Articles

Mulch / Edging

In modern landscaping, mulch is a protective layer of organic material that is placed over or around plants. Mulch can be employed for many reasons, but the most common benefits it provides include the prevention of moisture loss, suppression of weed growth, and protection against exposure. There are also several different varieties of mulch commercially available, based on the specific local climate in which is to be used as well as the aesthetic tastes of the homeowners planning the landscape design. Common materials used for mulch include wood chips, straw, hay, or composted grass clippings. If local weed growth is particularly aggressive, homeowners can opt for plastic sheeting with small holes cut at strategic locations. The plastic is then covered with more organic material to create an effective barrier against weed growth.

When mulching, homeowners must pay close attention to local rainfall and drainage issues. Thick layers of mulch can actually reduce water absorption by the soil, as moderate rainfall will not penetrate the mulch. Homeowners are advised to carefully research the optimal amount of mulch for each specific plant variety on their property as well as the proper time for its application. Generally, mulch is applied near the beginning of a growing season in order to help retain heat in the soil overnight. Mulch can also be applied in the fall before the first freeze to help with moisture retention and to provide insulation. Blustery winter winds frequently expose the crowns of plants’ roots and drying the entire plant. Mulch helps to prevent this from occurring, though for more delicate plants the application of an anti-desiccant or a protective burlap wrap may be necessary.

Mulch is also often used in the practice of edging, which involves the management of transition spaces between hardscapes (driveways, paths, and patios) with plant-based softscapes. Edging refers to the act of trimming the plant growth along the hardscape in order to create a clean edge. This helps create a perception of orderliness and regimentation. Powered edging apparatuses are available from several commercial manufacturers, but homeowners need only concern themselves with these if the area to be edged is particularly large. Most edging projects (such as those along a short driveway or flowerbed) can be managed with a garden hoe or spade. DIY landscapers simply thrust the spade down along the boundary between the two areas, cutting the plant material in a relatively straight line as well as creating a slight gap between the two contrasting areas. Homeowners can also create small trenches to serve as the edge, which can then be filled with ornamental organic material or simply left to serve as a barrier.


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Dethatching

 Thatch is the term used in modern landscaping for the organic material buildup between living grass and the soil’s surface. This buildup is composed mainly of the roots and stems of lawn grasses, which tend to break down more slowly than they build up. While manageable in lower quantities, a thatch buildup of excessive depth (greater than ½ inch) will inhibit grass root development as well as provide a breeding ground for lawn pests. Excessive watering and fertilizing are major causes of thatch buildup due to the lawn’s speedy growth. New grass grows much more quickly than dead grass can be broken down by natural processes in such lawns. This can cause the new lawn grass to root into the thatch rather than the soil, depriving it of important nutrients and potentially causing drainage problems.

In order to combat the myriad of threats posed by thatch buildup, homeowners must first keep a close eye on their fertilization and watering habits. Remember that aggressive growth can also lead to aggressive thatch buildup, so try to strike a balance between lush coverage and thatch presence. If thatch reaches problematic levels—as evidenced by grass tearing up by the root quite easily—core aeration can help alleviate the problem. Core aerators are machines that pull up small cores of soil to leave behind plug-like holes. Cored soil can then be covered with a thin layer of organic material (topdressing) to assist in breaking down the excess thatch. Soil cores remaining on the surface of the lawn accelerate thatch breakdown. Core aeration also helps to correct drainage and compaction issues.

When considering whether to dethatch their landscape, homeowners need to be aware of a few principles. First, dethatching places a good deal of stress on the lawn. Core aeration and dethatching machines are aggressive practices. Lawns typically need a recovery period of thirty to fifty days of relatively mild weather in order to regenerate. Severe weather during this time can be extremely detrimental to the recovery process and may damage large swaths of the landscape. DIY landscapers should keep an eye on their weather reports to gather an idea of when to dethatch most effectively. Much also depends on the variety of grass used in the lawn—some varieties grow best cool weather while others prefer warmth. Homeowners need to prepare themselves by learning as much as possible about their particular variety of grass, preferably prior to the initial seeding. Choose a variety that will not produce much thatch. If DIY landscapers are working in a pre-existing lawn, ask questions at the local plant nursery or garden center regarding the correct thatching timeframe for your variety. 


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Driveway Landscaping

 Homeowners tend toward viewing driveways as utilitarian structures because of their regular automobile and foot traffic. They need to be durable and well-built to withstand the stresses of traffic and the elements. From a landscaping perspective, the driveway is unique in that it presents a blank canvas with which to work. With some careful planning, homeowners can transform the driveway from a simple path into a solid introduction to the rest of the property’s landscaping style.

First, it is advised that homeowners plan on what kind of aesthetic they would like their driveway to communicate. Should the focus be placed on softscapes, such as flowers and shrubs, which will line the driveway or be planted in small islands along its sides? Or do homeowners wish to include hardscapes (walls and fences) into their plans as well? Walls complement driveways in a number of ways. They can be constructed from a wide variety of decorative stones and bricks to accommodate almost any intended aesthetic. Homeowners can also build their walls at several different heights according to budgetary requirements. It is important to remember that one’s choice of stones and woods at this stage of the process go hand in hand with one’s choices for plants. Dimensional sketches will help homeowners visualize what the landscape will look like after construction is complete.

As for softscape plants to accompany the driveway, the choices are nearly limitless. The main factors here are of course climate, drainage, fertility, and rainfall. In other words, plants that are successful in other parts of the yard will most likely be fine along the driveway. Exposure may be a concern for delicate plants, however, especially if there are no windbreaks in the immediate vicinity. Plants exposed to wind and rain on all four sides need to be hardy enough to survive—the USDA plant hardiness zones are quite helpful in making these decisions. Homeowners in cooler climates may also choose to mulch their plants in the fall to limit the effects of winter root exposure due to high winds. Natural windbreaks such as hedge bushes and dense shrubs can also help prevent winter drying.

Plant placement independent of weather concerns is also an issue: where do homeowners wish attention to be directed in the landscape? The driveway itself is often a focal point, as it stands out due to its clear contrast with surrounding plants. Homeowners can take advantage of this by lining the driveway with shrubs and flowers to create a perception of orderliness. If something less regimented is desired, small planting islands dotted near the driveway on either side will work well. 


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Aeration

 Oxygen is essential for both the establishment of root systems and above-ground plant growth. The practice of increasing or restoring soil’s oxygen supply is known as aeration. Many homeowners may believe that aeration is only necessary for a healthy lawn, but in truth the entire landscape can benefit from increased access to oxygen. There are also several ways that a plant’s oxygen supply can be compromised, inhibiting further growth. Thatch (the covering of dead or mown grass across a lawn) is less easily broken up if there is not sufficient oxygen in the soil. The new landscaper must keep tabs on the oxygen level in the landscape, watching for dead spots or other areas that suggest soil compaction or loss of oxygen.

Ground-level areas with high foot or automobile traffic can become compacted due to the repetitive stress placed on the soil. This stress collapses the small pockets and passageways crafted in the soil by worms and microorganisms. After the pockets collapse, roots can neither penetrate the soil nor access the oxygen necessary for further growth. Excessive or repetitive stress is not the only source of de-oxygenation of the soil, however. Problems with drainage and nearness to the local water table may also cause major problems with the soil’s oxygen levels. As the water table rises—gradually getting closer to the surface—the amount of oxygen in the soil drops off dramatically. Severe drainage problems may have to be alleviated with major excavation, such as a pond or permanent culvert. Minor drainage issues can sometimes be corrected with simple planting beds or drainage ditches.

When considering solutions for aeration problems, landscapers have a number of different options depending on the size of the affected area. Smaller patches of compacted lawn may be aerated by a simple hand-operated aerator. These are inexpensive and available at many plant nurseries and garden centers. In addition to being cheap, these hand-operated aerators also offer excellent mobility for aerating in tight spaces (such as in flowerbeds or near other delicate plants). For larger swaths affected by compaction and poor oxygen supply, powered aerators may be needed. Local landscaping companies typically keep a variety of aerators—some of these may be available for rent. After the land has been successfully aerated, homeowners also need to take measures to prevent future aeration problems. If a piece of property is subjected to heavy foot or automobile traffic, regular aeration or a rotation of the activity will most likely be necessary. Heavy rainfall and potential drainage problems will also need to be addressed frequently if a more permanent solution—such as an excavated pond or culvert—is not implemented. 


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Tuscan Garden


In the world of modern landscaping, Tuscany is a region in central Italy known for its beautiful natural landscapes. Lush foliage, olive and citrus trees, and an overarching simplistic aesthetic combine to form unique gardens perfect for relaxation. Many homeowners and DIY landscapers seek to re-create the Tuscan garden in other parts of the world. Though most regions may not be as mild or as nurturing to delicate flora as central Italy, landscapers can still create wonderful approximations of the Tuscan garden by following a few key principles.

One of the foundation aspects of Tuscan gardening is a precise balance of sun and shade. Citrus trees and other delicate blossoming plants require a high daily quota of sunlight. In order to relax in the garden without overheating, however, homeowners need shade. This complex balance calls for careful planning and plant selection. Italian standbys like cypress and oak trees will provide more than enough shade, but need to be located far enough away from fruit-bearing trees and bushes to allow the fruits to ripen properly. Shrubs are indispensable here, as they allow homeowners a greater degree of control over what regions of the garden receive shade. Shrubs also make excellent border plants and property markers for DIY landscapers interested in seclusion. Topiary—the art of pruning hedge bushes and other plants into shapes—is also a hallmark of the Tuscan garden. Though topiary requires a bit more maintenance than simply allowing hedge to grow unimpeded, the results can be absolutely gorgeous.

Re-creating the cloistered Tuscan look may be difficult for homeowners who have just purchased their property. New plantings need time for growth and coverage. A fully mature Tuscan garden is not attainable for years, which is why DIY landscapers must take the necessary precautions during the planning phase. Choose trees, shrubs, and flowers carefully, and be certain to factor in room for seating and hardscapes such as patios and pathways. If there are any existing structures on the land that could be utilized in landscape ornamentation, take full advantage. Older barns, sheds, and even outhouses can host a wonderful variety of climbing vines. Working existing structures into the landscape also helps to obscure the transition between the landscape and the structures themselves. Blurring this line makes for a more authentic Tuscan garden. If homeowners do not have pre-existing structures to work with, there are several kits and blueprints available online for DIY arbors and vine frameworks. Local plant nurseries and gardens may also have contact information for professional landscaping firms that keep construction teams on staff.


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Hillside / Sloped Landscaping

 Landscaping through or near slopes means that homeowners have to deal with a concept called the angle of repose. The angle of repose is the maximum angle at which a granular material (in this case, soil) will remain at rest relative to the earth surrounding it. In other words, if the slope of a piece of land exceeds the local soil’s angle of repose, the soil will shift until it is at rest. What does this mean for homeowners who are landscaping into their hillsides, or moving large amounts of land to put down a hardscape? Typically, landscaping at a slope greater than the angle of repose necessitates fortifying structures known as retaining walls. These structures help support the pressure that is exerted by soil as it is trying to shift back to equilibrium.

When tackling hillside projects, homeowners need to carefully investigate the soil at the construction site. Is the slope itself contributing to soil erosion? Where does rainfall go as it runs down the hill? Is the soil sandy or does it contain a higher proportion of clay? DIY landscapers need to evaluate the size of the project as well. Major excavation frequently calls for specialized labor and large retaining walls reinforced with concrete and steel bars. More minor slopes, such as the gentle curve of a flowerbed’s soil as it meets the surrounding land, can be dealt with more easily. These smaller projects are an opportunity for DIY landscapers to employ decorative stone or brick without the risk of collapse from the massive weight of shifting earth. Being certain about the characteristics of the local soil (as well as its drainage) is critical during this stage. If homeowners are unsure about how they should proceed, consulting a professional landscaping firm or inquiring after other locally built retaining walls is a good place to begin.

After the integrity of the soil on the hillside has been addressed, DIY landscapers can start to brainstorm ideas for plant-based softscapes. There are a wide variety of groundcovers that can be used to provide coverage as well as help to prevent soil erosion due to heavy rainfall or wind. Steeper slopes may be supplemented with decks, terraces, stairs, or strategically placed rocks to control the flow of drainage (an especially important step if homeowners are worried about water damaging another person’s property). Homeowners must also take measures to ensure that any hillside plants are capable of dealing with a high degree of exposure to wind, rain, and natural light. For this reason, delicate flowers are not recommended for hillsides unless homeowners mean to reduce their exposure. 


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