Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good Scents for Better Indoor Living

Tired of our artificially-scented and perfumed world, bubbling with pots of potpourri and plug-in air fresheners? A more natural choice to add aroma to our homes and offices can be found in an amazing assortment of plants which are as beautiful in bloom as they are richly laden with extraordinary fragrance.

The most popular fragrant plants for the gloomy days of winter are usually spring-flowering bulbs or corms, which are easily forced into bloom, sometimes within weeks of planting. Favorites include sweet-scented paperwhite narcissus, which can be grown in soil-less media like sphagnum moss, attractive pebbles, or even glass marbles. These and similar species can be stylishly arranged in exotic Asian cache pots, shiny copper trays, or homespun wooden baskets.

Paperwhites, despite their name, can also be purchased through catalogs offering single or double white petals framing a central cup of lemon yellow, gold, and orange, and providing varied intensities of aroma.

An undisputed champion of fragrance is freesia, another bulb, which blends the warm sweetness of paperwhites with a spicy citrus-like aroma. Freesia’s characteristic scent is so popular that it has unfortunately become one of the most overused fragrances in candles, sachets, bath soaps, lotions, and related personal care products. These synthetic versions are often cloyingly sweet and fail to capture the delicate nature of the flower itself. And while the traditional tubular flowers are a pale yellow, it is also possible to find plants with purple, pink, white, red, lavender, and orange blooms, as well as dwarf varieties, which can be grown without staking.

Hyacinths are undoubtedly one of the showiest and most pungent of indoor bulbs. While frequently associated with outdoor planting beds, mixed in with narcissus and tulips, hyacinths are readily grown in either containers or aptly named "hyacinth glasses" and can be found in shades ranging from deep to light blue, red, pink, gold, light yellow, and pure white. Typically, the largest mass of bloom is found in the exhibition Dutch hyacinths, which are more suited for forcing in a glass. French Roman varieties are best planted in a light soil medium and often produce several stalks of closely packed star-like flowers.

Incidentally, the notion of forcing bulbs in glass containers has become increasingly popular, perhaps even trendy, with paperwhites, where special “forcing vases” filled with some pebbles and water help focus more attention on the plant and its dainty blooms than on the container.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria maialis) is one of the most sweetly scented plants available. It is not actually grown from bulbs but from rhizomes called “pips,” which can be set either into a soil medium or grown in pebbles and water like paperwhites. Its familiar aroma is rather much the mainstay of the soap and toiletries industry, although there is a more pleasant association in older legends in which the gentle fragrance is said to attract nightingales. Like hyacinths, rooted Lily of the Valley pips can be readily transplanted to the outdoor garden in spring after their blooms have faded.

Beyond the world of bulbs and pips, there are a great many traditional and unusual plants which can add color and fragrance to tabletops and sunny windowsills. One of the most common is the gardenia, which dramatically balances it bright, creamy blossoms against dark, glossy foliage. There are some 200 species of gardenia, but the most readily found is the common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), which grows as an evergreen shrub in southern latitudes, although gardeners in our area must maintain it as a potted specimen. While in bloom, a single plant can send its sweet odor through an entire house. However, the plant is rather sensitive to changes in humidity, temperature, soil moisture, and light, and will readily – and annoyingly – drop its waxy buds and sulk for the remainder of the season.

Another inspired selection is jasmine, a tropical plant which can be grown outdoors during warmer weather, but must be overwintered indoors, where its rich fragrance will fill a room and delight family members and visitors alike. Although there are scores of plants called jasmine, only some of them are true jasmines, belonging to the genus Jasminum, many others are jasmines in name alone, and there are almost as many synonyms for the most popular species as there are species overall. Be sure to order the jasmine you want by botanical name, if purchasing a plant on-line or from a catalog. Otherwise, let your nose be your guide.

Among the most exquisite olfactory candidates are angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum), normally a 20 foot tall shrub with strongly scented pinwheel-shaped blooms, easily kept under control in pots or planters through regular pruning. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is one of the most frequently sold species, and is the plant used in Asia and the South Seas to flavor tea. With proper care, this variety will bloom time and time again, gracing both indoor and patio spaces. Note that there are numerous cultivars of Arabian jasmine which can provide either simple, five-petalled starlike and glistening blooms, like “Maid of Orleans” or large, showy two-inch blossoms resembling small white roses, such as “Grand Duke of Tuscany.”

Another outstanding selection is pink or winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), a twining subtropical vine with a soft fragrance, not as pungent as the Arabian or angelwing varieties, but noticeable and appealing. Flowers begin with pink-hued buds which open into small white flowers. The vining habit makes the plant a perfect choice for training on hoops or small trellises.

One of the most interesting non-jasmines is night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), also commonly called “Night Queen” or “Queen of the Night” in India. This fast growing evergreen shrub is actually native to the West Indies, and is widely, if not wildly, popular in many tropical regions. Night jasmine produces countless masses of light greenish-white or greenish-yellow flowers several times a year, which open only at night. The intoxicating fragrance from even a small, five-foot container grown specimen can reach for many hundreds of yards. Some Cestrum aficionados actually bring their plant indoors during summer evenings to fill their home with an aroma which seems to last throughout the day.

Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) is another popular non-jasmine. This familiar tropical vine is also commonly referred to as "Bridal Veil Vine" or "Wedding Plant," as the clusters of sweetly aromatic blossoms are frequently used by florists in wedding arrangements and bouquets. At home, Stephanotis can be grown in a pot with a trellis or other support, or trained as a hanging basket with frequent pruning. Those cuttings, preferably four-inch tip sections, can be readily propagated by sticking them into a moist rooting medium.

Naturally, there are fragrant plants which do not even pretend to be jasmines. Two of the most spectacular are fragrant Bouvardia, a Mexican plant which grows well in containers and provides clusters of aromatic white flowers in tight racemes, much favored in cut floral arrangements. Another is ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), an Indonesian native with greenish-yellow petals appearing in large clusters. The name means “flower of flowers,” and those allegedly seductive flowers are credited with everything from inducing hypnotic and euphoric states, to being a potent aphrodisiac. Most commonly this plant is known for the essential oil derived from the blossoms.

Finally, not all fragrant plants have to actively broadcast their scent. For example, scented geraniums (Pelargonium species) are easily grown indoors on windowsills and offer an unmatched array of botanical and culinary aromas and flavors, from rose and lime, to pineapple, ginger and nutmeg. The fragrance is easily released by lightly brushing against the foliage. Leaves can be used to flavor jellies, sugars, potpourris, and sachets.

Rosemary is one of the few culinary herbs which happily grows indoors. Just rubbing against the stiff needles releases an amazing aroma. The plant can be trimmed and grown as a miniature Christmas tree, or trained into other fanciful topiary shapes. You can also let the plant grow haphazardly on a sunny kitchen windowsill, where ends can be snipped-off for use in freshly baked foccacia.

In the end, why bother with spray can room deodorizers and pint-sized potpourri crock pots when you can fill your living space with real fragrances, brilliant blooms, and the quiet joy that living plants can bring?

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Landscaping to Save Energy (Winter Edition)

Homeowners across the colder portions of the country are about to find themselves yet again being uncomfortably squeezed between cold temperatures and increasingly higher natural gas and energy prices. In fact, depending on the size of the home, residents can expect to spend between two to three times as much on basic heating costs, if not more. Not surprisingly, in many a home chilled fingers are turning down the settings on thermostats and caulk guns and insulation kits are eagerly being snatched off retail shelves.

All of which are virtuous actions for indoor energy conservation. But there are some long-term and attractive landscaping solutions which can provide effective winter climate control by deflecting cold winds and drafts, while providing indoor comfort and increasing property values.

It is important to note that for most homes, almost one-third of all heat loss is due to cold winds, either through conduction, with heat simply “carried off” by marauding winds, or through infiltration, with cold drafts entering through and around cracks and improperly sealed windows and doors.

Of course, it is too late for any plantings this weekend to help your current season’s heating bill, but it is not too late to start budgeting and planning, either for the spring or next fall. Some landscaping choices, like foundation plantings, will make a difference almost immediately, while others, like windbreaks, might take a number of years before their full value is realized. But any and all plantings will certainly boost property values and aesthetic quality.

Moreover, your planting scheme need not be massive. While establishing an effective windbreak may take a substantial number of trees, computer modeling by the U.S. Department of Energy has found that just three well-placed trees, including a deciduous tree for shading the southern side of a house, can save the average household 100-250 dollars in annual heating and cooling costs. Overall, combining trees and shrubs can save from ten to 30 percent on winter fuel consumption, depending on how well insulated the home is already.

Foundation plantings are undoubtedly the easiest and most satisfying landscaping elements in your palette. Typically, you are looking to establish a continuous line of evergreens extending along the length of the foundation and around corners, approximately five feet out from the house. This living wall of vegetation will create a dead air space of slow-moving or still air between the shrubs and the house, effectively establishing an insulating layer which will reduce convective heat loss and infiltration.

Never allow the plants to grow much closer to the house than five feet. The dead air space needs to be of sufficient size to work, and the extra distance will help to prevent potential problems with mildew, insect pests, and humidity, which might lead to fungal diseases.

Visually, you will want to select different types of dense evergreens for your planting scheme, with varied heights, shapes, leaf textures and colors. Planting a simple row of junipers, for example, all growing at the same height, is both boring and impractical. Shrubs with different heights provide a more effective wind barrier, while a mixture of foliar colors and forms is more appealing to the eye. Of equal significance, using the same species repeatedly increases the likelihood that a plant disease could spread from one shrub to another, even to the extent of wiping out the entire planting.

Windbreaks are certainly the most effective components in cutting winter heat loss. A mature windbreak, normally comprised of several rows of tall evergreens, can reduce wind velocity by up to 50 percent, and otherwise deflect or channel wind movement away from the house.

Unfortunately, in many urban areas, there may not be sufficient space for a fully developed windbreak, although new housing developments, especially with larger lots, are prime candidates. Also, while planting a single row of evergreens can provide some appreciable windbreak benefits, the textbook windbreak requires two or three rows of trees, planted in an “L” or “U” shape on the north and northwest corners of the home. That can mean a sizable number of trees. Further, starting with cost-effective container-grown stock, it can take up to ten years or more before the trees will begin to pay for themselves, save for their aesthetic and environmental benefits.

However, few of us strive for textbook perfection, anyway. Even an incomplete or immature windbreak can start to deflect some wind movement. Also, while evergreen trees provide the greatest wind reduction, you can incorporate existing deciduous trees, fences, and walls on your property into a windbreak by adding additional evergreen trees and shrubs.

For the truly ambitious, an efficient windbreak should be about as tall as the house itself, and planted at a distance of one to three times the height of the trees away from the house. Where space permits, it is recommended to start the windbreak planting 50 feet beyond each windward corner of the house. The greatest impact of the windbreak will be on an area within approximately five times the height of the trees, although wind velocities are reduced for a distance up to ten times the height of the windbreak.

Depending on the mature diameter of the selected trees, space each evergreen between six and eight feet apart. If you can plant multiple rows, for maximum impact, stagger each of the trees in alternate rows, spacing each row 12-20 feet apart.

As with the foundation plantings, select a variety of low-branching evergreens for your windbreak, especially with respect to height and species, which will prevent disease outbreaks and ensure some wind penetration. Avoid growing a completely solid wall of evergreens, which can potentially create a vacuum effect on the protected side of the windbreak, thereby reducing its effectiveness.

With large scale windbreaks, it might be advisable to start with some fast growing species, such as White pine and Loblolly pine, and later interplant them with medium growth-rate species, such as Eastern red cedar, American holly, and Common Juniper. Fast-growing specimens will yield results more quickly, although they will also lose some of their lower branches. Your next series of plantings, whether interspersed with the first or established as a second row, will fill in any gaps.

Finally, windbreaks are investments in the future. They will eventually provide valuable screening for privacy, energy savings, and, if native species are selected, abundant benefits for wildlife. However, you should not try this approach on the southern side of your home, especially where the evergreens might block sunlight from providing passive solar heating in the winter.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Planting Suggestions

Whether developing windbreaks or foundation plantings, the following list of trees and shrubs concentrates on native species, which are far preferable to exotic species which are not necessarily well-adapted to this area, and provide little or no benefit to wildlife. For example, instead of planting Leyland Cyprus, substitute Eastern red cedar, whose berries help feed birds during the winter, and whose aromatic bark is a favorite nest building material for cardinals.

Windbreak Trees (mature height)

American Holly 30-50'
Common Juniper 5-30'
Eastern Hemlock 60-70'
Eastern Red Cedar 50-75'
Eastern Arborvitae 50-75'
Loblolly Pine 90'
Pitch Pine 50-60'
Rosebay Rhododendron 20-35'
Shortleaf Pine 100'
Virginia Pine 50-80'
White Pine 75-100'

Foundation Shrubs

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos) 4-20'
Common Juniper (pruned back) 3-30'
Compact Oregon Grape Holly 2-3'
Cotoneaster 3-15'
Inkberry Holly 4-6'
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) 7-15'
Northern Bayberry 4-8'
Southern Bayberry/Wax Myrtle 6-12'
Sweetbay Magnolia (semi-evergreen) 12-20'
Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) 3-9'

Monday, November 02, 2009

GreenMan at the Energerium

Earlier this year, the "Energerium" opened to enthusiastic crowds in Arlington, Virginia, exploring the interconnectedness of people, the land, and the energy that runs through all living systems. Join me as I discuss this new educational opportunity and resource with Chief Naturalist and Park Manager Martin Ogle at Potomac Overlook Regional Park.