Why You Need a Landscape Designer (or Architect)

Here’s a shocker. Most homeowners (especially women, sorry gal-friends) do not know if they live in the sun or the shade.

How do I know this? I work in a garden retail center.

Every Saturday couples wake up, and decide that today is the day they’re going to get their yard work done. Trees, shrubs, perennials, all planted and mulched (just like the Home Depot commercials). So, off they go to the nursery.

Now, mind you, they’ve already broken rule number one in any project. They haven’t talked about the yard yet. No late night or early morning breakfast discussions on what they both like, or more importantly, don’t like. (Couples live under the delusion, no matter how many years into a good marriage, that they like the same things.)

So, upon arriving at the nursery, the wife heads straight to anything that is blooming. Generally, the perennials (which are a ton of work). She starts picking up this and that, and saying, “Oh, how pretty.” Here’s where I step in. “Do you have sun or shade?” I ask.

The wife, “Full sun.”

The husband, “Some sun, more morning than not.” Then he looks at his wife as if she’s grown a third eye in the middle of her forehead.

I break the bad news to her. “That plant requires full sun,” I say.

She doesn’t hear me. She’s already envisioning a field of these perennials blooming in her yard. She’s imagining hosting weekend company (something she rarely, if ever, does), and cutting them to arrange artfully in vases for the guest rooms.

To emphasize, I say, “You know, like parking lot sun.”

This stops her (I am nothing if not descriptive).

I continue, “Like five to six hours of middle of the day, no trees around, no houses, no sheds, no garages, NOTHING but blazing sun, for five to six hours,” I have a very serious look on my face, because I know who will be back in the nursery in a few weeks, telling me that her flowers aren’t blooming.

She says, “We have that.”

Her husband nearly goes insane with this declaration, but but he maintains because I’m standing there. “We practically live in a forest,” he says.

“My peonies bloom,” she responds.

At this point, I suggest they talk a bit, while I go busy myself with something else. They agree, and head toward the back of the nursery, trying to communicate just like the counselor taught them. It does not look promising.

The back of my house faces the side of my neighbor’s house. Between our houses is a picket fence, a chain link fence, two very large cherry trees that completely shade my back yard (I mean completely), and a very large sycamore that completely shades her back yard (again, I mean, completely). Yet, without fail, in that space between our houses, she plants daylilies, cone flowers, shasta daisies, and roses. Basically, any plant that requires full (parking lot full) sun. I watch her from my bedroom window as she tends to these bedraggled, pitiful, non-blooming plants. Well, I’ll correct myself. Sometimes, they do manage one or two blooms. I suppose it’s all relative.

I want tell her, while gesturing with sweeping arms, this is ALL SHADE. I imagine myself saying SHADE like I would to an old person who is hard of hearing, although she is neither.

I have a client whose garden will be on tour this year. It’s a big deal, and I’m helping her get ready. We fight constantly over whether she has sun or shade. She swears she has full sun. I sound like the garden center husband when I tell her, “You practically live in a forest,” Actually, she does live in a forest. I’m just trying to be polite, and get paid.

She says, “My peonies bloom.”

And, they do. About three blooms per shrub, for which she paid $86 a shrub, for a total of three shrubs, or $258.

This isn’t the only reason why most homeowners need a landscape designer, but it is a very good one. If you don’t know whether you live in the sun or the shade, you need help, because that is going to determine what you plant (and yes, ladies, there are a lot of shade blooming plants).

The rule of thumb is 15-20% of the value of your home should be spent on the yard. Before your jaw falls open, especially if you are currently building a home in the range of a million or more, consider that the costs includes hardscapping (driveways, terracing, stone steps, patios, rock walls, drainage, etc.), and all this before you even get to plants and mulch.

So, before you consider a DIY yard, consider a designer. They need the work, and you need a happy marriage, which grows best in sun or shade so long as professionals are doing the work..

Half Way Through My Sleep Fest; Stop Yakking about Spring; Stealing Back my Itoh Peony

I’m a little more than halfway through my sleep fest, which started Jan 1, and will end whenever Spring decides to make it official. Generally speaking, I’m back at work by late March or early April. It’s been as early as March 15th when, one year, temperatures reached 80 degrees. This caused great concern, and folks were in a dither to get their spring plants. They needn’t have been. In April of the same year, we had a straight two weeks of freezing temperatures. They were back in May replacing dead plant purchases. Such is the dang garden. Iffy, at best.

But, due to the extreme winter weather we’re having, everyone but me is hollering for Spring. So, here’s what I have to say on that subject: STOP YAKKING ABOUT SPRING.

It will get here soon enough, and all your yammering might, oh, I don’t know, cause the gods of spring to spring forth. Hush yourselves. Some of us are still sleeping (me). Are you trying to wish your life away?

Heck. Enjoy the upcoming snow (if indeed it comes), the blustery winds, the frigid temperatures. It’s a chance to sit by the fire or curl up under a blanket and, oh, let me think, do nothing. Hey. I am all for that. When spring does come, its back to 12 hour, fast-paced days, which I love, but don’t mind postponing while the snow falls, and I snooze. So, pipe down, people. No more Facebook posts begging spring to come. The spring gods are still asleep, and so am I. Let’s leave it that way, for now.

And, there’s this.

I haven’t finished all my winter events. I don’t like to call them projects. That sounds like work. They’re events. This week’s event was washing the windows. And, getting my tax info to the tax accountant. (Might I digress here, and say that everyone should have to write a check for their taxes each year like I do. Why, you ask? Because trust me, when you are writing a check for several thousand (or several tens of thousand) dollars to an institution that can’t manage its money any better than you can manage yours, well, voting takes on a whole new meaning.)

Anyway, one of my winter events involves my Itoh peony, pictured below in full bloom, around early June. It’s a cross between an herbaceous peony and a tree peony. That means, a wider range of bloom colors, and a sturdier plant. No flopping in the mud like the typical garden peonies. This one was planted on the bank of the flower market for me by Ben, who was bored that day and loves to plant anything. (Ben is presently working at Great Dixter, with Fergus Garrett, in the Tropical Garden. We miss you Ben! Tell Fergus hello, and take tons of pictures, please.)

I bought this particular peony, and decided to plant it at the flower market, because that’s where I was all the time. That way, I would not miss it blooming. I didn’t, and it was glorious, as the picture shows. Covered in blooms.


Kopper Kettle Itoh Peony, I plan to steal it back….

Here’s the event. The flower market isn’t going to reopen. (Don’t worry, it was a two year experiment that failed, and I’m back at the mother store.) But the folks who leased the property for the flower market now believe that Itoh peony is theirs. Au contraire. That plant was bought and paid for by me. And, as important, planted by Ben. The event? Break into the flower market, and dig up my peony. Well, I still have keys, so it isn’t officially breaking and entering, right?

I was going to climb over the fence, but then I remembered the keys.

Too bad Ben isn’t here because he’d help me. Ben is nothing if not particular about doing the right thing. Instead, I’ll take my friend, Debbie, who will likely pee on herself from giggling. I expect it to be quite the night. I will keep you posted.

See? So many more events to do, and so much sleep to catch up on. Spring is faithful. She’ll make her appearance. But until then, I’ll be dreaming about yellow peonies while sleeping by the fire. Shhhhh…..

Encore Azaleas

Why I Hate Encore Azaleas

Here’s why I hate Encore azaleas: They are, for me, the cheerleaders of this whole bloom-all-dang-summer long mentality. How can a gardener hate that, you ask? Read on.

I remember my grandmother’s azaleas coming into bloom and her comment that always followed that event, “Corn soon.” She meant it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d be planting corn. The azaleas were in bloom, summer was around the corner. She told time through the seasonal blooming of plants. Frost on the pumpkins? Get the gourds off the vines. Forsythias in bloom? Get the pruners ready for the roses.

This bloom, bloom, bloom business takes away from the anticipation of what’s happening, or will happen in the garden.

My cherry trees are spectacular in spring, and because I know they have a short bloom time, I take my chair, I go outside, and I sit. I don’t miss it. Last year, the youngest son and myself spent most of the spring in the back yard, chairs perched under those trees (their canopies cover the entire back yard). When the blooms fell off and covered the ground to look like snow, we sat there still. It was a symphony of beauty, dazzling us in the backyard, from the first crack of a bud, to the final drop of the last bloom. No, I don’t want those trees blooming all summer because then the symphony would start to wane, and like the mountains that surround my home, I’d take it for granted. They would be like paint on the wall. Pretty, but background.

Some of you will argue that if plants re-bloom, then you can be assured of bloom.  The point is that some plants bloom on old wood, which is why you don’t prune them in the fall or early spring (you do so after blooming). These plants are susceptible to spring frost killing the buds, and there goes your bloom for that year.

I think that argument pales, too. You know how we all remember the Blizzard of 93? We also remember the year the cherry trees did not bloom, and yes, it was sad. But again, it is another way we tell time. That year was a harsh spring, but the next one made up for it. Like the fall leaves. One year stunning, the next not really. We talk about it. We remember life events surrounding it.

There is an organic relationship between the seasonal blooming of plants and the moments of our lives. 

Here’s my final thought on it. Allowing nature to be nature gives us a rhythm to life that well, in my book, lets us stop, look, breath. Nature creates something for us to see, to gaze upon, like a blooming cherry tree, and in so doing, it creates a space we can enter into and be. That space becomes a moment. We tell time by the moments of our lives. How do we ever think that is not enough?


Totally Southern Hydrangeas

So, you’re in the South now and you did as all good Southerners do–you planted your first hydrangea.

You read the instructions, “plant mostly in the sun but afternoon shade is preferred.” You were quite proud of yourself for even finding that rarified place in your yard, but you managed. You’ve spent the summer attending weddings, teas and brunches where gorgeous, white, mop-head hydrangea blooms adorned tables mixed with Calla lilies and you dreamed of the day when it would be your Southern table they sat on. There’s just one problem. Your hydrangea isn’t blooming.

You sneak a peek at your neighbor’s yard. Their hydrangea is nestled under their Crapemyrtle with blooms bending the stems to the ground. What’s up? Well, like those melt-in-your-mouth Southern biscuits you’re still trying to bake, hydrangeas are not as easy as they look.

First you have to figure out what’s what in the world of hydrangeas. Those gorgeous, white mop-head flowers you’ve been envying are what’s called the ‘Annabelle’ cultivar. This hydrangea blooms first, generally mid-to-late June. That’s why you see it at June weddings. It is called the Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) and it blooms on terminal (new) shoots. So, if you live next to a grandma who tells you to cut your hydrangea back every fall, she’s likely right. Smooth Hydrangea is the only one that blooms on new growth, so cutting it back year to year is actually good for it.

The Annabelle culitvar, which grows about three to four feet tall and can actually be somewhat weedy (as if a hydrangea ever could), aren’t sold too often anymore. Probably, when you went to your local nursery, you purchased the Bigleaf Hydrangea or French Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). It also has the mop-head blooms like the ‘Annabelle’ but they can be pink, blue, purple or white. Their color will depend on the acidity of your soil. These are more commonly found and purchased in nurseries today. Their blooms are sometimes as large as 12 inches across and can be round or flat-topped, the latter type is called lacecaps. They bloom in mid-July following closely on the heels of the Annabelle. This is a favorite Southern shrub and it seems to grow effortlessly everywhere you look. Not so.

The flowers of Bigleaf Hydrangeas bud on last year’s growth. This means they set their buds during the summer on old wood. So, if you listened to that same grandma and pruned yours to the ground in the fall, you just lost next summer’s blooms. There’s also the problem of a late Spring freeze which can destroy the flower buds set last year, as well. If you’re going to prune your shrub, do so immediately after blooming so as not to disturb next year’s buds. If you live in a place where spring is unpredictable, purchase a more winter-hardy variety such as Hydrangea paniculata, or Panicle Hydrangea.

Panicle Hydrangea is a taller shrub and blooms about the same time as the Bigleaf Hydrangea. Its flowers are panicle shaped, hence the name, not mop-head. They are white but turn purplish-pink as they mature. They are also urban tolerant if you live in a particular traffic congested area.

Some cultivars bud on terminal (end) and lateral (length-wise) stems so if the terminal–new growth buds–are lost, you still have the blooms along the bottom of the stems. It is important to know what cultivar you have. Never throw away the plant tag of any shrub or tree. Store it someplace like the kitchen drawer, which is a good spot for everything, and refer back to it. You can also look your cultivar up on the internet. Many sites give good specifics about your plant.

Consider where you are in the South. Hydrangeas are good from zone 6 through 9, but the hotter your area, the more shade your shrub will need. The cooler your area, especially if you’re in the mountains at a higher elevation, the more sun you’ll need for fuller blooms. They also like water. If your shrub has just been planted then you must be sure to water thoroughly and often or it will wilt and die. Once established it is still important to water but not as often.

Finally, consider the easy way out. Go with the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), a native that can tolerate full sun or moderately dense shade. It is cold hardy to Zone 5 so you’ll have fewer worries about losing flower buds to winter or spring frost. It can be an interesting plant all year long–a four season shrub. The flowers are just as showy as the mop-heads varieties though they are long and cylindrical rather than globe-shaped. They are white and fade to shades of pink and brown as they mature. The leaves turn red in the fall before dropping and the bark is exfoliating, making it an interesting winter shrub. It is definitely trouble-free and you’ll still have great flowers for the table. Your yard will be blooming hydrangeas in no time.

So go ahead. Take the easy way out and enjoy your Southern yard with a little less trouble. And those biscuits? Simple. Take two cups of self-rising flour and mix with 8 ounces of whipping cream. Cut to shape and bake at 425 for 10 to 12 minutes. Takes only a second, darling.

My favorite, Oakleaf Hydrangea

Attack of the Adelgids

The Eastern White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is a fast-growing native used for plantation plantings, screens (where there isn’t too much wind), specimen trees and hedges. Its needles are long, slender and soft, and they eventually cover the ground, making a woodland carpet.

The trunks are stately and the branches whorl around it. A mature tree has dark brown-ridged bark, which adds to the appeal of the tree. It is a handsome species, elegant and ornamental in shape, but it also serves as a valuable timber tree.

White Pines are one of the fastest-growing landscape pines, reaching 50-75 feet tall in about 25-40 years. Some consider them an invasive species, albeit a native one. At my house, they have proven to be not quite as tenacious. I am forever weeding out walnut and maple seedlings from my garden but I have never seen a self-sowed White Pine seedling. Reportedly, White Pine re-seeds itself so quickly, epescially in abandoned fields, that I remember my grandfather calling it “old field pine.”

At my house, we chose Eastern White Pine to fill in and add shade to what was originally pasture land. We planted 1,000 small saplings around the perimeter of the property for privacy when we first built our house. We prefer not to see our neighbors (and our neighbors feels the same way, though not from lack of friendliness. It’s rather the hermit mentality we rural dwellers often have). I remember the saplings at knee-height, and now I walk under them in a magical forest that borders my dirt driveway and opens up to the “glen” that encompasses my house.

In the 21 years of residence at South Turkey Creek, the White Pines have been the glory of the garden, creating a park-like atmosphere and giving me lots of pine needles for mulch. We thinned a few out in the early days, but now they are well established and easily reach 50 feet high. Our only real battle with them is Oriental Bittersweet, which has to be cut out of our trees each year.

This year, when everything else in our garden was growing heartily (we finally had some rain), the White Pines started to look, well, white. The trunk of each tree looks like Tom Sawyer conned some of friends into whitewashing them instead of Aunt Poly’s‘ fence. One side of then driveway glows in the dark from the white, cottony mass of the bark of each tree.

After dong some research, I discovered that the whitewashing was actually the work of the Pine Bark Adelgid–yes, similar to that same adelgid that attacks the hemlock but this one sticks to pines. It attacks Scotch Pines, Jack Pines, Ponderosa pines and Pitch pines, but mostly focuses on White Pines.

It turns out it isn’t going to kill my White Pines, although if the adelgids had attacked when they were knee-high to me, that would have been a problem. For mature trees the problem is primarily aesthetic.

This “whitewashing” is actually a white, wooly mass that’s created by the female to help hide her eggs; she lays about 24 in each cottony secretion. That means my trees had literally millions of adegid eggs on them, since each wolly mass is very small.

The hatchlings, called crawlers, have legs and can move about. A very few of them have wings, and these are primarily the females. The crawlers transform into another stage, called nymphs, and these settle in to feed and develop, which they do rapidly. Soon, they are mature and have 24 or so eggs beneath them, and so it goes. In one season there are easily five generations. In theory, one over-wintering mom could have about 8 million offspring by autumn.

This is a sobering thought, and one that has me wanting to rush out and buy natural predators, which come in the form of lady bettle larvae, several flies and the tooth-necked beetle. The tooth-necked bettle can exist solely on a diet of adelgids and is gaining some popularity in its abilty to control them naturally.

Adelgids are tiny, sap-sucking insects that are closely related to aphids, and they are often mistaken for them. The insects are about 1/32nd of an inch long, but their mouth parts, called stylets, are 1/16 of an inch long. The mouth parts are used to penetrate the bark into the phloem, a laywer of tissue inside the bark that transports food from the leaves to the roots. With this many adelgids sucking away on my trees, it seems impossible that damage can’t be done, but so far, there isn’t any, just as promised. The Pine Bark Adelgid is evidently one of the few gardening problems that will solve itself. It is short-lived and the adelgids move one.

That is my kind of gardening problem. Instead of fretting, I can actually marvel at the scene. Just think–something as small as 1/32nd of an inch finds a way to have it’s place in the world. Surely, that means there is room for me too.

Trailer Park Gardening

For some, trailers are a blight on our mountains. When I was a city planner, I attended copious meetings to eradicate trailers, or at least clean them up with underpinning and decks. Often it was my job to go to visit the trailer and recommend (read require) that the owner move it to a less-offensive site or make it a “permanent dwelling” by installing underpinning. There’s something about the transitory aspect of a trailer that’s unsettling to some. They’re not concerned about pipes freezing — it seems to be purely aesthetic. Or, perhaps they fear gypsies?

I don’t know why some folks dislike them, but here’s what I do know about trailers: They’re often permanent dwellings. An obvious sign? When the owners plant gardens.

I’m not talking elaborate, Biltmore-esque lay-outs here. For many trailers, a pot of begonias sits besides the steps. Alberta Spruces seem popular, clustered around the foundation, and peonies and butterfly bushes are a certainty.

One of my favorite single-wide trailers has two gorgeous crepe myrtles that bloom full of deep red bloomsd. In my rounds of trailer parks and trailers, I’ve also seen golden chain trees, scarlet oaks, sugar maples, hibiscus in so many colors, Japanese maples and large vegetable gardens

It’s been almost 20 years since I worked as a planner. It’s been almost 20 years since the hostility toward trailers brought them to my notice and I began a hobby of photographing their gardens. My pictures were my silent acknowledgement of their right to be considered a home, just as the 5,000-square-foot rock foundation house across the street had the right to call itself a home.

I am asked a lot, “What is your favorite garden?” My answer is always the same — and always unexpected — “I love trailer-park gardens.”

Out of all the gardens I see, I appreciate them the most, because to my eyes, they come with the most care. These are simple gardens designed to bring beauty to a small place called home, a word that connotes permanence.

But permanent is not necessarily good anymore, is it? Permanent and carbon footprints go together. So perhaps my favorite garden homes are coming into their own?

My friend, Robin Smith, an environmental scientist, wrote this to me:
“Manufactured housing is actually one of the more ‘green’ options out there, based on the amount of raw materials required to achieve each square foot of living space. No matter how much reclaimed barn wood and bamboo flooring you install, a brand-new, 5,000-square-foot house is not green, unless there are 10 people living there.

Even then, building new is problematic; increased energy efficiency in the house’s operation must be measured against the energy and environmental impact of obtaining and manufacturing new materials and delivering them to the job site. This is not to say that we shouldn’t build “green”, just that there is a whole lot more to the equation than most people realize.”

It’s a simple concept. To Smith’s way of thinking, trailers have about as much space as any of us need in order to live. A single-wide is roughly 700-800 square feet, and a double-wide is, well, double that.

One of my favorite trailer gardens is currently thriving. I drive by it every day. Right now, the peonies are pink and white and stunning, and the rhododendrons are red and glorious. I am looking forward to the butterfly bushes, phlox, liles of a thousand sorts and colors, iris and dahlias I know are to come. I literally have the place memorized. The trailer, that non-permanent dwelling, is long gone. Nothing was ever put in its place.

The elderly couple who lived there all their married life died, and all that remains of their home is its lovely garden. The carbon footprint has vanished — recycled by the family elsewhere — but the flowers and trees remain.

Gardening Isn’t for Sissies

This one was written for WNC Magazine’s on-line content. It’s for all you hard-core exercising weekend warriors, you’ve got nothing on us gardeners. Read, and hang your heads in shame and defeat.

Gardening Isn’t for Sissies
Usher in spring with gardening tips from a grower
who’s learned from her mistakes

written by Cinthia Milner

Garden season is here, and though it may be the number one hobby in America, it isn’t for sissies. How would I know? This season marks my 20th anniversary of taking up this sometimes brutal, but highly rewarding, backyard pastime. So, while I’m not a pro, who better to give you tips on surviving your garden than a woman obsessed with her own, and with the bruises, bumps, scrapes, and yes, an empty pocketbook, to prove it?

Tip #1: Wear long sleeves, pants, a hat, and gloves. And, even though that grass feels great between your toes, closed-toe shoes are a must.

Here’s why: My first garden inspiration began with a pile of rocks and a newly cleared bank (the former spot of said rocks). With a sigh of contentment and the determination of a novice, I envisioned a cottage garden—a sea of delphiniums, foxgloves, daisies, and peonies—on that slope, bordered by my rocks. I began with no forethought or knowledge, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a tank top. I didn’t own gardening gloves, and I don’t look good in hats.

Halfway through the project weariness set in, and I dropped one of the very large rocks on my pedicured toes. Hobbling indoors to find the Neosporin, I noticed I’d acquired a severe case of sunburn. I was scorched with a busted, swollen foot and no toenails, which brings me to tip two.

Tip #2: Curb your enthusiasm. Take breaks in the shade, drink lots of water, and periodically slather on the sunscreen.

Next came my trip to the nursery—not easy with a busted foot and still-stinging sunburn. Before leaving the house I perused a gardening book, which instructed me to have a plan prior to setting off (I did not). It said I needed an outline for the garden (That seemed tedious). It said to know my soil type (I did, it was red clay). Lastly, learn my cold hardiness zone (Wouldn’t the nursery know that?). I mean, come on, let’s go shopping.

Returning home, my car was overflowing and my wallet empty. And once I got it all planted, what I anticipated as my lush cottage garden was, well, a sparse sight. There were numerous casualties. But don’t despair; abundance comes, just not overnight. Here’s tip three for encouragement.

Tip #3: Apply the “Cinthia 1/3 Rule.” Purchase three plants, all perfect for your spot, because one will die, one will barely survive, and one will thrive. Plan on it.

So it turns out my bank was 150 feet by 50 feet. Yeah, surprised me, too. But I realized the size when I started pulling up weeds. My Japanese knife, a handy tool capable of cutting down small trees and digging precise holes for bulbs, was very helpful, except when I lost it under a pile of weeds. A neighbor witnessing this sad scenario gave me a basket and roll of tape. This leads me to lesson four.

Tip #4: Put the weeds in the basket as you weed and tie red flagging tape on tools to make them easy to spot.

Sick of weeding, I wised up and bought mulch. The dark decaying organic matter highlighted my garden of blues and swaying pinks beautifully. Getting to gaze upon its perfection was only marred by the sudden itching sensation. Mulch is a harbinger of many good things, and a few unwanted; I’m talking about poison ivy. So while this next tip may seem obvious, I find it the most valuable.

Tip #5: Place a soap dish and towel holder beside the outside water spigot so you can wash your hands, arms, and neck several times a day. And before you crack open that end-of-the-gardening-day beverage, shower like you mean it. Good, old-fashioned soap does wonders for washing away the dirt, poison ivy, and who knows what else.

Now, when your ultra-marathon running or cross-country bicycling friends rib you about your homegrown activities, remember this: They have no idea the dangers we face, and, yes, the intense physical workouts we gardeners endure right in our own backyards.