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

Posts tagged “Organic gardening

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.


Dwarf Fruit trees in the garden

Many people today are concerned about where their food comes from and whether or not it has been sprayed with chemicals.  One of the best ways to do this is to grow your own food.  A long term investment in your food supply is to plant dwarf fruit trees.

With Spring having arrived here in Durham, NC, dwarf fruit trees are also blooming right now.  The added bonus of spring flowers is a hint of juicy goodness later in the year.  The following is the fruit trees I have in my garden.

I have two dwarf apple trees.  I planted two because I have heard that apples must cross-pollinate.  My trees are young therefore I have not had any fruit on them yet.  Apple trees would prefer a little cooler weather than we have in this area.  However, since I only planted them for my consumption and any friends I might share with, that does not concern me.  If I was trying to sell enough to make a living on them then that might be an issue.

I have a dwarf peach tree called Belle of Georgia.  Peach tree buds can often get nipped by late freezes in this area but last year I had a great little crop of peaches.  I had so many peaches that a large limb in the tree was broken by the weight.  I learned my lesson there and will go into pruning fruit trees a little later in this post.

In the native garden, I have a native plum.  these are naturally small trees and the plums are also small.  However, they are great to snack on while enjoying the garden.  I cooked some of them down into a plum sauce which was very good on baked pork chops and even some baked chicken.  New trees easily pop up around the parent plant allowing you to dig them up to share.  They also seem to have a tendency to send up new shoots from the roots.  These must be removed if you don’t want a thicket of plum.

I also have a native cherry.  It has bloomed great this year.  Last year I don’t remember how much it flowered but I do know I had very few cherries on it.  We will see how they do this yer.  I have been told that cherries also would do better in a little cooler climate as well.  My view is the same as it is with the apples.

One tree that I also have but will not be dwarf is a pear tree.  This tree has already produced quite a few pears.  However, I still haven’t eaten one because it seems the squirrels know exactly when to pick every last one off the tree before I can get them.  It’s tempting to sit out there with a BB gun and reduce the squirrel population so I can enjoy some pears.

Another native fruit tree that I have but you don’t see a lot of is the PawPaw tree.  This is also known as the Hoosier Banana because the fruit is said to taste somewhat like a banana.  These trees look a little tropical with their large leaves.  Pawpaws can grow into large colonies.  However for fruiting, you need to have trees from different colonies.

The way to prune fruit trees except for the last two on this list is to prune any limbs which are growing straight up and let the tree grow wide.  This helps to make it easier to pick the fruit.  You also want to prune branches back so they are stubby.  This allows the structure of the tree to be strong enough to support the weight of the fruit.  It also helps the fruit that does develop to be fewer yet larger.  Generally prune the tree to be open and sturdy.  It does no good to let the tree go big if it can’t support the fruit and you end up losing some due

Native Cherry in bloom.

to broken limbs.

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.

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.

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.

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.