Thursday, July 14, 2011

Townhouse Garden Transformations

There’s no denying that townhouse communities are popping up like weeds across the land. Townhouses are popular and often more affordable than single family homes, and with a bit of horticultural slight of hand, they can provide almost as many satisfying garden options as larger yards.

The trick to mastering these smaller, confined landscape areas is to realize the inherent limitations of your site, and to create the illusion of more space.

First of all, remember that this is not a normal landscaping project. Your 500 to 1,000 square foot patch of earth, possibly with neighbors on each side, is not going to accommodate a towering oak. In fact, large trees can make small spaces seem even smaller.

That’s not to say that trees are not welcome in your miniature back-forty. In fact, smaller trees, or shrubs trained into tree-form, can and should provide visual anchors or structure for your overall design. Choose species which feature open “scaffolding,” as well as year-round appeal, such as serviceberry, flowering crabapple, fringe tree, redbud, or some of the exquisite Japanese maples, with their intricately fine-cut leaves and colorful foliage.

Espaliered trees can also become vital elements in a sunny yard encompassed by a tall fence. A host of fruit and ornamental species are available at area nurseries, already trained to grow vertically with formally-spaced branches stretching out across a flat surface. Instead of a dull expanse of fence, you could enjoy a living wall of tasty apples, pears, plums, and apricots, or colorful magnolias, hollies, junipers, and yews.

Of course, the goal is not merely to camouflage fences and fill in empty space. A townhouse garden should strive to appear larger and more varied than it really is. One of the most successful approaches is to divide the yard into several “garden rooms,” each with a unique character.

For example, plant a free-flowing hedge along the outside edge of a patio using ornamental grasses. Select up to several species of the taller grasses to provide variety in color and texture. Plant the grasses in odd-numbered clumps, all of the same species, and, for additional color and contrast, surround each grouping with masses of colorful perennials, such as daylilies, black-eyed susans, joe-pye weed, and coneflowers.

These plantings will physically and visually separate your patio or outdoor living area from the rest of the garden, and cleverly tease the eye into thinking that the yard goes on quite a bit further. Moreover, these graceful grasses, gently tossed by a breeze, also provide a delightful sense of motion, which will make your landscape seem larger.

A second-story deck need not serve as merely a viewing platform. Along the outer edge place one of more trellises in or against decorative containers or tubs. These structures can then sport a dazzling collection of clematis or other ornamental climbers. Properly arranged, these vertical elements can similarly separate your deck from the rest of your garden, providing a colorful frame for gazing outward, while also adding a welcome bit of privacy from the neighbors.

And don’t forget that your deck structure itself can be visually softened by training colorful climbers and vines against the otherwise stark supporting posts and railings of a second-story deck.

Beyond the deck and patio, you can further separate your yard into unique areas with the addition of structures such as pergolas, garden arches, and arbors. Any of these can provide living windows to the rest of your garden, an incomplete glimpse of the whole, which implies mystery and inspires curiosity.

In smaller spaces, traditional wooden gazebos might seem well out of place and scale, but townhouse gardeners can turn to a number of recently available metal and wrought-iron gazebos, which are little more than attractive frameworks onto which perennial or annual vines can be trained. Quickly and inexpensively, another garden room is created, as is a secondary destination for entertaining or relaxing. Just add a bistro table, chairs, and bottle of wine, and you might forsake your deck altogether.

Small spaces have other advantages for gardeners on a budget. Ponds and other water features can frequently cost a great deal in both money and maintenance responsibilities. Yet for a townhouse garden, one can easily manage a smaller, prefabricated pond, pre-planted whiskey barrel wetland, or solar-powered fountain.

Even a single Victorian gazing ball, faux-gothic concrete statue, or gleaming copper birdbath can become a unique and dramatic centerpiece in your garden. Exercise restraint, however, and employ these elements sparingly. In a small space, too many “artistic” elements can quickly become clutter.

The divisions you create in your yard using trees, planting areas, and foliage-draped structures should be joined together with a free-flowing pathway meandering around the plantings and through structures and other garden rooms. Strive to create a route wherein each turn will reveal a new and interesting view. Avoid straight paths which will unfortunately create an impression of cells, rather than the illusion of an unfolding series of gardens.

And don’t forget about the plants! Small space gardening requires more planning and care in plant selection. If your townhouse or a neighboring fence casts a deep shadow over your garden, you will need to think of plants best suited for shade.

Select plants with extended bloom periods, and interweave plants with varied flowering periods so that no bed is ever without interesting color or texture. Also use layered plantings, such as placing spring bulbs under later-blooming perennials.

Add distinctive wrought-iron hanging baskets and richly glazed containers overflowing with annuals to add spots of color to drab areas. Containers also allow you to use exotic tropical plants and tender perennials outdoors during warmer weather; just bring them inside before late season frosts.

Clearly, the challenges posed by a townhouse lot are offset by using the site creatively. For most homeowners, a yard is just a yard. For townhouse gardeners, it’s an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in miniature, with vine-covered entertaining spaces, a pleasant path toward a gurgling fountain, a kitchen garden thriving beneath an espaliered apple tree. In reality, the only limiting thing about a townhouse garden is the imagination.

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Treasury of Topiary

Since the early 1970s, garden enthusiasts have flocked to Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, for a view of horticulture taken to a fanciful extreme. Of course, with a little effort, most patient gardeners can create their own topiary displays, whether to adorn a doorway or grace a dining room table.

Traditionally, topiary has been the art of training and pruning small trees and shrubs into a variety of ornamental shapes, ranging from the geometrical to the whimsical, with moments of pure inspiration, such as the manicured collection in Columbus, Ohio’s Topiary Park, which recreates the impressionist figures in Georges Seurat's “A Sunday On The Island Of La Grande Jatte.”

Topiary found it origins principally with the Romans more than two millennia ago, flourished during the Elizabethan period, languished somewhat during the 18th century, and once again found renewed interest with the Victorians, whose industrial mania enjoyed reshaping every aspect of the natural world.

Today, topiary has moved from grand public parks and palaces to kitchen countertops and coffee tables. In fact, during the holidays, it was not surprising to see most local grocery stores and garden centers offering miniature “Christmas trees” shaped from rosemary.

One reason for the increased popularity is the modern use of herbs, such as rosemary, whose smaller growth habit and fragrant leaves permit the same degree of artistic trimming and shaping, while yielding culinary cuttings and a rich, satisfying aroma, all in a very manageable size.

In addition, formal standards have readily become as popular as sculpted topiary forms. A standard has a straight and usually single upright stem, initially trained to a stake, and supporting a head or “crown,” which is often spherical, consisting of carefully manicured smaller stems and leaves. Almost as common are “poodles,” multi-tiered standards featuring three to five pompom-like heads.

Herbal standards are perhaps the easiest introduction to the art of topiary for most aspiring gardeners, at least those with patience. Bear in mind that it will take approximately two years to train a simple standard and another two for the plant to fully mature.

To begin, select a favorite herb, considering how large a standard you want in the end. Your topiary must observe elements of proportion, meaning that the smaller the leaf-size, the smaller the standard. Assorted lavender species, curry plant, and the more than 40 species of rosemary can readily produce handsome tabletop standards ranging from eight to 18 inches or more, while larger-leaf species like sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) or fast-growing scented geraniums should be trained to between four and six feet.

Your plant should be well-rooted and straight, with its initial growing tip intact. Be sure not to trim or damage the apical tip until your standard reaches its desired height. Most garden centers offer herbs in four inch pots ideal for starting out.

To start training your topiary, use a 10 to 12 inch plastic or metal stake. Wooden stakes can easily rot within a year or so. Herb specialist Elise Felton also recommends wrapping metal stakes with florist’s tape, both to dress up the stake and provide a stickier support for the ties needed to secure the plant during training.

Secure the stem every half-inch or so, using a flexible tie. Do not use metal twist-ties, as they can damage the stem and ultimately girdle the plant. You will want to remove any leaves or needles between the stem and the stake, and also prune any side shoots that appear as the plant grows. When, or if, the plant reaches the top of the stake, remove the ties and stake and replace it with a stake 20-24 inches tall.

When the plant reaches its desired height you can pinch the growing tip and start allowing two to four pairs of side branches to develop. At the same time, remove any remaining leaves on the “trunk” and, if the stem has become woody, once again secure the stem with soft ties one or so inches apart.

As the side shoots grow, pinch them back about every two inches or two nodes of growth. You will continue with this process every week or so, until those stubby stems take on the regal form of a globe. When complete, carefully remove the stake.

For ongoing care, be sure to provide adequate light during the cold months, when most herbs should be brought inside. However, whether indoors or out, rotate your herbal standard to ensure even growth. And inspect regularly for pests, especially mites and mealy bugs who might try to enjoy your topiary as much as yourself. And do not slack off on your pruning regimen. To keep your topiary shapely, you will need to keep routinely pinch back new growth, although those clippings can be added to potpourri or stew pots as an added dividend – or incentive.

Of course, there is more to topiary than formal standards. Fortunately, the growing interest in topiary has led to the wide availability of unique forms and frames onto which plants can be trained. The range of shapes is almost inexhaustible, with everything from traditional cones, spirals, and spheres, to dancing teddy bears, dinosaurs, Degas-inspired ballerinas, and letters of the alphabet, for people obsessed with monograms.

Many of the larger frames offered are actually filled with green moss, and ornamental ivy and other climbers are encouraged to cover the surface. However, for the herbal-inclined, many of the smaller basic shapes, such as wreathes and hearts, are ideal for training santolina, dwarf myrtle, prostate rosemary, and a host of other fragrant or flavorful species.

For topiary fans anxious for quick results, there are standards, poodles, and other shapes available at nurseries and through mail-order suppliers. They may lack the investment of energy and care of a do-it-yourself project, but it might be the necessary first step to inspire you to designs of your own.

Copyright 2011 Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Sage Approach to Your Garden

Few plants have commanded such a central role in human history as common garden sage. First revered for its medicinal properties in antiquity, this unassuming member of the mint family was held sacred to the Greek and Roman gods, traded by the Dutch for tea from China, and has been revered by herbalists for millennia, from Dioscorides and Galen to your local GNC outlet.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is, however, but one member of the substantial genus Salvia, which actually takes its botanical name from the Latin salvus for “well” or “sound” (also salvere “to be in good health”), echoing its earliest association with curative and life-extending abilities.

Today, thanks to plant hunters and hybridizers, there are roughly 900 species of salvia found worldwide. And while few of them can genuinely promise immortality – or favor with the gods – there are probably a dozen or so which can liven up your garden, spice up your kitchen, and generally provide a healthy bit of habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Limiting your choices is the hard part. My friend, garden writer and herb guru Kathy Fisher, once noted that of the 900 or so species of salvia, about 899 are worth growing. And why not? Consider a flower palette ranging from lipstick red and magenta to salmon, pink, white, and luscious blues which mirror the sky and deepen to violet and inky-blackish. The foliage on varied species can be lime or dark green, creamy white, or a mixture of pinks, purple, white, and green.

And while you might think that common sage is important enough for its culinary and medicinal applications (now a valued antioxidant), there are outstanding varieties which combine flavor and aroma with pure artistry. Golden garden sage (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’) features a swirling variegated pattern of golden yellow and green; purple sage has matte purple leaves which age to a soft green color; ‘Berggarten’ sage has very large silvery-gray fuzzy leaves; and ‘Tricolor’ sage with gray-green foliage splotched with pale pink, purple, or cream.

Most culinary sages feature lilac-blue flowers, some with dark purple sepals, save for ‘Albiflora,’ a real show-off with pure white flowers. Best of all, the scent and flavor of sage bestirs delicious memories of Thanksgiving, family, turkey and stuffing – although the herb is well-suited and renowned for use in tea, or with pork, soups, sausage, duck, cheese, various egg dishes, and savory breads. Remember that fresh leaves are appreciably stronger in flavor than dried, and that harvesting in the early morning provides the highest level of essential oils. For drying purpose, harvest in spring before flower stalks appear.

All of the officinalis sages are tolerant of heat and humidity, especially ‘Berggarten,’ and most should survive all but the harshest winters. True garden sage is the hardiest of the lot, but all will become leggy after several years and are best replaced at that time.

In the wider world of salvia, you will find species suitable as ground covers and edging plants, hanging baskets, and even annual shrubs or hedges. As most ornamental salvias come to us from Mexico and South America, they are too tender to survive the winter, and can either be treated as annuals, or they can be planted in containers and moved to an indoor location prior to frost.

Personally, I do not have the space to overwinter my favorite salvia, blue anise sage (S. guaranitica), a cobalt blue hummingbird magnet, which becomes a five feet bush by midsummer, but as salvias propagate easily from tip cuttings, I simply snip off three or four shoots in the fall, root them in water or a sterile medium, and care for these offspring through the winter care until they return to the garden.

Among some of other deservedly popular varieties are grape-scented sage (S. melissodora), whose pale blue blossoms exude an almost intense grape soda-like perfume aroma, unique in a genus where most flowers have a negligible scent.

‘Cleveland’ sage is heralded as the most fragrant variety of all sages. While most sages release their aroma after brushing against the foliage, “Cleveland’ readily wafts its scent with the slightest of breezes. Buckeyes beware! The plant was actually discovered in California, not Ohio, and was named after the nineteenth century plant collector, Daniel Cleveland, who first spotted the silvery-grey foliage on an expedition.

Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is one of the most popular salvias owing to the fresh-cut pineapple scent released whenever its leaves are bruised. It also sports brilliant -- and edible -- red flowers, appearing in late summer through fall. Pineapple sage is also one of the last great hummingbird plants to bloom in late autumn, and provides the balance of vital nectar needed by migrating ruby-throated hummers as they head south. Scarlet pineapple sage has larger, deeper colored blooms, and the cultivar 'Frieda Dixon' has pink flowers.

Autumn sage (S. gregii) provides an abundance of drought-tolerant cultivars with non-stop and profuse blooming habits. Easily found examples are Maraschino’ (like the cherry) with scarlet flowers; ‘Wild Watermelon’ in fuchsia; aptly named ‘Plum Wine’ and ‘Raspberry Royale’; ‘Moonlight’ with pale yellow blooms, and ‘Desert Blaze’ which contrasts fire engine red flowers against creamy-white and green variegated foliage.

From ancient Greek physicians to a solitary planter on your patio, there’s a world of salvias just waiting to enhance your life and gardening enjoyment. Now that’s sage advice!

Copyright 2011, Joseph M. Keyser