Green Gardening Secrets: Native Planting

“Going Native” has become a popular topic of discussion in green gardening communities, and landscaping companies are taking note. Building off of research that attests to the benefits of native planting, landscapers have begun offering their customers more native foliage options. It shows their dedication to sustainability and their local expertise. But why the renewed interest in native planting? What do native plants offer that non-native plants do not?

Native Planting Builds Healthier Ecosystems

Expanding urbanization and development has destroyed a significant amount of animal habitats throughout America. Native wildlife is continually being relocated and pushed away by the construction of highways, strip malls, and housing developments. Native planters are fighting back against this destruction by creating habitats for native wildlife in their own backyards. These habitats provide food and shelter for displaced animal species and contribute to a healthy local ecosystem, so that valuable bird, moth, butterfly, insect, and mammal species can continue to thrive.

Native Planting Fights Invasive Growth

Native planting also provides benefits to homeowners. Many gardeners worry about invasive species of plants and animals destroying crops and smothering foliage. Ironically, it was landscaping companies that introduced many of these invasive species as exotic options in their landscaping plans. Now, these exotic plants have grown uncontrollably and are hurting local ecosystems. By planting more native plants, homeowners are protecting their yards—and the yards of many others—from the destructive effects of invasive growth.

Native Plants are Low Maintenance and High Reward

Because native plants have evolved specifically to exist within your local ecosystem, they are much sturdier and more reliable than non-native plants. They require less specialized care and are more accustomed to the rainfall and temperature levels of your climate. A garden filled with native plants will probably cheapen your water bill, lighten your pesticide and fertilizer usage, and free up your time!

As an added bonus, native plants are gorgeous additions to any landscape! They are guaranteed to blend seamlessly into your landscaping design while providing you with some awesome natural benefits. Here are a few plants native to Virginia that you might consider planting next season:

  • Autumn bentgrass
  • Broomsedge
  • Butterfly weed
  • Blue wild indigo
  • Woodland sunflower
  • Dwarf crested iris
  • Canada lily
  • Lupine
  • Virginia bluebells
  • Black eyed Susan
  • Red maple
  • American beech
  • Black walnut
  • White pine
  • Witch hazel
  • Catawba rhododendron

These are just a few options. Go to http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/np for more ideas and information on native planting! Happy gardening!

Keeping Plants Cool in Summer Heat

Not unlike people, plants get uncomfortable, sweaty, and dehydrated during hot days. Though some crops (such as tomatoes, melons, corn, squash, aster, and daylilies) can thrive in 90 degree temperatures as long as they have enough water, other plants (spinach, cilantro, broccoli, daffodils, tulips, pansies) prefer cool weather, and thus require extra care during the summer months. Some simple planning and preventative techniques can keep your garden from suffering as temperatures continue to rise.

First, be aware of the signs of heat stress in plants. In extreme cold weather, plants with poor cold-tolerance will simply die. In extreme heat, many plants will exhibit symptoms that hint at discomfort or unhealthiness. Be on the lookout for plants with unusually pale leaves, plants that have stopped blooming suddenly, and plants with pest infestations. Pests prey on already vulnerable plants. If you see these symptoms in your garden, consider excessive heat exposure as a possible cause and take action!

Plants need protection from both intense heat and intense sunlight. Shade netting easily tackles both these threats. When suspended several inches above your garden, the netting will keep the soil and plants below up to ten degrees cooler; it will also protect the tender leaves of plants from getting scorched by direct sunlight.

A sun screen directing shade at the bases of plants is equally as effective, and can work very well on tall crops and flowers. Sun screens can be purchased or made out of scrap material, such as old wood or window screens.

Regular mulching and deep watering of soil can also help keep plants cool. The hotter it gets, the more hydration your plants need. Be sure to research their water tolerance levels so as not to over or under water. Potted plants are especially sensitive to the heat, so take extra care when watering these. Water directly at the roots to ensure the entire root ball is wetted. And, remember, frequent watering can leach nutrients out of your soil, so supplement watering with applications of a slow release fertilizer.

Removing weeds is a general rule of thumb, but, in the summer, weeds are especially dangerous because they compete with your crops for water and soil nutrients. Cut them down quickly and frequently to ensure that your plants don’t get choked out by unwelcome garden dwellers.

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Green Gardening Secrets: Making a Rain Garden

In these hot, dry summer months, you may be looking for a way to conserve water and cut down on your bills without neglecting your plants. We don’t blame you. Water bills are expensive and manual watering is time-consuming. If you are looking for an alternative, building a rain garden in your backyard conserves rain water while also helping the environment. It’s a win win!

What are Rain Gardens?

Rain gardens serve a couple main purposes: for one, they funnel rainwater runoff from downspouts into planting beds and surrounding areas of soil. They also filter water runoff, sponging out harmful chemicals. Typically, when water comes off a downspout, it travels through your yard, oftentimes picking up pesticides and fertilizers on the way. Then, it goes into a storm drown that eventually dumps it into rivers and streams, where chemical pollutants in the water can hurt native plant and animal species. Polluted runoff is bad news for ecosystems, and installing a rain garden is one way of combatting its negative effects.

How Do I Build One?

First, you want to find a place to put your rain garden. You should chose an area at least 10 feet from your house, away from septic systems or significant slopes. You should then test the area’s absorbency capabilities. To do this, you can dig a hole approximately 2 ft deep and fill it with eight inches of water. You want the water to be fully absorbed in twelve hours or less. If water is still sitting after 12 hours, this area may not be suitable for a rain garden. Remember, before you dig, you should call your local utilities department to make sure your dig spot is safe and away from utility lines.

After choosing placement, you should decide on size. Rain gardens can be up to 150 square feet (or bigger) if you have the room, but even a small rain garden can help manage your runoff considerably. When you are marking the size of your garden, you should also take into account where the water will flow in to the garden and where it will flow out.

Next, strip away the lawn on top of where your garden will be by slicing off grass roots with a sharp spade or a sod cutter, which you can rent from most hardware stores.

After that—and this is the hardest part—you are going to have to do a lot of digging. You will probably want help, or you can consider hiring an excavator operator for a quicker job. You’re going to want to dig out the entire interior of your rain garden about 18 inches deep. If your garden is slightly sloped, you may want to install a berm soil wall on the lower side—about two feet wide at the base and one foot wide at the top.

You will also need to dig a trench than can carry rain water from downspouts to the rain garden. Within the trenches, you will need to install piping. Corrugated tubing is easy to work with, just make sure to get the kind without perforations. The pipe should reach about a foot into the rain garden basin. For extra durability, you can put stones over and around the pipe. Once the piping is down, fill in the trenches with soil.

You’re then going to fill back in the basin. You want all but the top ~six inches to be filled with rain garden soil (approx. 60% native soil and 40% compost). The sides should be slightly sloped, and stones can be packed around the edges to decrease the chance of erosion.

Then you can start planting! Group plants by their water tolerance levels. Plants that do well in wet environments can go towards the center, plants that can handle standing water should go towards the sloped sides, and plants that like drier conditions can go on the outer edge. Once plants are planted, be sure to mulch and water regularly until they are well-established.

After your plants are thriving, your rain garden is complete! The plants will filter the water through their roots and release clean water slowly into the surrounding yard. You yard will stay hydrated via the recycled storm water and you won’t have to worry about dangerous runoff! It’s a big pay-off for about a week of work.

 

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Grass Diseases: Summer Fungi

A few weeks back, we wrote a blog on common causes of grass death. We touched a bit on various kinds of fungi and diseases that can kill growth, but our crew has been noticing more and more of these diseases popping up on job sites. We wanted to do a more in-depth look at grass disease, focusing on a few that have been particularly common as of late.

Red Thread

Red Thread usually starts popping up in late summer or early fall. Red Thread won’t kill your turf completely, but it will cover it up with homely thread-like growths. These growths are caused by a fungus, Laetisaria fuciformis, which attacks the tips of grass blades. Red Thread is most common on Kentucky blue grass, ryegrass, and tall fescue, and can be caused by poor turfgrass nutrition. Once it shows up in your yard, it can quickly take over. That’s why it’s important to treat infected turf ASAP.

As mentioned earlier, Red Thread attacks grasses that suffer from malnutrition. The best non-chemical treatment for Red Thread involves adding nitrogen to your turf regular through fertilizer treatments. It could take a few applications over a couple years to completely remove outbreaks, but good grass nutrition will strengthen your yard and prevent Red Thread from coming back and spreading. If you suspect that your lawn is at risk, consider fertilizing sooner rather than later.

Alternatively, you can apply a fungicide recommended for Red Thread in order to quickly kill the disease. One application in addition to nitrogen treatment should be enough to keep the fungus at bay.

Brown Patch

Brown Patch is another kind of fungal grass disease caused by Rhizoctonia solani. This disease thrives when it’s hot and humid outside, making it a common summer occurrence. Brown Patch causes grass to thin and turn light-brown in patches (circular spots) around your yard. Patches can become as big as several feet in diameter, and this fungus is fully capable of killing your grass, especially if the turf is young.

Brown Patch is often caused by grass becoming too damp after watering or irrigation. Keep track of your irrigation system and don’t over-water. You may consider installing a rain sensor so that your system knows when storms have moved in. You should also be careful to regularly cut your grass and remove damp lawn clippings from your yard. Aerating your lawn can also help prevent against fungal infection.

Remember: Though nitrogen is good for your yard, too much nitrogen can have an adverse effect. Frequent applications of fast-release nitrogen can encourage the growth of fungi like Brown Patch.

Dollar Spot

Dollar spot is a very versatile lawn disease that can attack and kill many different types of grass. This fungus takes the form of small, silver-dollar shapes brown spots that may occur dozens of times in a single lawn. Individually, these spots don’t look menacing, but don’t be fooled: Dollar Spot kills turf clear to the roots.

Like Brown Patch, Dollar Spot thrives in hot, humid weather and is often caused by poor watering, mowing, or fertilizing techniques on turf. Be sure to feed your lawn some nitrogen-rich fertilizer, water regularly (especially when it’s humid), and mow consistently. However, don’t mow your lawn too short in the summer (less than 1.5”) or it could become even more vulnerable to disease.

The best treatment method for Dollar Spot is regular, deep watering in the mornings. It is best to let your grass dry completely before evening, since Dollar Spot can spread on wet, cool grass. Keeping up with a good watering routine, checking your soil, and mowing properly are sure to keep your grass hardy and resilient throughout disease season.

Green Gardening Secrets: Compost!

Good, fertile soil is like black gold to gardeners. It is invaluable resource that, in many places across the U.S, is unfortunately hard to find. Regular applications of fertilizer can help add nutrients to nutrient-poor soil, but, for money-conscious gardeners, there is a cheaper, all-natural solution that can be made right at home.

Composting isn’t an invention of the modern, eco-conscious age; it has been made and utilized by farmers for centuries. When added to clay or sandy soil, it improves the soil’s water-retention and gives seedlings a nutrient-rich feast. In some climates, it is one of the only ways to sustain a bountiful harvest. Now, many homeowners have begun their own compost piles in hopes of being able to turn trash into a useful and money-saving resource.

What is Compost?

Compost, most simply, is decomposed organic material like leaves, twigs, and fruit and vegetable scraps. In nature, dead organic material is constantly being broken down and recycled by fungi, insects, and animals. The product of this recycling is rich, nutrient-dense soil that can be used to create new life. Building your own compost pile recreates this process by turning your trash (banana peels, egg shells, dead leaves) into soil that can then be used in your garden.

Where Do I Keep Compost?

Out in the garden is probably your best bet. You can leave it piled, but it looks more contained when put into something. Your container should be at least 3ft by 3ft to allow for enough sifting room. You can easily build a container out of wood, re-purpose a Tupperware bin into one, or buy one at almost any garden store.

How Do I Make Compost?

To start, you’re going to need organic material, oxygen, moisture, and bacteria. In this case, organic matter means trash, but not just any kind of trash. You want to include a mix of brown organic material (manure, dead leaves, shredded paper) and green organic material (grass, fruit rinds, coffee grounds). You want to have approximately equal parts of both, or more of the brown material if you want to speed up the process. And, remember, the smaller the organic material is, the faster it will decompose.

Tip: NEVER compost with anything containing meat, fat, oil, grease, or dairy products. This will turn your compost pile into a putrid mess!

Moisture is essential to the decomposition process. Your compost should have a moisture level similar to that of a damp sponge. If your compost gets dry, add some water until moisture levels are at where you want them to be. If the compost gets too wet, dry it out by mixing it up or adding more dry brown organic material.

Oxygen also aids the decomposition process. To oxygenate your compost, turn the pile occasionally (every two weeks or so) to break it up. The center of the pile will heat up as decomposition occurs; wait until the center cools to turn your compost, or else you may interrupt the decomposition process prematurely.

Bacteria will naturally be produced as the organic material rots. These bacteria will do most of the labor in the decomposition process, breaking down and recycling nutrients. Some composters chose to add earth worms to their pile to speed up decomposition. Earth worms make fast work of trash, and they can help cut down on the cloyingly sweet smell that compost bins tend to produce when they are hot (in the middle of the decomposition process).

When Will My Compost be Ready?

This questions depends on a number of factors: how large the compost pile is, what kinds of materials are in there, how many times the pile has been turned, and what kind of bacteria are at work. Most piles are between 27-125 cubic feet. Compost piles of this size are generally ready to use in about three months, which makes a compost bin the perfect summer or spring project! When it is ready, you can use it as you would mulch or fertilizer on beds and grass.

Finished “Black Gold”

Urban Gardening: Getting Started

For lovers of plants and flowers, an apartment or townhouse in the middle of the city can seem like a dull wasteland: no backyard, no grass to mow or water, and very few trees to admire. Many urbanites want to add a bit of green to their living spaces, but it can be hard to figure out where to start when there is a limited amount of space and time. That’s why we’ve done some of the work for you by compiling a blog of simple tips and starting points to help you create a greener, brighter urban dwelling.

Urban gardens come in many forms: balcony gardens, rooftop gardens, windowsill gardens, and more. Despite cramped circumstances and large crowds, city-dwellers have found every way imaginable to keep growing the produce and flowers that they love. All an urban garden really requires is a little bit of innovation, planning, and creativity; especially when it comes to utilizing space: a rare commodity in the city.

Urban gardens have learned to maximize the space they have by getting creative with planters. For instance, mason jars can be used as compact planters for individual plants. They can be set side-by-side on a windowsill or mounted on sunny walls to free up even more space. Egg cartons, small trashcans, yogurt containers, colanders, and over-the-door shoe racks have also been used as space-saving indoor planters! For city-dwellers with a bit of outside space, consider using shipping pallets as planters to construct a vertical garden. These pallets look especially beautiful when covered in vine plants. Hanging planters are also useful, especially on small balconies. Large bundles of flowers and herbs can fit into one planter, adding a lot of color in a little space. Cinderblocks make for rustic, sturdy planters that may be used to line a walkway or fill a sunny corner with a bit of greenery. Even an old kiddie pool with drainage holes poked into the side can function as a great plant bed in a small yard or on a rooftop.

pallet garden

shoe rack garden

There are a number of plants that are well-suited to growing in cramped spaces. Consider filling your urban garden with plants like tomato (they grow upward rather than outward), salad greens, mint, garlic, basil, strawberries, cilantro, and rosemary. Most of these plants need ample sunlight, so be sure to choose a space that gets plenty of light. However, if your urban space is mostly shaded, there are plenty of plants that can do perfectly well in the shade: Foxglove, primrose, violets, begonias, and pansies are just a few varieties.

An indoor tomato plant on a climber.

We encourage you to experiment with a number of different methods and see what works best. Consider your space, the amount of sunlight you get, the type of plants you want to grow, and do your research! A successful urban garden is a planned urban garden. Careful planning and a bit of creativity can go a long way in making up for a lack of traditional garden space!

Green Gardening Secrets: Building Ecosystems

Keeping a “green” garden is about more than the lushness of your plants. A green garden is a sustainable, energy-saving, eco-conscious garden that conserves limited (and expensive) resources like water and power by working more efficiently. Green gardening takes many different forms, and most gardeners are well aware of how to conserve and save. That being said, almost all gardens could be working more efficiently. That’s why we are doing a multi-part blog series dedicated to giving our readers some “green” ideas that they can take with them when designing and maintaining their landscapes, because the best gardens work their hardest to preserve and accentuate natural beauty, not take it away.

Eco gardening cuts down on waste, reduces energy consumption, and goes easy on our delicate climate. The first step to creating a more “green” garden is going back to the roots of what a garden is: an ecosystem that you have created right outside your home.

That means your garden is going to be filled with bugs. This might have its fair share of negative connotations, but green gardeners know that there are just as many good garden bugs as there are bad garden bugs, and good bugs can act as great fortifiers and all-natural pesticides against harmful infestations. Ladybugs and lacewings, for example, love eating aphids, a common garden pest. By planting flowers that attract ladybugs, like marigolds and sunflowers, you can create a natural defense against pests. In this way, you are building a stronger garden ecosystem and eliminating the constant need for chemical pesticides.

Birds are also an important part of a garden ecosystem. Though they sometimes munch on our fruits and veggies, they also do a great job of controlling pests. By installing a few bird feeders around your yard, you can fight against snail, slug, and caterpillar infestations.  This is a cheap, easy, and low-impact way of keeping pest populations under control.

In many ecosystems, organisms will naturally evolve together and provide protection and safety to one another. The plants in your garden are capable of the same thing. Companion planting is an age-old farming practice in which two plants that complement each other are planted together in order to encourage growth and durability. For example, tall sun-loving plants might be used to provide shade for short, shade-loving plants. Planning out your garden in this way will make your ecosystem more efficient and sustainable. You won’t have to work as hard to keep your plants thriving, and that usually translates into energy costs as well. Some good companion planting combos are: chives and tomatoes, rose and garlic, carrot and spring onion, melon and marigold, sweet corn and green beans, and cucumbers and dill!

Another point to consider: where is your garden growing? What is the weather like? How about the soil? What kind of native plants and animals live there? Including a variety of native plant species in your garden will certainly boost its longevity. Native species are used to the unique soil and weather conditions in your area, and they can better fight against droughts and disease. They also attract native animal species and can ward off invasive plant and animal life. Invasive plants like kudzu can severely harm your garden ecosystem if allowed to grow unchecked, whereas native plants are good for the environment and require less energy and resources to thrive. Native planting is yet another smart way to create a vibrant garden ecosystem.

These are just a few green gardening suggestions. Check back in for a more in-depth look at other green gardening techniques such as composting and building rain gardens. We look forward to seeing what kind of ecosystem you create!

July Landscaping Checklist

Every month brings a unique set of challenges for landscapers. July is no exception, and protecting landscapes from intense heat, severe weather, and annoying pests is not an easy task. Here are some landscaping tips to keep in mind during July so that you can keep your yard thriving even during the most intense and unpredictable summer months:

July’s hot, humid weather means a spark in insect and disease populations. Be especially diligent this month in your pest prevention methods. Check plants and grass regularly for signs of infestation or disease, properly identify the pest responsible, and then research the best kill method for that particular insect. Pesticides are usually specific to certain species of insect, so, if you plan on spraying, make sure you’ve chosen the right pesticide by reading the label closely. Late evening is the best time to spray during the hot summer months.

Keep lawns mowed and watered regularly, but don’t overdo it. If you have an irrigation system, consider installing a rain sensor so that your system can recognize the amount of rainfall your yard is getting from passing thunderstorms or summer rain showers. The sensor will prevent the system from coming on when the grass has already been watered, thus preventing over-watering. If you don’t have an irrigation system, keep in mind how much water your garden is losing to evaporation and run-off and water approximately twice a day if it doesn’t rain. When mowing, always avoid over-mowing. Grass grows quickly in the summer, but never remove more than one third of the height of the grass. Cutting grass very short can stress its roots and lead to discoloration and dehydration, as we covered in our last blog post.

Deadhead annual and perennial flowers so that they can bloom later in the season. The top buds of dahlias, phlox, garden mums and other flowers can be plucked to limit seed development and channel energy into the production of blooms. This will give you another rush of color and fragrance in late summer!

poison ivy

Beware of poison ivy! This poisonous plant loves popping up in Virginia gardens and yards in the summer. You can identify poison ivy by its signature look: three pointed leaflets per leaf. If you see it, avoid touching it directly and pull it up using gloves or yard tools!

Fertilize and prune. Herb and vegetable plants like nitrogen-rich fertilizer applications about once a month in the summer. This will keep them healthy and strong. It is best not to fertilize on dry garden soil; instead, wait until after a rainstorm or irrigation to apply new fertilizer. After each application, water your plants deeply. Summer is also a great time to prune trees and shrubs. Be thorough, but don’t go crazy. You shouldn’t remove more than 15% of a tree’s leaves and branches if you want it to stay healthy. Focus on removing dead or dying growth primarily.

Harvest fruits and veggies! July is full of critters just itching to get their hands on your produce. Birds, rabbits, deer, and insects can all make quick work of your garden labors. Be sure to check on fruits and veggies daily and harvest as soon as they’re ripe enough to pick off the plant.

Prepare for the fall: fall vegetables like broccoli, carrots, turnips, radishes, and lettuce can be planted now to be enjoyed when fall rolls around. It’s always good to have something to look forward to 🙂