if not taking care of the high priority work first.

    Very much like decorating the interior of a house, the place for intuitive creativity comes in the details of each room once the boundaries and priorities have been defined. As the spaces come together, this is where the designer (and the client) can really have some fun, and get out of their heads a little. Each room can be redesigned once the structure is in place as well, and the garden spaces will hold to the eco-sensitive and architecturally sensitive principles that were behind the original layout.

Designing With Native Plants

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

    Every ecosystem is built around plants, animals, and insects that have been a part of that eco-system for centuries. Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms are continually engaged in a set of relationships with every other element constituting the environment in which they exist. Enter man, shaping and changing his environment as he deems it best.

   Every ecosystem where man is “dominant”, is essentially out of balance and our gardens are no exception. We bring in exotic plants from similar climates but that have different ecosystems and displace the plants around which beneficial insects, birds, and animals have been dependent  since before western man came to  North America.

  Many environmentalists advocate for the complete restoration of the ecosystem by switching  almost exclusively to native plants, a strategy that conceptually has merit, but in practice is doomed. The truth is that with pollution, hi foot traffic, and  the presence of roads-impermeable surfaces- everywhere in urban and suburban environments, not every space is ideal for natives any more. For example, while native plants may thrive in a garden  or woodland environment, they wont necessarily do as well in busy, highly trafficked streets (though there will be exceptions)

   There is room for native plants in our gardens, and if we want healthy gardens with minimal chemical intervention, we will use them. They are the lifeblood of the animals and insects that are natural controls to the insects and diseases that feed on our imported plants of which we are so fond.

   One of the easiest ways to re-introduce natives is to replace lawn areas that are rarely walked on with native wildflower mixes. Removing  a few hundred, or even a few thousand square feet of lawn and replacing it with wildflowers will do wonders in restoring a habitat that is friendly to the local ecosystem. Other ways are to pepper natives into your perennial beds, to plant native fruit bearing trees and shrubs like Amelanchier , native winterberry, and sapphireberry, that  are tough and will feed local birds.

     To learn more about natives plants in New York, where to buy them and how to care for them, visit the native plant center at Westchester Community College or go   their site