Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Designing Permeable Paths

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

   There are many ways to deal with permeable paths including manufactured pavers, gravel, and a variety of plantable grid systems. Lets remember that the operative words here are “permeable” and “pathway”. Permeable means: That can be permeated or penetrated, especially by liquids or gases: permeable membranes; rock that is permeable by water”. ( Using this definition, water has to flow through the path to some extent, meaning there are limits to the compaction beneath the path, and it cannot be mortared. The other factor to consider is how will it be used? How finished/flat/accessible will the path be?

   On the inexpensive side, a gravel path, will meet many requirements, and last if well installed. It is important when installing gravel paths that the gravel be kept from mixing with the soil beneath it, or it will eventually become muddy. You will want to install landscapers fabric below the gravel, and some form of gravel retention (edging, brick, railroad tie, etc) on the sides. In the middle range of expense you have concrete pavers and grid systems like drivable grass (, and turf protection grid ( Concrete pavers on the higher end have aggregate mixed in that give them a stone-like façade and most important, they interlock without mortar. To find a variety of these products go to

  The grid systems mentioned above allow plants to either grow on top of them or through them while supplying a firm path base. While this can be grass, it could also be sedums and/or other succulants. These can be used in combination with stepping stones.

On the high end there are paths made with real stone like cashmere slate, and in fact you can use any hard flat stone like granite, bluestone, etc. that is available as long as the base is not overly compacted and you don’t mortar the joints. Normal compaction on a walkway is 95% on a stonedust, item 4, or sand base, leaving little or no room for water movement. The alternative is to use a 3/8” base which will have more air space and allow more water movement.

Maybe Its Time For A Kitchen Garden?

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

Holidays and Gardens

I’ve been reading through some stories of Christmas and the depression today to jumpstart some thoughts for this week’s column. Very consistently, folks who had property grew vegetables and fruits if they could. My staff has been saying for months that in Pelham there are very few folks who grow food in their gardens and that now might be a good time to be planting kitchen gardens, and maybe they are right! During the depression, anyone with property was growing something. Food  and money were in demand, paying work was hard to find, and people had to eat.

Reading some of the accounts of the holidays during the great depression, there is a lot of food for thought. Consistently, there were Christmases where kids got an orange and a maybe a banana or some walnuts in their stockings. Some folks recall getting clothes. One farmer remembers getting a few cut evergreen boughs from his neighbor and that was his tree.

Just about anyone who is old enough to remember the depression also recalls that the holidays were never really about things, but getting together with their family. It was never really about things because there just were not a lot of things to be had. Everyone cooked a little more, usually chicken, ate a little more, and spent time as a family. It was about the feeling behind the event, not the things that were the vehicle of expression. Gratefully, we are nowhere near the circumstances of the depression, most of us will have more than an orange for our kids this Christmas and our tables will be abundant despite our concerns regarding years to come.  Happy Holidays.

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.

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.

Whose Designing Your garden?

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Getting Help With your Landscape
Richard Heller, CLP, CLTDuring a design consultation, I asked a client how they selected their landscape gardener. “He’s very honest” she told me, “ and he’s reliable, he comes every week and cuts the grass”. That sentiment is very common, and though honesty and reliability are important qualifications for any contractor, a little knowledge and expertise are helpful as well. This particular individual had been caring for a lawn that was all weeds and it was evident that despite his reliability and honesty, he was doing little to build the soil, and remove the weeds.When selecting landscape help, consider what your needs are first. The landscape industry is divided into three basic categories, and though there is often overlap between the areas of specialization, for the most part, quality landscapers operate within specialized niches. These are lawn care,  landscape maintenance, and landscape design and build. Often, landscape companies will perform well in two of these areas well, but rarely all three.Distinguishing between landscape contractors can be difficult. Price and location are often the motivators for many people’s choices, and this can be a mistake. First, you want to know what perspective landscapers do best. If they say “everything” doubt it immediately. There are very few landscape companies on the face of the earth, much less in Westchester that do everything well. Do they have clients who recommend them? Pictures of their work? What is their training? Certification? Association affiliations? How long have they been in business? Are they insured? Registered  with the county? Do they soil test? 

Qualified landscapers will have positive answers to all these questions. Landscapers who are members of associations, have some landscape education,  and have attained some level of certification, are registered and insured, will also tend to be honest, reliable and knowledgeable. These are individuals and companies that have proven their commitment to the industry and have proven their integrity.

If your not sure where to find qualified individuals, contact the Plant Landacare Network or PLANET, which is the national association of landscape and lawncare professionals. They have thousands of landscapers listed on their web site along with information regarding their areas of specialization, certifications, and the PLANET website can be searched by city and state at Also  try the New York State Turf and Landscape Association at The NYSTLA will  have listings of companies that are certified organic lawncare specialists. 


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.




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