Thursday, September 30, 2010

Turning Over a New Leaf

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Creating a Pathway to Fragrance

There is something special about pathways. Some lead directly to the welcome mat of our homes, while others lead to secluded patios and gardens. Pathways can extend an invitation to friends and guests or lead us away on new adventures. Unfortunately, most of the paths we typically design are sterile ribbons of concrete. However, with some alternate paving materials and a nose for fragrant ground covers, we can transform those lifeless, static pathways into a welcome treat for the senses.

To begin, we should avoid the whole notion of paving itself. Instead of treating our path like a public sidewalk, with rigid lines and precise curves, we ought to realize that we are creating a walkway, a place for strolling or occasional foot traffic. We will not need steel-reinforced concrete here. A more desirable path ought to become an extension of the garden or landscape. To create a much more natural impression, the path can be constructed with multicolored flat or rough-textured stepping stones, which will provide an air of rustic simplicity.

For heavily used paths, consider using mountain or Mojave flagstones, or bluestones, which are often available either tumbled or irregularly cut. Other options include granite cobblestones, precast cement pavers with open spaces at their center, or even bricks, with the bricks laid in a somewhat open and meandering pattern. All of the materials should be arranged to allow for openings between the actual "stepping stones," into which we will plant a variety of foot-friendly and aromatic ground covers.

Between and around our stepping-stones we can work some real horticultural magic. Forget about grass, gravel, and mulch! Our fragrant pathway will feature a living tapestry of herbs in shades of green, gold, white and silver, with a succession of blooms from pink and red to lilac and dazzling white. Best of all, our path will provide a haunting tapestry of rich aromas, each of which will add yet another sensual dimension to the garden. With each step you will discover that these natural perfumes can stir warm memories, invigorate the senses, and soothe the soul.

One of the most readily available ground-hugging herbs is Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), a tough, fast-spreading favorite whose tiny peppermint-scented leaves form a dense mat less than one inch high. Corsican mint can even send tiny shoots between the smallest cracks in a brick path, and will splash up against stepping-stones like waves from a bright green sea. Corsican mint produces Lilliputian white and purple flowers and reseeds rapidly each spring. You will almost have to stop yourself from rolling around on top of your walkway.

Another seductive ground cover is sometimes called lawn chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile 'Trenegue'), a non-flowering species similar to Roman chamomile, the daisy-like flowering chamomile sometimes used in teas, as is the unrelated German or sweet false chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Lawn chamomile seldom grows much taller than two inches and its soft fern-like, apple-scented leaves welcome light foot traffic. In fact, in Britain it is sometimes used to create an entire lawn (25 plants per square yard), perhaps a useful suggestion for townhouse owners who want a lush and fragrant green yard without mowing. However, this perennial chamomile sometimes requires a bit of patching after a couple of years, and might best be kept within a pathway setting. The plants may also be started from seed.

Without question, the most versatile of fragrant herbs for walkways and alternative lawns is thyme. Thyme is ideal for hot, sunny locations, although it can tolerate some degree of shade. There are also scores of different varieties, with new selections added every year. Best of all, you can easily establish an ever-changing tapestry effect by planting a dozen or more different varieties in your pathway or "thyme lawn" area, mixing them up, and allowing no more than about one foot between each plant. You will probably want to spend a little time planning your planting scheme to provide an even distribution of plants by foliar and flower color, avoiding keeping all of the silver-hued thymes in one area and the emerald greens in another. You should also be mindful of sequential blooming order. You do not want all of your flowers appearing in one part of the walkway in spring and another in the summer or fall. Select plants which will give you a wide range of blooming periods for year-round enjoyment.

Most garden centers will offer a couple different varieties of ground cover thymes, but for best effect you will probably need to visit a specialized herb nursery or consider the large number of Internet and mail order sources. Herb sellers will easily offer dozens of different varieties for your garden, both as grown plants and seed packets.

Here are some suggestions, all of which are lavishly scented and grow between two and three inches in height: Aureus 'Creeping Golden' thyme, offering bright gold-colored foliage; caraway thyme, with dark green, caraway-scented leaves; creeping lime thyme, combines a bright chartreuse color with a citrus aroma reminiscent of margaritas in mid-summer; creeping red thyme, with deep reddish purple flowers in spring; creeping white moss thyme, with delicate white flowers, creeping woolly thyme, with soft, fuzzy foliage inviting to bare toes and finger tips; lemon frost thyme, offering glossy green leaves and tiny white flowers between May and June; mountain thyme, which offers deep reddish-violet flowers; pink ripple thyme, with light green, lemon-scented foliage and an abundant mass of salmon-pink flowers; and silver thyme, a classic creeping thyme with silver-green leaves and cream-colored margins.

As is the case with all gardening, you may find that some species are not as hardy as others, and some of your plantings may die after an especially cold winter. Do not look on these losses as failures so much as opportunities. Once you get the "thyme bug" you will probably find yourself scouting around for new varieties to add to your scented kaleidoscope, and will welcome an opportunity to squeeze in yet another addition.

Finally, you may want to consider defining the edge of your pathway to set it off from a lawn or other garden area. Keeping within the fragrant theme, you might enjoy developing a mixed border using English lavenders, particularly the 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead' varieties, which have compact growth habits, and hug the ground at about 12 inches. Also, employ some of the larger mounding thymes, such as lime or variegated golden lemon thyme. Other border species could include silver mound artemesia (wormwood), which will add silver-grey accents, sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), which offers emerald green herb used flavor May Wine, and honey-scented sweet alyssum, an annual whose profusion of white flowers make it worth replanting each year.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don't Get Bamboozled!

A common axiom in gardening is putting the right plant in the right place. Where bamboo is concerned, most people think that the only appropriate location is somewhere on the far side of hell. Bamboo is cherished and ardently defended as a vigorous landscape screen by some, although it is usually cursed as an invasive, unstoppable menace by most others, especially irate neighbors who find spikes and spears shooting up in their lawn and garden beds.

There are more than 750 species of bamboo plants which have been introduced to North America from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Most of these woody grasses (yes, they are actually grasses!) fall within the genera Bambusa, Pseudosasa, and Phyllostachys, and are renowned for growing upwards of 16 to 40 feet, with a cane or “culm” diameter ranging from one to six inches. Many also experience a general die-back after about a dozen years, usually after flowering, which will leave a dead, yellowed bamboo jungle, until new growth repopulates the grove.

Some species are considered “clumping,” which are generally well-behaved, while the more insidious specimens are called “running bamboos,” which will swiftly produce an impenetrable and monocultural thicket as they exert their own manifest destiny. Among the most commonly sold, planted, and (ultimately) loathed of runners is Golden Bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea).

These exotic invasive bamboos have caused feuds just shy of the infamous Hatfield and McCoy dust-up. Lawsuits have been filed, bulldozers mobilized, and concrete barriers poured. And yet, for all that, people looking to screen their yards from neighbors continue to plant running bamboos, especially in narrow spaces between properties or along fence lines.

Happily, there are attractive and non-invasive alternatives to bamboo blight, but first we should address how best to control and eradicate these invaders.

To keep bamboos from running, a rhizome barrier should be used. Bamboos very seldom produce seeds, and use rhizomes, or horizontal underground roots, to spread outward. To stop this march, a barrier two-three feet deep is essential, with about two inches rising above the soil surface. Slant the barrier outward near the top to ensure that rhizomes hitting your blockade will grow upward, and not down and eventually under the barrier. Keep an eye out and cut off any roots that attempt to grow over the top. Barriers can be made from metal or concrete, although heavy 60 mil plastic is the most readily available and affordable.

Clumps of bamboo can also be dug out, as the roots are actually quite shallow. Be sure to remove any and all pieces of the rootstock, including wayward rhizomes, and keep an eye out for future incursions.

A somewhat easier approach is to cut bamboo shoots as close to the ground as possible, and thereafter snip or mow down any new shoots or pesky regrowth. Eventually, you will starve the rootstock and the plant will die, although you will need to patrol the area on a regular basis for a year or so. This technique is best used on bamboo entering your yard from a neighboring property. In fact, some homeowners simply mow down any shoots in their lawns when they cut their grass, and have seen thumb-thick shoots eventually replaced by pencil-thin sprouts, just before they disappear altogether.

For quicker, more thorough results, Jan Ferrigan, an invasive plant program manager in Virginia, recommends cutting down bamboo shoots and applying Roundup or a similar glyphosate herbicide directly inside the now-open stem, and painting the outer surface of the culm. Jan suggests carefully using the herbicide at a 25 percent concentrated solution, not the typically diluted two percent used for routine spraying. And fall is the usually recommended time for application.

Naturally, the best solution is not to plant exotic bamboos at all. And the finest alternative is, not surprisingly, a native bamboo. Generally called canebrake bamboo (Arundinaria gigantea), or southern cane, this species used to cover enormous stretches of riparian “bottom land” from the mid-Atlantic to the Midwest prairies, down through the southeast, and along the Gulf states. Amazingly, before European colonization, native Americans lived among canebrake groves several miles in width, running up to 100 miles in length. Today, there are only scattered patches of these lush thickets.

Homeowners looking for a tall, dense, yet elegant, living fence need look no further. Canebrake can reach 12 to 18 feet or more, with half- to three-quarter inch canes and medium to dark green foliage year-round. However, when shopping around, don’t confuse this species with switch cane (A. tecta), which is smaller, low growing, and more suited as a groundcover plant. And while very few garden centers and nurseries seem to carry canebrake, there are numerous sources online and through mail-order catalogs, with prices ranging from 15 to 25 dollars for one and two gallon containers.

Not interested in bamboo at all? Consider arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) as an alternate evergreen screen. The cultivar Emerald Green is probably the most popular of standard arborvitae, growing 15-20 feet, with a spread of four-six feet. Its lustrous gem-green foliage is tolerant of cold winters and hot summers, although, as a native of the northeast, it would prefer to be watered during dry periods, and mulched three to four inches deep to retain soil moisture.

Emerald Green can be pruned if or as desired in early spring, and is often considered superior to the much overused Leyland cypress, which could also work as a screen, although it can reach 60 feet and would require substantial pruning to achieve the same effect. Other desirable cultivars include both ‘Nigra,’ which remains dark green even through the winter, featuring a pyramidal form reaching 15-25 feet and five-eight feet wide, and ‘Pyramidalis,’ with softer, bright green needles, growing to 15 feet with a four foot spread.

Another clear winner is Irish juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’) with bluish-green foliage, and a columnar form reaching 10-12 feet. This juniper is drought tolerant, with dense upright branches. Some nurseries indicate that it can reach 15 feet with only a narrow two-four foot spread.

There are also numerous species of yews suitable for narrow space screening. All are able to handle heavy pruning and shaping, and contrast their dark green foliage with bright, fleshy red or yellowish-red berries, called arils.

Perhaps most prized of all is Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’), which is actually an English or common yew, easily growing from 15-30 feet tall, with a four-eight foot spread. [It is the most commonly grown species in Europe, and has been in use for well over 200 years.] The needles are a striking blackish-green, although other cultivars, such as ‘Fastigiata Aurea,’ while similar in form, actually feature golden foliage on its new spring growth.

Japanese Yews (Taxus cuspidata) generally tend to have a broader spread and lower growth habit, and often quite a slow growth rate. However, cross Japanese and English yews and you’ll find a hybrid (Taxus x media) showcasing some of the best assets of each parent. Many of the outstanding cultivars for living screens were developed or discovered on my native Long Island, including several by famed nurseryman Henry Hicks. The specimen bearing his name, Hicks yew (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’), is columnar in form, 12-20 feet high, and six-ten feet across, with glossy needles, deep green on top and a pale green underneath.

Lastly, Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadenensis) has long be valued for its light, airy needles and graceful branches, which readily accommodate heavy pruning to create a lush, dense hedge. Left on its own, however, the tree will reach 60 feet with wider spaced branches.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Discovering the Secrets of Papyrus

In recent years, ornamental grasses have become de rigueur for most modern garden designs. They are graceful, tall, and elegant – rather much the Audrey Hepburn of horticulture. But how can we translate this vertical effect to our indoor gardening environment? The solution comes replete with a rich and stunning history dating back to the ancient Nile, Pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and Moses in the bulrushes. Welcome to papyrus, one of the most important plants in early human civilization.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), is undoubtedly the most famous member of the genus Cyperus (kupeiros is Greek for sedge), which is comprised of some 4,000 to 5,000 species, several of which are well-suited for indoor and outdoor pond gardens. The species name papyrus derives from the Egyptian word meaning “that which belongs to the house,” where house alludes to the ancient ruling body or bureaucracy.

Papyrus is, of course, the source for our word paper, and was also the plant used to produce sheets of paper for thousands of years, beginning as early as 4,000 BC. In fact, a thriving and vital trade existed for this writing material until about the third century AD, when it was found easier to produce paper from plant pulp, in a process introduced into the Middle East from China via Arab traders. Papyrus-paper also faced competition from Europe and the Near East in the form of parchment or vellum, which was made from animal skins, such as calf or sheep (hence getting your diploma or “sheepskin”). Papyrus continued to be manufactured and used in ever-decreasing amounts until the 11th century.

Interestingly, the plant itself all but disappeared from Egypt during the 20th century, due to dams on the Nile and other unsustainable practices. The plants were reintroduced into the area around Cairo from thriving native plant stock in Ethiopia and the Sudan in the late 1960s by Dr. Hassan Ragab, an Egyptian inventor and scientist, who also rediscovered a method for creating papyrus, which has now reemerged as a high-end novelty product and specialty paper.

Papyrus was, however, much more than an everyday paper product. Ancient Egyptians would also use the soft pith of the stem as a foodstuff, cooked and processed like sugar cane, or eaten raw. Ancient pharmacologists, like Galen and Dioscorides, cataloged a wide variety of medicinal uses for infusions made from the plant. Egyptians also harvested and dried the woody rhizomes and culms to use as a fuel – whose ashes were also medicinal! Garlands were woven from the graceful flower heads to adorn the shrines of the gods, and for funeral observances. The stylized representation of the papyrus inflorescence, or umbel, is a central motif in the art of the period, akin to the lotus motif in Eastern art. Fibrous strands taken from the stem of the plant were used to weave sandals, ropes, plaited fans, mats, wrapping materials, and to produce, oh yes, baskets.

Lest we forget, the basket into which Mariam and Jochebed placed the infant Moses to escape the infanticide decree of Pharaoh was woven from papyrus stems. And, as you think of sister Mariam watching the basket float along the Nile and nestle into the bulrushes, keep in mind that bulrush is but another common name for papyrus. Holy Moses!

Today, papyrus can find a ready welcome far from the subtropical banks of the Nile, especially as there are closely related species of sedge which can readily fit into a water garden, pond, or even into an attractive indoor container. Actually, the true papyrus species is overwhelming, and might be more bulrush than you can handle. Under ideal conditions, Cyperus papyrus can grow between 12 and 15 feet tall, with stems approaching six inches in diameter, although most gardeners report that indoors the plant only reaches eight feet. Still, that might be a bit much for the average family room. And don’t forget that all of the papyrus-like species originated in tropical and subtropical climes, and will need to be relocated indoors before the first frost.

A species suitable for the average backyard water feature is dwarf papyrus or miniature cyperus (Cyperus prolifer), which will stay upright and well-ordered at no more than 12 to 36 inches. Like most Cyperus, the plant thrives in full sun and likes to sit in water. Pretty ideal, having a plant that cannot be overwatered! This species can also take light to partial shade in the yard, or will purr happily in a sunny indoor window.

Pygmy Egyptian papyrus (C. haspan) has a sparkling appearance much like a bright green feather duster. It will top out at about 18 inches, and feels at home in a pot filled with a rich, loose soil mix, which is then placed in a second larger container filled with water – or set into an outdoor pond.

My personal favorite Cyperus species actually hails from Madagascar, and while it bears some overall resemblance to papyrus, its leaves are thicker and lie in a flat plane, which easily led to its common name, umbrella plant (C. alternifolius).

Umbrella plant can grow to five feet or more indoors, and slightly larger outdoors, although three to five feet is more common. Another sedge, it has a triangular stem, whose shape lends structure support to keep the stem upright in strong winds, perhaps faring better than the average umbrella. It also loves to sit in water day after day.

In fact, many of us who fancy the plant actually grow it in nothing more than a cachepot or sealed container filled with water, and lined with rocks on the bottom to help stabilize plant roots. In this hydroponic setting, it’s important to fertilize somewhat regularly, especially during active growing and flowering periods. But don’t mind the flowers: nothing much exciting there, mostly a bland, tan, oat-shaped affair.

Like most sedges, umbrella plants can be propagated by dividing the substantial root masses or clumps of rhizomes, keeping the outer, younger sections for replanting, and composting the older core. Although a much more entertaining method, of which I have not tired in more than 20 years, calls for cutting off the top six inches of a stem of the plant, leaves and all, and inverting the whole into a glass or vase of water. After a few weeks, roots will form around the junction of leaves and stem, and new shoots will emerge growing up, out of the water. When well-established, carefully plant the rooted cutting into a loose soil mix and keep well watered – or immersed. You can also continue to let the plant grow in water alone.

For the record, several plants gracing the bookcases in my office are descendants from several cuttings given to me in 1979. They have, over the years, produced huge clumps of plants for my rooftop garden, and smaller, discrete potted specimens for windowsills. Scores have been propagated and given to friends and curious visitors. And the tradition lives on.

Like the Egyptian papyrus alternatives, umbrella plants are available in compact and dwarf varieties, such as sparkler grass (C. alternifolius gracilis) under 18 inches with delicate, narrow leaves, as well as in a related variegated form (C. diffusus variegatus), where both leaves and stems are striped with a touch of creamy white against a wide, light green leaf.

Whether you’re striking out to honor Osiris, or print your own Book of the Dead on homemade papyrus, or maybe just add a little excitement to your parlor window with a dwarf ‘Nana’ umbrella plant, you can find just the right plant through online sources year-round, while many fine garden centers sell potted specimens in their water garden section.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rethinking Lawns in the Commercial Landscape

Maintaining healthy turf areas around most commercial properties requires a considerable investment of time and resources. Moreover, those lawns also produce a prodigious amount of clippings that must be recycled, either through the preferable practice of grasscycling, or by transporting clippings to an appropriate recycling facility, which is also an expensive proposition.

Fortunately, a growing number of property managers are learning that selecting alternatives to landscaping with grass leads to both long-term savings and to exceptional aesthetic values — which can be seen as an investment in advertising: visually separating that colorful, creative site from the boring sea of grass around them.

Excellent examples of departures from lawn-only landscapes can be seen in the District of Columbia, where projects sponsored by the Federal Reserve and Pennsylvania Avenue Development Authority called in the landscape-pioneering firm of Oehme and Van Sweden to install traffic-stopping plantings of dramatic ornamental grasses, native wildflowers, colorful perennials, and assorted ground covers. There were even some spaces where small lawn areas were used to contrast with the bolder plant materials — but they were very small.

There are horticultural and environmental benefits to altering traditional landscape designs. From a tree-care perspective, it is important to realize that one of the most common causes for tree mortality is disease resulting from injuries to bark and shallow surface roots — almost universally inflicted by lawn mowers and trimming equipment. Replacing turf under trees with wood or leaf mulch, or replanting with low to no-maintenance ground covers, eliminates these injuries and the costly need to replace specimen trees — in addition to paying for the removal and recycling of a dead tree. Lawn care needs are also reduced, whether in terms of mowing, aerating, fertilizing, or irrigating.

Moreover, property managers have often commented on the difficulty of keeping grass growing vigorously under the shade of a mature tree. In fact, grass generally needs more light than is ordinarily found in full shade; turf plots under trees should be replaced with shade-loving ground covers or mulch. Consider also that grass roots aggressively and too-successfully compete with trees for moisture and nutrients. During drought periods, trees can suffer from this stress and decline in health or perhaps even die. Replacing grass with any of the scores of ground covers commonly available will eliminate trouble areas in the landscape, improve tree health, and add color and beauty to your site.

Replacing grass with mulch islands and perennial plantings or sun-loving ground covers is especially important along curbs, streets, streams, and other watershed areas. These alternate plantings can serve as valuable buffers to prevent erosion and the run-off of lawn fertilizers and other chemicals. Plantings along curbs or streets also serve to frame your landscape, present color to the eye immediately, and then draw the visitor's eye to your company's building. Again, nibbling away at turf areas will ultimately reduce the amount of lawn care required, while the "frame" effect will make remaining turf areas more attractive overall.

Combining plantings along pathways, site perimeters, and parking lots with ground cover plantings under trees, will add a level of sophistication and elegance to your landscape — and your corporate image — which is generally lacking in sites carpeted with grass from curb to foundation. And the new design will soon pay for itself as the more intensive needs of turf management and recycling grass clippings are diminished.

There are several other practical benefits which accrue from landscape alteration: expanding areas utilizing ground covers creates a "organic sink" which eliminates the need to recycle some of your yard trim materials. Leaves can be allowed to fall under trees in autumn and remain there: earthworms and bacteria will work year-round to convert those materials into organic nutrients which will themselves continue to nurture and enhance the health of trees and ground covers alike, without additional fertilizer applications!

Augmenting your need for mulches under trees and in mulch island plantings also provides a "sink" for leaves and brush which can be readily shred into mulch or composted on site, eliminating the need to transport those materials to an off-site recycling facility. Furthermore, your landscape will benefit as your management regimen shifts to incorporate as much organic material as possible, saving you the cost for expensive soil amendments and fertilizers, and naturally revitalizing the soil in lawn and garden areas.

Using grass in a landscape has its place, but consideration should be given to how much turf is really necessary — if any at all — and how much does it cost to maintain that lawn. Reducing lawn area reduces expense, reduces solid waste generation, increases natural beauty and thereby enhances corporate image.

Lastly, the transition away from turf need not take place overnight: a phase-in period can be developed which favorably balances plant and mulch installation costs against maintenance and recycling costs, leading to property management cost savings — and ultimately leading to a sustainable and healthy environment for employees, customers, and your surrounding community.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Hardy and Reliable Native Plants for Sunny Locations

Herbacious Perennials

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
White wood aster (Aster divaricatus)
New England aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis)
Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)
Tickseed Sunflower (Coreopsis tinctoria)
Threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)
Hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Joe pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
Oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Grass-leaf blazing star (Liatris graminfolia)
Gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Horsemint (Monarda punctata)
Sundrops (Oenothera perennis)
Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)
Early coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Fire pink (Silene virginica)
Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata)

Native Grasses

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus)
Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis)
Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix)
Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus)
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chrysanthemums: Jewels of the Fall Garden

Labor Day has just passed, and for many of us, it signals the near arrival of fall. Not surprisingly, a recent visit to my neighborhood Whole Foods market was greeted by an especially color sight. Mums. Mountains and mounds of them. And how timely. After all, as the sun slips lower in the sky, we'll find a new kind of light. An "autumn light" which is mellow, warm and golden, and almost seems to glow across our landscape. Gardeners, looking to respond to that gentle light, will find no plant which can echo the gentle colors of fall more kindly and completely than the chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemum is often called the “queen of fall flowers,” and is actually the largest commercially produced flower in the United States, both as a potted plant, and in floral arrangements, where chrysanthemums are valued as one of the longest lasting cut flowers.
Mums are members of the Asteraceae (or Compositae) family, the largest family of flowering plants, and is related to asters, dahlias, marigolds, zinnias, and most other daisy-like flowers. A closer look at a plant will reveal that the single bloom is actually made up or “composed” (hence Compositae) of hundreds of small flowers or florets, with ray florets on the outer edge of the flower, and disk florets at the center of the blossom.

The origins of the mum take us to China at least as far back as the 15th Century B.C., where the plant was cultivated as a flowering herb for use in salads, brewing beverages for special celebrations, and curing headaches, possibly caused by those celebrations.

Please note that only the flower petals of today’s ornamental mums are edible. While there is an edible chrysanthemum called garland or vegetable chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), with leaves reminiscent of today’s ornamental variety, hungry gardeners should not attempt to eat the foliage of garden chrysanthemums.

During the eighth century A.D., chrysanthemums began to appear in the literature and art of Japan. Called Ki-Ku, “Queen of the East,” a single blossom of the flower was used as the crest of the emperor, and Chrysanthemum Throne is the common name for the Imperial Throne. Today, chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan.

Chrysanthemums gained attention in the West in the 17th century, and were so-named by the botanist Linnaeus who combined the Greek “chrysos” with “anthemon” to describe a “golden flower.”

Of course, mums are a lot more than golden flowers these days. Horticultural breeding now provides a dizzying variety of forms, colors, and growth habitats. The National Chrysanthemum Society recognizes 13 different classes of mum, many of which are familiar to gardeners, such as spider, anemone, quill, spoon, and pompon, although marketing efforts also tout mums with fanciful names such as football mums, maxi-mums, pin cushion, and many more.

Beyond interesting floral shapes, these jewels of autumn are resplendent in russets and gold, red, yellow, gold, orange, pink, purple and white, and can be planted in solid masses of color, or mixed together like a living tapestry.

Of special interest is a fairly recent and popular mum, ‘Silver and Gold,’ which provides variegated foliage along with attractive blooms and desirable winter hardiness.
Chrysanthemums can be sited almost anywhere in the landscape, in planters by a front door, as border plantings along a driveway, or mixed into a year-round garden bed to provide a quiet splash of color.

Planted in beds around and beneath trees, the colors you select can mirror or complement the seasonal color of the leaves overhead. Above all, the mums can provide a dramatic climax for your landscape before the arrival of winter.

However, before you run off to your local supermarket to pick up your bounty of mums, you should consider a few important details. Most important of all, be sure to select hardy garden mums, not the foil-wrapped, potted florist mums. The mums commonly given as housewarming gifts are probably not winter hardy, and also tend to become quite tall, and will provide few blooms beyond the care and feeding of a greenhouse manager.

Instead, turn to a reputable garden center, where the mums are already somewhat acclimated to cooler temperatures, and where the plants were initially bred for use as perennials. Seek advice from a staff horticulturist if you are uncertain about your selection.

You will want to ensure that your mums will receive about six hours of sun, and should be planted in organically-rich, well-drained soil. Consider improving your soil by adding compost and prepare the planting bed eight to 12 inches deep.

After planting, water the mums thoroughly and water weekly thereafter, carefully avoiding wetting the foliage which can cause mildew. After the flowers have faded, snip off spent blooms and mulch the bed with shredded leaves or shredded hardwood mulch about three inches thick.

Keep in mind that there may be some losses if the winter months are especially harsh. Generally, spring-planted mums have a better survival rate than those planted in fall, but proper care can make a significant difference.

In early spring, pull back the mulch to allow new shoots to emerge and prune back old stems to the ground. After plants start growing fully, pinch back about four inches of growth every three to four weeks until July to encourage bushy growth, a full head of flowers, and an autumnal blooming period.

Every other spring, starting in about two years, divide your mums by digging up the entire plant, then use a sharp knife to separate well-rooted outer pieces from the original plant. Space out and replant the new pieces, and send the old woody core to the compost pile.

Interestingly, you will find that chrysanthemums seldom receive the recognition they deserve. For example, Preakness fans think they are seeing the winning horse and rider presented with a blanket of Black-eyed Susans. Not so! Those flowers are actually mums, substituted for the summer-blooming Maryland state flower.

A rose by any other name? You will also find that there are few roses adorning those colorful floats in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. Instead, delighted viewers are enjoying a kaleidoscope of mum blossoms and petals. But mums the word on that!

For more information on growing and appreciating mums, turn to the National Chrysanthemum Society and their website:

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Meditations on a Monastic Garden

A garden can play many roles in our lives, depending on its design and intent: a treat for the senses, a source of sustenance, or a simple place to mess about with plants. But certainly one of the most important and traditional roles is as a unique place away from the world and worldly concerns. This special sort of garden can serve as an area for reflection, meditation, and spiritual healing. Indeed, for many of us, while we acknowledge having lost Eden, we haven’t given up on trying to recreate an ideal space for body and soul.

Perhaps no finer model for this meditation garden exists than the great monastic gardens which flourished for more than a millennium. By their very nature, these cloistered gardens were physically separated from the outside world by walls and roofed arcades, allowing visitors to focus within: both on the inner features of this peaceful garden, with its tranquil fountain, fruit trees, and healing herbs – and, more importantly, within themselves.

In fact, the very act of enclosing a garden reflects an almost primal understanding of what a garden is. For fun with philology, we can look to the etymology of “garden” and find the proto Indo-European root word “ghor-dho,” which means “enclosure.” (That word is also related to “yard” and the Latin hortus, as in horticulture.) Perhaps more interesting, medieval cloistered gardens were often called paradise gardens, hearkening back to Eden, with the word “paradise” coming to the West as pairidaeza, from the Old Persian, also meaning “walled enclosure.” The West, after all, did not have a monopoly on enclosed gardens.

To create a true garden meant separating your plants – and your person – from the world outside. And as our world is no more peaceful than that of the abbots who created the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, perhaps we might just want to return to the notion of a cloistered garden of our own.

Naturally, your three bedroom colonial might not easily lend itself to the addition of a finely cut stone-walled quadrangle, but you can at least separate your meditative space from the rest of your landscape with a simple wooden fence, trellises, arbors, or a planting of shrubs. You’re simply looking for a private inner space where you can turn within.

Following the lead of the monastic gardens, which typically observed a formal layout of rectangular beds and pathways, you might want to establish raised beds, another common medieval feature, in which to cultivate herbs and vegetables. After all, St. Benedict in the 6th century required that his monks provide all their own “necessaries” within the walls of their monastery. Not unlike the Victory Gardens of the 1940s.

Herbs were especially important to the monastic garden, as any fan of the Brother Cadfael mysteries knows. Medicinal plants were at the heart of monastic life, where monks studied and recorded the therapeutic properties of roots, dried leaves, and fruits, thereby institutionalizing modern pharmacology, much as the abbeys laid the groundwork for hospitals. Consider a quick visit to a public herb garden to identify medicinal and other herbs for your garden. You will be surprised that key medieval herbs are still favorites today.

Fruit trees, another symbol of paradise (munching on which led to man’s expulsion), were common features in almost all medieval gardens, and might adorn your garden, as well. Of course, barring the presence of a serpent, you should feel free to enjoy any of the apples or plums that you grow.

And while planning your bit of backyard paradise, remember that fragrance can stir memory and reflection, much as incense is used in both Eastern and Western religious traditions. Depending on your taste, you might plant soft musky-scented English boxwoods as a formal edge to your pathways, or choose from the palette of native shrubs and vines such as buttonbush or arbor-loving virgin’s bower.

The center of your garden should host a single, strong element, whether a trickling fountain, birdbath, or piece of sculpture. Original medieval works are probably out of the question, but concrete knock-offs of the Irish St. Fiacre (patron saint of gardeners) can be found in various garden shops, especially those associated with cathedrals, naturally.

Lastly, remember to set aside an area where you can actually sit and enjoy – and use – your meditation garden. That means setting aside time as well. The world goes along in its bumpy chaotic way, but you can still find a peaceful retreat and solace for your soul in paradise, even if it’s only in your backyard.
A personal note on cloistered gardens:
I strongly believe that at one time or other, nearly everyone has been profoundly influenced by a special place or an experience of place. For a young kid from Brooklyn, that place was the Cloisters in in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s world-renowned and truly staggering collection of medieval art. The Cloisters is a museum woven around five actual monastic gardens disassembled and reassembled stone-by-stone in Ft. Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River. At around age 12, I experienced the Cloisters for the first time with my father one late winter’s day. I remember the scent of lemon and orange blossoms from potted trees dotting the glass-screened arcades; the burbling sound of fountains competing with Gregorian chant echoing through the complex. That single visit ultimately led to my educational life as a medievalist, my vocation as a horticulturist, and created a cultural passion that informs each and every moment of my life. Today, my wife (a medievalist) and I are on the verge of planning the construction of my dream home: it will have bedrooms, a kitchen, library, and all the rest – and it will be built around a central courtyard, a garden, with herbs and fruit trees and fountains. Evidently some places change you forever.

Copyright 2010, Joseph M. Keyser