Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Two Years and Counting: Lessons Learned

Our wonderful landscape designer, Lisa Strange, reminded me last week that it has been two years since we completed our Extreme Yard Makeover. Lisa stopped by our yard to see how everything looked and I thought back about all the work we put into the landscape transformation and what I've learned from the experience. Here are my Top Five Lessons Learned:

1. There is no such thing as a garden that takes care of itself.

I had an unrealistic view that our grass-free landscape, once completed, would just truck along without any assistance from us. Hah! I know now that all landscapes need care and maintenance to thrive. Plants grow, mulch breaks down, leaves fall, drought happens.  Plants need water, pruning, dividing, mulching, and occasionally some non-toxic pest control to look their best. Like a marriage, you can't just plant a garden and forget about it. You must nurture it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
Our back yard May 2012

Our back yard May 2010

But I am happy to report that our original goal for the yard makeover -- Mo' Fishing! Less Mowing! --  has been achieved. Ditching the grass; choosing tough, Florida-tested plants; and installing easy-care shell and gravel pathways has dramatically reduced the amount of time we spend on "yard work." We now spend most of our weekends having fun. Truthfully, even working in our new and vastly improved yard is fun!

2. Garden projects will always take longer, be more difficult and cost more money than you expect.

I coerced my husband into the Extreme Yard Makeover by telling him that it would only take us a couple of months, and would be relatively easy and cheap.  Part of that was true -- much of it was not. I didn't lie. I just didn't know what "lie" ahead!!

Getting rid of the grass was easy. But then came the hard part. We had to rent a small Bobcat to smooth out the "moguls" in our front yard (Rick did have a good time with that "Big Boy Toy!"). We had to remove literally every existing plant in our yard, most of which had been planted in the wrong place to begin with, or were just butt-ugly things like those horrid queen palms we dug up. If you have ever tried to remove a palm root ball (or any tree) by hand, you know what we went through! We hauled in truckloads of mulch and shell and gravel and had to cart it, one wheelbarrow at a time, to its final destination.
Rick driving the Bobcat

We discovered that having large trees all around means that you have large roots underneath. We could easily work around our live oak roots, but the elm trees in the back had a sprawling network of vein-like roots that apparently cover every square foot of our property.  They made planting anything an expletive-laced exercise in frustration. Example: It took two weeks for us to clear and completely plant the front yard, with our huge live oak. It took more than two months to clear and plant our back yard, even with our beloved tree shovel (see Lesson #3). I did, however, have some serious muscles in my upper arms by the time we were done.

Plants themselves are expensive, although I was fortunate to acquire many freebies (see Lesson #4). Our small trees, the two East Palatka hollies, Weeping Yaupon holly, and Majestic Beauty Hawthorne, cost $75 each. Coonties are $15-$20 each and we have about 15 of them. Evergreen Liriope is a bargain, at about $2 each, but we have about 40 of those! However, there is no doubt in my mind that the front-end investment is more than justified. We use hardly any water on this landscape, and most of the water we use comes from our rain barrels. I know folks in high-end developments with in-ground irrigation systems and large, grass-dominated landscapes who spend $50-$100 or more every month just to water their grass! Our water bill averages $5-$6 a month.
Our weeping yaupon holly
 right after planting

We don't have to pay a lawn service to mow, fertilize or apply pesticides to our new yard, or spend our free time doing that ourselves. We gave away our lawn mower!

And most of the plants we chose are "lifers" -- they'll be with us for years, or even decades. 

Grass is definitely the cheapest landscape choice in the short run - that's why developers love to thrown down sod on new homesites-- but the most expensive in the long run. Plus, IMHO, grass is just plain boring.

3. Good garden tools are worth their weight in gold.

Rick with our new wheelbarrow
and the "Super Shovel"
We started the yard makeover with a cheap shovel, a hoe, a rake and a rusty wheelbarrow with one wheel about to fall off. It did, in fact, fall off about two weeks into the project. By the time we finished, we owned a good wheelbarrow, an axe, a pickax, a posthole digger, a good tree saw, and -- my favorite garden tool ever -- an $80 tree shovel that will slice through just about anything short of concrete.

I still remember my husband's sticker shock when I came home with the $80 shovel. Then he used it. Never heard a peep out of him after that. 

4. Gardeners are the most generous and helpful people on earth.

My plant-loving friends, neighbors and colleagues took a keen interest in our yard makeover. Free seeds, cuttings and starter pots of plants came pouring in. Many were not in Lisa's landscape plan, but many were. I received a chickasaw plum seedling and several home-grown coonties from my colleague Carlos -- saving me a bunch of money, since coonties are expensive. Virginia provided, and continues to provide, all sorts of native wildflower seeds. She also gave me a stunning bird's nest anthurium that is a focal point of our backyard. Suzanne gave me a cardboard palm that she had carried with her in a pot from one new home to another for 15 years. I planted it in the front yard, and it has taken off.
Thank you sign I posted by little coontie
 plants Carlos gave me.

5. Landscape designers and garden coaches are very good investments.

I knew I needed professional help with our yard makeover. I realized I had many every mistake in the gardening book. Both Rick and I agreed that, if were going to go to all this trouble and work, we wanted to do it right this time. We have never regretted hiring Lisa to develop a landscape plan for us. She came up with a design that looks good (instead of the haphazard mess I left behind) and that fits our needs and lifestyle. She chose lots of native plants, at our request, and also lots of inexpensive, Florida-friendly plants (like the liriope) that helped keep our costs down.

Our landscape plan
Having expert assistance in developing a landscape plan will probably cost less than you think, and save you from wasting money on plants not suited to your site conditions or location. Whether you want to make small changes or wholesale do-overs like we did, landscape designers and gardening coaches can help you plant the "right plant in the right place" and achieve success.

So, these are a few of the lessons I've learned from my yard makeover. What are the most important lessons you've learned as a gardener?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Made In The Shade

Farewell, Spring. You were glorious and surprisingly persistent this year. But Summer has finally moved in and with it the sizzling heat and wilting humidity that can make gardening in West Central Florida such a challenge. 

Thanks to the magnificent mature live oak in my front yard, my front yard sails through summer. The plants there have their own "beach umbrella" thanks to the oak's leafy canopy. We had no idea how beneficial large trees can be until we embarked on our grand yard makeover. We have been amazed at how well the oak canopy insulates our plants from cold in the winter, and from heat in the summer. The plants under the oak also require much less water than those in full sun, thanks to both the shade and the free mulch provided by the thick layer of oak leaves.

The oak tree keeps us cool too. What's not to love?
My front yard, shaded by a large live oak
Granted, you do need to keep in mind that large trees have large appetites. They an easily outcompete other plants for available resources, especially water. Contrary to popular belief, their root systems are generally shallow and wide, not narrow and deep. Roots typically extend 2 to 3 times beyond the drip line of the canopy, so the actual "footprint" of a tree is much larger than what you see.

In our backyard, which is shaded by two large elms, many of the Ocala anise shrubs we planted along the fence line are struggling. They like wet feet to begin with, and the elms are hogging all the water. Additionally the roots of the elms are so numerous and densely packed that the roots of the anise  have literally no room to spread out. The anise shrubs farthest away from the elms are flourishing; those closest to the elms have barely grown since we planted them two years ago. A classic case of "wrong plant, wrong place." I finally took the pathetic anise shrubs out and am mulling over what to try in that area next. Suggestions, anyone? 

Unlike the elms, the live oak coexists beautifully with other plants. I continue to marvel at the variety of shrubs, groundcovers and even flowers that bask in its leafy embrace. 

Many people seem to think the areas underneath large trees are destined to be dead zones. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are my top six favorite shade plants. Six because five just wasn't enough! 

Oakleaf Hydrangea
Oakleaf Hydrangea  
(Hydrangea quercifolia)                                                                 
This native hydrangea produces large, showy leaves and gorgeous clusters of white blossoms. Give it lots of room -- it can get big and wide, but what a  showstopper!                                                                              

Cast Iron Plant

Cast Iron Plant
(Aspidistra elatior)                   

The ultimate trouble-free shade champion. Its tall, glossy, deep green leaves look great in mass plantings under a tree.

Peacock Ginger
Peacock Ginger (Kaempferia spp.)  
A lovely low-growing groundcover, with wide leaves and delicate purple flowers. I have seen peacock ginger thriving in rain gardens, but mine is very drought-tolerant in its shady home and spreads readily.

Rouge Plant
Rouge Plant 
(Rivina humilis)                                      
Another Florida native, named because its crushed berries were used in cosmetics. Pretty pinkish-white flowers and red berries grace this small shrub that will reach only 5-6 feet in height. Very shallow-growing, thin roots make this a great choice beneath trees.                                                    

'White Christmas' Caladium
(Caladium spp.)   

Thanks to Hoe and Shovel blogger Meems and Central Florida Gardener blogger Susan, I am now a passionate fan of these summertime splashes of color. Pick your favorite, or mix and match light and dark-leaved varieties, and you'll have stunning color in your shade garden all summer. And, they'll pop back up all by themselves every year!               

Neoregelia 'Orange Crush'
(Bromeliad spp.)     
                                                             Another perfect plant for adding color to a shady area. Bromeliads come in an amazing variety of styles and colors. Some produce stunning flower spikes; others climb, and others have richly colored foliage. My favorite: Neoregilia 'Orange Crush'

Now it's your turn. What are your favorite "made in the shade" choices?