Look What Came to My Yard!
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Look What Came to My Yard!
The Best and the Worst
Cool-season grasses cover lawns where temperatures stay below ninety degrees almost all the time. Cool-season grasses go dormant or die during drought or high temperatures, so southerners are out of luck with the cool species. That doesn’t stop them from trying, though. You can seed cool-season grasses, so they are inexpensive to establish. They germinate when temperatures are in the fifties, so most landscapers seed them in the fall. The lush, green blades last through the entire winter, just like the yards we used to draw in kindergarten pictures. As long as temperatures are moderately cool these grasses stay green all year.
Being able to seed a beautiful turf is a great cost advantage, because seed is much less expensive than sod or sprigs. Suppliers attempt to reduce costs even more by mixing cheaper species seed in with the finest, most elegant turf grass of them all—Kentucky bluegrass.
There is no need for hard choices. Kentucky bluegrass is the best lawn grass possible, hands down. Why would you plant anything else? It makes a beautiful, run-barefoot-to-your-true-love-gorgeous lawn. It is refined and soft and a deep green. Its only weakness is a lack of shade-tolerance. The only other turf seed species that can compete, because it is slightly cheaper, is Tall Fescue, but the quality of a Fescue lawn cannot compare to Bluegrass.
Quality Soil for Quality Landscapes
A new landscape design starts with a decision. Are you thumbs up or thumbs down for birds? It is a delight to see the chittering goldfinch grace your yard with their presence, but not so wonderful to have thousands of black birds rooting over your patio, so you can love and hate birds at the same time. Your landscape design can influence the type of birds you want, the landscape impression you are trying to make, and the uniqueness of the species that might visit your site.
Birds can damage a landscape. They eat ripe garden fruits and vegetables. They eat invasive plant seed and deposit them throughout the garden, adding instant fertilizer encapsulation in the process. When living too closely to humans, they might carry disease. In large groups, they can deposit copious amounts of droppings. Yuck!
On the other hand, they can fly and they are beautiful. Some are brightly colored. They eat harmful insects. They provide entertainment through activity and song. Anyone living in Guam, especially after the brown tree snake arrived, will tell you how precious they are. Without birds, a lot of native trees would lose their seed distribution. In the balance of things, birds belong outdoors.
There are ways to encourage birds to choose your area for their home. Bird feeders are okay, but they tend to bring mobs of a limited number of species at best, or squirrels at worst! They also leave unattractive seed litter on the ground below. It is much better to provide a diverse, inviting habitat. Go beyond birdfeeders. Your natural vegetation can provide a bounteous food supply. Save the one hundred dollars you would spend on a bird feeder, along with constant trips to the grocery for birdseed, and create a natural and welcoming home for birds.
There is a thin green line between all the choices for warm season turf in the south. I designed an educational garden to allow consumers to compare and differentiate the choices for their lawns. As you can see above, they are all green, with subtle differences in hue. All of them can be mowed to less than four inches tall. They all have blades of grass that form a fine-textured carpet on the ground. The big difference in all the warm-season turf choices is in the cultural practices needed to keep them thriving.
Before choosing turf for your clients, answer these questions: Once you do, your turf choice is simple.
• How much sun will there be?
• How much supplemental water can you provide?
• How much foot traffic will be involved?
• How often will mowing take place?
• How refined and manicured do you want the lawn to be? Do you want golf-course perfection?
• What is the budget for installation and maintenance?
• Does your client insist on green year-round?
• Does your client insist on non-invasive species?
Carpenter Bees and Other Uninvited Creatures
Part of a good ornamental landscape design is gaining control—controlled lines, controlled growth, and controlled water. Invasive pests will not allow coexistence. Invasive pests are out there, trying to wrest away your control and dominance of your outdoor space, and you have no option but to battle them. Vigilance is required to stand and hold your ground. Eradication must be your goal.
The Comptetion from Other Disciplines is Fierce
Landscape Architects bring substantial value to public projects. Landscape Architects are trained to pull together information from all the disciplines and make them work in practical applications. Construction, project management, design, ecology, hydrology, horticulture, and contract specifications are fields that can cause a project to derail in diverse ways, especially if the process for creating plans is compartmentalized. Experts in these fields are prone to think they have the only worthy answers for their niche, because it takes a lot of education and experience to become good at them. However, I’ve seen civil engineers that were afraid to draw anything but geometric shapes and straight lines, ecologists out of touch with practical solutions, horticulturalists more interested in showing off their Latin than choosing appropriate plant material, and contract engineers focused on meeting the technicalities of specification requirements while knowingly sabotaging the project results by doing so. I’ve seen those same experts turn cooperative and willing to try new things when a Landscape Architect is included in project meetings.
A Sophisticated Landscape Design Tool
Spellcheck highlights the word “interplanting”, but it is a legitimate planting technique that enriches your landscape design. I am adding it to my dictionary! When landscape designers incorporate interplanting in their plans, it is a sign they are experienced and willing to elevate to high-level garden design. Interplanting takes skill, complex thinking, and an intimate knowledge of plant material. The results can be elegant. It’s a sophisticated design tool to provide year-round interest or make a single garden area have continuous appeal.
Interplanting for successive bloom and foliage interest is a skill worth cultivating. If you learn the peak moments of growth and bloom for the plants in your yard, you can interplant to keep a garden spot performing aesthetically at its best for several months. Interplanting can be combined with thoughtful seasonal planning to stretch the usefulness of a landscape through all twelve months. By taking notes, recording observations, and using combinations that work in succession, you can build your interplanting aptitude.
The maintenance required for interplanting is high-level, too. Landscape crews must be able to nurture plants that are declining while encouraging new growth in successive plants growing in the same plant bed. I’ve seen miles of highway medians, through carefully timed mowings, progress through winter cover crop, spring wildflowers, to summer turf grasses, to autumn native plant mixes, changing color with the season and out-competing weeds. By deadheading, allowing last season’s growth to wither in place, and cutting back spent growth at just the right moment, you can make your own successful combinations. It is common for some plants to have two or even three flushes of bloom, with rests in between. With either careful maintenance or happy accident, the interplay of plant combinations can be developed into self-sustaining performances that repeat year after year. Planning for successful interplanting requires weekly observation and careful plant editing/clipping by someone with an artistic eye.
Quality and Good Intentions
Before you decide to use volunteers to maintain a large landscape, ask yourself this question. Are you willing to do manual labor outdoors for four hours for anyone for free? Are you willing to do this once every two weeks for nine months? If you are not willing to do this, then it will be difficult to find other people to volunteer for the commitment needed to maintain a high quality ornamental landscape.
That kind of commitment is rare for volunteer forces. It is difficult for most people to volunteer for more than once-or-twice-a-year, and a couple of work days a year is not enough to sustain the quality of an ornamental landscape site. You can imagine what you own home landscape would be like if it received only a couple of energetic clean ups a year. Coordinating a volunteer force of about fifty volunteers to meet the required need for a single public landscape takes a full-time effort for at least one paid person. The money would be better spent hiring a full-time gardener.
The best way to save on landscaping your site is to preserve the existing trees. Grading contractors will assume you want your entire site cleared unless you specifically indicate areas to be preserved and specifically require protective fencing to keep heavy equipment out of those areas during construction activity. Equipment operators are more than happy to over-clear to the property line. It’s easier for them, since they don’t have to tip-toe around special trees. Also, with more clearing, they get paid more. Clearcutting is more expensive for the developer, however. After the dozers are done with demolition, the project may take on additional costs, because large amounts of rip rap may be required along the stream channel to armor new, unstable buffers. All the extra trouble and expense can be avoided by preemptive action at the drawing board. Healthy, existing trees save money if they are protected during the demolition stage.
New construction sites often fall victim to an overly enthusiastic clearing equipment operator. The dozer operator may not read the specs and plan sheets carefully, so be sure sturdy, orange fencing is installed before any clearing starts. Protective fencing needs to be in place at the same time the initial soil erosion and sedimentation control safeguards are installed, during phase-zero of the project. Put specific notes about the timing for fence installation on your plan sheets for protecting areas to be graded.
The unmanaged woods within the project limits of a construction site are valuable. If they are protected, you reduce your maintenance costs, reduce your demolition costs, and reduce the amount of new planting needed to restore your site. Include protection of woodland buffers as a BMP on your soil erosion and sedimentation control plans. Protective barriers are important visual boundaries, especially in vulnerable areas like stream buffers.
Instruct the operator on the bulldozer. Show them the boundaries of the areas you want cleared and the areas you want protected. You need to use big, bright-orange protective fence to provide clear boundaries. Those ugly fences are only temporary, but they preserve the delicate drip line of trees. The existing woodland beauty deserves a permanent place in your landscape design.