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

Archive for February, 2011

Garden Inspiration

A couple of evenings ago, I attended a round-table discussion about the creative process.  One of the themes was to open the mind to all the possibilities first, no matter how outlandish or unlikely.  Then whittle the options down to a final plan.

I realize I do that when I design a garden.  I first go through lists of plants and write down every one that I think might work in the space.  Then I look at my list and decide what goes where.  Any plant that doesn’t find a spot is eliminated from possibilities.

A good way to design a garden for you is to do the same thing.  On days that it is too cold, or too wet, or you’re too tired, browse through garden books and catalogs and make lists of every plant that you like and might fit your space.  Go to public gardens in your area for inspiration.  Surf the web and learn all you can about plants.  Then custom design a garden that you will like.  Not every plant you like will fit in your garden.  That’s okay.  But you will find that you will enjoy your garden the same.  Also remember that a garden is never done.  Plants grow and change shape.  As some plants grow taller, they open up at the bottom creating more space for other plants to grow in their shade.  Keep that in mind as you have your lists.  A plant that does not have a space right now, may at a future date.

So first, dream about all the possibilities.  Then plant the main plants that give your garden structure and define the space.  You will find that a plant that you thought you must have, later doesn’t hold it’s appeal that you once thought it had.  Or you might find a better alternative.  That’s okay too.  Plants can be dug up and given to friends and neighbors.  Gardens are always changing and developing.  As the garden grows, you can refine along the way.  Do your homework and start planting.  It’s not as daunting as trying to figure it all out at once.

Many of these perennials may have to be changed out as the shade patterns change with tree growth.



I attended a lecture yesterday evening about historic preservation.  A recurring theme was that sustainability begins with historic preservation.  A lot of energy went into building the original buildings, and while it may be quicker to tear down a building than restore it, there is still all the energy and materials that has to go into building a new building.  All the efforts of previous generations to build the building are wasted.

It is similar in a garden.  It takes time to grow a tree.  Many times, a tree you plant, you will not see in it’s mature state.  You do plant for the future.  But care has to be taken to plant the right tree in the right place, the first time.  Before you plant a tree, take the time to look at full grown trees of the same kind.  Does your space allow for the size of that tree?  If not, you are wasting today’s resources on something a future person will have to remove.

So many times I see a plant that naturally grows 15′ tall in front of a window that begins 4 feet off the ground.  Eventually that plant will block the window.  Often people will say, “Oh I can just prune it.”  You are fighting nature.  Nature always wins in the end.  A lot of energy will go into fighting to keep that plant in a manageable size.  It is better to plant something that will only reach 4 or 5′ high in that spot.

The same goes for growing grass under the shade of a tree.  It’s an uphill battle.  Plants that like full sun could eventually be shaded by the growing tree you just planted.  Now sometimes you will have to plant filler plants to take that space while the tree is young.  Just make sure you realize they will not be there long term and don’t plant your favorites in that spot.

Another way to make gardening easier is to plant plants native to your area.  Plants from your area are conditioned to the natural weather patterns of the area.  However, there are micro-climates in any region.  The plant still needs similar growing conditions to where it grows in the wild.  Factors to consider are moisture, sunlight, and exposure.  Paying attention to all these factors will make gardening more pleasant, less work and more sustainable.

Small spaces don’t have to seem small.

I often actually find small gardens more fun to design than a large one.  Many times a small garden can be done in more expensive materials because you are not trying to fill up such a large area within a certain budget.  Jaliya’s Memorial Garden in my back yard is less than a quarter acre.  However, it feels much larger.

For one, it does not have the typical lawn of most back yards.  Lawns take up space and often allow you to see the whole space at once because of their openness.  There are places for lawns and sometimes the shape of a lawn can add a design element.

One of the big keys for making a small garden seem bigger is to divide it into smaller spaces and be sure you can’t really take in the whole garden in one view.  At the moment, Jaliya’s garden is not to that point yet.  Most of the plants have been planted in the past 4 years and they have not matured enough to divide the areas up.  It does however have themes in certain areas.  There is the “tropical lagoon” with large leafed native plants surrounding a small pool of water that appears to be spring -fed.  There is the dry outcropping, a dry meadow, a wt meadow, and the shady woodland area.

A gravel path leads the eye through the garden but you can’t see exactly where the path goes unless you walk it.  The path says that there is more to see, come on and explore.  The garden is also divided by the stream flowing between the two ponds.  Once the path takes you over the stone bridge, you feel that you have entered another room of the garden.  Paths are an important feature to most gardens.  They add structure and allow the garden designer to present the garden in the manner he wishes it to be seen.  The shape and material of the path also helps to dictate the speed at which the visitor explores the garden.  The view points ahead of the visitor along the path are opportunities to showcase certain plants or features.

The small garden can also be divided up by changes in elevation.  These can be subtle changes in slope as I created in Jaliya’s garden.  A couple of spots along the path intentionally drop slightly to increase the feeling of entering into another space.  Other ways are the use of retaining walls or rock outcroppings.

All of these ideas can be used in larger gardens.  They are more necessary in the small garden.

The viewpoint on this spot of the path is the waterfall into the lower pond.

If hindsight is 20/20 why do we keep making the same mistakes?

As I have written about the past couple of blogs, fire is a real danger around this area lately.  The local news last night confirmed what I suspected.  The golf course fire in north Raleigh over the weekend was mostly Bermuda grass burning and spreading the fire.  The report even mentioned that fescue stays green for most of the year and isn’t likely to burn.  But still, someone will ask me if I will plant bermuda for them and I will have to tell them no.

Which brings up a point that I often make.  Man has brought in a lot of invasive plants into areas they don’t belong in and then has to deal with the consequences.  Kudzu is a vine in our area brought over from Asia years ago.  It climbs up and over everything looking like cloth covering over unused furniture in the attic.  You can’t even see what is underneath it.  It was brought over with the intent to be used as cattle feed.  It grows so fast that some people swear that after a summer thunderstorm, you can watch it grow.  Life is a little slower in the South and when it’s hot, you may want to do nothing more than watching paint dry but I have yet to watch kudzu grow.  It needs to be eradicated but there is always a vacant property or unused country land that still has some.

English Ivy is another invasive quite common in our area.  It too grows everywhere in the shade. (Kudzu likes sun)  It carpets the ground and climbs tree trunks.  When you walk through it, you stir up the mosquitoes who seem to love the protection it gives.  Nothing but the trees and hardiest plants can survive it’s onslaught.  Japanese privet is found everywhere in the woods.  So is Japanese honeysuckle.  One estimate is that 20% of the plants you find in natural areas are actually exotic invasive plants.  If you add in the ones not yet considered invasive, the number goes up to 30%.

Now I will admit to planting many non-native plants.  However, once I realize that a plant may be invasive, I plant it only with extreme care.  Birds and insects native to a region, depend on the native flora for food and young.  The more we upset the native balance of plants, the less the native fauna has to survive on.  We need to look at the planting mistakes of the past and learn from them so that today’s cool new plant isn’t tomorrow’s kudzu.  Every week I have to educate a customer on why a certain plant should not be used based on it’s invasive tendencies.  We all need to educate ourselves.  Look up online to find plant lists of exotic invasive plants for your area and refrain from using them.  In many cases, it may actually be against the law to use them any way.

Brown turns to Black

I know I recently wrote about the fire dangers of pinestraw year round and bermuda grass in the winter.  Just this weekend, a grass fire broke out in Wakefield Plantation, which is a upper end neighborhood on the north side of Raleigh near Wake Forest.  I have done work in this neighborhood but have not been over to see the fire damage.  I have watched news reports though and believe what I saw on TV backs up what I have been saying.  The golf course has a lot of bermuda grass as many of them do in this area.  Most of the lawns at the homes around the golf course have fescue.  Homeowners fought off the flames with garden hoses.  But it was also obvious that they had green lawns.  The green grass helped keep the fire from spreading and burning their homes.  The bermuda grass is totally brown this time of year and the fire spread quickly.  I do not recommend planting bermuda grass any where but especially near a home.

A couple of summers ago, Raleigh had a major fire near some town homes.  Many people lost everything.  The fire spread there with help from dry pinestraw.  Raleigh has since banned the use of pinestraw near residences.  I would not use it either even if it is allowed in my area.  We have had droughts several times over the past few years.  I would rather save my house rather than saving a little money on landscaping.

Hey, Buddy. Can you score me some grass?

Ok, I might be showing my age, most people call it weed today.  Then again, my definition of a weed is “a plant out of place.”  Most lawn grasses used around here are not indigenous to this area.  This area was once the “Great Southeast Forest”.  There was no open grass areas to speak of.  There are some native grasses, carex that grows naturally in the woods.  So maybe a grass lawn should be considered a weed patch.

Fescue is the most common lawn grass in the Durham, NC area.  It is a “cool season” grass which means it actively grows during cooler weather and stops growing in hot weather.  For this reason, it is fertilized 3 times a year on the following easy to remember schedule.  Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day.  It has a hard time surviving our hot dry summers and therefore should be allowed to slow down growth during the summer.  It should be mowed as high as possible, watered deeply rather than frequently, and mulch the clippings back into the grass.  It does not do well under shade trees as it has to compete with tree roots for moisture during the summer.  It also needs at least a half day of sun.

Another grass seen in this area is Bermuda grass.  Obviously by it’s name, it does not belong here.  Bermuda grass is called a “warm season” grass.  This means it goes dormant during cold weather and is only actively growing during the warmer months.  Bermuda also spreads by runners.  This means that it goes everywhere it can.  It spreads into your planting beds and the neighbor’s yard.  In my opinion, which is always what this blog is about, no one should ever allow bermuda to spread into their neighbor’s yard.  It is not at all neighborly to do so.  If you want to fight it growing into your own planting beds that is one thing.  But you should not inflict that upon your neighbor.  Once bermuda has gotten a foothold, it is difficult to remove.  You must remove every single piece of it as it can grow back from a single node.  These nodes are what looks like elbows on the runner.  They are often about every inch apart along the stem.  Bermuda also turns brown during the winter.  In my opinion, there is enough brown during the winter without also having a brown lawn.

Zoysia is also seen occasionally around here.  Zoysia is another “warm season” grass that spreads by runners.  It is a very tightly grown grass feeling like a thick carpet when you walk on it.  It is totally brown in the winter as well.

We have had problems with brush fires around here lately due to the dry winter we have had.  Brown grass for a lawn can help these fires to spread just like pinestraw can.  Last week, Interstate 40 was blocked between Durham and Chapel Hill due to the grass being on fire.  I’m sure it was bermuda grass that burned.  I can’t imagine fescue being on fire during the winter when it is green.

All lawn grasses in this area have their own drawbacks.  If you must have a green lawn though, fescue is the best choice.  It is greener for the longest time of the year and it doesn’t spread into your planting beds by runners.  By all means, don’t waste time trying to grow any lawn in the shade.  It takes way too much work and my view is that a garden should be a little work and a lot of enjoyment.

Time to start the veggies

One of the joys of a garden is to have some area set aside for growing food or incorporating edible plants in the garden design.  No grocery store food tastes as good as what you picked fresh off the plant that day.  Part of the reason for this is that most produce in the store is picked while still green so that it is firm enough to ship.  It then ripens while in transit or while in the store.  As a result, it does not ripen the way nature intended and never achieves the flavor it was meant to have.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about growing veggies as every one’s site and tastes are different.  I will just pass on a couple of pointers that I have learned.

A good place to start is a website I found called Sprout Robot.  At this website, you can enter your zip code and check the boxes of the vegetables you are interested in growing.  It will then send you an email letting you know when it is time to plant each particular vegetable.  Pretty cool.  This week it is time to plant peas in Durham NC.  I have planted peas.  I found out that it takes a lot of pea plants to get very many peas.  I have a small garden so I probably won’t use my limited space for peas.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, cantelope, broccoli, and squash do very well for me.  I may try a few others along the way.  So far have had difficulty with potatoes and sweet potatoes but have not given up on those.

My advice is to plant what you like to eat and have the space for.  Gardening is supposed to be fun.  It is a lot of work if you choose for it to be so.  If you find it is too much work, then you will end up frustrated and quit.  Start small, and get your confidence up.  Learn what works for you and enjoy yourself.  Buy what you can’t grow from your local Farmer’s Market.  The fuel that is spent shipping food all over this country makes little sense with viewed with thoughts for the environment and the local economy.

Garden memories

Gardens bring back memories for some people.  Many people remember certain plants growing at their grandmother’s house when they were a kid.  My grandmother particularly liked planting petunias in her summer garden.  I don’t necessarily like petunias myself but any time I see some I think of her.  My mom liked pansies real well.  While I was growing up, our elderly neighbor had a patch of bachelor buttons that seemed very tall to us as kids as we walked through them picking some to take home for our mom.

You can also create memories by your garden.  I had a customer who was about to get married and their house was just being finished being built.  Two weeks before the wedding, the yard was still a mess.  We came in and planted the front for them using many plants that were in bloom at that time of year.  Now every year at their wedding anniversary, their front yard is at it’s peak bloom season for the whole year.  She loves it.  I had a friend once ask me to plant a shrub for a gift for his best friend’s daughter who was just born.  We planted a star Magnolia to be blooming every year at her birthday.

One plant that I have a liking for is liriope.  It’s not really that interesting of a plant.  It’s green and has purple blooms which are my two favorite colors.  However, I like it because around here it starts blooming around mid-August.  When I see it blooming I realize two things.  First of all, it means that the long hot summer is about over and cooler weather is just around the corner.  With my line of work, that is a welcome sign.  It also reminds me that my birthday is just around the corner on the last day of August.

Some people’s memories might be triggered by the fragrances of certain plants.  The scent of jasmine drifting in the deep South is one example.  In my garden,  I usually smell my fragrant tea olive blooming way before I see the blossoms.  The winter daphne is also usually a sign that spring is around the corner, or the hyacinths blooming at the base of my mailbox when I retrieve my mail.  Even though the Asian wisteria is invasive around here, and I have to constantly fight it in my garden, it does smell wonderful in bloom.  If I could only just keep it on the neighbor’s property and out of my garden.

I recently purchased a plant online just because of it’s name.  It is a Hosta called “Goodness Gracious”.  That was a common line of my grandmother who I never heard speak a curse word.  I couldn’t resist.  I have also purchased a Hosta called “Hoosier Harmony” because I grew up in Indiana and one called “Thunderbolt” because I once lived in a suburb of Savannah with that name.  I like the plants but with so many hostas to choose from, those are easy to remember names.

I want to end with a paraphrase of a quote I found recently but can’t find now.  “Don’t wait for someone to buy you flowers.  Plant a garden and create beauty for your own soul.”   Create or bring back some memories at the same time.

This garden has a star magnolia in it to celebrate the birth of a first child.


Mulch now for your plants

Mulch is a vital part of a healthy and attractive garden.  It has many benefits.   The most obvious one is the appearance.  A well mulched garden looks well maintained.  It helps to visually tie all the yard together and to define the edges of the beds.  There are many types of mulch out there though.  In our area, the most common mulch is shredded hardwood.  It looks nice and holds in place fairly well.  It is probably the best mulch to use on slopes as it stays in place better than most.  One problem with shredded hardwood is that it is more difficult to work through as it tends to mat.  The more finely shredded the mulch is the more attractive and beneficial it is for the soil.

Another common mulch for this area is ground pine bark.  Those bags of soil conditioner you buy at Lowes or Home Depot are just finely ground pine bark.  Fine pine bark mulch is my favorite mulch for that reason.  Every time you dig into your beds, you are working the mulch into the soil, improving it. The drawback to pine bark mulch is that it tends to float.  For that reason, it does not work well on slopes or where water is likely to flow.

Many people in order to save money use pinestraw.  Pinestraw is common in the southeast so it is readily available.  However, I question it’s benefits as it doesn’t retain water as well and doesn’t last long.  It also doesn’t work into the soil very well.  Many cities are also banning it’s use near residential buildings due to the fire danger as well.  Fire spreads rapidly through dry pinestraw, endangering everything and everyone in it’s path.  I prefer to only use pinestraw in totally natural areas away from the house.

Two types of mulch I do not use are the dyed red mulch and rubber mulch.  In my opinion, red mulch is ugly.  It does not look natural at all.  It is a fad that I feel cant go away too soon.  Rubber mulch is ground up used tires.  While it may last a while, I question how environmentally friendly it is.  It may last a while and eventually break down into the soil.  But the same logic could be used for using rusty nails.  They would eventually break down into the soil as well.  Maybe not as comfortable to walk on but the nails are probably more natural than man made rubber tires.

Not only does mulch make the garden more attractive and improve the soil but it also helps to control weeds and to conserve water for the plants.  It also helps to control erosion.  In order for it to do these things though, it needs to be a minimum of 3” thick.

While I am on the subject of controlling weeds, I’d like to state my opinion on another common landscaping technique.  Many people like to put down fabric or plastic before they put down mulch.  All mulch breaks down over time.  It eventually becomes great organic matter for growing plants.  So weeds will eventually grow on top of the plastic or fabric.  Shrubs will start to grow roots both on top and under the weed barrier.  Then it becomes difficult to dig up the plants.  The worms and insects that nature provides to naturally churn the organic material into the soil are artificially stopped from doing so.  The soil underneath the plastic or fabric essentially becomes dead.  Doesn’t seem environmentally friendly at all.

The reason I recommend mulching now is that it is easy to do before your bulbs and perennials start shooting up.  To wait too late will make it difficult to mulch without damaging tender new growth.  The mulch will help conserve water for the plants during the hot summer months.

Fine pinebark mulch is great for keeping down weeds and improving the soil.


One of the few native plants blooming at this time of year is the native Witchhazel.  Hamamelis vernalis is blooming now in my garden.  The Hamamelis virginiana blooms in the fall.  The blooms are not showy on my witchhazel right now because it has the habit of keeping it’s brown leaves all winter.  The flowers are small and not brightly colored.  They are however, fragrant when you get close.

Some of the more commonly used witchhazels are actually the Asian hybrids.  The hamamelis mollis is from China and the hamamelis japonica is from Japan.  Many of the witchhazels in American gardens are actually a cross between these two species.  Common ones are “Jelena” and “Diane.”

In Jaliya’s garden I have included both of the native species.  To be honest, they aren’t much more than background plants most of the time.  The unusual flowers are interesting but only upon close inspection.  Maybe over time, plantsmen will find more interesting varieties of the native species so us native plant lovers can have beautiful witchhazels without resorting to planting the exotics.

Witchhazels get their name from the fact that in the past, some people believed that if you cut a “Y” shaped branch from the plant, you could use it to locate underground water sources,  practice called water-witching.

Look closely to see the flowers of the witchhazel.