Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Low(er) Maintenance Landscapes; General Landscape Management Tips for the New Landscape:

As a landscape designer, I routinely hear clients requesting a “low maintenance” solution to their landscape. In some cases, even a “no maintenance” landscape. Well, I can work with the “low” but not the “no”.  And, how “low” can you really go when it comes to landscape maintenance? That sounds like a riddle.

All landscapes require some maintenance in order to look and perform their best. Even landscapes that re-introduce and reclaim the native prairie species, which thrived undisturbed for thousands of years, aside from the the large buffalo herds and wildfires, need initial maintenance and encouragement to get established. But it is a good idea to make some key decisions in planning your landscape project in order to limit or manage the amount of maintenance required, and then start by following some basic care instructions.

First and foremost, two important factors of achieving low maintenance are determined by the selection of plant material, and the type of mulch used in the planting beds. Plants need to be carefully selected for their hardiness, culture, and growth habits to enable their success and the amount of supplemental care required. Soil characteristics range dramatically throughout the Twin Cities, from the heavier prairie, forest, and bog-derived soils that are often compacted during home construction, to the lighter, less-fertile sand deposits throughout the north and northwest suburbs. Each setting also has a range of micro-climates, where plants receive varying exposures to sunlight, wind, water, and wildlife. So, it is wise to consult with a trusted expert to design your garden with plants that are best suited to your site, with knowledge of soil amendments and irrigation needs, in order to get the best success of your home landscape.

The type of rock or bark mulch used to cover the planting beds is also critical. Rock and bark mulches are both attractive groundcovers. They serve to prevent erosion, maintain moisture and air exchange in the soil, and suppress weed growth. From a maintenance standpoint, my experience has shown that a 3” bed of decorative rock with an underlayment of professional-grade polypropylene fabric makes the best maintenance solution. Rock will not have to be regularly reapplied like mulch, and with a carefully installed polypropylene blanket it should retard the growth of weeds while allowing water, air, and applied fertilizers or pre-emergents to make contact with the soil.

However, fabric-underlain rock or mulch can limit the fullness and density of your garden and limit your selection of plants. It can be more aesthetic to use shredded bark mulch and load your beds with a wider array of shrubs and perennials. What you might gain in aesthetic you might also gain in maintenance, but it is often well-worth it.

Maintaining your trees and planting beds does not have to be a daunting task, but it could be a worthy investment to hire a qualified master gardener or gardening service to assist you. However, if you know some general information on watering, feeding, grooming and pruning, fending off the wildlife, and dressing up for the winter, you can get off to a good start.

Here are the most important fundamental aspects of caring for your property and ensuring the success of your new landscape, in the following categories, assuming that I have worked on your project and have installed a new landscape:

1. Watering

2. Feeding

3. Grooming and Pruning

4. Fending off Wildlife

5. Dressing up for the Winter

Watering is vital. Water is the element of all life, and like all things, if plants do not have enough, they die, and if they have too much, they die. On your project, I would plan for this from the beginning by using “companion plants,” or plants that generally need the same soil and water requirements, and those that are more tolerant of drought-like conditions. In this case, it will be good for your lawn and landscape to “dry out” in between watering cycles. The general rule is less frequent but more thorough watering.

However, your landscape is on an automatic watering system and will be able to be managed for the times when the weather conditions fluctuate and do not give the plants quite enough water, or if the rains become more frequent and the watering system should be greatly reduced or shut off to account for the additional water. The irrigation system, by and large, should supplement for the water needs of your landscape. This is managed in the time set on the clock, and with the rain sensor attached to the irrigation system. Yet, it may require that you periodically look for signs in the plants and check for the moisture level of the soil if conditions do arise.

Too much water? When plants are beginning to get too much water they tend to show it by looking weak and having yellowing leaves toward the interior sections of the plant, and might begin to defoliate in those areas. Some of the leaves might also curl and have a “leathery” feel to them. In this case, check the moisture around the plant by sticking your fingers in the soil underneath them, and compare notes with how much rain the site has received in recent days and what the watering schedule currently is, and how the irrigation coverage is. In this case, you might want to scale back, or even turn off the irrigation system, for a few days. Let the soil around the plants dry out for a few days, and then resume a regular watering schedule again.

Too little water? When plants are getting too little water they tend to yellow, wilt or brown on the ends of the plants, and have a “crispy” feel to them as they defoliate.

In case of the lawn, it will start to go into summer dormancy, as it is a cool season grass (most of the green growth happens in the cooler times of the spring and early summer, and then in late summer and fall) . So, the lawn will benefit from some additional water which has been adjusted on the clock, and watering for the turf areas should increase automatically for the months of July and August, as well as with a slight increase in the drip irrigation to the plants.

However, please check the moisture, the time, and the Seasonal Adjust on the clock, to ensure that the watering is scheduled properly.

Feeding lawn and plants is not critical unless there is a diagnosed deficiency tested in the soil or indicated in the plant. Easy soil test kits are available in most retail garden stores. In some instances, fertilizer might adversely alter the growth and bloom for some perennials that are naturally acclimated to infertile soils, or might encourage a level of dependency that can prevent them from strengthening, taking root, and gathering their own nutrients from the soil as they brace for the next winter. In the case of your landscape, the plants are generally going to go fine without fertilizer. However, fertilizer in the time when plants are getting ready to bloom can increase vigor and the production of blooms.

It might be a good thing to periodically fertilize. There are recommendations for this, based on the plant selection and the situation with pets and wildlife that you have at your home.

Lawn:  If lawns are being irrigated throughout the hot summer months, they normally require more nitrogen fertilizer in the form of ammonium or nitrate. For higher maintenance lawns, two to three applications of one pound of nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. are required to maintain constant growth. If three applications are made, apply in mid-May, late August and mid-October. Be sure to irrigate immediately following fertilizer application. This prevents burning of the lawn under moist conditions and decreases the chance of it to get carried away in runoff. Nitrogen fertilizers for lawns are marketed as “turf builder”, “turf food”, or “winterizer” and should contain no phosphorous. The second number in the composition, such as 27-0-14, should be zero. In fact, it is considered illegal to use phosphorous fertilizer that is broadcasted for established lawns in Minnesota due to the adverse affects it has with feeding algal blooms that will deplete the water of oxygen for aquatic life. In your case, you will likely have much more pronounced algae growth anywhere that water might collect for any prolonged period of time around your home.

Trees, Shrubs, and Perennials: For trees, shrubs, and perennials, wait until the second year after they are planted before fertilizing. All plants can be periodically fertilized as they are actively growing, but plants should not be fertilized after August 15 in order for them to harden and prepare for winter. Generally, most trees and shrubs are grown for their foliage and structure, and a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer works well. Some are grown for their beautiful flowers and will benefit from extra phosphorous, so something like 10-20-10 works better for them.

Trees will often indirectly receive nitrogen fertilizer from the lawn. But it is better to supplement them with time-released fertilizer that includes phosphorus. Do this by drilling holes 6-9” deep spaced around the drip line (right at the edge of the canopy) and apply doses of the fertilizer, or use fertilizer stakes. Applying a tablespoon a balanced time-release fertilizer to each hole is a good way to fertilize the tree.

There are several types of fertilizers on the market in the form of liquid, granular, or water-soluble crystals. There are excellent organic fertilizers on the market as well, such as Milorganite, Renaissance, and Sustane.

In your landscape, the best and most simple fertilizers that I would recommend is spreading Preen N Green around the plants as a pre-emergent in the spring (late April) and then again in early summer (early June) as a way to mitigate annual and biennial weeds and add a boost of time release fertilizer.

Also, you can add Milorganite around the plants in order to give them a mild dose of added Nitrogen, a few times a season until early August. Milorganite also has been alleged to discourage deer, as it is derived from organic material and acts as a repellent. Also, Milorganite can be added to your lawn regime and broadcasted over the turf areas as way to add Nitrogen fertilizer and also try to discourage deer.

Grooming and pruning your landscape is where the labor can feel overwhelming for some homeowners. But the process of caring for your landscape does not have to be done at near the frequency of mowing the lawn.

Lawns should be moved at two to three inches, and with no more than one-third of the height being mowed at one time. Rather than just planning to mow your lawn every Saturday or Sunday, check with how fast the lawn is growing too see if you can skip a few days or if you need to do it a few days earlier.

From a maintenance standpoint, all lawn and bedding areas can benefit from the periodic employment of pre-emergents that keep weed seeds from germinating. A very effective organic pre-emergent is Corn Gluten Meal, which was developed at Iowa State University ten years ago and is now marketed by about a dozen companies. Some forms are also blended with organic fertilizers as a “weed and feed”.  It is more user friendly as a granular form, which can be found on the market.

Pre-emergents should be applied to lawns in early spring when the bulbs are in bloom, and then for dandelions and fall-germinating weeds from about August 15 to September 15. Pre-emergents can be applied to garden areas once all bedding plants are established and are emerging for the season by carefully broadcasting it onto the soil between your plants, boulders, and along the foundation, lightly raking it into the soil or last-year’s mulch, and then watering. Pre-emergents could then be reapplied later in the summer or when the mulch is freshened up, but follow instructions on the package and monitor the growth of new weeds as you spend time outdoors.

In the area of  rampant weed growth in the lawn, or where you want to salvage and reclaim a lawn area, it can be possible to do regular treatments of weed and feed in a granular form, or with a hose attachment like Weed B Gone Max, to routinely treat the weedy species growing in the lawn and to encourage the turf species to grow more vigorously. This has proven very successful for people that I have talked with, who have reclaimed weedy areas into a nicer blend of turf grasses when the area has been over-seeded with a blend of bluegrass and fescue grasses to enable the new turfgrass to blend should start to compete with the weedier grasses.

For pruning basics, there are varying techniques for different types of deciduous and evergreen shrubs. In some cases it is for renewal growth, in other cases it is to head back the plant into a more compact size, and still in other cases it is to control the growth rate. It is best to check with the specific plants you intend to prune.

Generally, if trees or shrubs bloom early in the season on old wood they should be pruned immediately after they finish blooming (i.e., serviceberry, black chokeberry, crabapple tree, lilac). If flowers are formed in late spring or summer, they should be pruned in early spring before the new growth starts, or sheared immediately after bloom (i.e., spirea, weigela). Shrubs that bloom on new woody growth or shrubs grown primarily for their foliage, fruit, or other non-flowering reasons should only be pruned in the spring before new growth starts (i.e., ninebark).

Pruning evergreens can be done to remove browned areas, to restrict growth, and for shaping. For the plants that might sustain some winter burn, wait until new growth has flushed out to remove the browned areas, as it might be at least partially obscured by the new growth. For ornamental pines, when their spring candles and mature to full size, cut them in half to stunt their growth. For other plants that you want to shape, wait until new growth has started in early spring and shear the ends to encourage dense lateral growth to keep them think and bushy. You can shear a few times a year if you would like to maintain a specific look. However, some evergreens maintain a nice, natural tight growth habit on there own.

Fending off Wildlife: Deer, rabbits, squirrels, voles, mice, and a host of other critters can be common visitors and potential nuisances in your home landscape. Again, the greatest strategy for this, especially for deer, was in the selection of plant material. There are lists of “deer resistant” plants available that were cross-referenced and used as a guide for selecting the plants deer consider undesirable. Though the list is not completely reliable, I have personally found them to seek out and eat a specimen not on the list, among the many “deer resistant” plants they trampled along the way. (This might be the case for daylily blooms and hosta.) So it is good to also employ other tactics when necessary.

The ways to discourage or remedy wildlife invaders are: plant selection, odor, taste, noise, barriers, and traps. No solution is a guarantee, as deer and other critters might put up with foul order or taste in order to keep from starving when food is scarce, and fence barriers or alarms are usually impractical

Rabbits, voles and other critters can be even more difficult. It is always best to first check the evidence and clues to determine the problem. For instance, deer and rabbits bite off and eat portions of the plants, squirrels will remove large blooms and twigs and leave evidence behind, and voles and mice will gnaw through bark below the snow line while rabbits do similar damage above the snow line. Moles will leave raised trenches throughout the lawn as they look for worms and grubs. Try to determine the cause before deciding on a solution.

When moles are present, it could be a sign that you have a grub problem, and by treating the yard for grubs you might also discourage the mole problem.

Here are some repellents worth trying:

For deer and rabbits: Milorganite fertilizer; Liquid Fence; Deer-Away containing putrescent egg solids; Hinder containing ammonium soaps; Irish Spring deodorant soap for deer (it works for Pine Tree Apple Orchard); and moth balls for rabbits.

For voles and mice: Repellex Root Saver liquid form containing castor oil, soap, potassium sorbate, and paprika; Repellex Root Saver granular form containing garlic oil, castor oil, paprika, and wintergreen oil; Liquid Fence Mole and Vole Repellent. Or, if you decide to kill voles, use Rozol Rat and Mouse Killer pellets, or place mouse traps baited with apple slices in an upside-down coffee can at intervals along their active routes.

Dressing up for the winter: If you decide to add plants and they are listed for zone 4b or zone 5, beware! Not all plants sold commercially in the Twin Cities are truly hardy for Minnesota. But with certain precautions, you might have some luck. It is often a good idea to purchase plants that are “Minnesota Grown” which means they have already tolerated a winter around here. However, other plant varieties brought in from other zone 3 and 4 regions can also perform well.

For plant establishment within the first two growing seasons, it is good to make sure that the plants go into the winter with moisture in the soil. Often times, there is a lapse between when irrigation systems are shut down to when the first significant precipitation occurs in the form of rain or snow. So in some cases, it is a good idea to hand water around the plants in the late fall, and let the soil freeze with moisture around the plants.

Most perennials can be cut back after the first killing frost and cleaned up. In some cases, the crowns of the plants insulated with a layer of mulched leaves late in the fall to protect them from excessive freeze-thaw cycles. However, in the landscape has generally hardy plants, this may not be required. The mulch should then be removed right away in the spring. Evergreens prone to winter burn (dwarf pines, arborvitae, junipers) can be solar screened with burlap to shade and screen from winter winds. Burlap or plastic could also be used to create an insulated blanket of mulched leaves around the base of marginally hardy plants that are prone to winter damage. To prevent sun scald, especially in maples, a tree wrap should be used around the trunk to compensate for its thin bark. So, just as Minnesotans need coats, some landscape plants need a little insulation as well.

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