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

Posts tagged “green lawn care

Native or not?


There is a new residential development in our area that advertises that they are green and use native plants.  This excited me because having a whole neighborhood that was planting natives could show how attractive a native community could be and such a large area of natives would be a seed source for natives to be reintroduced into the natural landscape.

Imagine my surprise when I drove through this neighborhood and had a hard time finding these native plants.  I had a couple customers referred to me in this neighborhood and their front yards were already planted by the landscaper hired by the builder.  NOT ONE native plant was in these front yards.  The clients were surprised to hear this.

So I found out the name of the GUY IN CHARGE of selling lots in the development and gave him a call.  He told me that they did plant native.  When I told him what I saw he said well they plant SOME native.  When I pressed further, he said well they plant drought-tolerant and maybe in order to do that, they had to plant some non-natives.  You do not have to plant non-natives to have drought tolerant plantings.  Many natives are drought tolerant because every where has the occasional drought and the natives in that location survive.  Then he said that azaleas are native.  I told him that some azaleas are native but the ones that are here are deciduous.  The evergreen azaleas common in the south come from Japan.  He still insisted that they are native because they are everywhere.  That is the same as saying European- and African-Americans are Native Americans.  He then got short with me and said he had heard enough.  He did not want to hear the truth any more.  He wanted to go on believing that he was being responsible to the environment and planting native plants.  I feel he is lying to prospective buyers.

The term NATIVE when it comes to plants means that it is indigenous to the area.  When I plant “native”, I include plants that are indigenous to the Southeast US with the exception of South Florida.  This gives me an expanded palette of plants to choose from above what is indigenous to Durham, NC.

The term NATURALIZED means that the plant came from another part of the world but has moved into the natural environment on it’s own.  So the Japanese Azaleas are not even naturalized as they do not seed into the woods.   Privet is naturalized as it comes up on it’s own all over the woods.  It is in fact an invasive exotic.  Some 20% of the plants found in the woods are invasive exotics that should not be there.  Up to 30% are NATURALIZED, invasive or not.  NATURALIZED plants are NON-NATIVE!

Most plants sold by plant nurseries are in fact NON-NATIVE.  Care must be taken when planting non-natives to not introduce them into the wild.  Most of the native plants in the wild are nearly non-existent except for the native trees.  Many wildflowers and native shrubs are hard to find in their native habitats any more due to farming practices and clear-cutting.  Native plants are usually limited in the wild to steep slopes and swamps where man could not farm.

Planting natives today means you are helping to reintroduce the native plants into your area and hopefully they will once again be seeding in and sprouting up in their native habitats they used to enjoy.  Calling a plant native when it is not does not make it so.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


Your green lawn is not so green


One of the least “green” thing you can do in your yard is to have a grass lawn.  Being green is a buzz word today but it is an important way to live.  We must take care of the earth and that is no more true than in your own yard.  You may not have the influence to clean up the entire earth.  However, you can make changes right at home.

The U.S. style of the suburban lawn is a good place to start.  Our cars have all these gadgets to help reduce emissions to help keep our air clean.  Our gas-powered lawn mowers, weed-eaters, and blowers do not.  Add to that fact, a lot of lawn care  equipment also uses two-cycle engines.  Two-cycle engines have oil mixed with the gas.  This is all burned together which is why most of them noticeably smoke when used.

One solution is to not have a lawn at all.  That was the solution I used.  I have a small piece of property that is long and narrow.  It made little sense to put any grass near the house as the widest of any area was 15′.  Add to that the shade caused by trees it made no sense.

However, families with children may want a lawn for play.  That is understandable.  However, not every square inch of the property needs to be covered with grass.  Only use grass where it is a large enough area for play or maybe along parking areas where you might need the room to get out of the car.  Smaller areas of grass in the front yard may help to set off the plants better than a large expanse.  Generally speaking, less is more.

The other problem with lawns is the amount of chemicals usually used to keep the lawn thick and green.  Weed killers and fertilizers are often used in ratios that cause them to runoff into gutters and streams.  Some of these chemicals also cause severe reactions to kids and sensitive adults. A “healthy” lawn usually is not.  Most people strive for a monoculture of grass with nothing else growing in it.  This is also opposite of nature.  If you’ve ever watched the opening of “Little House on the Prairie”, Laura Ingalls is running through a field of grass and many wildflowers.  That is nature’s idea of a lawn to play in.  Until the 1950’s it was a badge of honor to have clover in your lawn.  Clover was recognized as beneficial to the soil for the fact it releases nitrogen into the soil.  Once the chemical companies got going, they convinced people that this was undesirable.

If you choose to have a lawn, try to find organic lawn care products.  There are companies out there that focus on using only organic products.  Check them out carefully.  For cutting your lawn, you might check out electric mowers and equipment.  There are lawn care companies that use electric equipment that the charge up using solar power.

Back briefly to the idea that a lawn is necessary for children.  I have a friend who has a five year old son.  He used to live with me but now has his own place.  His home has a lawn which Nicholaus loves to play in.  However, when Nicholaus is here where there is no lawn, he is still out there playing and exploring.  He says he likes my yard more. My garden is an adventure for him.

Easter egg hunt in Jaliya's Garden