Gardening and Maintenance

Don’t Become the Old Woman that Lived in the Shoe!

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,

She had so many kids she didn’t know what to do…

Make sure you can handle the plants you put in your Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds!  This probably goes without saying, but I see common sense lost in many yards.

One big problem is not so much planting too many plants, but putting invasive plants in the wrong spot.  Before you know it you have little purple flowers (Grape Hyacinth) in your lawn and grape vine (Virginia Creeper) burying your perennials.  You really need to know about the plants you are putting in your yard.

Also, understand the difference between the maintenance requirements of different trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals in general. 

Trees require little time, but you do need to make sure you get them on a routine plan to develop the structure and keep them clean and healthy.

Shrubs are similar to trees, but require a little more attention if they flower.  If you want them to continue looking nice and flowering year after year, you have to deadhead the shrubs after they bloom.

Perennials require deadheading after they bloom and also a lot of fall or spring cleaning to cut back the dead.  Most perennials are not woody and will die back almost to the ground.

Annuals require deadheading to keep them looking nice.  There are also spring and summer annuals which means that they have to be pulled out and replaced twice each year.  Annuals don’t get the chance to get as established as the other plants which means that weeds will pop up in between the flowers, so annuals will require more weeding that other plantings over time.

Along the lines of weeds, all plantings will require weeding at first to some degree.  A good four inch mulch will reduce the amount of time you will spend weeding, but there will be some weeding.  Over time, perennials and shrubs planted a proper distance from each other will choke out a healthy majority of the weeds and reduce your time requirement.

Reduce the amount of time you spend in your garden by understanding the plants you pick, and pairing your time available to work in your garden with the proper plants.  Remember that the amount of time required for pruning and weeding will depend largely on the plants you select.  So conserve your time and do a little research before visiting the nursery!

Running the Gauntlet

My kids love to watch the show Ninja Warrior.  Myriads of individuals dedicate their whole lives to mastering Mount Midoriama, the nearly impossible, japanese obstacle course.  I watch the show with my children, remembering the time when I would have thought the obstacle course very fun, but now…well, let’s just say I creak a little more than I used to.

You could very safely say that I am in no condition to run a modern day gauntlet, so why should I in my Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds.  I cringe every time I visit Jordan Landing in West Jordan because they have thousands of feet of five foot wide strips in the middle of the roads with three foot high rolling hills  and covered in grass.  Those little hills would be an absolute nightmare to take care of–hours of tight turns and ups and downs.  Even after that, hours of string trimming would be required to keep it looking nice.  That, my friends, is the ultimate gauntlet.  The landscape architect there must have hated the maintenance people!

Previously, I spoke about getting to equipment easily and then getting it to the various maintenance spots.  The actual spots should be easy to maintain also.  Identify problem spots and make quick changes!  Some things to look for are tight radius’ or corners in the lawn, lawn planted right up to the fence, cacti that you have to weed up next to, grass right up next to tree trunks, rock mulch that isn’t at least three inches thick and multi-layered (rocks are a pain to weed in), grass in park strips and in any strip smaller than five feet wide, and shrubs or trees planted too close together or too close to a structure like your home.

Notice a recurring culprit?  Lawn requires a LOT of time.  That is why I love when a person tells me they want something low maintenance, so they just want grass everywhere. 

Anyway, make life easier on yourself, unless you plan to take an active part in the American Gladiators revival!  Get rid of those difficult maintenance spots.

How to Buy More Time

There are some rather inexpensive ways that you can buy more time when it comes to maintaining your Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds.  Mulch is one of those ways to buy yourself more time.

I have spoken briefly about the water-saving qualities of mulch, but mulch can also cut down on maintenance time by limiting the number of weeds that pop up in your flower beds and Outdoor Living Spaces.  Four inches of mulch will strangle out most weeds.  Not to mention, it looks so much better.

Remember that when you are buying mulch, it is most cost effective to buy in bulk, by the yard.  One yard of mulch will cover 81 square feet, four inches deep. 

Rake the mulch each spring to freshen it up and add a little bit more as the mulch breaks down.  I recommend going with dyed mulch because it will look nice for a longer period of time. 

So invest in mulch and buy back countless hours of back-breaking weeding!  You will smile as you spend time playing in your yard instead of working in it.

What is Your Time Worth?

I would like to open the next section of posts with a quick question–Is your landscape worth the time you invest in it?  I don’t mean the time to install it, but the time to keep it looking nice each week.

Having spent more than my fair share doing yard maintenance, I look at some landscapes and cringe as I picture the time wasted to keep some parts of it looking attractive.  While the time a landscape consumes may not typically be considered a component of a sustainable landscape, I include it because there is no more important natural resource than your time and everyone hates to see it wasted.

The first way that I see time wasted  in a landscape is with poor access to tools, equipment and areas to be maintained.  Think about where you keep your lawnmower.  Do you have to dig out your lawnmower and maneuver it through an intricate obstacle course just to get it out of the garage or shed?  You know you will end up putting it back in the same spot when you are done, so whatever time it takes you to get it out doubles when you put it back in the same place.

Then you have to get the mower to the lawn.  If you have to go up hills and in between bushes, trees and fence posts to make it to your lawn, you are wasting even more time. 

That is only the lawnmowing.  Think about all the time wasted scaling rock walls to maintain a small spot on the top of the wall, or trying to carry an armful of weeds or trimmings to the garbage can.

When maintaining your yard is difficult because every task is so complicated and time-wasting, subconsciously everything about your yard becomes a chore.  You will be less likely to spend the time needed to keep it looking nice and you won’t spend time in your outdoor living spaces and enjoying your flower beds because nobody wants to spend time in a work zone. 

The solution to this problem is more common sense than design aesthetics.  Keep your equipment and tools where you can easily get to them.  Create paths and access ways to make reaching your maintenance areas quick and easy.  Last, change the plantings or landscape in really hard to reach areas to things that don’t require much effort to maintain.

Once again, what is your time worth?  Think about the time spent maintaining your landscape and if your landscape is not worth the time you spend in it, redesign and rennovate!  Make your landscape worth the time you spend maintaining it.  You owe it to yourself.

Balancing Light and Dark

Darkness is a much more energy conserving option than using lighting–that should go without saying.  However, I would consider lighting to be a necessary element of Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds

Therefore, the solution is to find a more sustainable option than conventional lighting.  The solution is to use low-voltage lighting, and especially the new LED lights that are available.

Quick lesson on physics: POWER=WORK  X  TIME.  In other words, the amount you are billed for and consume each month depends on the wattage of the bulbs you use and how long you have the lights on each day.

I introduce this concept to you because it is important to understand that the term ‘low-voltage’ does not mean it conserves energy, it just means it uses the same amount of energy but does so with less energy flowing through the wires.  The reason low-voltage lighting is a more sustainable option is because the fixtures tend to accomplish with lower wattage bulbs what it takes higher wattage bulbs to do in a regular 120 volt system.

The new LED lights operate at about 3, 6 or 9 watts and compare in brightness with the 5, 10, and 20 watt lights of a typical low voltage lamp and 50, 75 or 100 watt bulbs for a 120 volt system.  In fact, the low wattage LEDs in many situations surpass the brightness of the other bulbs.  In other words, LEDs are a very sustainable option.

The other aspect of the equation affecting your energy consumption and therefore your bill is the length of time you have the system on at nights.  There are many inexpensive options to regualate the amount of time your lights are on at night.  I prefer to use a transformer with a timer and then a photocell interrupt.

Yeah, I know it sounds somewhat technical, but basically the concept is that you set the timer to have your lights come on at a certain time each day and shut off at a certain time each day, and then the photocell interrupt prevents the lights from turning on in the evening until it recognizes it is actually dark outside.  The photocell feature saves you minutes and hours in the summer time evenings by keeping your lights off when they are not needed.

So if you are like me and believe that outdoor lighting is a necessary element for your landscape, use LEDs, a timer and a photocell interrupt to be as sustainable as possible and keep your electricity bill low!

It’s What Is Outside That Counts!

While with people we like to say that it is what is on the inside that counts, when it comes to sustainability, it is what is on the outside that counts.  All of the systems and improvements that we make to our houses in order to conserve water, energy and gas depend on the environment outside of the house.

We spend a lot of time making adjustments inside the house when it is the environment around the home that affects the consumption of resources inside the home.  I have spoken briefly in these posts about microclimates.  Microclimates are easier to control and modify and this is done with the landscape around the home. 

In a nutshell, when you can cool the environment around the home in the summer and heat it up in the winter, you will reduce the consumption of resources in the home. 

Another way that you can cool down the environment is with water features.  I already mentioned how this can reduce water consumption of the plants in your Outdoor Living Spaces and flower bedsA water feature can also act to reduce cooling costs inside the home by absorbing heat and cooling the air outside the home.  So add a water feature close to your home, preferably on the south or west side, in order to reduce the temperature around your home in the summer.

This is not to say that a water feature close to the home will cool down the home in the winter.  The temperature of water fluctuates more rapidly than the temperature of the soil.  This means that when the water is exposed to any heat in the winter, it will actually warm up the surrounding temperature quite quickly.

In other words, a water feature can benefit the home in both the winter and the summer.  Not to mention the aesthetic value of a water feature in your yard.  In summary, find a way to incorporate a water feature in your Outdoor Living Spaces!

Is Grass Actually Greener?

The answer is yes.  The tricky part is to incorporate enough grass into your design, and close enough to the house in order to actually be able to decrease the overall heat of the home!

A large grass area will change the microclimate around the home.  (See my post titled ‘Creating a ‘Green’ Oasis’ for a description of microclimates and how they work in your landscape.)  A colleague of mine, Kendra Busse, did a study at Arizona State University on this very topic and determined that the temperature above grass is lower than above other hardscape, or even bare earth surfaces.

So what does this mean for your yard?  Use grass!  Grass is wonderful when used appropriately, and I will address that in a moment.  A large grass area around your home can lower the summer time temperatures significantly enough for you to see a reduction in your power bill for cooling your home.  This saves you money and makes your home more sustainable!  Additionally, it makes the yard cooler and more inviting to spend time in, which also can reduce the energy used in the home, because time spent outside is less time using lights and other energy consuming devices inside the home.

One thing I would stress is to define your grass as an Outdoor Living Space to make it more appealing to look at and more comfortable to spend your time playing or lounging.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your lawn is to use it as an amoeba-like groundcover to fill in all the empty space in your yard.  Define the edges in an appealing shape and surround the lawn area with some sort of walls and ceiling.  See my posts on Outdoor Living Spaces for direction on how to do this.

Reducing Shady Behavior Around Your Home

As I mentioned yesterday, shade is very beneficial in the summertime, but can cause problems in the winter.  I suggested using deciduous trees in the Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds around your home to add shade in the summer, but not so much in the summer. 

I also mentioned briefly the importance of selecting the appropriate trees for these plantings in order to maximize the shade in the summer and minimize the shade in the winter.  Another principle that goes hand in hand with proper selection is proper pruning. 

I mentioned in the post Keeping Your Investments Healthy, that a tree grows very differently in an urban landscape than it does in nature.  Perhaps you could say that plants in the landscape have obesity problems.  It goes without saying that a tree that has far too many leaves will also have far too many branches to support the leaves.  More branches equals more shade in the winter time. 

Therefore, a proper pruning program will maintain the amount of shading in the summer, but reduce the shading in the winter, therefore preventing  major setbacks to reducing your overall heating and energy costs and the sustainability of your landscape.

Shady Behavior Around Your House

There are several energy-saving practices you can implement in your landscape.  After all, conservation in the landscape doesn’t just have to be about saving water.  A simple element that can be used to save you on your energy bill is shade.

Shade can be your best friend in the summer time, but an enemy in the winter.  The idea is to be creative and come up with ways to shade in the summer, but not in the winter.

Obivously, you can use retractable awnings and other such items to provide shade, but this can also be done with plantings.  Deciduous trees tend to provide a dense shade in the summer and less shade in the winter. 

Selecting the correct trees can magnify the effects of using deciduous trees to shade.  Some trees inherently have more branches and structure to them.  These trees will lose their leaves, but still shade the structure some because of the branches. 

The idea is to select trees for you Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds with less branching and structure.  A couple of great options are the Staghorn Sumac and the Kentucky Coffee Tree.  When the leaves fall from these trees, they are left quite barren because of their natural growth habits.

I should also note that it is best to plant to shade the southern and western exposures since those are the parts of the structure that receive the most heat.  Also, when planting, make sure you plan for the mature size of the tree and plant far enough away that the tree doesn’t grow into the house, but still shades the structure from bottom to top.

Shading your home should reduce the energy cost to cool your home in the summer time.  You should see the benefits as your tree matures in size to fulfill its intention.

How to Pick Your ‘Green’ Investments

I would like to wrap up my series of posts on water conservation with the original concept introduced as the foundation of conservation in the landscape–Xeriscaping.

As I mentioned in introducing Conservation in the Landscape, the principle of xeriscaping revolves around picking the right plants and grouping plants together that have similar water needs. 

I refer back to the bank analogy again to explain this concept.  Remember that as you water and fertilize (organically or chemically) your soil, you have investments that will draw on those reserves in your bank.  When you plant willy nilly in your soil, you have no control over how much water and nutrients go to the different investments (plants) you have made.  Inevitably you will end up with too much water and too many nutrients going to one investment–causing the water and nutrients to evaporate and be wasted–and too little water and too few nutrients going to other investments, causing the investments to die, therefore wasting the water and nutrients that were sent to the plant.

The idea is to control where your resources go and adequately manage the water and nutrients that go to each investment.  This can be done by selecting your plants according to the water needs and then grouping them together in one watering zone on your irrigation system.

Nurseries are the greatest danger to selecting wise investments!  People typically select plants by wandering the nursery and choosing the plants that look pretty and are in bloom when they go.  This causes two problems, the first being that, if you go to the nursery in early May, you only end up with plants in your yard that bloom in early May, and the second being that your plants do not necessarily have similar water needs.  The simple solution to this is to go to the nursery with a list of plants beforehand and, if you see something else you like, research it out before you buy it to find out where it would fit in your planting scheme.

The overall idea is to not only group plants of similar water needs, but also to select fewer plants with high water needs and more plants with less water needs.  Just like with investing your money, if you want to select investments with higher return, it usually requires not only more money, but also higher risk of losing the investment.  A good financial advisor will usually counsel you to counter high risk investments with some lower risk investments, meaning you will have some investments with not as high of a return, but that grow and flourish steadily.  The idea is not to leave out the plants with higher water needs, but instead to make them highlights instead of using them for the bulk of your planting.

I understand that this concept is all fine and dandy for someone starting their landscaping with a clean slate.  It is more difficult to group plants of similar water needs when you already have them planted, and equally difficult to zone them all together on your clock when your sprinkler system is already installed.  So my recommendation to you is to just tear everything out and start again! 

Okay, not really.  Instead you can start by making a list of all the plants in your Outdoor Living Spaces and flower beds.  There are numerous resources on the internet and at your local extension service that provide information on the amount of water a plant needs. Order the plants according to their water needs with the highest water need being number one and so on down the line to the plants with the lowest water need.

After making this list, you need to make some decisions about how attached you are to the plants closer to the number one.  If you are very attached, realize that you will have to water your whole landscape to keep plant number one alive, which means wasting a lot of water and costing you even more money.  If you are not that attached to plant number one, remove it from your landscape and analyze plant number two.  Continue on down the line until you find a plant you must have in your landscape and water your whole landscape to satisfy the water needs of that plant.  The rest will have too much water, but you can smile when you get your next water bill, because you will have saved yourself some money and water.

Even if you don’t eliminate any plants from your landscape, this project will likely open your eyes to the possibility that you have been overwatering all along.  You may even be able to save money and water without eliminating any plants if you are aware which plants need the most water and keep an eye on the health of those plants, watering only as they need it.

Whether starting from scratch or with an existing landscape, finding out about what your plants need as far as water is as important for your landscape as researching an investment is before investing your hard-earned money.