Thoughts on how to create a well-designed garden retreat.

Archive for January, 2011

More about the alien invaders.


One thing that I have found is that so few people know what is native and what is not.  I recently had a job in a new development that claimed to be “green”.  The information brochure said that the landscaping was done with native plants.  This customer called me to do the side/back yard as the front yard was already done by the builder.  I was excited because I wanted to do all natives and wanted to start getting jobs in this development.  Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the house and not one plant in the front yard was native. Not one!

Many people think that just because a plant is commonly planted in their area that it is a native plant.  Not true.  I like a lot of plants from around the world.  European explorers collected plants and took them back to Europe and the U.S.  People were intrigues by the new plants.  Money was to be made by growing these plants and selling them.  If people wanted native plants in their garden, they could just go out and dig them up from their natural habitat.  Not much money to be made there. To make it worse, as the native plants were being destroyed by farming and development and nurseries weren’t growing them, when people did want natives they would go out and dig them up to bring home.  This further helped to wipe out native plant populations.  It is only a good idea to go dig up plants from the wild if they are about to be destroyed by development.  Any gardener knows that when you transplant plants, you have the risk of killing the plant if it doesn’t survive the shock of the move.  Protect the native plants in their natural environment.

For a plant lover, it is hard to refrain from planting exotics.  I don’t plant 100% native myself.  Generally, the further away from urban settings and closer to the woods, the less I plant exotics.  I do not want the exotics escaping into the natural landscape.  Not all non-natives are invasive.  I have given up on planting some plants once I found they were invasive.  To determine what plants are invasive in your area, go online and type in “Invasive exotic plant” and your State and you should be able to find a list.  In NC there is a list of the invasive and the potentially invasive.  Never plant the invasive.  Only with extreme care plant the potentially invasive.  Better to not plant either.

Because I have divided my yard into a native plant section and an exotic plant section, I can compare the two easily.  One thing that I have noticed is how much more life is in the native section.  The native garden is humming with life.  Sit still for a bit in the native garden and you will notice loads of honeybees, bumble bees, butterflies and birds.  The contrast between the numbers in the native garden and the exotic garden is astounding.  Nothing is still in the native garden.  By contrast the exotic plant area is a funeral home.  Ok, maybe an exaggeration but if you saw it, you would notice the difference. It’s like night and day.

Notice the bees and the hummingbird moth.

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Alien Invasion


One of the tough calls for me as a plant lover is native plants versus the alien or exotic plants.  I want to state that my yard is not 100% native plants.  Jaliya’s memorial garden in the back is 100% native plants of the southeast US.  The front half of the property is 100% exotic plants with the exception of the native shade trees that were already here.

I divided my property into two sections for a couple of reason.  First of all, I wanted to show that a native plant garden could be done and be attractive and interesting.  A lot of people think a native garden is wild or boring.  Secondly, I wanted needed to have the discipline to buy every plant I saw that I liked.  With my layout, if there is no room for the plant in the designated section, I can’t buy it.  Thirdly, having two sections allowed me to divide my property into themes.  The front half may be a little more typical of a landscaped yard.  (As if I do anything typical but it’s closer to the expected.)  The native garden is also further divided into areas in order to group plants that belong together.  The last reason is that I wanted to surprise of a natural design in the middle of an urban area.  My house is just 3 blocks from city hall downtown.  It’s always fun when I show people pics of my native garden to people and they comment, “I thought you lived downtown”!!

When I first moved in, the rear of the property was filled with invasive exotic plants.  There was Japanese wisteria everywhere with vines across the ground as thick as my forearm.  If you’ve ever tried to ax a wisteria vine you know how frustrating that can be.  It is too pliable for an ax to easily cut.  I still have wisteria trying to resurrect itself.  The other aliens were privet and the non-native mulberry.  (There is a native mulberry).  Basically these three plants created a jungle with a couple of other plants here and there.  It took 3 years of constantly cutting back new growth to dare plant anything.  This is an area of maybe  a quarter acre.  Cut a plant to the ground and it would sprout back up.  Take out a stump and the plant would sprout back up from the remaining roots.

That shows how tough invasive exotics are to get rid of when they escape cultivation and end up in our woods.  I have read estimates of 20% of the plants we see in our woods today are invasive exotics.  Up to 30% are exotic when you add in the ones that aren’t yet classified as invasive.  The native flora of a region is wiped out by the exotics.  Add to the fact that earlier farmers may have also wiped out many native plants to plant crops and it is hard to find many native shrubs and herbs in their natural state.

Jaliya's Garden before

My idea is to help repopulate the native flora by seeding cultivated gardens with native plants.  Who cares if the natives start popping up along the roadsides from the seeds from the plants in my garden?  Those plants are supposed to be there naturally.  If more people planted native plants, our children and grandchildren will be able to take nature hikes and see the plants that our ancestors found when they came here.

Jaliya's Garden after


A garden is never done


Why is a garden never done?  Plants grow.  A tree you plant today can be here a hundred years or more.  It starts out small and becomes a large tree.  As a result, it’s shadow grows larger.  Plants that were once in the sun are now in the shade.  That makes choosing plants near trees more difficult.  If you choose shrubs near a tree, it helps to choose a plant that likes either sun or shade.  Then you wont have to replace it as the shade increases.  In our area in North Carolina, many plants can take some sun but would prefer shade in the afternoon when it is hot.  So one solution to that is to plant those plants on the east side of the trees so they get that morning sun but can chill in the shade later in the day.

Perennial flowers can be done the same way.  One thing I like about using natives in the garden is that they naturally migrate in the garden according to where they are happy.  For example, if you plant shady loving natives right under the shade of a small tree and sun-loving natives on the outside, over time, as the tree grows, the shade loving plants will spread out and the sun loving plants will shrink or spread out into other parts of the garden.  This is a natural progression that happens without extra work on the gardener.  An observer might not even notice the transition.  But because you are working with nature rather than against it, the garden becomes more enjoyable.

I believe a garden should be more joy than work.  Working with nature rather than against it requires less work by humans.  Native plants suited to the local conditions will usually fare better than exotics.  Exotics can also sometimes be invasive which means removing them when they spread.  Once I find an exotic is invasive, I try to refrain from using it in anything other than an urban setting.  Even then, most invasive exotics are best to be avoided.  I would argue that if you want a low maintenance garden, stick with the natives for your area and plant in a natural design.  Then Mother Nature does most of the work and you can enjoy the garden.


Going barefoot.


“Skeletons” are the trees and evergreen plants  that make up the back bone of the garden.  The “Focals” are the spotlight plants that help the eyes settle and lead the eyes through the garden.  The “Decoratives” are the deciduous blooming shrubs and the “Pretties” are the flowering perennials adding color to the garden.  However, we are not done.  The final category is the “Infills”.  The infills are the low growing plants that fill in the space between plants.  I liken a garden without the infills as a woman who is all dressed up but has no shoes to wear.

Infills are the ground-covers.  They could also be annual plants that you plant to fill in the spaces between plants until the larger plants grow and fill in the space.  People say that nature abhors a vacuum and that is definitely true in the southeast.  The southeast US was originally forest.  In this area, if you don’t plant something, Mother Nature will.  My definition of a “weed” is a plant out of place.  Think about that if you don’t understand.  Corn is a crop in a corn field but if it’s growing up in your lawn, it is a weed.  If you want to keep down weeds in a garden, you must plant enough plants to crowd out the weeds.  It might not eliminate every weed but it goes a long way.  Because this area was the southeast forest, tree saplings will always be a problem but can be lessened with thick plantings

The other advantage of the infills is that layers of plants are more attractive if done right and birds and wildlife naturally prefer it.  In a small garden, infills also allow you another way to add flower color in less space.  Layer, layer, layer.  The five types of plants that John Brookes mentions all help to create layers and interest in a garden.  No garden is complete without a good proportion of all five, 4 just wont do it.


Here my Pretty…(followed by evil cackle)


So far we have discussed the “Skeletons” of the garden, the “Focals” in the garden, and the “Decoratives,” the deciduous blooming shrubs.  Today we are going to cover the “Pretties” as defined by John Brookes.

The pretties are the perennial flowers of the garden.  Perennials are herbaceous plants that come up year after year as opposed to annuals that have to be replanted each year.  There are thousands of varieties of perennials available for gardens.  I won’t even attempt to try to cover all the possibilities.  The choices for your garden will depend on where you live and the micro-climates in your garden.

Many perennials will bloom for a longer period of time than most deciduous shrubs.  As you would expect, there are very few perennials that bloom in the winter but they are out there.  Hellebores are one possibility.  Hellebores bloom late winter and are evergreen.  They need to be grown in the shade.

More options are available for spring flowers.  Many are ephemerals which means they pop up briefly, usually before the tree leaves pop out, and then the whole plant disappears by summer not to be seen again until the following spring.  These are usually our woodland flowers.  Other spring perennials will bloom early and then keep their foliage the rest of the growing season.

The biggest selection of perennial flowers for me seems to be the summer blooming perennials.  Many of them will bloom until the first fall frost once they get started.  Most of these love sun such as coneflowers, gaura, and coreopsis.  One favorite of mine is the Coreopsis ‘Creme Brulee’.  Once it starts blooming in late May or June for me, it keeps blooming until November in my native garden.

Later in the season, some fall bloomers join the show.  Asters are one common fall blooming plant and there are many varieties.

With careful planning, you can have flowers blooming all year long or at the very least, spring, summer and fall.


Winging it.


One of the joys of a garden is the life it brings.  Of course, plants are living things but a well-designed garden brings in life on wings.

I have discussed 3 of the 5 functions or types of plants in the well-designed garden.  These different types of plants is also what makes the garden attractive to birds.  Birds like open areas near protective cover.  This is best achieved by planting layers of plants.  Shade trees tower over understory trees with shrubs planted under those.  These are all planted together alongside of a small open place make an ideal garden for birds.

Evergreen shrubs help to block the winds which also make for an inviting garden for birds.  Trees such as hawthorn and service berry provide berries for food.  Hollies not only provide berries for food but also provide great shelter for nesting.  One native plant in this area that almost never seems to be found without a bird nest in it is the Yaupon Holly.  The yaupon holly can get 15′ tall and wide.  It has small evergreen leaves and the females have berries.  But the twiggy stiff branch structure seems to be ideal for bird nests.

It also helps to plant flowering perennials that produce seeds that birds like.  One of my favorite plants is a type of sunflower commonly called “Dumbo Ears”.  It produces large leaves fairly low to the ground but shoots up flower stalks rising around 6′ tall.  When it blooms, it is a yellow cone-flower shaped flower.  But when it goes to seed, the gold finches flock to it.  There are other plant/bird combinations but I will be honest and say I don’t know of many of them.  I have learned that birds prefer our native plants over many exotics.  This is because the natives are what they have eaten for millenia.

Another favorite sight is when hummingbirds visit the garden.  Hummingbirds are attracted to bright tubular flowers.  Cardinal flower, bee balm, and trumpet vine are some examples.  There are many more that may be native in your area.

The biggest thing you can do if you want birds is to provide a water source.  Many people keep bird baths for that purpose and they work.  However, you must remember to keep them with water as the shallow bowls evaporate quickly.  Water gardens work best for attracting birds.  If the garden pond has a shallow area, the birds will love it.

Other winged creatures highly desired are butterflies.  Butterflies add color and motion to the garden.  They often hang around a little more than birds as they are so much slower and seem more care-free.  The key to attracting butterflies is to plant the flowers or shrubs that are food for the larva of the butterflies you want.  Many species of butterfly larva only feed on one or two species of plants.  If you want that specie of butterfly, you need to plant that particular food source.  You can find lists online to help you here.  Again, native plants are preferable because that is what they have fed on for millenia as well.  Be sure to limit pesticide use as well if you want butterflies.

Just before dark, the bats show up in my garden.  Bats are very welcome as they eat loads of mosquitoes.  I often see them dipping down to the pond to get a drink.  The more bats and birds you attract to the garden, the less mosquitoes you will have. 


The garden buzz.


One recent addition to my native garden is a bee hive.  I had read online about how the honey bees across the country were dying so I decided to have my own bees.  Now I wasn’t wanting to study the death of bees, I’m not that morbid.  But I knew I do not use chemicals in my garden.  One of the suspects in nationwide bee deaths is pesticide use.  If bees are gone, then so is pollination of plants and therefore fruits and vegetables.  So I thought maybe I could help in the cause of keeping the bee population up.  I also recognized a personal advantage for my own vegetable garden productivity with so many bees nearby.  I did notice a much better crop of some vegetables last summer.

I don’t know much about honey bees yet so I’m not going to pretend to tell you how to keep bees.  I am still learning myself and have yet to harvest my first honey.  I will give a few pointers that I did pick up.

The most important thing to determine is the hive location.  I read that the hive does better if it gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  So that was easy in my native garden as I have described in earlier posts.  The other important factor is paying attention to the flight path.  Think of your hive as a busy airport and the bees are all these planes taking off and landing.  The big difference is planes take off in one direction and the other planes land coming in from the opposite direction.  This is to keep planes from flying into each other as you can imagine.  However with bees, that is not a problem.  They know how to avoid head-on collisions.  So place your hive in an area that has plenty of landing and take off room without disturbing human visitors.  It’s also good to have enough space around the hive for you to work the hive without plants being in the way.  So I placed my hive with low perennials to the front and a path along the rear.  This gives me room to take care of the hive without standing in the flight path.

I also spent the extra money to purchase an attractive bee hive.  My bee hive is quite visible in the garden so it is a feature of the garden, not just something to try to hide out of sight.  There are also bee hives that have viewing windows to watch the bees work.  I considered this design but they were unavailable in my area at the time and I was impatient.  But if you have children that are fascinated by nature and would enjoy watching the bees work, I think it would be a fun addition to the garden.

There is a lot of information online about raising bees.  I hope I have piqued your interest.  Anyone who is interested in growing their own food so that they know where it comes from and wants to eat healthy should consider the idea of adding bees to their garden.  Not only will you have better crop yields but there is also the sweet honey like the icing on the cake.


Anybody hungry?


Many people when they hear the word “garden” they think of vegetable gardens.  That is one connotation of the word.  Of course as a garden designer, I think of plants and flowers.  One trend in gardening today is “edible gardening”.  I haven’t done a lot of edibles with my customers yet as I am still learning.  However, I have added edibles for my own garden.

I have a typical vegetable garden in one area.  So far I have tried growing potatoes, tomatoes, black beans, lima beans, broccoli, lettuce, asparagus, peas, and onions.  I have not yet had much luck with potatoes.  Broccoli, tomatoes, onions, and the lettuce have been easy.  I have also had good success with cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon, cantalope, and yellow squash. I am finding it takes a lot of beans and pea plants to get much in return.  The asparagus is a perennial and I’m waiting until it has been in for 3 years to begin harvesting the spears.  This is just my experience so far.  Not much but learning.

I also have planted a dwarf peach tree, a dwarf apple tree, and a pear tree.  The dwarf peach did great last year.  The apple tree is still too small.  The pear has produced many pears but before they ripen, the squirrels steal them all in a day.  Keeping my eyes on them this year.  None of these trees have been in the garden more than 4 years.

Actually, none of my garden is more than 4 years old.  Keep that in mind as you look at the pictures.  As time goes on, the garden will develop into my vision.  In my opinion, most gardens really aren’t photogenic until the third year.

Back to the subject though.  In my native garden, I have even more edibles.  The first crop each year is a small patch of strawberries.  I have used them as a ground-cover as they are evergreen in our area.  I also have the native blueberries, raspberry, and a thorn-less blackberry.  I have a muscadine grape on the arbor and have native cherry and plum trees, one of each.  All of these are native edibles and they are scattered throughout the garden.  I also have the native prickly pear cactus which I hear is edible but I need to learn how to remove the spines while cooking.  The thought of having tiny little needles in my tongue causes me to lose my appetite for the plant.  It’s bad enough pulling them out of my leg when I accidentally brush up against them.  I also have a serviceberry, and an aronia which so far I haven’t eaten.  I have the native passionflower which has edible fruit and a small grove of pawpaws, also known as the Hoosier Banana.  I’m waiting to taste them.  I have also planted the native persimmon but I may have to wait a few years for any crop there as they are just saplings.

I am sure there are many more options for planting edibles.  Since my main garden is all native, I am a little restricted as to what I grow there.  I even had cattails in my garden pond which are also edible, but I decided to remove them before they took over.  The main idea I’m trying to make is that you can plant edibles among your landscape plants with some planning. Many of them are very suitable for landscape plants on their own merits.  But it is kinda cool to work in the garden and grab a freshly ripened berry or two or a juicy plum.


Enjoy the seasons


Once you have the basic structure of the garden and the focals to lead the eyes through the garden, it is time for the next step.  It’s time to add the seasonal blooming shrubs, or what John Brookes calls the “Decoratives”. Seasonal shrubs are deciduous shrubs that add color during their spotlight in the show and then fade back into the background once they quit blooming.  A lot of people recognize forsythia as a sign that spring has arrived.  But once it’s finished blooming, in my opinion it is just another shrub.  Nothing else special about it.  But during it’s brief flowering time, it catches the eye.  There are many shrubs that are like this.  Flowering quince and spring blooming spireas are also sure signs of spring.  Hydrangeas and butterfly bush are examples of summer blooming shrubs.

In the native garden, the deciduous native azaleas start blooming in the spring.  If you get enough different species you can have native azaleas blooming nearly one after another into late summer.  Eastern Ninebark, clethra, iteas, beautyberry, native viburnums, oakleaf hydrangeas, and the native hydrangea are other examples of “Decoratives”.  One of my favorite natives is Dwarf Fothergilla.  This shrub blooms early in the spring with cream-colored bottle-brush type flowers.  It has very nice scalloped leaves during the summer.  Then in the fall, it is a medley of color with yellow, orange, and red often all on the same leaf.   The native beautyberry has purple berries in the fall that are actually more showy than the flowers,  Viburnums also usually have showy berries in the fall.  Any shrub that has both attractive blooms and fall color is a good bet if it is otherwise suited to your garden.

We’ve now covered 3 of the 5 categories of plants for a good garden design.  This is unfortunately where a lot of landscapers stop.  We will talk about the other 2 necessary plant types later.


If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…


As I have written before, the best gardens are ones that gradually reveal themselves to you.  As you walk through a garden, it is fun to come across something unexpected.  One of the most common exclamations I hear as I show the garden to first time visitors is “You’ve got ducks!”  Introducing Graham and Chedda, my two quackers.  I got duckings born on Easter morning for a surprise for a 4 year old son of  a friend of mine.  Nicholaus loves to spend time in the garden just exploring and being a boy.  At first it was too cool at night to leave them outside so they lived in the bathroom until they were old enough.  When I let them out to the pond, took it like “ducks take to water”.  It was a lot of fun watching them furiously paddling their little feet around the pond.  They strengthened their little legs trying to swim up the stream and usually ended in a splash into the lower pond.  From these ducklings, only 2 have managed to survive to adulthood.  The first suspects were the dogs or the cats although none of them had shown any inclination to harming the little guys.  I would just come home and find I had one less duckling with no clue as to where it had gone.  The mystery was solved one day when I came home in the middle of the day and spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on the grape arbor looking down on the pond.  I jumped out of the truck and threw a handful of gravel at him to scare him off.  I have not seen him in the garden since and have not lost another duck.

The type of duck I have is a Call Duck.  They are small ducks.  Personally I think my garden is too small for large ducks.  Think of them as a “Bantam” Duck like there are bantam chickens.  They get their name from the fact that they were used as a tame duck that hunters could take with them while hunting.  These guys would “call” the wild ducks in.  They were small enough to be handled easily.  There are several different “types” based on color patterns and I wont go into that here as I don’t know enough about that.  You can choose the color pattern that you like most.

Before I had gotten the ducks, I had considered getting bantam chickens.  I was doing research and narrowing down my options when the duck idea came up.  I wanted chickens to have fresh organic eggs.  I’ve been told that duck eggs are edible however a little stronger in taste.  Some people don’t like the difference and I may decide I don’t either.  I’m waiting until spring and hope to be able to find out.  I may be a little disappointed if I don’t like the flavor of the eggs, but I will always enjoy the fun of having ducks in my garden.