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

Posts tagged “water gardens

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.


Visitors


When you build a garden over time, sometimes it seems that things are moving slow.  Yesterday, I had visitors who had seen the garden a couple of years ago but had not recently.  It was great to hear their excitement over how much it has come along.  It gave me a renewed perspective on the garden and the work that has gone into it.  I have a vision for where I want it to be and I know it’s not there yet.  Visitors don’t know the vision that’s in your head, they see the beauty that’s already there.  Now I do appreciate the garden as it is.  But sometimes in looking at the vision of where I want it to be leaves a feeling that there is a lot to be desired.  Not true.  I need to remind myself of that more often.

These visitors were unscheduled.  they just happened to show up while I was working in the garden.  I was working in the garden because I do have scheduled visitors coming this week.  This give impetus to doing some work that I had been putting off until the time was “just right”.  This is a good thing.  Sometimes in weeding and pruning, the developments of the garden get put on hold.  This is another part of human nature.  We put off things until we feel we have to get them done.  We need deadlines to make things happen.

Unscheduled visitors can help you to appreciate the garden as it is.  Scheduled visitors can motivate you to make new changes that you had been putting off.  Schedule visits to your garden regularly and let that motivate you to do the things you’ve put off.  You will find that the garden develops quicker and you will be happy showing it off any time someone just shows up.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.