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

Posts tagged “garden ponds

Don’t waste winter

Many gardeners put up their tools and prop up their feet during the winter months.  It is a time to slow down and take life a little easier.  Many gardeners spend the long evenings poring through garden catalogs and magazines. Getting inspiration for their spring planting.  I do the same.   But that is not the point of this post.

Here in Durham North Carolina, we usually have fairly mild winter with the occasional snow.   Today for example the high temperature will be in the 60’s.  It is still a little early to do a lot of cleanup in the garden as the leaf litter helps keep down winter weeds and moderates soil temperature fluctuations.  Never know if bitter cold weather is still ahead.  Besides, the dried tops of many perennials look good in their winter browns and tans.  I especially like some of them when they are covered in frost and sparkle in the sunlight.  So I usually wait until later in the winter to do my cutting back of perennials.  Take the time to appreciate the subtle colors and textures of your winter garden.

I also take the time to see where the garden is lacking in interest during the winter.  Around here the leaves drop just before Thanksgiving, and the trees don’t leaf out until late March or early April.  That’s a good 4 months or more.  Don’t waste that time!  Add color for that third of the year.  Find blank areas in the garden in the winter where you can add evergreens or plants with winter color like berries or a change in color.  One of my favorite plants in my garden is a white pine called ‘Hillside Winter Gold’  As the name suggests, the needles on it turn gold in the winter.

Hillside winter Gold Pine

Another plant that adds interest to the winter garden is Ilex verticillata. Some variety names are Winterberry and Sparkleberry. These are native deciduous hollies. As with all hollies, there are both male and female plants. If you don’t have berries, you may have a male or you have a female and there is not a nearby male. I usually insure berries by ordering a male any time I plant females. Most named varieties will be of a known sex.

Winterberry Holly

Other plants with winter berries are evergreen hollies, hawthorn, and beautyberry.  Many of the thuja cultivars have evergreen foliage that changes color with the cold weather as do some of the junipers.  Many winters the oakleaf hydrangeas hold onto some of their deep red leaves.  Some plants have interesting bark that shows more after the leaves fall. The oakleaf hydrangeas have a cinnamon peeling bark that is hidden by the large leaves all summer.  Ninebark also has interesting bark that is unnoticed during the summer.

The point I am making is that the garden doesn’t have to be boring for the third of the year or longer that it is “dormant”.  With some planning and some appreciation for winter’s subtleties the garden can be quite enjoyable year round.

Jaliya's Garden January 2012

Jaliya's Garden 20102


Spring break?

So it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here.  Spring for any garden designer is busy along with the time spent on one’s own garden getting ready for a tour.  So there has really been no Spring break,

We’ve had a pretty good spring so far in Durham.  We haven’t hit 90 degrees yet which is a little unusual and have had many days below 80, also unusual.  We’ve also had a bit more rain than normal so everything is growing very well.  Some years it seems that spring is only 2 weeks long because we go from cold to hot in a very short time.

Spring is also a time for historic home tours in Durham and I’ve made it around to my share this spring.  Of course, many times I am more interested in the gardens than the houses but no one really needs to know that.  Preservation Durham’s home tour party was held at a home with an extensive garden on a corner lot.  This allows the garden to become sort of a public garden.  Nothing like touring someone’s  garden other than your own to put your plant identification skills to the test.  Truth be told, I have a couple of plants in my native garden that I have forgotten what they are.  Nothing wrong with discreetly leaving a plant tag near the base of a plant to remind yourself later what it is.  I’ve spent some time recently tagging some of the larger trees and shrubs with aluminum plant tags that hang by thin wires.  These can be moved easily as the plant grows to allow you to find it later.  I went through a pack of 50 of these tags and had to order another 50.  Perennials are not conducive to this technique so I’ll have to either remember them or do the tag in the ground thing.

I have shown the garden to more people this spring than probably the past four years combined.  I’ve always told my customers that most gardens really seem to come into their own on the third year.  This has held true for Jaliya’s garden.  Of course, I know what is left in my mind to be done at a later date but new people to the garden do not know.  Seeing a garden in this stage followed by pointing to the jungle in the back yard next door let’s them know that they too can have a beautiful garden in just a couple years time.  My own back yard looked just like the one next door when I moved in.

Before the blood sweat and tears.

It will take some time for the trees and shrubs to reach their prime.  That is where perennials do such a good job in creating interest in a garden.  Too many landscapes focus only on trees and shrubs and are missing out.  Or they will throw in a few daylilies or some other common tough perennial and stop there.   We’ve talked before about the five design functions of plants and these pictures help to bear that out.  The perennials give a lot of interest to the garden while the larger plants grow.  In five years, this garden will look so much different because the shrubs will be showing their form and the trees will change the sun/shade patterns.  But that is the fun of garden design.  You have an idea in your mind of what you want to create.  You then go to work and let nature bring it to fruition.  A garden is never really done.  It just grows and develops along with you.

Rain Gardens

Many yards have some place that water seems to drain slowly or even have standing water for a few days after a rain.  You can curse these spots, regrade your yard to move the water out, or you can take advantage of your luck and plant a rain garden.

Low areas in the lawn are always a problem as it makes mowing difficult.  The lawn mower will leave wheel tracks through the mud and the situation seems to get worse and worse.  It is best to give up the grass completely in a low spot.  In this post, I will give you some idea of the native plants that work well in Durham NC.  You can find similar plants native to your area online.

If your low spot is large, you might want to plant water loving trees such as River Birch, Sweetbay Magnolia, Serviceberry, and Bald Cypress.

For shrubs that like damp areas, you can plant Inkberry Holly, Sweetshrub, Clethera, Illicium, Leucothoe, and Wax Myrtle.  Winterberry Holly is a great shrub for these locations and they have berries that help to attract birds.

Hibiscus is a plant with large flowers that loves wet areas.  There are the “dinner plate” hibiscus as well as the star hibiscus.  Some plants that usually like shade such as Cardinal Flower and Cinnamon Fern will grow in full sun if kept consistently wet.  Monarda is a great hummingbird attractor as is the Cardinal Flower.  Joe Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed are great butterfly attractors.  Swamp Sunflower and the Native Ageratum are late fall bloomers for wet areas.  Turtle head is an unusual looking flower that also likes damp soil.  For grasses you can add the rushes, Carex, and Acorus.  Louisiana Iris and the Virginia Iris also add vertical elements to the rain garden.

So as you can see, there are a lot of possibilities for a poorly drained area of your yard that are way more attractive than a lawn.  In fact, you may even decide to run the downspouts from the gutter for your house and intentionally create a rain garden.  Any time you can keep water on your property rather than running into the storm sewer it’s a good thing.  I run the downspout water into my garden ponds and the overflow for them is a rain garden.  Sometimes dipping a bucket of water out of the pond for a thirsty plant in the summer is easier than dragging a hose out to the garden from the house.

This customer had a wet drainage area that we turned into a garden pond and rain garden.

Hold your water!

We are currently in a drought here in Durham, NC.  This is particularly worrisome as it is still winter and winter time is when the lakes get re-filled and the soil moisture gets recharged.  We did have some storms last night which helped but heavy quick rain runs off more than it soaks in.  The question is how to catch some of the water instead of it running into the storm sewers.

One very common thing is to use rain barrels.  Rain barrels are placed under a downspout to catch roof water.  The downside of rain barrels is they are relatively small and therefore don’t hold all that much water.  When they are full, the water still needs to go somewhere.  Often times they are not attractive.  They also need to be located at a high point on the property to allow gravity to send the water where you want it when you need it via a hose.  They are better than nothing.

Another increasingly more popular option is to install cisterns underground.  These can hold a lot of water to be used later in the season when it is dry.  Water from the downspouts off the roof is piped into the cisterns.  A pump is then used to pump the water out when you need it.  The downside to cisterns is their initial cost and finding a space to put them.  I have seen collapsible tanks that can be placed under your crawl space or deck.  These are a little more affordable solution.

If you can’t collect the water in holding tanks, then a garden pond can be used.  This is what I do in Jaliya’s Garden.  My downspouts are piped to the pond and the pond fills up with a rain.  When the pond is full, it overflows into an area planted with plants that don’t mind being very wet at times.  I call this area my “wet meadow”.  A similar effect can be done where water runs off your driveway to create a “rain garden”.  Water flowing into the rain garden is slowed down from going further, however, during heavy rains, the excess still has to go somewhere.

Some of the plants in our area that work for rain gardens are Joe-Pye Weed, Monarda, Cardinal flower, native Ageratum, rain lily, Virginia iris, Louisiana iris, Swamp sunflower.  Some shrubs also like wet areas such as Virginia Sweetspire, Inkberry Holly, Florida Anise, just to name a few.  The idea is to take advantage of low wet areas and plant the plants that appreciate such conditions.  In doing so, you can also keep some of the water that falls on your property from just going down the storm sewer doing you no good at all.

This water garden was built to take advantage of the water flow in the garden and turn a muddy spot into an attractive feature.

Stumbling in the dark?

With the typical American lifestyle, many people do not get home until 6 or 7 in the evening.  For a few months of the year, it is already dark.  One thing we like to do is to install low-voltage lighting in our gardens.  This extends the enjoyment of the garden.  As you pass a window while inside your house, you can catch glimpses of your garden.  This is expected during daylight hours but to see your garden subtly lit up after dark is a real treat.  After the stresses of modern living, it can do your heart good to see beauty even if it is just in passing.

One of my customer’s family room has a large picture window.  The view outside is a stone patio with a pond and waterfall.  It is absolutely breath-taking to enter the room and have this view great you.  It looks great during the day but it is a different look after dark, lit up.  I doubt they ever close their curtains there.

Even if it is raining, you can enjoy the view at night.  Or too cold to be outside.  Night lighting extends your enjoyment of your garden.  It also extends the time you spend outside during warm weather.  Adults can sit out on the patio while the children are running through the yard catching lightning bugs or playing.

Pathlights can be used to light up walkways for safe travel.  A home is more inviting if guests can make it to the front door comfortably.  Uplights on trees diffuse light through the leaves and create a background for the view.  Spotlights can be used to light up particularly sculptural trees or actual sculptures.  Other lights can be used to wash over walls also creating a background for the view.  There are fixtures for just about any purpose.

If you are worried about power usage, low-voltage lights use a lot less power than standard household current.  LED lights aare also on the market.  Most systems also are set up on timers.  These can be set to turn on at a set time and off after you go to bed if you don’t want them on all night.  Photo cells can be also used for dusk to dawn operation.

Low-voltage lighting can make a beautiful garden even more enchanting at night.

Something fishy?

One of the big decisions with a garden pond is whether or not to add fish.  As you might expect, I have opinions on that question as well.  I like fish in the garden pond.  However, I like plants more.  the key to a successful garden pond is having a healthy biological balance.  Plants and fish can be mutually beneficial.  However, many people tell me that their koi eat up their plants.  So for me that eliminates koi from consideration for my ponds.  Some people say there are ways to keep your plants and koi separate but I have no experience with that so use your own judgment.  Another big drawback for koi is that they get large and large fish mean a larger bacterial load on the pond.  This can mean a greater chance for green water or algae.  Koi also require a deeper pond in our area in central North Carolina.  Without koi, a pond should be about 2′ deep but with koi the pond should be a minimum of 3′ deep.  This is to give them deeper cool water in the summer.  Koi can also be quite expensive and it is quite discouraging to find a dead koi in your yard that has been speared by the beak of a Blue Heron.

So if koi are eliminated, what are other choices.  Fancy goldfish are one option.  I like Shebunkins for their colors.  They can have blakc, white or “blue” along with orange.  Many of them have long fins.  They are not as flashy as koi but do add color.  The key to a healthy biological balance is to be sure you don’t end up with too many fish.  You only have so many friends to give extra fish to so that means culling the less desirable colored fish.  People raise eyebrows when you mention getting rid of the black ones but the truth be told, the black ones are hard to see in a pond.  One of the benefits of having fish in a garden pond is watching them.  It took me some time to realize that I had two black shebunkins in my pond.  I kept thinking I saw shadows as the fish would swim by but it reality it was a dark fish.  I took even longer to realize that I had more than one because I had to see two at the exact same time.  I believe I have two but I have no way of knowing unless I can see every fish at the exact same time.  Not likely with plants in the pond.

Another issue with goldfish is that they will breed and you will have more.  If the dark fish that you can’t see also breed, you could end up with a pond full of fish that are hard to see.  One solution to help keep fish populations down is to only buy fish large enough to determine the sex and try to buy all males.

One question I always get about a garden pond is mosquitoes.  In my opinion, garden ponds actually improve the mosquito situation in the garden.  I feel this is because the water invites birds and bats that eat the mosquitoes.  But to help ensure that the pond is not a breeding source, i add a local native fish called mosquito fish.  These fish are small and gray do they aren’t used for color but they eat up mosquito larva.  They reproduce like guppies and can be culled when the numbers get high.  I use them in the garden or let my cats get them by netting them out.  Hey, it’s the circle of life.  (Going to see the live performance of the Lion King tonight so there’s my shout out).

I have added the native red-ear sunfish to one of my ponds to see how they do.  So far so good.  Possibly a future food source putting a different spin on edible gardening.

Water, Water, Water!!!

No one thing in my mind adds as much to a garden as a water feature.  Water adds motion.  Water adds sparkle.  Water adds sounds.  Water brings the sky down into the garden by reflection.  Water helps you to reflect.  Water brings your focus into the garden by it’s sound masking what is going on outside the garden.  Water brings in life.  Birds, butterflies, bees, bats and other wildlife visit the garden because of the water.

Most people who put in a garden pond usually decide to add another larger one.  That speaks to how much a garden pond adds to the garden.  I once had a customer who asked me to put in a garden pond in their back yard at the edge of the woods.  The plan (drawn up by someone else she had hired) called for a small sitting patio on the back side of the pond looking back towards the house.  I urged her to let me build that patio a little larger than the plan called for.  She said no because the plans were to have a patio built up near the house.  So we built it according to her wishes.  A couple of years later she called me up and sheepishly asked me to enlarge the patio by the pond and plant some shrubs up near the house where the patio had been drawn on the plan.  I refrained from telling her “I told you so” as she said they never had enough room out at the garden pond for every one when people came to visit and the pond is where they always seemed to end up.  She also said they would never use a patio up by the house with the garden pond being such a magnet.  This speaks to the power of a pond in the garden.

Another way to use water in the garden is in the form of a stream.  Usually the stream connects two separate ponds but the upper pond is not always necessary.  In nature, natural springs come forth from the ground to begin streams.  This concept can be duplicated in the garden.  The advantage of a stream can be how it connects two separate areas of the garden.  I used this with great affect with a client whose yard was broken up into two sections with a retaining wall and fence between an upper section and a lower patio area.  We built a small upper pond and used a stream to bring the water down, over a waterfall into the lower area with the patio.  The end result was a disjointed garden being reconnected.  Just as a path can lead your eyes through the garden, so can a stream.  The stream can also act as a natural biological water filter to keep the water clear.

I also like to design water features in a way that you interact with them.  One of my favorite things to add is what I call a Seat Rock.  A Seat Rock is a larger boulder placed along the edge of the water, usually big enough for two people to sit on, that is just high enough for you to sit on and dangle your feet in the water up to your ankles.  Many days, I have come home from a long hot day at work, taken off my work boots and socks and sat on my seat rock with my feet in the water.  It feels as if all the heat and stress of the day just flows down your body, through your feet and into the water.

Garden ponds in my opinion, should be constructed so that they look natural.  I like to fool the eye as to whether they are man made or not.  I despise the garden ponds that look to me like “a puddle in the middle of a pile of rocks”.  If I wanted to see that, I could go to a quarry.

Garden Structure

Structure in the garden is created in several ways. One way is by plants. Plants that create the structure of the garden I like to call the “skeletons”. I take a lot of my garden design from a writer named John Brookes. He breaks down plants into 5 categories based on what they do for the garden. He says it much better than I do so I highly recommend his books.

Skeleton plants in the garden are the plants that create the basic spaces of the garden. Trees are the most obvious in creating spaces in the garden. Trees are the ceilings to the “rooms” of the garden. Evergreen plants create “walls” of the rooms of the garden. I recommend dividing a garden into smaller spaces. One of these spaces would likely be the space that you find most inviting and a good spot to place a bench or chairs. I sit in my purple chairs and plan my garden. I look for views that I want to block and that is where I plant evergreen shrubs or trees depending on how much I need to block. Of course any sitting area also needs shade from the hot summer sun.

In my native garden, I have created spaces in other ways. As you enter the garden, a path leads the eyes into the garden. The path disappears from view and implies there is more to see. As you cross over the stream via the stone bridge, you feel like you enter another room from the one you were in. The whole garden is less than a quarter acre but feels larger. A big part of that is the gravel paths that disappear from sight and invite you to explore. Each pond on either end of the stream have their own feel and areas of the garden are also divided up into themes. The upper pond is designed to feel like a small tropical lagoon. The stream flows down past an area of spring flowers and around an outcropping of plants that prefer dry soils. The lower pond borders a small “meadow” of mostly summer and fall flowering plants. One side of the path is intentionally lower so that overflow of the pond can slowly seep into the soil. This creates a “wet” meadow while the other side of the path is “normal” moisture. Another area of the garden gets morning sun but shade the rest of the day. Creating specific areas in the garden also helps to group plants according to their needs. This makes caring for plants easier.

Other ways to give structure to the garden is by using actual structures. Arbors, pergolas, and patios all fall into this category. These items create anchors or focal areas for the garden. The idea is to take a larger garden and divide it into smaller areas. This creates visual interest as well as making the garden easier to design and manage. I believe a garden is much more interesting when it is designed to be explored rather than being able to view the whole garden from one spot.