Thursday, June 30, 2011

Native Grasses & Natural Landscapes

The introduction of ornamental grasses to the American landscape is one of the defining moments in modern garden design. These grasses, planted in clumps or large masses, recall elements of the nation's vanishing prairie, while adding sophistication and panache to even the most groomed garden.

Regrettably, many of the grasses frequently used, especially those with ostrich feather-like plumes or stylish zebra-stripes, are both exotic and invasive, especially when planted near open fields, and can pose serious problems for our local ecosystem. For a more habitat-friendly approach, gardeners can and should turn to the abundant inventory of native grasses which will provide the same elements of year-round color, texture, and graceful, swaying motion.

One of the most widely available and popularly used native grasses is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), or "turkey foot," affectionately dubbed "monarch of the prairie" by some horticultural boosters. Big bluestem was the dominant species of grass which formed our fabled tall grass prairies, as well as the sod used by homesteaders (sodbusters) and pioneers to build sod huts.

Sod dwellings don't show up very much in most parts of the country, but big bluestem does, both in habitat restoration plantings and in backyards, where they are frequently clumped in mulched planting beds or "grass islands" which decoratively float atop a trimmed lawn. Formal plantings also use these seemingly untamed specimens to dramatically frame a front entrance or serve as sentinels at the end of a driveway.

Big bluestem can reach up to ten feet in height and prefers full sun, although it is tolerant of partial shade and either moist heavy, or sandy, drier soils. Like most native grasses, it prefers being left alone, and fertilizing or unnecessary watering will simply lead to floppy growth. This is a tough plant, let it prove itself! The plant's common name comes honestly from its vertical height and the subtle blue tint of the stem. And while the leaves remain bluish-green during much of the year, autumn frosts help transform that foliage to a mellow bronze or copper shade which will last throughout the winter.

The plant's less common name originates with the three-fingered prongs or "rames" of the purplish-blue seed head, which resembles a turkey's foot, and which begin forming in late summer, and provide seed to a host of migratory and native songbirds through early winter.

A close cousin to big bluestem is little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which shares many of its relation's best characteristics, although it is best planted in masses for best effect, especially considering the beauty of watching a whole miniature sea of grass swaying their silver seed heads in the breeze.

Also a sun lover, the fluffy, tufts of this species mature on a clump-forming plant destined to stay between two and three feet in height. Like most sod-forming grasses, little bluestem does most of its growing underground, sending roots eight feet deep, which makes it equally adaptable to periods of drought or flooding. These qualities make it ideal for erosion control and mower-free hillside stabilization. It is also salt-tolerant, which nominates it for use as en edging plant along sidewalks and curbs.

For gardeners looking for a mid-size grass, there are few more noteworthy than switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a full sun plant that can adapt to partial shade and either moist or dry conditions. It is wonderfully useful as either a specimen plant, or in small, bush-like clusters, or even planted en masse. Maryland-based garden writer Carole Ottesen favorably compares these massed plantings to a field of wheat. Staying somewhat between three and eight feet tall, depending on soil conditions, the rich green foliage slowly takes on a buttery-cream complexion in fall.

Another attractive and adaptable option for yards with light to moderate shade is bottlebrush grass (Hystrix patula). This species is modest in most respects, averaging only two to five feet in height, and producing only moderately attractive, medium-green foliage, turning straw-colored in autumn. However, the bristly seed heads are quite remarkable, resembling by turns an actual bottlebrush or the long quills of a hedgehog, from which the genus name Hystrix (porcupine) is taken.

And while almost all grass seed heads make for wonderful dried or cut flower arrangements, bottlebrush flowers are incomparable when placed in a window for a striking bit of backlighting.

A close rival for flower arranging - and garden use - is northern sea oats, or river oats (Uniola latifolia), a low-growing, shade-tolerant species whose 30 inch height makes for an excellent ground cover or placed along a perennial boarder, where visitors can fully appreciate its drooping clusters of oat-shaped seeds and rusty-orange fall foliage.

In the same vein, broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus), another cousin of the bluestems, works well as a ground cover or for erosion control, with bluish-green clumps keeping to about 20 to 30 inches in height, with another foot or two more for its inflorescence. Like many of our favorite native grasses, autumn brings on a rich orange color, with seeds for meadow birds and the occasional migrant.

Clearly, the range and application of native grasses is limited only by the size of the garden bed or landscape, and its desired use. Taller and medium sized grasses can serve as hedges or screens, to hide unattractive fences or foundations, or more properly as a backdrop for other garden plantings. Typically, these individuals are best spaced two to three feet apart.

Medium to low-growing specimens often work best in larger groupings, planted one to two feet apart, and are used successfully as ground covers, especially those shade-loving or shade-tolerant grasses which can fill in nicely under mature trees with open scaffolding or along the edge of a wooded area.

A key to making the most of native ornamental grasses is combining them with other flowering natives, or non-invasive annuals and perennials, which will compliment the structure and form of the grasses, while providing color during the spring and summer, as well as a low-flowing, spreading appearance.

Lastly, to truly transform your grass islands or prairie shrubbery into an outdoor bouquet, try to marry the bronze, orange, and copper hues of fall foliage, to say nothing of their crimson-purple flowers and rusty-brown seed heads, with the floral display of late-summer and autumn show-offs like joe-pye weed, sunflowers, asters, ironweed, and goldenrods.

With any luck, the memory of your grassy garden, along with vases filled with bold sprays of seed heads, will keep you smiling all winter long.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pathways 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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, June 27, 2011

Composting Mythunderstandings

It is a tribute to composting that humans have taken such a simple, natural process and elevated it through myth and misunderstanding into a form of new age alchemy. The spread of these myths has been facilitated by word of mouth, misguided publications from solid waste managers, and, worst of all, hard-core marketing. In order to keep composting simple and inexpensive, let's put to rest some of the more popular myths.

Compost Bins
There are scores of weird and wonderful commercial designs available: from black plastic Klingon boxes to rotating drums to free-wheeling spheres. The prices range from tens to hundreds of dollars. Advertisements and popular literature lead many composting novices to believe that an enclosed bin is essential. The reality is that heaps or piles work just fine. If you want to keep your pile tidy, consider using wire mesh, or reusing scrap lumber, shipping pallets, cinder blocks, or an old trash can. If you want a prefabricated bin, consider volume before you buy: more money is often less capacity, with the highest capacity models generally selling for less than 40 dollars.

Bioactivators
These bacteria-laden powders and liquids are the snake oil of composting. While they do contain "cultured" strains of bacteria and other additives, the fact is that special inoculants are unnecessary. Recent studies suggest that there are approximately 10 trillion bacteria in a spoonful of garden soil. Every fallen leaf and blade of grass you add to your pile is already covered with hundreds of thousands of bacteria -- more than enough to do the job.

Yeast, Elixirs, and Worms
There are a number of recommended additives for boosting compost performance, most of which are unsubstantiated or silly. Adding yeast is the most common, which is expensive and useless. Some practitioners suggest pouring Coca Cola into the pile to increase biological activity, which will take place, though mostly in the form of yellow jackets and ants. Adding worms or worm cocoons has grown in popularity due to some confusion with vermicomposting. Worms do a tremendous amount of good, but need not be purchased or transplanted: just build a pile and they will come.

Fertilizer
Adding fertilizer to increase the nitrogen content of a pile is wasteful and expensive. More importantly, synthetically derived fertilizers contain high salt levels and other compounds (perhaps even pesticides) which are harmful to worms and microorganisms. If you must have additional nitrogen, use organic sources: spent grounds from a coffee shop, a neighbor's grass clippings, agricultural manures, or dried blood.

Lime
Many gardeners with a high proportion of acid-rich materials mistakenly add lime to their pile to produce compost with a balanced pH. Unfortunately, adding ground limestone will turn your compost ecosystem into an ammonia factory, with nitrogen rapidly lost as a noxious gas. Finished compost is almost always lightly alkaline naturally.

Odors
A properly built and managed compost pile should smell like the humus-sweet duff of a forest floor. Odors result primarily through mistakes: trying to compost grass clippings by themselves, adding too many food scraps (or the wrong types of food), and anaerobic conditions caused by poor drainage or lack of aeration.

Rodents and Pests
Compost piles almost never attract pests if they contain only yard trimmings. Adding food to a pile increases the attractiveness somewhat, but only if managed improperly, such as dumping scraps on the top of a pile or bin. Urban composters might want to avoid adding food altogether or use a worm box or a completely enclosed design. Meanwhile, compost piles fall well behind birdfeeders, outdoor pet food bowls, pet feces, and trash containers as residential causes for rodent activity.

Layers
Adding different types of material to a compost pile in varying proportions is appropriate only if all of the materials are on hand at one time, which is seldom the case. Moreover, lasagna-style compost piles must still be mixed and turned to evenly distribute materials: discreet layers of grass will simply clump together and become anaerobic. Mix, stir, and fluff to cook up your delicious batch of hard-working compost stew.

Fourteen-day Compost
A number of magazine ads have hoodwinked well-intentioned gardeners into thinking that they must produce compost in 14 days. Such expectations are unrealistic and unworthy. Decomposition takes time. While producing compost quickly has some merit, no one should feel compelled to purchase chipper-shredders or other elaborate equipment. In fact, even if material looks like compost after several weeks, it still requires a one-month maturation period before it should be used in the garden.

Compost Calculus
For years, books, periodicals, and composting brochures have obsessed on carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. Regrettably, the arcane charts, tables, and formulas provided overwhelm many gardeners. In truth, compost piles thrive when different types of material (moist and dry, green and brown) are mixed together. And while ratios are fine for compost hobbyists, regular gardeners need only remember that all organic materials will compost in a timely manner given some prudent attention.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Harvesting the Heavens

For imaginative landscapers, rain gardens may represent the perfect marriage of heaven and earth. Specially-designed garden areas help to receive and store rainfall, using that moisture to nourish an oasis of interesting native plant communities reminiscent of lush stream banks and freshwater marshes.

The notion of developing rain gardens has received a lot of attention across the country. Jurisdictions from Seattle, Washington, to Prince Georges County in Maryland, have made considerable progress in developing “bioretention” structures to control the quantity and quality of stormwater runoff, seeing rain gardens as attractive, cost-effective options to curbside storm drains and large stormwater ponds.

In essence, rain gardens function like miniature wetlands. Rainwater from paved surfaces and downspouts is directed to a low-lying garden area which allows the water to be stored temporarily until it is absorbed by the plants and soil. Any pollutants, such as fertilizer, pesticide residue, or even oil, grease, and heavy metals from roadways, are effectively trapped by the rich organic soil and root systems in the garden, permitting clean water to slowly soak down through the soil and rocky subsoil until it “recharges” groundwater supplies.

Sophisticated rain gardens are designed to accommodate all of the rainwater from a surrounding area: rooftop, driveways, walkways, and so on. Moreover, a true rain garden is developed with consideration for existing soil types, and often includes underdrain systems, in addition to lasagna-like layers of gravel, landscape fabric, sand, and amended soil. However, while effective, the bonafide approach is complicated and relatively expensive. And most homeowners do not have the stomach for bringing earth moving equipment into their backyards and turning 60 percent of their landscape into a stormwater marsh.

Fortunately, many of the features and benefits of a carefully engineered rain garden can be employed by backyard gardeners willing to give up a bit of lawn in favor of a colorful, low maintenance backyard habitat.

A basic approach might be to identify at least one downspout which can be redirected toward an area which slopes gradually away from your home. Keep the rain garden at least 15 feet away from the building, and ensure that all water flows away from the house to prevent dampness or flooding in your basement.

Layout your garden on the gentle slope, preferably in an irregular shape, such as a kidney bean or round-cornered crescent. Use an old hose to help create an attractive outline and start removing the top layer of turf and soil. For your garden to effectively capture runoff, dig down on an angle to about one foot. Most of the material you remove can be used to build up or “berm” the sides of the garden.

The next step is the most crucial. Your goal is to create an area which will act like a sponge to soak up hundreds of gallons of rainwater. Local heavy clay soils will never function properly, and you will need to amend or replace the clay with compost – and lots of it. You can use the compost by itself, or mix it with topsoil and even some of the soil you have excavated. You might also want to add well- rotted leaves to the mix.

Flexible downspouts can deliver water to your garden, or you might bury corrugated drainage pipe in a trench and bring it to within one or two feet of the garden. It is important to allow rainwater to run over a grassy area or planted buffer before reaching the garden. You do not want a surge of rainwater to start eroding soils and washing away mulch.

Planting is, of course, the fun part of the process. But before planting, let your garden handle several rainstorms first, to ensure that your soil amendments have settled appropriately, and to guarantee that water will not pond in the garden more than three days. If done properly, excess rainfall will flow over the garden and continue across your lawn, and water “harvested” by the garden will be absorbed within 24 hours. If water ponds for three days or more, you will need to improve the soil with more organic amendments and possibly lower the downslope side of the garden to improve runoff.

The plants you select for your rain garden are often unlike those used in conventional settings. Native perennials that enjoy moist and even saturated soils will thrive in your garden, and will encourage visitation by butterflies, hummingbirds, and other nectar and berry feeders. Your pallette can include swamp milkweed, columbine and asters, ironweed, lobelia, blue flag, bluebells and bluestem grasses, bee balm, ferns, sedges and switchgrass, boneset, gentians, liatris, and much more.

Many of these natives are now sold by local nurseries, where experienced horticultural staff can help match suitable plants with your rain garden needs. You will need to consider sun or shade exposure, how moist your garden soil is and the duration of wetness, and also think about how well your plant selections can tolerate drought periods. And, after planting, be sure to mulch your garden to save every drop of precious rainwater.

For more information about rain gardens, be sure to check out my former website: RainScapes.org.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hanging Around With Indoor Plants

Indoor hanging plants seem to come and go in style. Unfortunately, many people lose interest in them because they become bored with little more than green fronds hanging over their heads. But hanging plants can offer a great deal more, depending on how they are selected.

A hanging plant does not simply mean Boston ferns, Swedish ivy, and spider plants, although these are remarkably easy to grow. There are some foliage plants which sport colorful stripes and veins, while others offer weird and intriguing leaf shapes. There are also a great many flowering plants ideal for indoor hanging baskets, each suited to different levels of light exposure, as well as temperature and humidity ranges.

In fact, it is possible to find an indoor hanging plant for every conceivable situation. The trick is actually reading plant labels before bringing a plant home and also doing some quick horticultural research before visiting a reliable garden center.

Some basic concerns for hanging plants involve just how you plan to hang them. Nothing is less appealing than simply dangling an inexpensive plastic pot from a hook in the ceiling. Instead, consider grouping three or five containers of various sizes together in an open, well-lit area and hanging them at different levels. Your arrangement will create a sense of both height and depth. While determining the height at which you will suspend the plants, keep in mind that you will want ready access to the plants for ongoing care. Sometimes it is best to hang pots no higher than eye level, depending on the location.

Also, the container need not be the typical plastic pot and attached saucer. The saucers often overflow, creating a mess, and the pots are usually very cheap in appearance. You might want to set a plain pot with drainage holes inside a more decorative pot or container without a drainage hole. You will avoid spills, and decorative containers can offer a broad range of textures and styles, which will enhance the overall appearance of your plants.

It is often useful to set plants into a soil-less medium to reduce weight, rather than relying on a heavier standard potting mix. Some soil-free mixes are specifically made for hanging plants and help conserve moisture and enhance aeration for growing roots.

When it is time to water your plants, it is preferable to actually take the plant down and water it in a sink, at least on occasion. This approach ensures complete drainage, and also allows you to inspect the plant more closely for pests while tending to damaged foliage, dead flowers, and other pruning chores. In addition, use this opportunity to thoroughly rinse off the foliage, removing potential pests and dust. In fact, removing dust actually increases the amount of light which can reach the leaf surface.

As for the plants, do not limit yourself to traditional selections. Common asparagus ferns are all well and good, but why not a look a bit further for a special cultivar like Emerald fern (Sprenger asparagus)? And why settle for plain green foliage when there are hundreds of variegated plant species which will give you bursts of gold, cream, and brilliant yellow, such as the popular Goldfish plant (Columnea microphylla)? Or substitute variegated Swedish ivy (Olectranthus coleoides 'Marginatus') for its lackluster cousin. Other interesting foliage plants, like the large-leafed Fittonias, feature either deep red veins (Mosaic Plant), or brilliant silver veins (Silver Net Plant).

Of course, entering the world of colorful foliage requires special attention to light exposure. Always select the proper plant for the proper location. For example, not all plants thrive in direct sun. Two varieties of Arrowhead vine (‘Emerald Gem' and ‘White Butterfly') are among the most beautiful trailing plants readily available. Given moisture and shade, they will thrive for years. But place them in too much light and they will literally fade away and die.

Location is not just a matter of sunlight and shade, however. One of the most intriguing hanging sedums, Burro's Tail (Sedum morganianum), has leaves or "pads" which are easily dislodged through handling. Such plants are best kept out of reach of children, pets, and tall human heads.

Hanging plants can offer colorful flowers in addition to exotic foliage. Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus are perhaps among the most used flowering indoor plants, although many garden centers also offer knock-outs like Lipstick vine (Aseschynathus radicans), which boasts profuse bright red tubular flowers, and Italian Bellflower (Campanula isophylla), an alpine perennial which does well in cooler indoor locations. One of the most unusual trailing plants is the Rat's-tail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis), an absolutely stunning cactus specimen with striking pink flowers. If you can recover from the unpalatable common name, you may find that this might be the only hanging plant you will ever need to impress friends and visitors.

Orchids, naturally, offer an amazing range of colors and growth habits, although they are a bit more temperamental than grape ivy. Devotees, nevertheless, will justifiably argue that the plants are worth all the extra care and attention. In fact, for sheer horticultural hubris, an upscale gardening concern offers an wrought-iron globe with built-in magnifier for displaying and viewing one's prized specimen.

On a more mundane level, bright kitchen windows provide an ideal environment for garden herbs. Culinary favorites like parsley, chives, and rosemary can do extremely well indoors, whether grown together as a miniature hanging garden or planted and cultivated separately.

The most important step you can take with hanging plants begins with selecting species most suited to your environment, including light, temperature, and humidity. But you should also select plants based on your personality. Choose something exotic, fun and different, if you enjoy caring for and exhibiting plants. If not, you can still add color and life to your living space by referring to the following list of dependable, time-proven favorites.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Reliable Hanging Plant Species

Asparagus fern
Basket begonia (Begonia tuberhybrida pendula)
Baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus
Creeping fig (Ficus pumila)
Devil's Ivy (Epipremnum pinnatum)
Ferns (numerous species)
Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia)
Hoya (Wax plant)
Ivy species
Kalanchoe
Lipstick vine (Aeschynanthus pulcher)
Philodendron species
Pothos species
Rosary vine or Hearts Entangled (Ceropegia woodii)
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Swedish ivy (Plectranthus oertendahlii)
Wandering Jew

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nurturing a Water-Wise Landscape

During the hottest summer months, our lawns and gardens face a number of environmental challenges which threaten their health and beauty. Wilting and discoloration of lawns and foliage is a common example, as are flowers dropping buds, or tomatoes succumbing to blossom-end rot. And yet these symptoms also herald additional complications, as voracious insect pests and fungal diseases find an easy prey in plants under stress. The root of the problem is soil moisture and whether plants are getting enough to drink during cloudless, 90 degree days.

The solution to dry soils and drought, however, is not simply to run a hose and run up a huge water bill. Watering is very often the most wasteful and expensive of solutions -- with improper watering or overwatering leading to even more short and long-term problems for the landscape. To keep your corner of the globe green, it is best to become water-wise.

Liquid Lawn Care

Lawns are the dominant part of most landscapes. Grass is easy to put in, especially over a large area, but keeping grass green and lush is another story. Lawns are notorious water hogs, with most doting homeowners applying much more water than a lawn really needs, often squandering as much as 100,000 gallons on a typical quarter-acre suburban lot. Fortunately, there are a number of simple water-wise practices that can actually improve the health of your lawn, while saving money, time, and tens of thousands of gallons of precious water.

Stop watering. Although it sounds like lawn care heresy, most grasses (except bluegrass) can safely be allowed to enter a period of dormancy during the driest part of the summer. In fact, dormancy is a natural mechanism to help grass survive drought and heat. Your lawn will recover with the return of rain and cooler temperatures.

Stop fertilizing. The worst possible time in the year to apply fertilizer is in the summer. That jolt of nutrient pushes grass plants to grow unsustainably, risking health and vigor, and interrupting root development when it is most needed. Wait until fall before even thinking about fertilizing.

Grasscycle. Let grass clippings remain on the lawn when you mow, and cut your grass no lower than 3 inches. Clippings are over 90 percent water, and, as they filter to the soil surface, they provide a temporary layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture; taller grass also shades the soil, reducing surface heat and evaporation.

Watering do's and don'ts. If you must water, do it right. Water only in the early morning, never during the day or in the evening; improper watering can lead to fungal diseases or scalded foliage. Do not water on windy days, as breezes only hasten evaporation. Do not water driveways, streets or sidewalks; in addition to wasting water, runoff entering stormdrains can elevate stream temperatures and harm or kill sensitive fish and other aquatic life.

Water lawns only when they need it, normally when foliage appears dull, bluish-grey, or when walking on grass leaves footprints. Avoid frequent and shallow waterings which can cause thatch and shallow, drought-sensitive roots. Lawns require about one inch of water, although no more than once a week. To measure, place a flat pan under the sprinkler until one inch of water has accumulated, then move to a new location. Ensure that soil is moistened to a depth of four to six inches by pushing a screwdriver into the ground as your indicator. Turn off your hose if water starts to spill onto paved areas; wait 30 minutes, and resume watering.

The Water-Wise Landscape

As lawns require about five times more water than other plants in the landscape, the best water-wise practice is to reduce the amount of space dedicated to turfgrass, while also improving the quality of the soil and its moisture-holding ability.

Eliminate the competition. Lawns often run right up to and under trees and shrubs. However, grass roots easily "steal" water from these other plants, while still struggling to survive in the shade. Instead of grass, substitute an organic mulch, such as wood chips, shredded leaves or leaf mold, or plant ground covers -- you can even combine the both options for a low-water, low-maintenance, and attractive planting area.

Expand planting beds. Increase privacy and landscape value by developing "planting islands" in your sea of grass. Plant trees and shrubs in spacious, sweeping beds, rather than individually. Existing trees and shrubs can also be linked together as planting islands by adding an additional tree or two and replacing the lawn area between them with mulch or ground covers. In sunnier spots, "mulch islands" can be established, utilizing ornamental grasses, showy perennials, and hardy native plants. Eventually, over a period of time, these individual "islands" can become the dominant landscape feature, with lawn areas now serving as easily-managed green lakes and open spaces among a more natural, graceful, and beautiful setting.

Mass plantings. Similar to planting islands for trees, it is best to mass plants together, rather than spreading them across a broad area. Massed plantings have a stronger visual impact than a row of annuals dotted in front of shrubbery. Moreover, by grouping plants together according to similar water needs, they can be cared for much more easily, and can more readily care for themselves. A thick, established group of plants will keep out weeds and will shade the soil around their root zones, thereby conserving precious moisture and reducing drastic changes in soil temperature.

Xeriscaping. Although xeriscaping (xeros = dry) originally related to landscaping in extremely dry climates, its principles, which include using water-efficient and drought-tolerant plants, fit well with our water-wise goals. For example, using regionally adapted plants, such as the growing variety of natives, ensures that the plant can handle this area's seasonal temperatures and rainfall, along with other environmental and soil conditions. But non-natives can also be used to add color and texture to the garden, especially those which are suited for dry, sunny locations, like many of the Mediterranean herbs: rosemary, thyme, etc. Generally speaking, silver-grey plants, such as Dusty Miller, Artemisia, Santolina, and so, feature foliage which reflect sunlight, thereby keeping the plant cool and reducing water loss. However, xeriscaping does not mean using only colorless plants, Yuccas and Prickly pear cactus -- it does mean using the right plant in the right place. See below.

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulching with organic materials is one of the easiest methods for conserving soil moisture and providing long-term soil improvement. Mulches can be placed on soil up to four inches deep, except over shallow-rooted plants like azaleas. After applying mulch, especially when using wood chips or materials which appears dry, it is advisable to water both mulch and plants thoroughly at first. Dry mulch might otherwise keep moisture from percolating into the soil. Woody mulches are best used around permanent plantings, like trees and shrubs, while finer textured mulches, such as untreated grass clippings, compost, shredded leaves and leaf mold, are preferable for tender plantings, such as annual and perennial flowers and vegetables.

Compost, aerating, topdressing. Improving soil quality will also improve its soil retention ability. Garden beds can be amended by adding compost, either by digging it in manually or rototilling it into the soil, which is best done in autumn or early spring. Existing beds can be improved by using compost as a mulch or sidedressing anytime of year. Aerating a lawn allows air to reach grass roots, helps microorganisms break down organic matter to feed the lawn naturally, and facilitates water penetration. Topdressing is the practice of applying compost to the surface of the lawn up to one-half inch deep, increasing the soil's organic content, enhancing earthworm activity, and serving as a mulch to protect shallow grassroots.

Becoming water-wise can be as simple as changing some everyday practices -- or as involved and comprehensive as changing the face of your landscape. Like most endeavors, your success depends upon a program which matches your interests, abilities, and available resources -- although the ultimate goal of the water-wise landscape is to safeguard our existing water resources, and to provide more time for your other interests.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, June 17, 2011

Exotic & Enticing: Orchids for Indoor Landscapes

Orchids are perhaps the most exotic, breathtaking, and unique of all flowering plants. However, their frequent association with mist-shrouded jungle canopies has led many gardeners to think that growing them is beyond their everyday ability. Fortunately, you need not move to a remote tropical island or invest in a greenhouse to enjoy these fantastic jewels of nature.

If you can successfully grow indoor flowering plants, then you will happily find that there are scores of brilliant and affordable orchids to fit every situation and room in your home.

There are estimated to be between 30-40 thousand different species of orchids found in nature, and the incredible popularity of this plant family has led to the cloning and hybridization of more than a million different species. Finding the right plant to match the light level and wallpaper in your living room should not require a major expedition.

Over the years, orchid hobbyists and growers have found that several genera are quite easily grown under normal indoor conditions. For the most part, if you can provide lighting conditions similar to those required for African violets, such as bright east or west-facing windows, or a shaded southern window with no direct sun, you can provide a suitable light environment for most orchids. Even a sunny, southern exposure filtered with sheer curtains can be suitable for orchids requiring higher light levels.

Among the best plants for beginners with moderate light conditions are Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum, Miltonia and Miltoniopsis, with Paphiopedilum being the most tolerant of shady conditions, perhaps even a bright northern window. If somewhat brighter lighting conditions can be provided, prepare yourself for the showy and fragrant spectacle provided by Dendrobiums, Cattleyas, Oncidiums, and Brassias.

According to a survey by the American Orchid Society, the world’s largest plant society, Phalaenopsis have been selected as America’s favorite orchid, which is fitting as it is also considered to be the most easy to grow. Phalaenopsis are also known as moth orchids, because their sprays of wing-like blooms bear a striking resemblance to clusters of brilliantly colored moths perched upon a branch. Under proper indoor conditions, this native of tropical lowlands can provide blooms for up to eight months of the year, perhaps producing flower spikes twice each year.

Paphiopedilum are commonly called “Lady’s-slipper orchids,” thanks to their tell-tale flower “pouches,” and produce long lasting flowers along an upright spike or stem. The blooms themselves can last up to ten weeks and offer an array of pink, gold, white and lavender, often combined together in a single, stunning flower with darker shaded veins.

Cattleya are often larger plants with huge white, pink, or purple blossoms, traditionally thought of as corsage flowers. Generally larger “cats” will bloom once a year with flowers lasting up to three weeks, although some hybrids can last up to eight weeks under ideal conditions. However, the full-sized plant is often too large for most home conditions, and a generous number of miniature Cattleyas are available, often less than ten inches tall. The mini-cats are known to flower twice a year, with blooms lasting up to one month. Both large and small versions are fragrant when the blossom is fully open.

If fragrance is important, one of the most sweetly scented orchids is Oncidium 'Sharry Baby.' This prolific blooming plant is sometimes called – and marketed – as the "Chocolate Lover's Orchid." The one to two inch blooms, which can reportedly number over three hundred on a fully mature plant, are deep ruby red or mahogany and exude a rich and warm chocolate fragrance.

Brassias are among the most exotic looking orchids, although they are easy to grow and bring to flower, sometimes more than once a year. Commonly and aptly named the Spider Orchid, most of the popular hybrids produce hundreds of colorful spidery blooms on long, adventurous stems which can last up to one month.

Of course, there is more to raising any plant than simply picking out a pretty one and offering it a bright window. Remember that a large number of orchids come from tropical climates and prefer high humidity, usually anywhere from 50 to 60 percent or more, and sometimes up to 75 percent. Most homes usually remain in the 35-50 percent range during the winter.

In fact, with few exceptions, a great many orchid species are epiphytes, meaning that they live on or above a plant, usually in trees, and obtain moisture from the air itself or from rainfall running down the sides of their host plants. Short of hosing down your living room on a daily basis, potential orchid growers will have to increase the humidity around their plants using some form of humidity tray. Daily misting is generally not sufficient and is frequently impractical.

Perhaps the most simple type of humidity tray is a pan, even a cookie sheet, filled with pea gravel or pebbles. Orchids are placed on overturned saucers set atop the pebbles so that the orchid’s pot is never sitting in water. Water should be added to cover the pebbles on a regular basis, and replaced periodically. Evaporation from the pebbles will create a lush, humid environment around the plants, without turning the rest of your home into a sauna.

In addition to humidity, orchids will require watering and feeding. Remember that many of these tropical transplants are used to rain forest conditions, where they receive intermittent downpours, and so generally prefer a period where their growing medium is almost allowed to dry out between waterings. However, orchids should never be allowed to sit in soggy pots, which can lead to root rot and other diseases. Also, watering and misting should always take place in the morning, allowing leaves to dry before nightfall.

The growing medium itself is important. Many orchids are adapted to grow in soil-free conditions, which is why the majority of epiphytic species are cultivated in specialized orchid mixtures, usually consisting of varying grades of fir bark, poultry peat, perlite, and other additives. These beautiful tree huggers also obtain nutrients from debris washing over or falling onto their roots, and consequently will require frequent dilute feedings, from biweekly to monthly, depending on the individual plant and time of year.

Lastly, ensure that air can move around the plants readily, much like those balmy tropical breezes. Should you decide to keep a number of plants grouped together in a corner, you might want to consider using either a ceiling fan – or small tabletop fan – operating at a slow speed, just enough to keep the air circulating.

Naturally, the actual culture and care for each species of orchid is different with respect to potting media, feeding, humidity, and so forth, and you should rely on the careful directions which any conscientious grower or vendor will readily supply.

However, before ever purchasing that first, towering Dendrobium, canes waving aloft with large, brilliant sprays of flowers, you might want to contact an accomplished orchid grower or visit a public orchid show. You will discover that while there are many orchids perfect for your conditions, there are other genera, like Cymbidium, which simply require too much dedication and foster care.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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 2011, 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)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pathways 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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Cleaner, Greener Office Space

The modern office is generally a product of strict efficiency and economic design. Lines are straight, wall-coverings are bland, windows are sealed shut, lights fluorescent, and cubicles ubiquitous. And this is where many of us spend the better part of our lives. Perhaps it’s time to consider personalizing – and naturalizing – these uninviting spaces. And the best place to start might be with a favorite houseplant brought from home.

It’s amazing what a welcome addition a plant can be in the workplace. It’s just a simple little living thing, and yet, perched amid the photocopied reports, Post-it notes, and tangled telephone cord, it has the power to transform even the most cluttered of desktops into something uniquely you -- and special.

Even if you have only one African violet by your elbow, it might be enough to distract you from your spreadsheet for a few moments to examine whether a new batch of flowering buds is forming. Perhaps an office mate will wander over to ask you how often you feed your plant, or where you got it. In a sterile environment, that humble plant is an oasis of life. Your spreadsheet can wait.

And if one plant can work such wonders, what about an office-full of them? Truly, plants can enhance the modern office in ways that most people can barely imagine.

Aesthetically, plants can add color and texture to almost any space, however plain. Taller plants or groupings of larger plants can become living architecture to help direct foot traffic, soften harsh corners, create privacy in seating areas, or add verticality in an unending sea of cubicles. Hanging or elevated planters can create a sense of movement when filled with hanging grape ivy or trailing philodendron vines.

Using similar plants throughout a larger space can also provide a unifying or cohesive element, tying and blending together a disparate array of desks, copying machines, doorways, cabinets, and partitions. The final impression is calming and ordered, rather than chaotic.

Plants can function as eye-catching focal points, or discretely mute or camouflage unattractive features. Above all, they add a sense of vitality to an interior landscape of metal and machines.
They can also play a substantial role in promoting physical and psychological health. Clinical studies in Britain and Northern Europe have shown that plants in the workplace reduced stress levels and fatigue by more than 30 percent, along with the symptoms associated with colds and flu, such as coughing and sore throats.

These green allies can also promote good health by cleaning a host of potentially dangerous pollutants from indoor air. Those veneer-and-laminate bookcases, formica-clad desks, carpets, painted walls, and computers, printers, and fax machines are off-gassing a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. All-in-all, it’s a nasty stew of bad air, generally trapped – along with you – in a closed loop ventilation system.

Fortunately, there’s Mother-in-law’s tongue. I don’t mean my mother-in-law, Melva, who’s also very helpful and health-conscious, but the plant, also known as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata). This popular and sturdy plant grows elegantly tall, and sometimes flowers, even in low-light, and it is an absolute whiz at snatching pollutants from the air.

But Sansevieria are not alone in this ability. NASA studies in the late 1970s identified a large number of common indoor plants capable of filtering VOCs from the air. They ranged from aloe vera, which needs bright light, but is easy to divide and share with office mates – and serves as a nifty balm for paper-cut fingers, to magenta-striped dracaena, peace lily, and golden pothos, perhaps the toughest indoor plant around.

Simply put, most of the plants best suited to indoor conditions can help clean indoor air. Moreover, ongoing studies show that plants clean the air not only through the stomata or microscopic pores on the leaf surface, much like the filters in home furnaces and HVAC systems, but also through the action of bacteria in the potting soil, which normally make nutrients available for the plant’s root system.

In controlled environments, the soil microorganisms were capable of removing and absorbing up to 20 percent of the air contaminants. Together with the plants themselves, these invisible colonies represent an indoor living system functioning much like the trees, grasses, and algae found outdoors.

But the real value of introducing plants probably goes deeper than stress-busting, filtration, and d├ęcor. In a world that keeps us indoors far-too-long, bringing a bit of the outdoors inside keeps us connected with a larger living world. And beyond the momentary distraction of looking at a blooming bromeliad, the plants also require watering, feeding, and care. They require a time apart from the routine of databases and spam-deletion – a time to actually nurture another living thing. Surely that’s a simple enough bit of occupational therapy.

And then there’s the issue of community – human, not plant. In a world of passwords and name badges, your salmon-budded kalanchoe is a bridge to fellow workers. Perhaps you might divide up one of your succulents for them, or share the decades-old history of your mother’s braided willow-leaf ficus, now thriving by your window. They in turn might bring in a rooted cutting for you, or ask to share a window ledge for their Christmas cactus. That’s how friendships – and communities -- start.

Your office plant can stretch forth your personality, invite a much-needed compliment, and allow you to share and connect with others. It shows, quite humbly, as Shakespeare noted, that “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Gardening With the Bard

In a world where we are most often reflected in baseline demographics, gardening becomes a rare opportunity to express personal interests and creativity. Perhaps all that is wanted is a touch of inspiration. For that, what better source than Shakespeare? The bard’s works overflow with flowers and botanical allusions, with magical moonlit glades, and with gardens as both settings and metaphors.

Shakespeare’s lines have inspired composers, graphic artists, and garden designers for centuries. Today, Shakespeare Gardens appear across the globe, and in many forms, from the extensive 57,000 square foot garden at Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park in Montgomery, Alabama, to the more modest and secluded Elizabethan Garden on the east side of the Folger Shakespeare Library behind the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress.

A central element shared by all these gardens — and perhaps by yours as well — is a keen interest in the plants and plantings cited by the bard. Many of the plants are rich in cultural significance: from the plucking of the true white or blood red roses by the Plantagenet and
Somerset forces in Henry VI - Part 1, to poor Ophelia’s weedy trophies: the bitter nettles and "dead men’s fingers" of Hamlet. Start your Shakespearean garden by identifying plants mentioned in the plays and sonnets, and then research how and why they were selected. Books and websites abound with herbal lore, plant and garden history, and so forth. You will soon find that most all of the bard’s "plant selections" have played important roles in medicine, history, religion, and literature.

Put Ophelia’s rosemary ("that’s for remembrance") in your garden and you are planting an herb valued by Egyptian priests, the classical physicians Dioscorides and Galen, monastic herbalists, and modern sous chefs. Each plant is endowed with centuries of meaning; let inspiration spring from Shakespeare and it will continue to flow into your garden.

To begin, select a basic design. For example, you could follow the lead of the Folger Library and create an Elizabethan knot garden: a formal arrangement, usually rectangular, with a bust of Shakespeare, a sundial, birdbath, or other sculptural component, surrounded by a interwoven pattern (a knot) of rosemary and lavender, with Johnny-jump-ups and other violet species, iris, saffron crocus, and chamomile filling the spaces between the knotted rosemary and lavender array. For a king’s ransom, you might also include a low boxwood border.

Alternately, you could develop a Shakespearean herb garden, using some of the herbs already mentioned, as well as calendula, rue, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, parsley, mint (in pots), savory, marjoram and much more. Or you might prefer a sunny flower garden, perhaps designed as an old-fashioned rose garden, or simply incorporating bard-related plants into an existing border.

Favorite roses from Shakespeare’s period include Damask and Gallica (French) or "apothecary’s rose," and Musk and Eglantine (Sweetbriar) roses. Flowers include columbine, poppies, dianthus (clove pink or gillyflower), nasturtium, daffodils, calendula (pot marigold), and primula species, such as English Primrose and cowslips, which are often found throughout the works of Shakespeare.

For the truly inspired and literary-minded, you might want to develop a dedicated garden spot: perhaps "Titania’s Bower" from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Add a simple trellis, cover it with non-invasive honeysuckle (woodbine), some musk roses and other fairy plantings, and you’re ready to sit, read, and ponder with Puck over the meaning of life and love.

You might also consider a bitter-sweet "Ophelia’s Garden," focusing more on her bouquet of rosemary, pansies, fennel, and daisies (IV,v), than the crow-flowers and nettles of her fantastic, watery garland (V,vii). Though for good measure — and silver color — you could add Hamlet’s wormwood (artemesia).

For more of a kitchen garden, you might borrow from Perdita’s saucy lines at the shepherd’s cottage in The Winter’s Tale (IV,iv). The first several hundred lines are a pastoral shopping list, again reflecting some of the most common plants listed above. To add special meaning to your planting, you might even consider adding unique plant labels or homemade signs quoting from Perdita: for example, "Marigold [calendula], that goes to bed wi’ the sun/And with him rises weeping," "Rosemary and rue; these keep/Seeming and savour all the winter long," and so on. Such signage can make your garden a poem itself, or transform a school, church, or public garden into an inspired educational experience.

In reflecting on your Shakespeare Garden, before selecting plants and garden motifs, remember that the experience will not only enrich your landscape and your appreciation of it, but will also, hopefully, introduce you to a larger cultural milieu. You should derive as much pleasure in thumbing through and reading the plays and poetry, as in actually planting the garden and enjoying its color, fragrance, and flavor. Understanding the plants in their literary context will help you better understand the civilization which created the literature itself. And suddenly, the Muses permitting, you will discover that your garden has become a doorway to a larger, older world.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Shakespeare’s Plants

The following reflects plants cited in the Bard’s writings provided as either common or botanic names; (spp) indicates numerous species within a genus.

Anemone
Aster (spp)
Astrantia
Basket of Gold
Borage
Broom
Chamomile
Clematis
Climbing Hydrangea
Columbine
Cowslip
Crocus (spp)
Cuckoo-Flower
Cupid's-dart
Curled Mallow
Dianthus (spp)
English primrose
Euphorbia (spp)
False Blue Indigo
Fennel
Fritillaria (spp)
Fulvous Daylily
Foxglove
Geranium
Hyacinth
Ilex (spp)
Iris (spp)
Lavender
Lungwort
Marigold
Meadow Buttercup
Mint (Mentha spp)
Monkshood
Narcissus (spp)
Oriental Poppy
Pansies
Peony
Rose (Rosa spp)
Rosemary
Rue
Sage (Salvia spp)
Santolina
Savory
Scabiosa
Spurge
Star-of-Bethlehem
Sweetpeas
Tarragon
Thyme
Tulips
Viola (spp)
Woodbine
Wood Fern
Yarrow
Yew (Taxus spp)

Monday, June 06, 2011

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 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Green & Easy Lawn Care

Lawns can play an important part in our landscape: providing a welcome, green space for children, backyard barbecues, and other outdoor activities, in addition to their aesthetic value. Lawns also contribute significant environmental benefits: preventing erosion, nutrient runoff, filtering air, and providing natural "air conditioning" during the summer.

However, all of those advantages are lost when lawn care becomes warfare. When children and pets are at risk by crossing treated turf areas, or when sprays endanger the health of individuals who are immune-impaired or suffer from respiratory problems, we have to measure the real costs of lawn perfection. Are nodding violets, tasty spring onions, and edible dandelions so terrible that we're willing to imperil the health of ourselves and loved ones?

Instead of filling shopping carts with toxic solutions, we might borrow from the
Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm. When dealing with nature, less is almost always more. And the best system for lawn care is actually simple and inexpensive.

Mowing Tips

Mowing comprises about 95 percent of lawn care — yet mowers and cutting blades are the most overlooked elements of maintaining a healthy lawn.

Tune up your mower: Either do it yourself, or look for specials for professional tune-ups. An efficient engine will run smoother and faster, cut grass more quickly and evenly, and facilitate grasscycling by chopping grass into fine particles. It will also cause less air pollution, use less fuel, and save mowing time.

Sharpen your blade: Carefully remove the blade and bring it to a shop for sharpening (covered by most tune-ups). Consider buying an extra cutting blade to switch to during mid-season. Sharp blades provide a clean cut that will heal quickly. Dull blades rip and tear grass, opening vascular tissue to disease organisms. Poor cutting also results in lawns taking on a dull, brown appearance — which many lawn jockeys improperly try to correct by fertilizing!

Cut high: Taller grass will develop proportionally deeper, healthier roots, resist drought and summer heat, and prevent most broadleaf weed seeds from germinating. Fescues and Bluegrass should be cut no lower than 2-1/2 to 3 inches; Zoysia at about 1-1/2 inch.

Alter your mowing pattern: Do not use the same pattern or path to cut your lawn week after week. Periodically changing the direction in which you mow will help you avoid soil compaction.

A Proper Diet

Millions of advertising dollars are spent annually to sell fertilizers or "fertilizer programs," especially in the spring, when lawns have no need for supplemental nutrients. Overfeeding is a principal cause of turf disease. A quick jolt of nitrogen applied now will result in a wild burst of growth — and lots and lots of mowing! And the grass will be leggy and weak, unable to handle stress caused by changing temperatures and too much or too little rain. So hold off fertilizing until the fall, when it is appropriate!

Feed your lawn with clippings: When you grasscycle — leaving clippings behind when you mow — you're helping to recycle all of the free nutrients in every grass particle.

Watering

Improper and over-watering is another cause of lawn disease. Unless you are establishing a new lawn or overseeding, you don't need to water at all. Lawns thrive when roots are encouraged — and allowed — to grow deep. Watering creates a hydroponic zone at the top of the soil, making grass lazy and easy prey to drought and the scorching summer sun. Forget watering, and don't worry when fescues and other cool weather grasses brown out during the summer: dormancy is normal -- and inexpensive. Lawns will green-up when cooler temperatures and rainfall return. The environmental and economic cost of keeping a lawn green during the summer is staggering: hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for most lawns. Additionally, improper watering is a major culprit in fungal diseases, especially for folks who water in the evening. Of course, you can always buy fungicides — or you could just stop watering. Incidentally, overfeeding and overwatering are leading causes of thatch. So why bother?

Weeds

Homeowners have been sold an unrealistic picture of a healthy lawn. They expect a perfect monoculture, like a putting green. Weeds are never tolerated, although most of them have more right to be in our soils than the hybridized turf varieties we plant. A vast armada of herbicides is available, many with decidedly lethal brand names. And yet weed control can be chemical-free, for the most part. Perhaps the key ingredient is patience. The fact is that most weeds cannot compete or gain a foothold in a dense, healthy lawn. And weeds can be pushed out by grass — but it will take time. Nature thinks in glacial terms: seasons and years. There are no quick fixes.

Best First Steps

To grow the most vigorous lawn possible, there are certain steps to be followed:

Test your soil: Most states have local Cooperative Extension Service offices that offer soil testing for a nominal cost (usually around five to ten dollars). You can find your local city or county office online or in the phone directory blue pages. In addition, many garden centers also offer soil testing, although the costs are about ten times greater. But a soil test is one of the best investments you can make for your lawn. Test results will tell you exactly what to feed your lawn, how much lime to apply, when to apply those amendments, and much more. As many weeds grow in poor or acidic soils, you can make them go away just by correcting your soil's chemistry.

Aerate your lawn: It's a breath of fresh air for roots and soil, and one of the most recommended practices for relieving compaction, reducing thatch, and encouraging deep and extensive root growth — all of which will force out "undesirables." Some tough weeds, like plantain, will actually thrive in compacted soil — looser, aerated soils will resist such weed incursions. You can rent aerating machines or hire a lawn service.

Select the proper grass variety: Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for advice on the best varieties of grass for your lawn, considering soil type, exposure, existing grass type, etc. The right grass for the right place will give you long-lasting results.

Make a salad: While you wait for weeds to naturally disappear, you can always hand-pick some of the tougher weeds. Many are edible (another argument against pesticides), while others are attractive and only last a short while. Be sure to remove bulbs, in the case of wild garlic and onions, the taproots of tasty dandelions, and as much of the rootstock as possible of other perennial or pernicious weeds.

Topdressing with organic matter: Instead of fertilizing this year, consider spreading 1/4 inch of compost on lawn areas to further loosen heavy clay soils, break down thatch, and improve soil ecology.

Seed and overseed again: Getting soil in shape goes hand in hand with seeding to develop an increasingly dense lawn. Prepare soil and overseed in the Spring, or overseed after topdressing.

Why Not Relax?

Overall, you will find that working with your lawn is easier than working against it. The best, longest-lasting solutions are the simplest — although they are not the quickest. Balancing the value of human and environmental health against that of an award winning, chemically-dependent lawn, and you will probably decide to change some of your lawn care habits and put up with some weeds.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser