Archives for July 2010

Taking Charge Of The Clock

The new owners of the business that is right next door to my shop has not, to my knowledge, used their automatic irrigation system during the past two years.  It shows.  I installed the landscape for this storage company probably 14 years ago; the owners took great pride in the appearance of their business.  As I cannot imagine that whomever owns this place now would want to pay what it would cost to replace the landscape, I choose to conclude that they have neglected to take charge of their clock.  Their irrigation clock.  I cannot imagine upon seeing these Annabelle hydrangeas, they would not run to the clock, and switch on the water. 

The landscape is in serious water distress.  The crabapples are shedding leaves trying to stay alive by having fewer areas that are loosing water; I actually think the grass is dead. As I would rather write about a property owner who has a water problem they are trying to solve, I have a story. I do have a good client who lost three newly planted trees this spring; they drowned.  It has been a process of trial and error to sort out the drainage issues from the irrigation problems.  Upon engaging a new company to troubleshoot their irrigation system, numerous problems in the design and maintenance of the system became apparent.  As an irrigation system is installed underground, you cannot spot the problems until they show up in the form of dying plants.  Too much water can be as deadly as too little.  Should you be so fortunate as to have in ground irrigation, you have a great tool within your grasp to provide water to you plants when they need it-without dragging the hose.  The key-learning how to take charge and program your clock. 

My clients were fortunate to secure the services of a first rate irrigation company.  When I say first rate, I mean there is a thoughtful and thorough person at the helm. He repaired all of the leaking pipes and heads.  Then, he went to the clock.  Most of what I will be covering regarding managing an irrigation system is paraphrased from what he took the time and trouble to explain to my clients.  First and foremost-an irrigation system is not your big brother.  It is a machine that needs to be programmed, depending on the season, the weather, and the types of plants you are watering. 

In the early spring, and in the later fall, when the temperatures are not above 60 degrees during the day, cut back on the water.  When the weather is cool, the evaporation of water from the ground slows considerably; one a week watering is fine.  Once the daytime temperatures go above 60, set your grass zones to run every other day for ten minutes. This is a benchmark that may work for you, or not-but it is a place to start. Grass in shadier spots where the evaporation rate is less, water less.  Grass in full sun next to the asphalt pavement may need 12 minutes every other day.  As grass can survive without water for 60 consecutive days, take the time to set the clock, and adjust the times if necessary.  When it pours rain for two days, shut the machine off.  

Shrub beds, trees, and established annuals need less water than grass.  Check to be sure you lawn zone is not accidentally watering a shrub bed-that bed may be getting unneeded overlap from one zone to another that could damage those shrubs.  Established trees and shrubs rarely need that much water, unless there is a drought-so resist the urge to water by rote.  Always err on the dry side.  If things look wilty, turn the time set to water on the clock up.  If things look brown, turn the times way up.  If things look saturated, or yellowish, turn the clock to the “Off” position.  Automatic means just that-whether it is hot or cold, whether we have had 2 inches of rain yesterday, or no rain for a month, an irrigation machine will continue to water that the same time and rate as the last time you looked at your clock and set it.

Taking 15 minutes a month to tune up your clock will save you countless hours and effort dragging a hose.  Both Rob and Steve handwater everything-but their properties are small.  I will say that though they have no automatic irrigation, both of their landscapes are happy and healthy.  As I said, err on the side of too little. 

Automatic irrigation sends water into the air via a nozzle, or head, that is set to pop up once the irrigation goes on. Some nozzles that cover vast areas of lawn rotate as they spit out water.  Smaller areas of shrubs or perennials may have nozzles called mist heads, that cover a much smaller area. Common to every nozzle is a flow rate.  A good irrigation contractor will adjust the rate of flow of water after assessing all of your existing conditions.  If you have zones that overlap, or zones in shade, you may want to reduce the flow.  Less gallons per minute.  But once your contractor has tuned up all of the mechanics to the best of his ability, thre responsibility for running that system will fall to the property owner.

Airborne water droplets evaporate quickly.  You may use 100 gallons of water, of which only a percentage reaches the roots of the plants you are trying to water.  For this reason, in ground irrigation is not designed to water new plants.  Hand watering, that puts the water to the crown and roots is a necessity.  A dusting of water over top a plant that has not yet sent out roots into the surrounding soil is not enough.  New plantings need to be watched-and have your hand put to them.  A babysitter will not do. 

I will be the first to say that irrigation clocks were designed by some engineering type whose thought process is pretty much alien to my own.  My clock is far too complex-just like my Suburban.  I need forward, neutral, park, stop and go-I have 58 separate positions possible for the driver’s seat.  This is vastly more than what I really need.  I still have to call my irrigation person with questions about the clock.  For certain, the one thing I have done that I find invaluable-a map of all the zones, and what they cover, pasted up next to the clock.  I am only now learning how to change the duration of time on any zone given the percentage feature.  When it is extremely hot-over 85 degrees, I up all the times on all the zones 140% to 200%.  Ordinary summer hot, 85 degrees or less, I may water at 100%-130% of my normal time.   

As I said first up, every bit of this came directly from, or is paraphrased from from Jack Linderman, who owns The Living Painting.  Should you need some thoughtful help from an excellent irrigation contractor, I can recommend him.

At A Glance: White Cosmos


Appealing Leaves

Leaves are a very highly specialized mechanism for converting the energy of the sun into compounds that provide food for a plant.  The word for this-photosynthesis.  Though I have a middling ok understanding of the science involved, I am better on the appreciation end.  The infinite diversity of leaves is like having a box of pastels with a 1000 diferent colors available-only better.  Leaves are not just diverse in color, but also in mass, volume, substance, shape, form and texture.  Appealing leaves can add as much to your garden-maybe more so, than the flowers that come with.

Is it my age, or are polka dot plants cool? I like variegated leaves-this plant does a stellar job of delivering  very interesting color contrast and texture-and is adaptable to either full shade or full sun.  What more could you ask for?  They are equally as good in the shape department-I trim mine into all kinds of shapes-balls, ovals-they are as decent as any living plant I have ever seen at approximating a square. I think of them as supporting cast leaves-would that I could grow this plant into a topiary on standard.      

This handsome leaf strongly reminiscent of Luciano Pavorotti is related to ligularia.    The large thick leaves of Farfugium terminate in graphically frilly edges.  Look again-this is a leaf a gardener would never forget.  The contrast in texture between the main leaf and the edges-as dramatic as it gets. An aria is in the air.  A simple and decidedly modern container is all the better for the strong texture and rhythm that a planting of this plant could provide. 

Pepperomia-this family has many species, and lots of cultivars.  Long the darling of the indoor house plant set, I like planting them outdoors.  The leaves are routinely round or oval-the variation in surface, sheen, and color- striking. This class of plants-I am a fan of pepperomias. The small growers, my favorite.  The big paddle shaped leaves of a viariety whose name I do not know-I plant them with the frothy leaf fronds of ferns-a dramatic study in contrast.  Try tropicals outside-they might surprise and please you.    

Grass-I admire grass in any form.  My clipped turf-a groundcover like a skin over dirt. The ornamental grasses such as this Panicum Virgatum-graceful.  Tranquil.  Meadowlike.  Good for the gardening soul.  The long narrow leaves are textural, and rhythmic.  Any long grass is all the better for the wind flowing through.  Ornamental grass moves with the slightest breeze.  I would put grass at the top of my list for leaves that manage to make beautiful music.

Caladiums have giant heart shaped leaves.  They come to a point dramatically-like an arrow.  They are thin.  Substance refers to thickness; a xx leaf is thick and rigid-a caladium leaf is very thin, and wispy. A leaf of considerable size, which is white to boot-this plant will like shade.  The new varieties of caladiums-such as this all white variety known as White Christmas-greatly enhance the palette of any gardener focused on great design.  

Cuban oregano-I plant this plant as a skirt,  routinely.  The thick hairy leaves have a great texture.  They grow like weeds, and take well to pruning.  A mass of this oregano well grown-green and beautiful. 

Figs have large and beautiful leaves.  The leaves are spare, on the trunk.  Should you have a modern or contemporary garden, consider figs.  Each leaf is a sculpture. The ripening fruit will please you.  Should you have a farm and garden landscape, a few fig trees will make themselves at home.  The design issue here-make much of whatever design component important to you that takes your landscape where you would like it to be.   The figs of the Italian working gardens-is this you?  The sparsely growing figs that so fit in a contemporary garden may be more to your liking.    

Strawberries-who does not love this fruit?  I would only ask that you look at their medium large toothed leaves; are they not beautiful?  This pot at the shop features a topiary rosemary-which I have left out of this photograph.  The rosemary- underplanted with strawberries and  fiber optic grass.  The contrast of leaf textures-pleasing. 

Lotus-this leaf is like no other leaf. Thin, delicate, and emerald green-astonishing.    Our native lotus, nelumbo luteus-I have many memories of visiting those large stands near Monroe, protected by the Ford Motor Company.  The Ford family-they support my museum, my opera, my symphony, my city-and my native lotus. Many thanks to you, Ford, for honoring the beauty of the leaf.  Gardens may have flowers, but most of what is there is about leaves.

A Landscape In Focus

Every landscape presents something upon which the eye will focus.  Designing with the intent of guiding the eye can be the toughest part of the design process, as you may need to envision something which is not yet there. Or the visiting eye may focus on something to which your eyes have become so accustomed, you literally do not see it any more.  Garbage cans, pool equipment, air conditioning units-these are prime examples of what may be more prominent in your landscape than what you imagine.  I often see transformers and air conditioning equipment surrounded by giant hedges.  I wonder if this hedge style treatment does not in fact draw more attention to an unsightly object than the unsightly object itself. The very beautiful object pictured above, an English trough of considerable age; was placed where the lawn becomes a mixed shrub border. The border itself is quiet and unassuming; the planted trough organized the space visually in a strong and lively way.  The white flowers can be seen from a great distance in several directions.   

Garden furniture can likewise punctuate a landscaped space to good effect. This landscape has a natural and park-like feeling. Though this dining suite may not be a dinner destination, it encourages vistors to linger in the garden by providing seating.  Though the furniture is wirework, it becomes a visually organizing metaphor for the intent of landscape.  Parks usually provide places for people to be, and observe the outdoors.   

This very fine antique English sundial holds court in this landscape.  Aided and abetted by its massive size, striking shape, and pale limestone material, it grabs the eye the moment it comes into view. 

This 19th century French cast iron hound is one of a pair, flanking the entrance to my drive.  I see my driveway twice a day-this makes it an important garden to me.  My picea mucrunulatum is a gorgeous old plant; they were in my front yard when I bought my house 15 years ago.  I moved them to the drive, so I would be sure to see them every day.   The dogs draw one’s eye first, they invite a viewer to look more closely at this beautiful evergreen. 

Not every local point is an object.  These old spikes-who could pass them by? One year I had in my mind to do an annual garden with a little Mediterranean feeling. Those massive spiky heads atop those gnarly trunks-noticeable.  Most of the visual vistors to my shop are the people who drive by every day.  A focal point of this scale is sufficiently significant enough for a quick look.  It might even encourage someone of gardening ilk to turn around and come back for a more thorough look-see. 

This weathered English teak bench is handsome and solid. One hardly notices the browning tips on the boxwood, or the hose.  Some objects have the power to distract one’s eye away from something that is not so lovely.  If I had to have a hose available in the garden, I would want to stash it under just such a bench as this one. 

This landscape has a stunning distant view of a lake, and mature trees.  But this 19th century American made fountain does a great job of holding the entire view together.  In the lawn, a suite of white wood garden furniture.  The furniture helps to visually describe how far away the space is from the spot where I am standing.  It further more organizes the lawn space.   I do love the composition of this landscape from this particular view.  There is a strongly represented foreground, a defined mid-ground, and a dreamy far ground.  The large trees between the lawn and the lake proide a quiet backdrop for the fountain.  They also further define “at a distance” in a visual way.    

This concrete furniture I no longer have, but I did like what it did for the front of the shop.  Concrete chairs are completely impractical for a dining space that gets used every day in the summer, but they are a great choice for providing a focal point in a garden.  I have the luxury of changing what sits between these trees every year.  What pleases you in an ornament, beautifully placed,  can influence the look and mood of your entire landscape.