Tag Archives: landscaping

Five Trees in the Ground

My goal for the year was to plant an additional five trees in my yard.  Before spring the yard contained thirteen trees (1 elm, 1 sycamore, 1 maple, 3 yellow poplars, 3 Norway spruce, and 4 red oaks).  Over the years I have drawn out several plans to add to my trees.

However, the nursery stock this year was harsh.  I rarely saw a shade tree worth a second look and the conifers were wicked expensive.  Early in the season I was able to find a pair of Norway spruce for about $65 each.  This was an easy choice since I had a spot picked out:


Both trees really took to being planted and put on a thrush of new growth within weeks.  The weather this summer has been amenable to trees as well with well-spaced moisture and not too many blistering hot days.  Even the days that were hot lacked the combination of heat and sun that really seems to knock the stuffing out of plants.

Hopefully before the end of fall I can trim around the trees like the maple in the foreground of the picture above.  The surrounding mulched bed will not be planted with perennials like the maple.  Over the years the branches will spread to encompass the entirety of the mulched bed.  Also, this is just the start of what I have planned for this side of my yard.  See the disastrous “sport” court in the neighbors’ back yard?  Yeah, I do not want to see it either.  Next year is going to be a heavy year for trees.

Just this weekend I ran across a store doing a fall sale of container grown conifers for just $15 each.  Normally, I am not a fan of Colorado blue spruce as the species is over planted in eastern Iowa.  I could not turn down relatively good looking trees at a low, low price.  I picked up three and got to work finishing another planting bed where I am trying to take out all of the turf grass:


This part of my lawn is almost entirely sand.  The only soil, so to speak, is what came on the rolls of sod that were laid down and what I have added when planting trees.  The area has little soil fertility and retains very little moisture.  It is like a thin layer of soil, compacted, and sitting on a jelly roll pan.  If you pour out a bucket of water you can watch it flow downhill without really penetrating the soil.  While the rest of the yard can handle a period of drought—mowing the grass extra high and allowing clover to spread helps—this little corner dries out and dies.  I had considered top dressing the lawn in this area, but felt that it was a better use of space to plant trees and perennials, edge the area, amend the soil, and deeply mulch.  I will get to the edging, amending, and mulching next year.  I promise.

The only downside of all of this planting is that I have used up the contents of one of my compost bins.  There is some compost left and a few things that did not break down over the years, like the muslin bags used to steep grains during my homebrewing days, which will go into a mixture to improve soil health in the areas where I remove turf.  The other bin is fairly full, so in a year or so I should have a lot of nutrient dense compost to amend my sandy soil.

Hardscaping for the Future

In my yard I have a lot of trees. At the current count, which is going to change soon as I add a few more in various spots to finish my mini arboretum, I have thirteen trees representing six different species of tree. The downside is that all of the trees “required” some form of hardscaping around the base to provide protection from lawn mowers or string trimmers and to break up the monotony of the grass carpet called a lawn. I know that it is un-American to suggest this but vast landscapes of green grass are just boring.

Building planting beds around a tree also gave me an opportunity to bring some color into my yard and increase the water storage capacity of the soil through amendments. It’s not sexy, but if your soil can hold more water you will be thankful when the late summer temperatures start creeping up and nary a rain cloud is on the horizon.

Not long after we moved into our new house I moved the original street tree, so named because it is a required tree planted between the sidewalk and street, to the backyard. It was a boring autumn blaze elm that had been planted on every other house lot on the street. As if we had not learned from the over reliance on single species of trees with the onset of Dutch elm disease and the invasion of the emerald ash borer.

The maple just kind of got stuck in the backyard:

Tree Ring BeforeBoring. After about four hours of hacking through turfgrass, which had me questioning the logic of mowing my grass so high since the roots extend an equidistant amount below the surface making easy removal impossible, I was able to finally place the heavy rocks that formed the tree ring seen below:

Tree Ring AfterThe soil, which in my backyard is as sandy as a beach when you dig past the layer of top soil, was amended with coconut coir. A lot of people in eastern Iowa use peat moss as a soil amendment, but that comes with a whole host of environmental concerns related to the destruction of peat bogs for our gardens. Not gonna’ happen. Coconut coir is a byproduct of coconut production so it has fewer concerns about sustainability outside of the transportation costs. Regardless, it is a great way to increase the moisture carrying capability of sandy soils.

The real difference maker is the plants. I wanted to create a puzzle of color with low maintenance and drought tolerant plants. In a world potentially impacted by climate change—e.g. hotter and drier summers for those of us in eastern Iowa—we need to be very conscious about what we plant in our landscapes to ensure long term viability and resiliency.

I went with nine plants—three of each variety—to fill in the space. The plants are a “Purrsian Blue” catmint, dianthus “Kahori,” and “Desert Eve” yarrow.

The other benefit of all of these plants is that the pollinators seem to already love the little garden. Just the other day I saw at least three bees buzzing around. Gotta’ help the pollinators.

Clover is a Good Thing

“Are you going to do something about that clover?”

It was an offhand question from a neighbor which was asked while we watched our kids run around like mad people in the warm glow of an early autumn day when the temperature still allowed for shorts and sandals.

But, it forms the central line of thought about suburban lawns in most of the United States. Certain species of ornamental grass are good and everything else is an interloper. Even worse, there is a social pressure in some neighborhoods to maintain a certain type of grass in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” Whatever.

In my opinion this is one of the most destructive impulses in modern America. In order to keep a thick carpet of Kentucky bluegrass we will pour water on our lawns when a drought is ongoing. We will coat our landscape in chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maintain an artificial monoculture that can barely withstand the daily onslaught on children’s activities without looking threadbare. It is insane.

Which brings me back to the spreading patches of clover that I have nurtured in my lawn over the past couple of years. Dutch white clover is an amazing little plant that should not be wiped off the face of your landscape with an indiscriminate application of the latest miracle lawn chemical hawked by some guy in a Tyvek jumpsuit.

First, it fixes nitrogen in the soil. Like legumes and other “green manures” that people use in their vegetable gardens to put nitrogen back into the soil for healthy plants, clover can do this job for a lawn. So, instead of pouring bag after bag of synthetically derived fertilizer onto your lawn just let clover do the work of feeding your grass.

Second, it withstands close and repeated mowing. This means that it will survive and outcompete other non-grass plants that find it difficult to thrive when you keep lopping off the top portion of growth. It is amazing to see the kind of grass “mat” that is made when clover and turf intertwine. No crabgrass or lawn weeds seem able to penetrate the green fortress.

Third, in this era of climate change and weird weather clover will help the soil retain moisture, like a mulch, and it is relatively drought tolerant. If you are like me and you let your lawn go brown as the rainfall fails to appear, much to the chagrin of my sprinkler loving neighbors, patches of clover will maintain their green hue for a week or more after turf grasses start to go dormant.

About the only “downside” is that bees love the white flowers that rise from thick patches of clover. However, given the state of pollinators in the United States I think creating a little bit of bee friendly lawn is a good thing.

Sure, my lawn does not look like a golf course. But, who wants to maintain such an artificial environment steps away from their home on which their children play? Not this father.

I Spoke to Soon about the Yard

Just as I thought my yard was rounding into shape before the heat of July and August arrived, we got hit with a derecho. What is a derecho? Basically, it’s about as nasty as a rainstorm gets in the Midwest United States without it being a full-on tornado. We are talking about winds in excess of 80 miles per hour and a lot of rain. Like inches of rain in the matter of a few hours. Combined with our already saturated soil and you get some nice flash flooding. My backyard looked like a swamp.

The aftermath was pretty ugly. My yard and home escaped major damage unlike some of my neighbors who completely lost trees or saw wooden playsets crumpled on the ground like bonfire piles:

Playground Down

My newly plants London planetree was on its side having bobbed out of its hole like a cork as the water level rose higher than the surrounding grass for much of the evening. This morning I was able to secure it back into place, but I am guessing that the stress might make its survival suspect. Here’s to hoping.

Even more concern to me is the damage to established trees. My autumn blaze maple, replanted from the front yard and thriving in its new location, now has a pretty nice bend:

Bent Maple

The tree might grow straight again, but it might require some staking to regain its formally upright habit. There is some damage to the bark. Hopefully nothing is ultimately fatal. I would hate to lose another tree especially one as large and vigorous as this particular maple.

The red oaks and Norway spruces that guard the property line to the north seem relatively unscathed, but like the maple some of the oaks seem to have a different bent than prior to the storm:

Bent Oak

As things dry out and the sun shines there is a good chance that the trees will straighten on their own. If this is climate change I am on record as thinking it sucks.

Good Use for Old Newspaper

If you workplace is anything like mine then people are still attached to getting their daily news on dead trees.  Every morning stacks of newspapers are dropped off for distribution.  I do not know what the business model of the Wall Street Journal is but those guys drop off at least one extra stack of newspapers every day.  How do I know?  Because the stack is moved beside the large recycling bins without ever getting cut from its binding.

What a waste!  Now, you could argue that even printing the Wall Street Journal was a waste considering it is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and I will stand you that opinion.  I thought there had to be a better use for these dead trees besides straight up recycling.

Enter the compost pile.  A lot of people who compost will have no trouble ensuring the right mix of carbon and nitrogen in their pile—the sacred mix of brown and green that you hear compost cognoscenti speak about—but I lack some of the best sources of carbon rich material, namely fallen leaves.  Living in a house that is less than five years old means that my trees are also less than five years old and do not drop a lot of leaf litter.

Newspaper is carbon rich, but you do not want to just throw sheets of the latest business gossip into you pile because the material will become a matted and soggy mess.  I use the paper shredder that we have in the home office to turn sheet after sheet of newspaper into perfect little crosscut confetti that is perfect for mixing into the pile:

Compost Newspaper Shredded

You have to be careful to really mix the newspaper in because I can form balls of mushy pulp even in a finely shredded form.  The stuff will break down eventually, but the process will be slowed considerably.  This is true, however, for just about anything in your compost pile.  The larger the pieces, the longer the wait for rot.

By the way, those are torn up pieces of pizza boxes mixed in with the paper.  The greasy cardboard is not acceptable for our curbside recycling, so I separate the panels that are not greasy–usually the top of the box–and tear up the rest for composting.  Although most compost guides tell you not to compost oils and dairy I have never had a problem with rodents or other animals getting into my bin for those tasty morsels.

I have two compost bins set up in my yard.  My plan is to fill one up and have it “percolate” for a period of time so that I can have a bin full of rich compost for revitalizing my yard’s soil come spring.  The picture above is from the bin that I am going to let sit all summer and rot.  The alternating bin will be the active dump for the year.  Come spring 2014 my hope is that I can sift the compost from the one bin and use it as the active dump while the previous season’s active dump “percolates.”

One of the amazing things about the compost pile is how much the freeze/thaw cycle breaks down the material.  Before the winter, this bin was probably two-thirds or more filled with primarily kitchen waste.  It was less than half full when I mixed in a bucket of shredded newspaper.  Nature is amazing.

Outside Projects

It may be the first day of spring, but with temperatures hovering around freezing and the ground being dusted with snow there is hardly the sense that I will be getting my hands dirty anytime soon.  This is the Midwestern United States which means that I could be in shorts tomorrow enjoying the outdoors and not a person would think the change in weather odd.

What that means is that I need to start considering what I want to get done during the warm weather months.  Every year the list is long on projects.

Primarily, the projects start with the desire to plant more trees and shrubs in and around my home.  At the time of construction my wife and I told the builder to not bother with landscaping and leave the beds that encircle the house empty so that we could choose.  As usual we wanted something different than globe arborvitae, daylilies, and an autumn blaze maple.  We ended up with the cliché autumn blaze maple in the front yard, which city code dictates must have one shade tree, which ended up in the backyard and was replaced by a disease resistant elm.

Nonetheless, it is amazing just how much space is around a house for planting.  After two warm weather seasons we have gotten some of the area planted, but it is nowhere as “thick” as we want it.  So, this year’s focus is filling in the beds with lots of plants that are low maintenance and drought hardy.

What does the project list looks like?

  1. Expand butterfly/pollinator garden—On the west side of my home I planted three butterfly bushes last year.  Each plant took to its new site well and flourished.  This year I want to bump out the bed from the foundation of the house a few feet and plant perrenials that are attractive to pollinators and will provide more visual interest.
  2. Prepare a garlic bed—The garlic will actually not be planted until the fall, but I want to prepare an area to grow garlic.
  3. Build homes for mason bees—We have all heard about colony collapse and I want to make my yard even more attractive to pollinators.  Attracting mason bees seems like a pretty easy and low maintenance solution.  I have a couple of ideas for making mason bee houses that I will post later on in the spring.
  4. Improve yard’s drought tolerance—This project is a combination of eliminating as much lawn as possible while still staying in the confines of city code and figuring out ways to make my soil capture more water rather than letting it run down to the street.  Right now, the yard’s soil is very sandy.  Like so sandy it’s a beach once you dig a few inches down.  That is great for drainage, but bad for retaining moisture.  During last year’s drought, which will persist into this year unless Noah starts building another ark, the plants were very stressed because  the soil retained so little of the scant available moisture.  There are a lot of ideas I have percolating in my head on how to improve the situation.
  5. Edible/medicinal/useful perennials—Plants can be ornamental and have great utility at the same time.  It is something that we overlook when picking out garden plants.  I want to incorporate more utility into my landscaping.  It’s one part curiosity and another part the drive for more self-reliance.

If I can accomplish all of these things by the beginning of fall, I will be one happy dude.

Last Quince Flower of the Season

For some reason, a lone blossom on one of the quince bushes in my front yard unfurled itself:

One last blast of color as fall is officially here and the temperatures at night are getting dangerously close to a killing frost.