Archive for August, 2008

Going Native

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Use native Plants to Restore The Local Ecosystem:

Our property is in the middle of renovation and though no one has complained yet, it looks like a construction site in almost every corner. I undertook the building an elaborate play area in the lower end of the property despite my wife’s warning that I would not  complete it in a timely manner, leaving a spiral slide and a pile of lumber. A mason has begun building a patio area of one corner of the house but has not had the time to come back and finish it leaving a pile of soil and bricks. In the midst of all this, we have decided to go native.

When everything is up in the air, and one is in the midst of change, sometimes that is the best time to consider more change. Our garden has been made up of the leftovers of other projects for quite some time. Being in the “trade”, I have had the mixed blessing of receiving materials in the form of trees and shrubs clients wanted removed, or rejected from jobs. A blessing because the cost is negligible in terms of dollars, but a curse because the material does not always represent the ideal selection were the space to be properly designed.

So in the midst of all this property renovation, we have decided to live up to some of the ecological ideals we have always espoused, specifically to start creating sections of native plants that better support the native wildlife.

Every ecosystem has plants around which it is based. In fact, all ecosystems require plants to function and thrive and green space is the basis for the survival of any ecosystem. When people come along and start reshaping the ecosystem by bringing in non-native plants, we actually damage the eco-system significantly by displacing native plants, which are literally manna from heaven to the eco-system. I’m not just talking invasive plants here, but plain old non natives which gardeners favor (forsythia, many roses, peonies, etc) that the local animals and insects are unfamiliar with.

Most of us are not all that fond of bugs or animals. In fact, there is a big fat rabbit living up on Benedict place along with raccoons and skunks and mice and I have to confess that my ideal property from a personal convenience point of view would not include these creatures and the smells, property destruction, invasion of home and garbage they represent. Just for the record, I’m not crazy about flies and mosquitoes either. However, These are all necessary creatures in the wider eco-system and have their place. They are necessary in supporting the complex web that supports us (humans).

Long story there to make a point, we are looking at pulling some of the non-native screening materials on the property and adding in native trees and evergreens around the perimeter. It’s expensive relative to how we have acquired most of our plant material, it’s a lot of work, and it’s the right thing to do. In the long run it will pay us back in supporting beneficial insects and local birds which will in turn feed on mosquitoes, and flies, and garden pests like aphids etc. If you want to eliminate or at least reduce pesticide use, re-introducing natives is vital. Not just one or two plants here and there, but groups of them as they would grow were people less of a disturbance to the original eco-system.

We will avoid natives like Eastern Hemlock, which unfortunately is prey to wooly aldegid, but we are looking at Amelanchiers, Thuja occidentalis, Vaccinium angustifolium, Pinus resinosa, Picea rubens, Pinus strobus, Prunus virginiana, Rhododendron calendulaceum, and are exploring a number of other plants for border areas where the purpose is screening and less ornamental. In the process, we will be removing invasive plants like English ivy, which local rats favor(rats are not natives by the way, they came in with Dutch and English ships) . Also burning bush, honeysuckle, and ailanthus that have taken root in neglected corners. Of course, the other projects must be finished first, in fact I’m going to go clean up that “play area” that is in process as soon as I send this off. For a more complete list of native plants, go to a site sponsored by the Ladybird Johnson wildlife center. Start  creating an environment that sustains itself. Support local beneficial wildlife by restoring the plants that were here before we were.


Fall is For Planting: Plant Smaller Perennials Now for Better Value

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

In summer design meetings, people often ask “should we wait until the spring to plant this garden? And the answer more often than not is No. In fact, with the exception of a small group of trees that are a Fall Hazard to plant, many plants will do better planted in the fall.

Regular readers of this column have heard again and again and again that fall planting allows plant material extra months of root development. Planting in September and October will not only give your plant material a jump in the spring as  planted material start developing roots well before new plants are available, but they will also get a couple of months of fall root development.

The great news however, is that you can plant smaller plants in the fall, and they will have developed into much bigger plants by the spring. For example, planting pint sized perennials in early September will get you plant material in May that is close to the size of 1 gallon material you might purchase at a nursery or big box store. Pints are a third to half the price of gallon material so the savings can be tremendous. If you’re really looking to be frugal as we all are with the price of gas and food being what it is, plant bare root or four inch perennials now for pint sized value in May 2009.

With this August having been so unseasonably cool, soil temperature is much lower than it normally would be this time of year, soil temperature is one of the prime determinants in when roots start developing. This means, that barring a September heat wave, you can plant perennials now  for real value.

Before you dig, the usual guidelines apply: test the soil and first, and amend to meet the needs of the plants you are selecting, for healthier soil, feed and emend organically, and work in as many natives plants as possible to encourage and support the local ecosystem. Plant smaller perennials as if they were bigger plants, keeping in mind what their mature size will be (generally space perennials 8”-12” on center). Check the mature heights of the plants to determine location in the garden. I can’t tell you how many “professionally” planted gardens I have seen this year that had smaller plants placed behind larger ones so that they were lost and not visible. Group plants by soil and water needs, and always use drip irrigation for these areas, don’t count on lawn sprinklers (which are designed for grass) to water perennials and shrubs.

Stormy Weather

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Last week, we experienced fierce thunderstorms coupled with hail in lower Westchester County New York. The immediate result of the hail which was about one eights of an inch in diameter is that almost all trees, shrubs, and flowers were damaged. Soft leaved plants like hydrangea and perennials like rudbeckia were shredded. Some tougher leaved plants escaped damage, but some like sedum plants were squashed by the pelting hail stones.

Leaves form trees were torn out of their branches blocking up some drains in streets and adding to the flooding that was already in progress in lower lying areas, like under train overpasses for example. Cars stalled in flooded streets, a police car was pushed out of a small lake that had been wolfs lane twenty minutes earlier, by a higher riding SUV.

The bad news is that due to global warming, weather forecasts for our region over the next ten years call for an increase in this sort of thunderstorm activity and a reduction in slower steadier rains that were once the norm. In towns with lower lying areas, the implications are that sewage systems will have to be upgraded to accommodate increased storm water runoff from the more intensive storms whose steady increase in occurrence have been predicted and are coming to realization.

Other means of managing storm water issues are encouraging greenroofs wherever possible. Greenroofs, a thin layer of plantings that cover a rooftop for energy savings, extended roof life, and many other environmental benefits, also absorb 80% of the water that lands on them. Introducing permeable surfaces wherever possible will also help with mitigating storm water runoff. For example, brick crosswalks that are not mortared will allow some water to be absorbed by the earth below. Paver sidewalks are another possibility, and perhaps paver streets in our shopping centers, which though more expensive to install, have greater longevity making them less expensive per year and having the added benefit of again allowing water to seep between them into the earth below.

Point being, design and planning, whether it be for a property, a village, or a town, cant occur in a vacuum. Eco-friendly landscape design demands that planning for the property consider the wider impact of choices made. Maybe a greenroof is not appropriate, but mitigating storm water, and hopefully even re-using it is always appropriate. Stormwater needs to be considered bothfrom the stance of how it effects the property, as well as how it effects the immediate vicinity and the region.

The Problem With “New”

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Working with a new client, they asked us to try a pre-fabricated deck system they had found. We were excited because it was all FSC certified wood and seemed relatively inexpensive. We priced the labor like any other modular deck installation and set to work.


The installation was relatively smooth, the interlocking pieces clicking together, everything going in as designed-terrific design on our part. Then the problems started. Because the wood was thinner than what we usually use (.5 inches versus 1.5”) and the deck was  resting on supports instead of flat on the ground, we started to see warping and see-sawing. The only solution, to take it all up and create  a level platform under the deck to prevent the stresses of heat, air flow, and irregular support.

The question of course is who eats the cost? In order to make the customer happy, the company should in theory, except the client requested this material specifically. To eat the cost is the equivalent of making all your clients who worked with tried and tested materials pay for the material specified by a client who was trying to save money by  using a less expensive product in a manner different than manufacturer specification.