Landscape Lingo: Underfoot

Hardscape Materials:

Brick is sold by the piece and by the pallet.  Used brick has been salvaged from sites/buildings undergoing redevelopment and is usually more expensive than new.  Bricks vary widely in color but not in size; discounting the half-bricks used by masons to face concrete, dimensions are a pretty regular 4”x4”x8”.

Brick is fine for secondary paths, but since it tends to be slippery when wet I avoid its use in primary walkways or areas which are usually in some degree of shade (shade = damp = potential slip and fall).

Concrete pavers are brick-sized and multi-colored.  I’m not crazy about them for anything but driveways — and even then with reservations — but they are incredibly durable.  There are porous versions, and also some designed like sheets of mosaic tiles allowing grass to grow in and around them, softening the look.

Cobblestone is sold by the piece and by the pallet.  There’s a wide range of available sizes and most stone yards carry them in three colors: gray, black and pink.  They’re sized in jumbo (10”x7”x4”) and regular (9”x5”x4”) but many stone yards also carry a ‘landscapers’ size which corresponds to brick.  These can act as visual breaks in a brick walk without changing the measurements, but also can act as a foot break by providing additional traction to guard against slipping.  I use them with longer granite treads, both for the interesting visual mix as well as safety.

Granite treads are ordinarily used to top the risers on brick staircases or as hearth/mantle pieces, but they are terrific walkway material.  They tend to be more expensive, but mixing them with cobblestone cuts the cost.  Since they can be installed quickly, the cost of labor is reduced so I find that it’s pretty much a wash in budgeting the overall project.  Although most granite is sold by the square foot, treads are usually priced by the linear foot; you may also, as I have, luck into pieces that the stone yard really wants to clear out, so don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a deal to be had!

Flagstone and slate are compositionally similar — both are sedimentary rock — and both can be had in regular or irregular shapes.  Both also have a wide range of color; I’m a huge fan of lilac bluestone (a sandstone more in the purple range than blue) and a flagstone called chocolate gray, which mixes beautifully with the color range of New England granite.  I do this because I prefer stonework to sit in a site rather than on it and a visual blend that mimics what is seen in the broader arena helps ensure that the built and unbuilt environments mesh.

Gravel comes in all shapes and sizes; peastone (so named for it’s size) is the most common for walkways, but I find that ¾” round has just the right ‘crunch’ to evoke walking along the stone beaches so common to Maine.  Loose stone is sold by the ton; the supplier will be able to give you the approximate area covered by a 2″ or 3″ layer.

River jacks are the smooth, flattened, round stones you probably ‘skipped’ as a kid, although the ones for landscaping can be quite large.  Smaller jacks are great for adding visual interest to walkways (they’re usually too expensive to be anything but top dressing) while the larger are perfect for adding drama or directionality to artistic stonework — areas meant for viewing rather than walking.  While the smaller are most often sold by the ton, larger stones are sold either by the piece or pallet.

Softscape Materials:

Groundcovers other than grass are used both for visual cohesion and weed control; those that are walkable include moss and creeping thyme.  These wouldn’t survive in areas of heavy traffic, but for occasional use pathways they’re super.

Bark mulch:  I’m not really a fan of mulching pathways, but use it liberally in the gardens and around trees.  I like something commonly referred to as ‘dark bark’ for its shredded consistency and its color, since I don’t find the bark chunks to be as effective in weed control and the Day-Glo orange stuff is positively scary.  Mulches, like compost, are sold by the bag or by the cubic yard (3’x3’x3′) meaning you’ll have to do a bit of math to figure out what you’ll need to cover at a 2″ to 4″ depth.  Don’t go deeper than that, by the way; it won’t benefit the plants and just tends to go moldy.  Mulch should not come in contact with the tree trunk; it rots the bark!  Yes, I know you see it all over the place, but Master Gardeners everywhere will tell you it’s a no-no.

There are lots of other possibilities for use as mulch, including buckwheat hulls, pine needles and chocolate-scented whatevers, but for simplicity’s sake I prefer covers that blend into the scenery, stay where I put them and do their job.  Primarily, that’s weed control, moisture control and erosion control.  A secondary benefit can be an enhancement of acidity (in the case of pine needles or cedar chips) but I tend to use liquid applications of products like Miracid for specific plants and let the mulch simply be the mulch.

NB:  I’ve seen a lot of homeowners using compost in place of mulch, but it seems to me that only provides a ready surface for weeds and doesn’t actually use the compost to advantage, which is the ‘leavening’ of the garden soil itself to give the roots of your plants the environment they need to be successful.  Hate to use the trite adage of building a house on a good foundation, but in the case of both houses and plants, underground is where it’s at!

The ABP’s of Flowering Plants

Annual:  a plant that goes from seed to flower to seed in one growing season; aka one and done.  Included are most of the flowers commonly used in planters and hanging baskets, like impatients and begonias, as well as those sown for ‘cutting’ gardens, like cosmos and zinnias.

Biennial:  a plant that forms in year one, flowers in year two, sets seed and dies; aka two and through.  Many of these plants, like Dame’s Rocket, appear to be perennial because they self-sow and the patch continues to flower.

Bulb:  a nifty little self-contained system, often related to garlic or onion, that produces flowers.  With the exception of tulips, which seem to peter out over time no matter what you do, bulbs will continue not only to flower year after year but continue to produce more of themselves by forming bulblets, connected to the parent bulb but capable of being split off and planted on their own.

Some bulbs, like my favorite Turk’s Cap lilies, also produce bulbils which form at the leaf junctures all along the stem.  These bulbils drop like seed, sprout, and eventually form plants of their own.  Clever things, having two forms of reproduction!

Perennial:  plants which, with few exceptions, come back up year after year, often doubling in size in just a season or two.  The exceptions are the so-called ‘tender‘ perennials, like delphinia, which never seem to acquire the strength (at least in Northern gardens) to survive and thrive.  Their more rugged brethren ~ Siberian iris and day lily ~ are virtually indestructible even in the hands of  the most derelict gardener.

Save for peonies, the Garbos of the garden, clump-forming perennials should be divided every three to five years to avoid the center of the clump becoming so congested it begins to die out and forces all new growth to the outer edge of the ring.  Anyone who’s ever tried to separate an old, untouched clump of Siberian iris knows how impenetrable that center can be, impervious to all but the sharpest of spades.  Dig and divide in three to five, for the good of both the plant and your back!  If you’re faced with such a clump, use a straight spade (your local hardware store likely has someone who can put a sharp edge on it) and be ruthless.  Ordinarily I’d say hand-separate to tease out each individual rhizome (or tuber, in the case of day lilies) but when the clump is that far gone your spade and a sturdy work boot are the best course.

There are a couple of other circumstances that cause this type of center die-back as well:  crown rot, a fungus which affects hosta, among others, causing die-back at the crown; and iris borers, pesky little caterpillars that eat their way through the meaty flesh of rhizomes, their favorites being bearded iris.  Both are pretty easy to spot and pretty easy to correct.

Herbaceous plants:  die back at the end of every year and flower solely on new growth ~ think green herb rather than brown spice.

Woody plants:  do not die back every year and flower on both new and old (aka woody) growth.  Many of these plants, oddly enough, are herbs ~ the landscape workhorses of lavender, English thyme and Russian sage among them.

Architectural plants:  usually refers to those plants with bold, clean shapes that make a ‘statement’ in the landscape.  I prefer a broader definition, one that encompasses plants which directly reflect architectural shapes ~ a vase-shaped tree, for example, is the flip side of a sharply-angled roof, while a globe-shaped tree is its complement.  This still leaves out all material too delicate or fussy to be considered a statement of anything, but keeps the design process focused on the interrelationship of all shapes on the site, whether architectural, botanical or topographical.

nursery 101: learning the lingo

Just like you need to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, you need to carefully read the information that’s given on a plant tag before you put your money down. The tags are telling you what you need to know, but not necessarily in the most direct manner. Here are a few of my favorite bits of nursery speak, translated:

Tolerates shade: in other words, if everything else in its universe is perfect, this plant will put up with the injustice of insufficient sunlight. Last time I checked, attempting to keep everything in the universe perfect will make you crazy and, if you’re like me, the load of things that already make you crazy would stop an elephant, so leave this plant alone. Find one that likes the environment you are providing.

Vigorous once established: in other words, in three or four years, if all goes well, the plant will begin to take off. Until then it requires as much tending as if it were brand new, and a little bit of luck besides. This is why new wisteria vines, for example, look so pathetic and the old ones are show-stoppers. If you’re not going to live in the house long enough to make that kind of commitment, or if you need something that’s going to be dazzling in short order, put the pot down and move along. Nurseries also use that phrase ‘once established’ in conjunction with ‘drought-tolerant,’ so read carefully. Decide before you buy if you’re willing and able to lug five or ten gallons of water to it every couple of days in the middle of next summer’s heat wave. Why do I say lug water? Because inevitably we put those trees far away from house and hose. Why do we put them far away? Because the tag says they’re drought tolerant. And so it goes…

Tree form: in other words, not an actual tree, but a shrub or vine that has been trained into the shape of a tree. Don’t get me wrong, I love them and use them — the classics like hydrangea and wisteria, along with tree-form rhodies and viburnum — principally because they add dimension to the garden and present their blossoms at eye level. The drawback is their tendency to revert to form — wisteria will begin sprouting new vines from the root almost immediately — and to maintain the tree shape for any of these, you need to continually remove any growth that occurs below the level at which you want the branching to happen. They require a bit more work, and they often need bracing to maintain their upright habit, but if you’ve ever drooled over an eighty-year-old wisteria ‘tree’ you understand the draw, as well as the drawback. With a little extra care, you and your tree-form should be very happy together.