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Cover Story March 22nd, 2007

  Untitled Document

cover
by lyle e davis

It’s that time of year again. Heard the mockingbirds singing away in the trees, trying to attract a mate? Seen the buds and blooms cropping up on trees and bushes?

Lots of folks, just like you, are itchin’ to get out and get busy in their lawns and gardens and in their homes.

But, with that energy and ambition comes the need for intelligent planning . . . and that’s where we hope to be of some help.

Delight the Senses by Installing A Colorful, Aromatic Garden

Yes, it's about time to make that first exciting spring trip to the garden center to see what's new and what comes in which colors, and, of course, to look for your favorites from last year.

As you gaze at the dazzling displays, you may be thinking primarily about how things will look. But one of the great joys of gardening is that it fills all the senses, not just sight. A garden is one of the most alive places we can be, and every garden should partake at least a little of the sensual banquet.

Fragrance is probably the second aspect you might think to add to a garden. What could be more wonderful than the scent of hyacinths in spring, the heady odor of lilacs, the perfume of a rose or the pungent pleasures of marigolds?

There are many ways to bring fragrance to the garden. On a hot summer day, an edging of herbaceous lavender, rosemary or thyme will fill the air with a glorious bouquet. A hanging basket of sweet alyssum can greet you at your front door. Phlox "David," a planting of lilies such as Stargazer and Korean spice viburnum draw oohs and aahs when people first catch their scent.

Aromatic plants and the oils extracted from them have been used for ornament, medicine, food and religious rites throughout history. The Chinese as far back as 3000 B.C., and the Egyptians in 2700 B.C., expressed their appreciation of fragrant plants. In the Dark Ages, other than castles and walls, the landscape was almost devoid of garden design, yet monks continued to cultivate fragrant herb gardens for medicinal use. The English carried this passion for fragrant gardens into the 20th century, and much can be learned from them about designing the garden with a full complement of fragrances.

Several plants with fragrant foliage are heavenly to work with, easy to grow, and are ornamental in the garden, such as mints, thyme, basil and rosemary.

Golden mint works wonderfully as a perennial container planting, and Corsican mint is only half an inch high, with a strong peppermint fragrance. It will thrive in any cranny you might find in the garden -- a rock wall, between patio steps or in a knothole.

Thyme comes in a wide array of "seasonings," including lemon, caraway, pine and nutmeg. There are more than 400 recognized species of thyme, and plants can be installed in spaces between walls, walks and patios.

Basil is highly valued as a culinary herb, and purple basil adds rich purple foliage to a perennial garden. The scent is strong and peppery. If you plant it where it can spill over onto a path, it will send a heady aroma up from your feet.

Rosemary is ideal to soften the sharp line of a wall, steps or patio. Lilac and rose perfume can fill the air and so work well planted by walkways and patios.

Don't forget the sense of touch. It's a pleasure to feel ferns brushing against your ankle as they spill over onto the path of a shady garden. Some plants just beg to be touched. The silvery, furry foliage of lambs-ear tempts me to reach down and pet the soft, downy leaves every time I see this plant. The ferny foliage of the Cutleaf Japanese maple, with its frilly leaves, can be feathery to the touch.
Sound is usually noticed when it's an unpleasant noise you want to screen, such as a busy road, a playground or the neighbor's yappy dogs. But adding sound and training your ears to hear nature will bring a new dimension to a garden. For example, engineering a small bubble fountain or other water feature can mentally take you to an Italian piazza, or it can create a quiet meditation zone where the sound of water becomes your mantra.

photo
a simple yet beautiful pond

 

Sound adds a sophisticated touch to landscaping

Water is possibly the most popular method, but there are others. For example, with the slightest breeze, the thick evergreen leaves of long stalk holly make a rustling sound year round. Another "instrument" you may use is wind chimes; they're available in a wide range of materials and prices, including wood, ceramic, glass and metal. Among my favorites are stainless steel, which make pipe organ sounds when the wind blows, and hollow wooden blocks, which rattle like branches.

Birds, insects and frogs will create their own symphony in the garden. Take care to provide a habitat they like, with their favorite foods. Offer water and shelter.

Taste is another magical element in a garden. Some gardeners are interested in planting only materials they can eat, or use to season food, and they are generally eager to share the results with anyone kind enough to admire their handiwork.

Originally, the term "gardening" referred chiefly to cultivating edible plants. Were it not for herbal remedies and potions, those medieval monks would probably never have carried the practice of cultivating plants into modern western culture.

"Taste" plants need not be confined to an area behind the garage -- most are beautiful in their own right. You can use tomato vines to grace a walk. You can train pole beans or peas onto a trellis to create privacy around a porch in summer. Strawberries make a great edible ground cover. Grow dill to soften a bare wall and cucumbers to cover the fence. Blueberry and currant bushes blend well with ornamental shrubs.

In the natural landscape, raspberries and blackberries fit beautifully. If you like nuts and you're planning to landscape with several large trees anyway, plant butternut, English walnut and Chinese chestnut.

And you should never lose sight of sight. Colors and textures can sculpt your garden to direct and even beguile the eye. For example, red, yellow and orange flowers appear to advance toward the viewer and are quite noticeable. Subtler shades, blues and lavenders, seem to recede, and can add coolness and a sense of distance.

You can also use plants with colorful or variegated (striped, margined or mottled) foliage for extra visual impact. The low-growing (18 to 24 inches) emerald 'n gold euonymus, with its gold and green leaves, is an example. The shrub grows to about five feet and offers white variegated foliage and yellow stems in winter. Japanese maples have been bred for foliage or stem color, which vary from pale green to coral and deep red. The leaves can be red, maroon, pink or green with many shades and styles of variegations in texture.

Engaging all the senses is what gives a garden its own personality. Design your space to look, sound, feel, smell and taste wonderful to the people who are experiencing it, and you will truly find a feast of nature.

Gardens can delight all five senses. Creeping thyme gives off fragrant bouquets.

Lillies, such as these Stargazers, will add a delicious scent to your garden.

Wildlife

Want to attract wildlife to your property that is pretty, cute and, sometimes, beneficial? Like birds, butterflies, frogs, bees and maybe dragonflies.

Well, it can be done by intelligent planning and planting; however, you don't always get to choose. A garden is a natural habitat, and it will naturally attract critters of all types.

If you put in plants and other features that offer the right kind of forage and shelter, you can draw more creatures than you really want.

What you get also depends on your location, climate and quirky local conditions, such as living near a pond or arboretum, or being way out in the suburbs or dwelling in the heart of the city.

All critters have the same needs: water, food and shelter. By slightly tailoring these three requirements, you can better your chances of attracting the wildlife you want and not what you don't.

Getting along swimmingly

Let's start with water. A pond or other water feature will draw all kinds of living things. If the water is clean, moving in some fashion or contains fish, it will not be a habitat for mosquitoes, but it will bring birds, dragonflies, butterflies and frogs.

An in-ground pond can also attract small mammals, such as raccoons and rats. It might also appeal to an occasional exotic visitor. A friend's pond was just cleaned of fish by a passing heron; they might need to install a net to protect the fish.

An elevated fountain or birdbath will appeal mostly to airborne visitors, such as birds and butterflies.

When it comes to food, birds vary widely in what they prefer. Some birds, including robins and flickers, eat crawling insects and thrive where there are lots of worms to be had, such as in beds and lawns that contain lots of leaf mold or other composted organic material.

Robins, mockingbirds, catbirds, finches and sparrows like berries. Some of the best plants to provide this treat are hollies, hawthorns, bayberries, and viburnums. Birds go for seeds.

Colorful goldfinches, mourning doves, house finches and native
sparrows are partial to seeds from perennial and annual flowers, such as zinnia, chicory, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, thistle and gaillardia. Some species feed in flocks, robins, wrens, finches and cardinals among them, so if you provide a lot of food, you might actually create a bird haven and get more visitors than you ever imagined.

Hummingbirds are a special case. They are nectar feeders and love tubular flowers such as honeysuckle, trumpet vine and bee-balm (Monarda). They're also very fond of red. They will also come to hummingbird feeders containing a nectar-like liquid. If they get used to feeding around you, they can be absolutely fearless and will even come to a flower in your hand.

Bring on the butterflies

There are nearly 700 species of butterflies in the United States, and you can attract some of them simply by planting flowers they love:

Black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, salvia, cosmos, lavender, purple coneflower and verbena are all good choices.

To keep butterflies coming back, you need to plant "host" plants, those on which each type hatches, feeds and pupates from egg to caterpillar to adult. Monarchs, for example, must have butterfly weed; buckeyes like snapdragon and verbena. Butterflies also need small, flat rocks for sunning and shallow pools of water.

Some creatures might not seem desirable but are nevertheless good for the garden. Bees, for instance, are vital to pollination, and a garden that's buzzing with them is a healthy, happy spot.

Bees are drawn to the same nectar-producing plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Plants found to be bee magnets are the nectar plants mentioned above.

Herb gardens are also an absolute haven for them. Throughout summer, bees will swarm to these flowers. It is fun to watch these insects work at grasping fragile blossoms, wings a-blur. Sometimes a single bee will stay for long minutes, toiling over each plant for maximum nectar. Occasionally there would be a crowd of bees at each plant.

Some creatures are desirable because they prey on undesirables, such as mosquitoes. Dragonflies, frogs and bats are voracious mosquito eaters. Dragonflies and frogs need water; dragonflies lay their eggs in water or on plants at the water's edge, and frogs breed in or near water. Both need rushes or sedges for shelter, and dragonflies like to perch on plant stems standing above water. Dragonflies are beautiful, with two pairs of iridescent wings and long thin bodies.

Frogs' mating calls usually only last for a few weeks but can give your garden the aura of a movie set for "Swamp Thing." If you're hoping dragonflies will control mosquitoes, don't use insecticides or electronic zappers as they will kill the dragonflies as well.

Bats can be frightening, but they are not interested in you and are extremely beneficial, eating at least half their weight each day in flying insects, mostly moths and mosquitoes. They come out in the evening or at night, when people are typically indoors. They live in trees, caves or rock crevices, though they adapt to urban settings and nest in buildings (where they are not so desirable).

Snakes are helpful

If one gets in your house, do not swat it with a tennis racket; try to confine it to one room and open a window so it can leave on its own.

Snakes are beneficial wildlife. They eat insects and rodents. You're unlikely to have snakes in an intensely urban area, but if you live near a park or other nature preserve, they may find their way into your environment.

Roads and habitat destruction also are taking a toll on the snake population; in the United States, seven species are endangered and 10 are threatened. Don't kill small snakes in the garden; they are only being helpful.

If you're interested in helping all wildlife, check out the National Wildlife Federation at www.nwf.org for useful tips and information, including how to have your garden certified as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. By using native plants and creating shelter, you can have a yard that's teeming with beautiful, beneficial life.

If you live near the freeway or any other major thoroughfare in this area, you too might have noticed how the decibel levels have increased in recent years.

A buffer of mixed plants can absorb and deflect sound waves. The mix of plants is important because different types of leaves reduce different types of noises. How much noise control they provide depends on the intensity, frequency and direction of the sound, and the location, height, width and density of the planting.

Mixed broadleaf plantings at least 25 feet thick and conifers 50 to 100 feet thick can drop noise levels by up to 10 decibels. For year-round noise reduction, plant a mix of evergreens such as arborvitaes, spruces, pines and hollies. To be effective sound barriers, these trees must have foliage that reaches to the ground.

Deciduous plants are also effective for noise abatement, but only when foliage is present. Like evergreens, these must also have foliage from the ground up to really do the job. Thickets of sassafras and paw paw have been found to be relatively effective for this purpose.

Include lawn or some other ground cover in shady areas. Turf grass or other low vegetation has a muffling effect on sound, compared with surface areas of bare soil or various paving materials, which are more likely to bounce sounds off their surfaces.

But noticing noise might be as much psychological as physical. When you don't see the source of the sound, there's an implied screening that makes it less apparent. So the use of plantings between you and the noise at any width is valuable for most home landscapes. That's also a good reason to install something to try to camouflage noise. Installing a fountain, music and screening might further contribute to a quieter yard.

Flowing water can be a wonderful foil for noise, especially if it has a cascading flow and makes a splashing sound. There are free-standing, tiered water features that offer some degree of noise screening.

Music in the garden -- classical, country, jazz or whatever you prefer -- can have a profoundly soothing effect on your surroundings, and make the world around you seem to fade away. Some weatherproof speakers specially designed to be used outdoors have a very good sound. I even have seen high-quality speakers in housings designed to look like ordinary garden rocks.

Despite these measures, however, noise control is most effective when a solid barrier is used. When the Montgomery County Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance checked decibel levels from behind a wide band of plants, highway noise didn't change significantly from summer to winter.

So does foliage account for more than psychological noise screening? The jury is out on the issue because so much depends on how far you are from the source of the sound, plant height differences and the presence of other noise barriers, such as soil, concrete or wood.

Consider the following example: Next time you're driving down the highway, note the surge of noise that fills the car when you crack open the window just a fraction of an inch. It doesn't take a large opening for noise to get through. In just
this way, any opening in mixed plantings will allow lots of noise through. This illustrates the difficulty of protecting your landscape from undesirable sounds exclusively with plants.

The most effective measures you can take against noise with plants depends more on the configuration of the soil than the tree or shrub you're putting into it.

The best way to reduce noise is to establish a soil berm for your plantings: Large mounds of soil thickly planted, as described above, do a much better job of blocking sound than plants alone. Make your berm as high as possible, at least eight feet tall and 20 feet wide, and as long as your property line. A solid, well-planted berm can cut auto and truck noise by 70 to 80 percent and substantially reduce sounds from playgrounds, sporting activities or factories.

You can also effectively dampen noise for a small townhouse or postage-stamp-sized property with a fence or wall. Install a fence or wall with no openings that is tall and dense enough to shield outside clamor. It will work just like the barriers you see along the highway. These types of barriers are far more expensive than your typical garden-variety fencing because they have to be completely sealed.

If you can't get your local transportation department to do the job, get as close as you can to building that type of barrier. It must be solid, with no spaces to let sound through. A tongue-in-groove style of wooden fence constructed of unfinished 2-by-10-inch lumber built to be as tall as possible would serve this
purpose. Architects will have more. This might be a special-order item for residential use, but you could have one built by a local custom fence company, carpenter or mason. Be sure to check local codes and permitting requirements for fences and walls before proceeding.
As increasing urbanization, particularly vehicular traffic, has added to the clamor in our environment, the field of noise-abatement engineering has grown rapidly. Look at any highway with adjacent residential neighborhoods and you see more miles of sound walls being erected every day to protect the ears of nearby residents. They really work as long as they're constructed along both sides of the road.

It is the government's responsibility to erect these tall, dense barriers to help abate noise in our communities, but property owners can take the smaller steps of installing dense plantings, berms, fences and walls.

Perhaps not as effective at blocking sound, but certainly better looking, are walls of trees and smaller plants.

Plant now for perfect garden in 10 years

There is an English proverb that reads: "If you want to be happy for a year, plant a garden. If you want to be happy for life, plant a tree." But it can take a long time for trees to achieve maturity. A scarlet oak might not make much of a show for its first 10 years. If planted correctly, it begins to develop into a beautiful specimen. In the meantime, plant a garden.

With proper stewardship, 10 years is about the same amount of time it takes before your garden begins to fully become a work of art. Here are some thoughts on landscaping for longevity.

Clients usually request that landscapes look full immediately, be low maintenance and offer longevity. This is why artificial shrubs were invented. Live plants take a patient, nurturing technique.

It takes about a decade to create the perfect mix of trees, shrubs and perennials for a landscape. And impatience (not the flowering kind) and indifference are the reasons many landscape designs don't reach their greatness.

To landscape so plants will mature and reach their full potential as beautiful specimens, you must install them at proper distances from one another. Although many shrubs can and should be renewal-pruned every so often, placing them too close together or to a structure is a waste of good plant material. Plants that are too close can also hurt your house by holding excess moisture and rotting the eaves or attracting termites at the foundation. Trees can lift your walkway, block your entry and never reach their full potential if they are sited incorrectly. This is why you should always determine the mature size of trees and shrubs before purchasing.

Many people are surprised when they learn the mature size of plants. For example, blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica "Glauca" ) is a beautiful conifer that will live many years in well-drained soil that's high in organic material. It has short blue needles and a pyramidal habit and can grow 50 to 60 feet tall and 12 to 20 feet wide. They should be planted at least 15 feet apart, which is tough to envision when you're planting them and they're only about 4 feet tall. Give them about four to seven years to begin to attain maturity.

Or plant candytuft (Iberis sempervirens ) and watch it mature for three or four years. It can become a mass 5 to 6 feet around in maturity. The same is true for low junipers. They spread and often are planted too closely together, which may cause them to develop a spider mite or fungal problem, and you can lose them.

But what can you do while you're waiting for the garden to mature?

To make planting beds look full, supplement them with annuals or with perennials that are easy to transplant. As shrubs and trees mature, move perennials to other areas and install fewer annuals. Few shrubs or perennials flower through the entire growing season. So use annuals to complement the rest of the garden and ensure bloom during the inevitable slow flowering times.

It's as important to allow perennials to mature as it is for woody plants - a rule of thumb is three to five years. Some make the show that you were expecting. Others are a disappointment and must be removed. As I said before, it can take a decade to grow your personal perfect garden.

Trees take the full 10 years to make their statement. Protect and water them; allow the lawn in their shade to decline. Don't keep spreading grass seed, and weed and feed. Respect trees as canopies of the landscape. They take time, but the payoff is in having them for generations.

Several notorious fast-growing plants can be immediate landscape solutions, such as leyland cypress and photinia. But remember when installing these plants that quick fixes may not live long or may grow over everything in their path. Their useful life span is often short, and they can become invasive if not sheared. So plants that are slower-growing and longer-lived are often a better investment than ones with more immediate gratification, but as an amateur or a professional landscape designer, you need to consider the pros and cons.

Scarlet or red oaks are beautiful natives that will grow into specimen trees and have great longevity planted in well-prepared sites. They should be installed in wide holes with generous amounts of organic material and native soil.

Examples of plants that grow too fast are bamboo, leyland cypresses, willows and privet hedges. Bamboo should never be planted in an area where it can invade your site, or your neighbor's. If a leyland or privet hedge will offer a much-needed screen, or a willow is the perfect tree in a wet area, then plant it to serve the purpose, and remove when it has lost ornamental value.

When purchasing your nursery stock, look for the following standards to extend the longevity of your plantings as much as possible:

- Check the label for information on size, branching habit, cultural requirements, and correct species and cultivar. Illustrations and photographs are helpful additions to nursery stock specifications. Plants should be well rooted but not pot-bound, with a full symmetrical top that has growth well out of the container or root ball.

- Trees should have a healthy full branching habit and shouldn't have sharp crotches or ones that are too wide-spread.

- For more information on selecting quality nursery stock, check the Urban Tree Foundation at www.urbantree.org.

One notable exception to my rule about short-lived, fast-growing plants is the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides ). It's a deciduous conifer with russet fall foliage that will live for 2,000 years, loves wet feet and would be an excellent substitute for willows.

Warning: A tree that grows fast and lives long gets big. Dawn redwoods will grow more than 50 feet tall in 20 years and top out at about 350 to 400 feet in a millennium or two.

Get kids hooked on gardening

Here are ways for your children to learn about gardening and the landscape:

Watering: Start them on enjoyable tasks. Watering is a priority. When you plant trees, shrubs, flowers and your fall crop of vegetables, make irrigation the children's job. Teach them how to water properly. Explain that a gentle flow of water minimizes damage to roots. Water pressure should be a light flow that lays water onto the soil so it percolates into the root zone. You don't want a hard spray that cuts holes into the beds, runs off and erodes soil.

To ensure that they water to the correct depth, teach your youngsters to check the moisture level. I like to push a screwdriver or dowel into the lawn and beds to check how deeply the water percolated. Look for a 6-inch depth or more (4 inches for lawn). The probe will sink easily into moist soil. When you hit dry soil, it usually resists your pushing. Even if you can sink a probe into the soil, if it still seems dry and looks parched, it's time to irrigate.

Irrigation can be accomplished by watering one plant at a time. During a dry period, this will keep your child occupied. It can also be accomplished with a sprinkler. Although you lose more water to evaporation with a sprinkler, it's fun for children. A rule of thumb is that 1 inch of water caught in a shallow can or saucer set under the sprinkler is usually enough moisture to penetrate into the soil 4 to 8 inches. It depends on soil type: Sand can percolate deeply and quickly, as can soil high in organic material.

Cut flowers: Take the gardening lessons indoors using a little chemistry. Cut flowers in their prime and dry them. Use a material containing silica gel, which is sold at garden centers and craft supply stores. Put some crystals into a bowl. Lay flowers on crystals and completely cover the flowers with the substance.

If you want instant gratification, preserve your fresh flowers using a microwave method or follow the more conventional approach and dry over a period of several days, using an airtight container. Some that do well are baby's breath, chrysanthemum, lavender, daisy, rose and salvia.

A space of their own: Give a child his or her own outdoor gardening space. Suggest starting with fast-growing edibles from seed, such as radishes, lettuce, spinach and kale, but emphasize that anything can be done with the area. It shouldn't be so large as to be difficult to manage, but it should be big enough for children to do what they do best: play around.

Children are keenly aware of what creates interest in a garden. Youngsters run toward streams, fountains, ponds and pools, and are drawn to hills, grottoes, rocks, hollows, caves and secret gardens. Birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife enthrall them, as does working the soil and watching plants grow and flower. Years later, I learned in college that these are exactly the same principles that should be used to add appeal to a landscape design.

Sources: Bill and Warren Snapp, Owners, El Plantio Nursery, Escondido, Ca.

Joel M. Lerner
Environmental Design
Washington Post
Saturday, April 2, 2005, ibid.

 

 

 

 

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