If you have a yard or garden, you know that grass clippings, leaves, dead plants, tree branches and shrub trimmings can add up fast–especially in late summer. An alternative to having it hauled away is to turn all the organic waste into compost.
At first glance, a compost pile may look like a big pile of dead leaves, old plants and grass clippings. Inside, though, there’s a bit of backyard science taking place. Microorganisms are eating away at that pile of yard waste and turning it into compost. Compost is really a nutrient-rich soil amendment, much like a fertilizer, that helps vegetables, flowers, lawns and potted plants grow healthier and stronger.
The process of composting is a natural occurrence that happens all around us–it ‘s nature’s way of recycling organic material. When a leaf or tree limb falls in the woods, it eventually decays and turns to compost and acts as a natural fertilizer that encourages new growth. This process can takes years.
When you compost at home, you speed up the process. With a little planning, you can produce usable compost in as little as three weeks. And, despite what people think, a properly maintained compost system doesn’t create any unpleasant odors.
The first thing to know about composting is what can and can’t be composted. The simple answer is–any plant material that was once alive can be composted:
grass and lawn clippings
old fruits and vegetables
annual weeds before they seed
remains of garden plants
woodchips and sawdust
fruit and vegetable peels and scraps
Do not compost the following materials:
painted or chemically treated wood
annual weeds that have gone to seed
roots of perennial weeds
human and pet waste, including litter
While home composting is becoming more popular, a growing number of cities and municipalities are also realizing the benefits of composting. Many now operate large-scale composting facilities to help cut down on the growing amount of material going into landfills. The process is similar to a home composting system, but on a larger scale.
It takes about three to four months, a controlled combination of moisture, air, microorganisms and temperatures reaching up to 160 degrees F to turn yard waste into compost. Some of the finished compost is sold to landscaping companies, some is used in sanitary landfills and the rest is given away to gardeners.
On a smaller scale, starting your own home composting system is pretty easy. You can either buy a commercial composting bin or build one yourself. The choice really depends on how much material you have to recycle and how fast you want to make finished compost.
Freestanding compost piles are the simplest system. If you don’t have a lot of material and you’re not in a hurry, this is the one for you. Just start piling on the yard debris and food scraps and let nature do the rest. Be patient: this form of passive composting can take up to two years to make finished compost.
Enclosed one-bin systems make compost more quickly and require a little more maintenance. It’s a great way to get started with composting. You can buy several types of bins at nurseries, hardware stores, home improvement centers, garden catalogs or on the Internet:
A hoop-type composter is just a piece of plastic with lots of holes in it. Fill it with waste materials and mix, or turn, the contents every week or two with a pitchfork or shovel. You can have finished compost in 3 to 4 months.
A square plastic bin is a fancier unit with vents in the side for aeration and small openings for easy removal of the finished compost. These units cost anywhere from $150 to $200.
A compost tumbler is more user-friendly than a bin that sits on the ground. Fill it with waste materials and rather than turning it, just rotate the bin to mix and aerate. This system costs about $150 to $200 and creates compost in about 3 to 4 weeks.
If you don’t want to purchase a compost bin, you can make one out of wire, wood , concrete blocks or even a plastic garbage can with holes drilled into it.
Four wooden pallets can be used to contain a compost pile. To make turning the pile and removing the finished compost easier, hinge the front pallet so it swings open. A note: when using wood, avoid using treated lumber because it may contain toxic chemicals that could leach into the compost.
A wire bin is made by making a circle with garden stakes that measures 3 to 4 feet in diameter. Wrap wire fencing around the stakes, attaching it securely with cable ties.
A one-bin unit is great for making a single batch of compost every few months. If you have a lot of yard and garden waste and want to produce a steadier supply of compost throughout the growing season, a single bin probably won’t be enough. You may have to graduate to a multi-bin system to recycle the material that your yard produces.
Five easy annuals for every garden
If you only had time and space to grow five summer flowers, which ones would you choose? We asked ourselves that question last year. Flowers in dazzling colors topped our list-ones whose vivid hues would stop passersby in their tracks and invite lingering looks. We’d toss in a few varieties with eye-catching frills, spots, or stripes.
Our next criterion: They would be annual (or behave that way), going from seed, tuber, or seedling to flower to seed again in one glorious spring-to-fall season. They would be easy to plant and easy to grow. We wanted nothing that needed fussing over, nothing temperamental or wimpy. The flowers had to be good for bouquets or good companions for cutting flowers. We wanted ones that would bloom over a long season (as long as we were faithful about deadheading, of course).
We made a list and pared it down. We browsed through nurseries and catalogs, choosing plants that piqued our interest. Finally we planted many varieties of five flower groups in Sunset’s test garden in Menlo Park, California.
As they grew, we studied their backgrounds, noting that all of them hail from hot climates. Cosmos originated in tropical America. Dahlias come from Mexico and Central America, where they were first used as food (their tubers contain a nourishing starchy substance not unlike a potato), while improved varieties bloomed lustily at Montezuma’s gardens in Huaxtepec. The marigold family, despite French and African names, is entirely American, found from New Mexico and Arizona south to Argentina. Summer mums are native to Morocco and have naturalized in sand dunes along Southern California’s coast. Sunflowers grow wild from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast and south to Argentina. (Red sunflowers descend from Helianthus annuus lenticularis, a variety found in 1910 near Boulder, Colorado.) Together, these groups make up a colorful and sunny brotherhood.
By early summer, there was an abundance of blooms that we enjoyed as much in bouquets as in the garden. Our vases were always full. And those elec tric colors did more than caffeine to jump-start our days. We made note of the duds and the stars; our favorites are listed below. April is a splendid time to plant them all.
Unlike the muted, mostly warm-toned perennials that sustain the autumn border, annual chrysanthemums are generally earlier and brighter, and flower longer. You’re likely to encounter two kinds, both native to the Mediterranean region and both recently renamed by taxonomists (the new designation follows the old in these descriptions).
Tricolor daisy (Chrysanthemum carinatum, now Glebionis carinatum) is a 1- to 3-foot-tall annual whose flowers have bright bands of color around dark centers.
Court Jesters mix comes in orange, rose, salmon, scarlet, white, and yellow White Carinatum Dunnettii Choice mix has white, yellow, bronze, and crimson flowers. In ‘German Flag’, scarlet rays and a golden yellow band surround the central disk. Merry mix has multicolored bull’s-eye flowers on 2- to 3-foot-tall plants. Single Annual mixed comes in yellow, pink, purple, and rust.
It’s a shame crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium, now Glebionis coronaria) had its botanical name changed, since the word chrysanthemum combines the Greek for gold (chrysos) and for flower (anthos)-a perfect description for this lovely annual, which usually has yellow petal-like rays and a yellow central disk. Flowers can be single or double.
‘Primrose Gem’ is a double yellow on a 3 1/2- to 4-foot stem.
Cosmos (C. bipinnatus) must be one of the easiest annuals ever. Sow its seeds once, and pink or white flowers come back year after year from their own seeds. Flowers (mostly singles) start blooming in early summer and continue for months until the first hard frost. The wonderful Sensation strain is the best known of the clan, but cosmos come in many other flower forms-some have rolled or filled petals-and in a range of solid colors and stripes.
‘Candy Stripe’ produces white flowers with crimson borders or stripes and grows to 3 to 31/2 feet tall. Three-foot-tall ‘Daydream’ has petals of rosy pink that fade to pale pink edges. Psyche mix bears semidouble blooms and grows to 3 feet tall. Seashell mix (to 31/2 ft. tall) has rolled petals in creamy white and shades of red, rose, and pale seashell pink. Sonata mix, a 2-foot dwarf, bears many 3-inch single blooms in white, pink, and mixes. ‘Versailles Tetra’ (to 3 ft. tall) has 4inch pink flowers and darker shading around a bright yellow eye.
Yellow cosmos (C. sulfureus) brings yellow and red flowers into the cosmos clan, but at a cost: Its seeds don’t germinate as easily as common cosmos, and its flowers tend to be smaller (2 in. in diameter) than other cosmos. Many gardeners find it easiest to grow from nursery seedlings.
Bright Lights mix has large (2 1/2-in.) flowers of yellow, gold, orange, or scarlet on 3- to 4-foot plants. ‘Lemon Twist’ bears clear lemon yellow flowers on stems to 2 1/2 feet tall. Ladybird mix grows to only 1 foot in height. Sunny Orange-Red and Sunny Gold top out at 15 inches.
During the 19th century in England, winning dahlias fetched hefty cash prizes in competitions, motivating breeders to produce a steady stream of larger, increasingly exotic varieties. In The English Flower Garden (1883), English landscape designer William Robinson called the large-flowered varieties “monstrosities,” prompting breeders to work on smaller single-flowering types to be used as bedding plants. Today, Westerners grow both. Named varieties, many of them magnificent in bouquets, number in the tens of thousands.
‘Anatole’ has white flowers streaked with crimson and grows to 3 1/2 feet tall. ‘Bashful’ (2 1/2 ft. tall) bears deep purple blooms with lavender tips and golden yellow centers. The flowers of 5-foot-tall ‘Chilson’s Pride’ are pure pink with white centers. ‘Pink Gingham’ (to 4 1/2 ft. tall) has petals of bright lavender-pink with white tips. ‘Siemen Doornbosch’ bears lilac blossoms with creamy pincushion centers on stems to 1 1/2 feet tall. On ‘Wheels’ (to 3 1/2 ft. tall), red petals and a yellow fringe surround the center disk.
The vast array of garden marigolds traces back to three ancestors: African marigolds, French marigolds, and signet marigolds, all of which originated in the Americas.
In the 16th century, the Spanish took seeds of Tagetes erecta to Africa, where it naturalized so quickly that botanists thought it must have been native there. When T. erecta finally reached England, the Brits named it African marigold. The name still sticks–especially in the craws of growers who would like to see it renamed American marigold. These 1- to 3-foot-tall plants do well in heat and produce huge flowers.
‘French Vanilla’ and ‘Snowball’ are creamy white 2-footers. Inca mix and ‘Perfection’, both with gold, orange, and yellow flowers, are excellent midsize varieties. ‘First Lady’ (to 20 in.) has yellow flowers. ‘Deep Orange Lady’ (to 20 in.) blooms in orange. Plants of Sugar and Spice mix bear 3 1/2-inch flowers of orange, yellow, and white on 20-inch-tall stems.
French marigold (T. patula) came to England via France, so it, too, wound up with a logical but inaccurate moniker. These marigolds are shorter and more refined, usually staying below 1 foot tall.
Disco mix has single 2 1/4-inch flowers of clear yellow, orange, or red on compact 10-inch plants. ‘Gypsy Sunshine’ (frilly butter yellow blooms) and ‘Honeycomb’ (frilly reddish petals edged with gold) are floriferous 6- to 10-inch-tall plants. ‘Jaguar’ bears single golden yellow flowers dabbed with maroon spots over neat, mounding 10-inch plants. ‘Mr. Majestic’ produces single bright yellow blooms with mahogany stripes on a 1- to 2-foot plant. The single flowers of ‘Striped Marvel’ (2 ft.) are striped red and gold like a pinwheel.
Signet marigolds (T tenuifolia) produce many yellow flowers on 8to 16-inch plants with fine foliage.
‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Golden Gem’ both have dainty single flowers on 8-inch plants. Starfire mix has miniature single flowers in shades of red to gold and reaches 12 to 14 inches in height.
In 1888, while living in southern France, Vincent van Gogh made a remarkable series of sunflower paintings. Done to decorate his house for a visit from fellow artist Paul Gauguin, the works show sunflowers with dark and light centers, long and short petals, and blooms of many sizes. These oils hint at the wonderful variety of these large, sunny
Sunflowers grow quickly and are easy to tend–that’s why they’re favorites with children. If you want to use them for cut flowers, as van Gogh did, choose varieties with long stems and smaller flowers. It helps if they’re pollenless, so they don’t shed on your furniture and carpet.
Pollenless ‘Dorado’ bears golden yellow flowers with dark centers on 5-foot stems. ‘Sunrich Lemon’ is pollenless and has 3-to 8-inch flowers with lemon yellow petals and black disks on 4- to 6-foot-tall plants. ‘Strawberry Blonde’ is pollenless and bears 5-inch straw-colored flowers overlaid with light red on 6-foot-tall stems. Multiflowering branching types such as creamy yellow ‘Valentine’ (5 to 6 ft. tall with 5- to 6-in, blooms) look better in the garden longer than single-stemmed sunflowers like ‘Sunrich Lemon’.
Plant Our Fiesta Flower Bed
This dazzling combination glows in the summer sun. Many of these flowers–especially the cosmos–attract butterflies and hummingbirds. In late summer and early fall, flocks of tiny finches and other seed-eating birds swoop in to graze among the spent blooms. Mass the taller-growing cosmos in the rear, with a clump of sunflowers behind (optional) and dahlias, marigolds, and midsize cosmos in the middle row. Plant lower-growing marigolds and yellow cosmos in front.
A. Ladybird mix dwarf cosmos; B. ‘Mr. Majestic’ marigold; C. ‘Tangerine Gem’ or Starfire mix marigold; D. ‘Bashful’ dahlia; E. Ladies mix marigold; F. Sonata mix cosmos; G. Sonata White cosmos; H. Seashell mix cosmos; I. Bright Lights mix cosmos; J. ‘Candy Stripe’ cosmos; K. Cosmos Sensation strain.
Planting and care Except where noted, these annuals prefer mostly sunny locations. Keep old flowers picked off to prolong bloom.
Annual mums. In hot climates, choose a spot that gets some afternoon shade. Sow seeds outdoors after weather warms for blooms in summer and fall. (If you live in a mild-winter climate, you can also sow in fall for spring and summer bloom.) You may also plant from nursery containers. Summer mums aren’t fussy about soil. Space plants about 8 inches apart. Water deeply and frequently where soils are porous, less in heavy soils. Feed mums two to three times during the growing season.
Cosmos. Sow seeds in open ground from spring to summer, or set out transplants from cell-packs, 4-inch pots, or 1-gallon cans. (Yellow cosmos are easiest to start from nursery-grown plants.) Cosmos will flower best in poor, sandy soil; heavily amended soils and lots of fertilizer result in fewer flowers. Space plants about 12 to 18 inches apart. They can tolerate some aridity, but for best bloom, water them regularly (once a week or so), especially in hot inland valleys.
Dahlias. Provide light afternoon shade in hottest areas. Plant tubers in spring after soil has warmed and danger of frost is past. Dig holes 1 foot deep in loose loam high in organic matter. Space largest kinds 4 to 5 feet apart and smallest ones only 1 to 2 feet apart. Drive a stake into the hole; place the tuber horizontally, 2 inches from the stake, with the eye pointing toward it. Cover tuber with 3 inches of soil and water thoroughly. As shoots grow, gradually fill the hole with soil. Start watering regularly after shoots are above the ground. Dahlias planted in soil enriched with compost rarely, if ever, need supplemental fertilizer.
Marigolds. Plant in full sun. Marigolds are easy to grow from seed and sprout in a few days in warm soil. Or set out plants from nursery flats, cell-packs, or 4-inch pots. Slugs and snails are especially fond of young marigold foliage; use traps or ring the planting with horticultural diatomaceous earth (available at nurseries).
Sunflowers. Sow seeds in spring. If you use young nursery plants, space them 8 to 12 inches apart in soil well amended with compost. After true leaves appear, water plants deeply once a week. Fertilize once when plants are actively growing, using a controlled-release fertilizer. Large-flowered kinds need rich soil and lots of water.
Flowers. Today the color range is even greater, with red, mahogany, and white forms in many sizes.
“We are in the decade of the environment,” says Philip G. Gibson, Ph.D., an instructor at Gwinnett Technical College in Georgia. Gibson, who has created more than 3,000 landscape plans, teaches courses as part of Gwinnett’s environmental horticulture program. “Horticulturists are environmentalists. People are drawn to our programs because they want to be in what is called the ‘green industry.”‘
Landscape designers design outdoor, and sometimes indoor, areas for both residential and commercial spaces. Designs always include horticulture (trees, flowers, and ornamental plants) but also may include fountains, walkways, fences, ponds, decks, and lighting.
“There are various types of designs,” says Tom Delaney, executive vice president of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA). They’ may be, used for anything from a small project “renovating a landscape with plants, to a medium project with payers and a wall, to a large project with fountains.”
What The Customer Wants
A landscape designer must first meet with a customer to find out what he or she wants. A preliminary sketch will help the designer stay on the right track.
Meeting the customer’s needs is one of the most critical components of designing a landscape. In fact, in design competitions sponsored by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), it is the most important criterion by which student designs are judged.
“It’s what the customer wants and how you translate it,” says Edward (Ted) Mitchell, owner of a landscaping and lawn maintenance business in New Jersey. “Some people have trouble envisioning things. You must interpret what they want. If you misinterpret something, then you don’t get the job.”
Looks Good–But Does It Work?
A landscape designer needs to know what looks good to the customer’s eye, but must also know what works well in a particular environment. Mitchell says you must be able to advise the customer on what works in that geographical area and what doesn’t work.
“There is a huge selection of plants. There are all different types of environments,” he says. “Some homeowners who don’t use a landscape designer may put trees in places where they actually become a nuisance, even though they may look beautiful at first,” says Delaney. “There are challenges in different areas of the country, depending on the weather.”
Maintenance And More
An important aspect of any landscape design is the amount of maintenance it will require once the design is installed. “A landscape designer will ask the customer how much maintenance they will want to do,” says Delaney. “Having good designs to meet the customer’s maintenance expectations is important.”
Mitchell notes that success with a landscape design also means avoiding problems before they start. “You’d better be able to identify funguses, molds, and insects,” he insists. “[This knowledge] is important to design. [Everything] is all so interrelated. The best landscaper knows what works in the area. It makes [for] a better designer.”
Presentation Is Everything
Once the design is complete, it must be presented to the customer. There are now software programs that will “age” the design so that the customer can see what the landscape will look like in several years when the plantings are more mature.
Once approved, the project enters the “build” phase. The designer will typically oversee the landscape installation to ensure it is built according to the approved design.
Get Involved Early
You can get involved in landscape design early by looking into organizations such as a local 4-H club or Future Farmers of America (FFA), which promote student interest in agricultural careers. Taking classes in agriculture is also helpful.
“Students [in high school] should check to see it their school has a horticultural program,” says Gibson. “Some high schools even have greenhouses.”
Math courses are also useful to the landscape designer. “You have to take a survey and break [the site] into scale,” says Mitchell. “You have to consider all elevations, like if you’re building steps to a pool apron that’s not there. You have to consider the pitches.”
Field Work A Plus
By getting out in the field and doing landscape “build” and maintenance, you may work your way into a landscape design career–if you have the creative ability.
“Students out of high school may begin with landscape installation and maintenance and then get to design as part of that business,” says Gibson.
“I’ve seen some of the best landscape design people come out of the field,” says Charles Bowers, of Garden Gate Landscaping, Inc., in Maryland. He has hired students following a two-year program. “They have an inherent talent, a design ability.”
In addition to learning by doing, there are programs at colleges, workshops, and certification programs that can help you enter the field.
“There is some sort of horticultural program with a design component at most two-year colleges,” says Bowers.
Mitchell agrees. “There are course opportunities at colleges and seminars,” he says. “There are all types of horticultural courses.”
Architect Vs. Designer
A landscape designer is not the same as a landscape architect. They vary in terms of educational requirements and salaries earned. For instance, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (in landscape architecture) and licensing are required in most states to become a landscape architect.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for landscape design in residential areas because landscape architects are more focused on commercial [properties] and homes above a half a million dollars,” says Gibson. “Normally designers and architects don’t bump up against each other much.”
Delaney believes there is always something new and exciting in landscape design. “Landscape lighting, how the property will look in the night, is something new,” he says. “As trends and demands change, you’ll never be bored.”
Gibson says that there are opportunities for landscape designers, such as running your own business or working for public institutions, such as highway departments. Designers can also do public gardening and professional personal gardening for wealthy individuals.
“A salary of around $35,000 could be brought in doing this,” says Gibson. “It is creative and something where you can see what you’ve done.”
Mitchell agrees. “The lawn maintenance is the bread and butter, but what I love to do is the design.”
“People are demanding green space,” says Gibson. “They have a connection with the earth, and they want a peaceful feeling. Green space is becoming more valuable. Any career associated with the environment is going to flourish.”
Before the invention of mowing machines in 1830, lawns were managed differently from today. Lawns belonging to wealthy people were sometimes maintained by the labour-intensive methods of scything and shearing. In most cases however, they were pasture land, maintained by grazing with sheep or other livestock. Areas of grass grazed regularly by rabbits, horses or sheep over a long period can form a very low, tight sward which is similar to a modern lawn. This was the original meaning of the word ‘lawn’, and the term can still be found in place-names. Some forest areas where extensive grazing is practiced still have these semi-natural lawns. For example, in the New Forest, England, such grazed areas still occur commonly and are still called lawns, for example Balmer Lawn.
Lawns became popular in Europe from the Middle Ages onward. The early lawns were not always distinguishable from pasture fields. It is thought that the associations with pasture and the biblical connotations of this word made them attractive culturally. By contrast, they are little known or used in this form in other traditions of gardening. In addition, the damp climate of maritime Western Europe made them easier to grow and manage than in other lands.
Lawns do not have to be, and have not always been of grass. Other possible plants for fine lawns in the right conditions, are camomile and thyme. Some lawns, if grown in difficult conditions for grasses, become dominated by whatever weeds can survive there; these include clovers in dry conditions, and moss in damp shady conditions.
Maintaining a rough lawn requires only occasional cutting with a suitable machine, or grazing by animals. Higher quality lawns however require a number of operations. These may include:
mowing, to cut the grass regularly to an even height
scarifying and raking, to remove dead grass and prevent tufting
rolling, to encourage tillering (branching of grass plants), and to level the ground
top dressing the lawn with sand, soil or other material
spiking, to relieve compaction of the soil
watering, to prevent from going dormant and turning brown
herbicide and pesticide application to manage weeds and pests
A number of criticisms of lawns are based on environmental grounds
Many lawns tend to be composed of a single species of plant, or of very few species, which reduces biodiversity, especially if the lawn covers a large area. In addition, they may be composed primarily of plants not local to the area which can further decrease local biodiversity.
Lawns are sometimes cared for by using pesticides and other chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment.
Maintaining a green lawn often requires large amounts of water. The use of such large amounts on plants that are often unsuited for their environment puts a strain on water supplies (especially during drought years), requiring larger more environmentally invasive water supply systems. Grass typically goes dormant by turning brown during hot, dry summer months, thereby reducing its demand for water. But this appearance may be unacceptable to the lawn owner.
In the US and some other areas, lawn heights are generally maintained by poorly tuned gasoline push or riding lawnmowers, which use an excessive amount of fuel and contribute to urban smog during the summer months.
Lawns use up vast areas of arable land often obtained through the expropriation of farmers from their land to make room for suburbs in North America.
However, using ecological techniques, the impact of lawns can sometimes be reduced. Such methods include the use of local grasses, using only organic fertilizers, and introducing a variety of plants to the lawn. In addition to the environmental criticisms, some gardeners question the aesthetic value of lawns. One positive benefit of a healthy lawn is that of a filter for contaminants and to prevent run-off and erosion of bare dirt.
Lawn Irrigation Systems
Due to competing needs for existing water resources, the amount of water available for irrigation is dwindling. Like it or not, we’re going to have to learn to irrigate more efficiently. This is why it is so important to schedule irrigation according to plant needs, not simply according to a clock. The latter is the case with all automatically scheduled irrigation that does not take the weather (sun, wind, temperature), evaporation and transpiration (ET) into consideration.
If you don’t know how well your irrigation system is operating, or how much water is being delivered by each sprinkler in a zone, you should perform an assessment and an audit to obtain this valuable information. You can then use this information to make changes to the irrigation system that will increase efficiency.
Assessing Your System
Before you can improve your system, you must determine its inefficiencies and then commit to making the changes needed to bring it up to par. Changes might involve respacing sprinklers, reducing pressure, changing nozzles, resizing pipes, repairing or modifying a pumping system, upgrading a controller, adding or recalibrating a weather station, adding flow and metering devices, or other changes that may be needed. Many irrigation systems operate at around 65- to 70-percent water-use efficiency. If you can increase the efficiency by as little as 10 percent, the resulting water savings will be substantial. Water savings at sites we have worked on ranged from 25 percent up to a 72-percent savings for a 24-acre site. The latter has resulted in a substantial saving on their water bill — to date, enough to pay for the audit five times over.
Additional savings can be realized in the form of less electricity for pumping, lower fertilizer needs, fewer system component repairs from reduced operating time and slower plant growth, resulting in less frequent maintenance services.
At one site, we introduced a flow sensor so we could track real flow numbers. This goes a long way in demonstrating the savings that you actually achieve. Another useful device is a dedicated, irrigation water meter. I find that when the actual amount of water used at a specific site (sports field, golf course, commercial site or even a large residential site) is known, the owners or managers are much more ready to adopt conservation practices to reduce the daily, weekly or monthly irrigation volume.
Some metering devices are capable of shutting down the main water supply in case a pipeline ruptures, which is another way to save water.
Auditing Your System
One of the main goals of a water audit is to achieve as balanced a system as possible based on economies of scale and return on investment. You would not spend $1,000 to get a $1.00 a year savings. However, you probably would spend $1,000 if that would net you a $500 reduction that year and every year after as long as you operated the irrigation system.
A balanced system applies water as evenly as possible throughout the irrigated zone. An unbalanced system may apply too much in one location, resulting in wet areas, while not applying enough in another location of the same zone, creating dry areas. The result is that you always overwater because you must run the system long enough to meet the requirements of the driest areas.
When considering an audit, it helps initially to actually watch the site’s system in operation. Doing so, you should be able to tell if overwatering is occurring and if you will be able to reduce the usage by a lot or just a little. You don’t want to spend your time — and your client doesn’t want to spend the money — where no substantial reductions will be achievable.
Obtain as much background information as you can. Weather data, historical water use, system layout, components, water source, water meters, controllers, etc. Prearrange with the client permission to operate each zone of the system for about 5 to 10 minutes.
For every bed and every border, there must be a reason. Wendy Burroughs–self-taught gardener turned sought-after design pro–says you have to figure out that raison d’etre before you even shape the garden. “Is it an entry garden?” she asks. “Does it have to have a high-season splash of color? Are fall and winter interest important? Does it need to be low-maintenance?” More questions: “Do you want a specific kind of bed or border: English cottage garden? Mediterranean? Are deer a problem? Is water?” Only once you have asked yourself all these questions, and more (and, yes, answered them), can you begin to plan the shape of your gardens, Wendy says. And only after that can you start to figure out what plants you want and where you want them.
Wendy’s drive-side bed and border started out as shade gardens. Then a violent winter windstorm felled many of the 80-foot firs towering above her plantings. So the shade gardens had to become sun gardens. And the plants had to be removed and replaced. Is your planting area in shade or sun?–another question to ask yourself.
Wendy has another tip for you. You’ll like this one especially.
“It’s never a bad thing to make mistakes,” she says. “You learn by trial and error. I am completely self-taught by my mistakes. I don’t mind–I’m not a perfectionist. When something doesn’t work, I change it.”
If you need to move a plant, move it. “But after I move a plant three times, it goes into the compost pile.” Because sometimes a perfectly good plant turns out to have no earthly reason for being in your yard. “If it doesn’t look good, excuse it from the garden,” she says. “I used to have a big moral problem with that. Then I took out six crab apples.”
One more thing, Wendy says. Perennials aren’t the only answer. Make sure to integrate trees and shrubs into your herbaceous beds and borders.
Wendy started her drive-by border with a triangular anchor of trees–cherry, magnolia, and liquidambar. Then she introduced a slow-growing conifer–a golden Hinoki cypress–which gave a yearlong glow to her wonderful garden.
The addition of trees and shrubs does two things. One, it gives layers to your garden. The beds rise from ground-huggers to the coif-toppers, a must if your backdrop is–as it is for Wendy–filled with tall objects. But, two, the structural aspect of the woody plants gives you something pleasing to look at in the off-season–that oft-bandied term “winter interest.”
“In winter, when everything else is gone, those architectural plants are still holding it all together,” says Wendy. “I just love four-season borders.” If you plan well, she says, you will include some colorful berries; trees with striped, peeling, or glossy bark; yellow and blue evergreens; broadleaf evergreen shrubs; and deciduous woodies with interesting branching habits.
“I haven’t completely eliminated all-perennial gardens,” Wendy says. “I have some clients who still want them.”
Why Wendy Likes To Think Big
Seasoned gardeners know to do things in a big way. Paths shouldn’t be a stingy 2 or 3 feet wide; that’s a dog path. Paths should be 5 or even 6 feet wide. Two people should be able to walk side by side without tripping over each other. Benches, if they are to accommodate anyone but love-struck teens, should be 5 or 6 feet wide. For two more level-headed people to sit agreeably, 4 feet is too close for comfort. Elbows collide; drinks get spilled.
And then there are flower borders. “I used to think of borders as 4 feet deep,” Wendy says. “Now I make mine 10 to 12 feet deep.” That’s how you get all those ornamental trees and flowering shrubs in there. And, says Wendy, “It really knocks your socks off.”
A Few Parting Words From Wendy
Put some edibles in your landscape. “The kids graze all summer long, and we have apples all winter.”
Plant lots and lots of euphorbias. “I just love every one of them. They’re especially good in flower arrangements.”
And don’t spend too much on your garden too soon. “I first bought inexpensive trees like you can get from any drugstore. They were like pencils. When a local nursery moved, I pulled trees out of their Dumpster. I learned on cheap plants and moved up from there.”
And Now a Few Words About Edging
Wendy first edged her oval island bed with rocks she collected on the property. Funny thing though–weeds don’t know they aren’t supposed to grow in and among stones. In fact, weed seeds like to lodge there. Worse, it is hard to weed out rogues around and under rocks. So what started out as a weed-suppressant idea became a weed-germination nightmare. Solution: Wendy pulled back the stones, had a concrete barrier laid, and set the stones back in the concrete:
If you have flowerbeds next to your lawn, edging (such as flat stone or bricks) can provide double duty. This soil-level barrier not only keeps your lawn and your perennials from encroaching on each other’s turf, but also acts as a mowing path. Run the wheels of one side of your mower right on top of the stone or brick. The grass will be cut at a uniform height, and there will be no telltale line of towering stragglers along the edging. Nope, no hand shears or weed trimmers needed.
From the Beginning: Think About Your Soil Before You Plant
Back in 1988, Wendy’s five-acre property was “choked with woods,” she says. “I grew up in the woods, but this was 8 feet of debris, tree trunks piled high. There was no light–not even blackberries could grow there.” When she had the trees thinned, “it was the biggest land-clear the guy had done on the island.” The marketable logs were taken out, and the rest of the stumps, logs, and forest debris was burned. “My husband could see the fire from his office in Seattle. It burned for a week.” Then came the storm of ’93, and shade turned to sun. “I was so naive: I bought packets of seed and scattered them in the turnaround without amending the soil or anything.” Pffft: zilch. So she amended the soil with peat from an island bog. “They brought it in by the truckload. It was goopy, oily, thick pudding,” she recalls. “And hard to work with. But it worked like steroids on my plants. Now I always spend as much in soil amendments as I do in plant material.”
Most yards start out as a standard rectangle. It is up to you to break out of the box. But unlike Wendy’s garden, yours probably needs to have some lawn. Kids, croquet, whatever. Here are four starting points (page 171) to get you thinking about what kind of shape or shapes you might want to impose on your landscape. Rather than just line the edge of the property with a hedge, think of the boundary as opportunity for border gardens. And maybe that’s all the gardening you want to do. For now. But gardening has a way of becoming an itch you just can’t help but scratch, and somewhere along the line you may decide more is better. The shape you stamp on your backyard is one of the greatest injections of personality you can make on your garden. Just remember: These shapes should have a reason too. Think: How do I use my yard?
The Garden Retreat This plan features a wide flower border on the left and an entertaining area (or a spot for seclusion) way out back.
The Cottage Garden An ambling, free-form lawn seeps like a slow river through undulating flowerbeds. Ah, to be in England.
The Formal Garden Circular turf areas give strong geometry in a dramatic space. Ample areas are provided for ornamental plantings.
Room for Kids Here children can get up a full head of steam and still avoid trampling on the flowerbeds. So they can play while you plant.
Organic Lawn Care
Elise Craig lives in a garden apartment in Portland, Oregon, where children roll in the grass and run barefoot across lawns in the summer light. A year ago, she realized that whenever the landlord spread lawn-care chemicals on the grass, her six-year-old son, Michael, lost bowel and bladder control for weeks afterward.
“Michael’s symptoms came back every time they treated the lawn,” says Craig. “They told us it was safe after a day, so I kept him off the grass for a week or two. Michael still got sick. We were ultimately successful in organizing our community to go organic, but we are about to move, and I may face this battle in our new home with new neighbors.”
In Portland, where Craig organized teams of weed-pulling parents at her son’s school (with help from a principal who’s an organic farmer), the city has put up billboards that say, “Is Your Lawn Chemical-Free? Maybe It Should Be.”
Each year, Americans apply more than 80 million pounds of chemical products–including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides–to their lawns and gardens.
Homeowners often don’t realize the myriad health hazards associated with lawn-care pesticides sold under such innocuous names as Weed & Feed and Bug-B-Gon. These products contain pesticides such as 2,4-D (linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and MCPP (associated with soft-tissue cancers).
People think the government would warn them if these widely sold chemicals were known to damage their nervous systems, harm fetuses or give them cancer. None of these long-term adverse health effects are required by law to be listed on product labels.
“Forty years ago, in the enormously praised and fiercely criticized book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson demonstrated the dangers of pesticides,” says H. Patricia Hynes, director of the Urban Environmental Health Initiative at Boston University and author of The Recurring Silent Spring. “Lawn chemical usage has nearly doubled since 1964.”
Pesticides used solely on lawns are not required to undergo the same rigorous testing for long-term health effects as those used on food. No federal studies have assessed the safety of lawn-care chemicals in combination, as most are sold. Because of industry lobbying, the identities of “inert ingredients” are protected as trade secrets under federal law. Pesticides may contain up to 99 percent inert ingredients, some of which are suspected carcinogens, while others are linked to nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage and birth defects.
“More than 90 percent of pesticides and inert ingredients are never tested for their effects on developing nervous systems,” says John Wargo, director of the Yale Center for Children’s Environmental Health and author of Risks from Lawn-Care Pesticides, a report from Environment and Human Health. “Children are more affected by exposure to such chemicals because they are smaller and their organs are not mature.”
Wargo adds, “Streams and groundwater in the Midwest are contaminated with atrazine, a widely used herbicide linked to sexual mutations in fish and amphibians. Is this the price we pay for green lawns?”
The Natural Resources Defense Council is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the public from environmental and health threats posed by atrazine, which is banned by the European Union. “Atrazine poses a serious cancer risk for millions of Americans,” says Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides. “Companies, federal and state regulators downplay the hazards of commonly used pesticides.”
Steps To Pesticide Freedom
Try “natural” alternatives. Chrysanthemum-derived pesticides, diatomaceous earth and boric acid are sold in garden centers. SharpShooter (citric acid) is an effective insecticide. Or make your own solution of three to six tablespoons of dishwashing soap (without degreaser) per gallon of water.
Squirt weeds. Instead of RoundUp, use BurnOut (lemon juice and vinegar) to kill weeds along walkways. And what’s so terrible about clover anyway?
Get rid of grubs. Beneficial nematodes and milky spore kill them.
Choose native plants. Replace grass with ground covers or wildflowers.
Know your insects. Some bugs are beneficial. Ladybugs eat aphids; lacewings eat caterpillars; and praying mantises eat all insects (even each other).
Go organic. Agricultural extensions often analyze soil for a small fee. Organic care nourishes the soil for a lawn that’s naturally luxuriant, disease-resistant and pest-free. CONTACT: Beyond Pesticides, (202)543-5450, www.beyondpesticides .org; Environment and Human Health, (203)248-6582, www.ehhi.org/pesticides. BurnOut and SharpShooter are available through St. Gabriel Laboratories, (800) 801-0061.