Irma, the Unsolicited Landscape Designer

Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.

Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.

As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.

The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.

First trees fallen
First trees fallen

Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.

Downed trees on the house
Downed trees on the house

We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.

Post-storm island
Post-storm island

After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.

Island in bloom for spring
Island in bloom for spring

For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.

Sunny front flower beds
Sunny front flower beds

Pool Landscaping

One of the most satisfying aspects of home ownership that I have experienced is designing and maintaining our landscape and gardens. All properties present their own challenges, some more extreme than others. For over fifteen years I struggled with a yard that sloped at about 35 degrees, from the street all the way to a small creek that served as the back property border. Most of the top soil had washed away long before I ever began working in that yard. At first I was attempting to plant in clay that was more like a brick patio than dirt. However, I also built my first and most natural-looking pond in a portion of that hillside behind the house with lush ornamental shrubs, perennials, and annuals surrounding the area. Of course, it took nearly ten years for my back to heal from that project.

Water features have always been a landscaping necessity for me, a subject I have covered before in this blog. My wife and I are currently living in a house in north Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We are fortunate to have national forest land in front and behind our house. It’s an ideal setting for various gardens within the landscape, as long as I keep spraying Liquid Fence to keep the deer from eating everything in sight. When we first moved to this location, I knew I wanted to incorporate a water feature. In an effort to avoid traction or surgery for me, we elected not to build a pond at this house. Instead, we contracted with someone to build a pool — not so natural in appearance but infinitely more versatile than a garden pond.

Pool waterfall plantings
Pool waterfall plantings

We splurged on the pool project with the use of natural stone around the border and in the retaining wall and by installing a waterfall made with boulders. We covered the ground inside the fenced area with river rock, and for the first year, the pool was functional but not necessarily attractive. What ultimately enhanced the backyard project and made the space come alive was the addition of a few decorations and some plants. We started with some containers next to the waterfall, which added bright color and contrast with the earth tones of the stone. Over the next few years, we added Knockout Roses along the edges of the pool decking. We also added more containers with annuals near the steps leading up to the deck above the pool level. A collection of large-leaf hostas fill a corner just beyond the table, chairs, and shade umbrella. A chimenea, globe lanterns, and landscape lights complete the accessories for the pool.

Poolside Knockout Roses
Poolside Knockout Roses

On the side of the pump house we hung an antique window that has a watering pot and flowers painted on the glass panes. This modest piece of art reflects our love for gardening and adds interest even during the off season. Just beyond the fence behind the waterfall we planted elephant ears, which create a tropical atmosphere close to the sound of running water. There is a row of dwarf nandina along the outside of the long section of the fence running the length of the pool, and they turn a deep shade of red and green during the winter. On the slope just beyond this section of fence, we have large clumps of ornamental grasses, several mountain laurel shrubs, taller nandina, and an expanding collection of butterfly bushes that attract their namesake, along with a few hummingbirds, all summer long. Finally, a row of loropetalum shrubs serves as a tall screen just beyond the fence next to the carport entrance to the pool. In less than four years, we have been able to create a little oasis in our backyard — a place of rest, relaxation, and escape. It was worth every penny.

Pool pump house art
Pool pump house art

Stacked Container Planting

I incorporate no less than twenty containers in our garden every season. They decorate the back deck, which is visible through french doors in our living room. I place pots on the stone retaining wall that borders our pool in the backyard. A couple of large, colored concrete pots are nestled at the edge of our evergreen shrub bed in front of our kitchen windows. There are a few pots of different sizes in the annual and perennial beds at the entrance to our front porch. One particular container that I enjoy planting each year is on the brick walkway leading up to that same front entrance.

Stacked container planting
Stacked container planting

This planter is almost like a separate garden to itself because it is actually a collection of three containers. The base is a large, artificially-aged concrete bowl that we purchased in Cherry Log, a little hamlet in the hills of north Georgia, when we were still living on a lake near the center of the state. Its shell is thick enough that the pot can be overwintered outside, even when temperatures dip down close to zero degrees Fahrenheit. We decorate it for several holidays during the off-season. It is quite heavy, even when empty. I fill this container with potting soil up to about two inches from the rim. On top of the soil in the center, I place a shallow blue glazed pot with a cream-colored interior and matching rim. It is almost completely filled with soil, and on top of it I place a matching blue pot that is taller and narrower than the one below it.

The plants I use in this terraced garden vary from one season to the next. Typically I use annuals that flower profusely and don’t require deadheading (self-cleaning), such as vinca or begonia. In the top pot I almost always plant something with vertical interest, like ornamental grass. Along the edge of the base bowl that faces the house and the entrance from the driveway, I always plant two green potato vines that will trail over the side and down to the brick walkway. Between these two vines I insert one of my favorite “inorganic” elements of our landscape: the little sign that greets us and all our guests to our garden. Have you tried a stacked container garden? They add so much interest and are fun to experiment with year after year.

Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

During our vacation in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, my wife requested I find some interesting sites in the area that intrigued me for us to explore one afternoon, along with our close friend who graciously hosted us in her home for the week. My love for waterfalls led me to pick out a few attractions that advertised that particular element, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found in this sprawling desert city. My favorite was the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden located directly behind the Irish Cultural Center just north of Portland Avenue. The garden covers 3.5 acres and includes a tea garden and tea house. According to the garden’s website, “This tranquil and beautiful setting features more than 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, stone footbridges, lanterns and more than 50 varieties of plants.”

Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

I have written about the value of public gardens before, and this one is definitely on my list of favorites. The idea for the garden began in 1987 by a delegation from Himeji, Japan. Phoenix and Himeji have been sister cities since 1976 and participate in business, governmental, cultural, and educational exchanges that promote international goodwill and understanding. The garden is the shared cultural vision of both cities. The construction of the garden was completed in 2000, and it was opened to the public in 2002. Neither my wife nor our friend, both long-time residents of Phoenix, knew anything about this little treasure. The visit was a treat for all three of us.

Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

In addition to maintaining a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of the city, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility provides educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen East-West relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan. Authentic tea ceremonies for the public are held on the third Saturday of each month from October through June. The ceremonies are presented by Tanko Kai tea group, wearing beautiful kimonos in the Musoan tea house. Guests are met at the entry gate and conducted to the tea house by a docent who explains features in the tea garden and other interesting facts about the tea house itself.

Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

As we strolled around the pond, by the waterfall, and along the garden paths, I was reminded once again how the desert southwest is so often misrepresented as a barren region with little life and no real beauty. True, the Japanese Friendship Garden is an artificial oasis, but there are plenty of natural places just this lush and soothing located throughout Arizona and its neighboring states. The fortunate people who live in the apartment building next to the garden have one of the best views in the city: a luxuriant landscape below combined with desert mountain vistas in the distance. For all visitors to Phoenix, and even for those who call the city their home, I highly recommend a therapeutic retreat to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Wildlife In Our Garden

One of the great benefits of a home garden is the diversity of life that it supports, which includes fauna as well as flora. Depending upon the plants growing in the space and its overall size, the garden may have both temporary and permanent residents. With the right mix of food, clean water, and cover, the gardener may play host to a wide variety of species. Of course, gardeners may not roll out the welcome mat to all wildlife, especially the kind that feast on our plants. Some we can deter; others we may choose to eliminate altogether. Slugs and Japanese beetles come to mind in our own garden.

Butterfly on cherry blossoms
Butterfly on cherry blossoms

I am fascinated by the members of the animal kingdom that have frequented our yard over many seasons. Our current home is bordered by a national forest, which means there are plenty of nesting spaces and protection from predators. Our garden serves as a small oasis and a source of food for many of the animals that venture out into the open. Each spring, our ornamental cherry tree is covered in butterflies that appear to dance around the branches as they feed on the nectar from the blossoms. As the season progresses, they are joined by moths and bees, making their way through the bloom cycles of the chaste tree, lantana, and the butterfly bushes. Everywhere we have lived we included bright-colored annuals in the summer landscape, which attract hummingbirds. I am continually mesmerized by their aerial acrobatics. For other avian species, both permanent residents and migrants, we offer a gurgling bird bath, a waterfall, and a seed feeder. At our previous residence on a lake, a pair of male and female ducks would occasionally come ashore, cross our lawn, and splash in our garden pond.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at our feeder
Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

Watching animals in the garden has provided me with countless hours of entertainment for most of my life. Photographing them has almost become an avocation. I plan and develop sections of the garden specifically with animals in mind, considering what they need, what will draw them, and how I can best observe them. I set up trail cameras to catch a glimpse of them in action.

Our photo-bombing squirrel
Our photo-bombing squirrel
Praying Mantis on our fence
Praying Mantis on our fence

Our garden is home to insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The frogs are in a class all to themselves, at least when it comes to their most noticeable contribution to the garden — sound. During the warm months of the year, they gather in and around our pool and fill the air with responsive croaking that is at times almost deafening. By contrast, the reptiles are so quiet and subtle. I came very close to stepping on a turtle before seeing it and walked past a snake resting on top of a shrub three times before noticing it all.

Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub
Black rat snake resting on our holly shrub

Admittedly, I don’t give all animals free access to the entire garden. Unfortunately, the deer and rabbits will take far more than their fair share. They will eat the plants they like all the way to the ground. I use Liquid Fence to deter them from my annuals, perennials, and flowering shrubs, but they have plenty of grass and border foliage to sustain them. It wouldn’t be polite to completely bar them from the yard. After all, the name of our street is Running Deer Road. This is their home too.

Deer across the street
Deer across the street

Gardening Comes Second Only to Reading

Many years ago, my two sons gave me a special gift for Father’s Day that I am still using now, all the time, 365 days out of the year.  The gift was a fabricated flat, natural-looking stone that is engraved with the sentence: GARDENING COMES SECOND ONLY TO READING.  It was the perfect present because, for me at least, that declaration is quite true.  I would argue that my family actually comes first (I hope they would agree!), and I could certainly make the case for several more seconds and thirds, with music taking a prominent place near the top of the list.  Both of my boys knew then, as they still recognize now, that gardening is a passion for me — something on which I am willing to spend plenty of hard-earned dollars.  I have lived in three different locations since they presented me with that engraved stone, and it is still part of the hardscape of my gardens today.

Entry way garden
Entry way garden

I became interested in landscaping and ornamental gardening in 1987, shortly after my sons’ mother and I bought our first house.  I had started working in a public library two years earlier, and I was fascinated by gardening magazines and books that I was cataloging.  I wanted to have a yard with more than just an expanse of grass and a few foundation shrubs around the house.  I wanted to create a little oasis!  I started building my own personal library of gardening books, learning as much as possible about soil condition, hardiness zones, watering, fertilizing, and plant identification.  I didn’t have much disposable income in those years, so I started out small and concentrated on a few specific areas, such as the side entrance to our house that we used most often.  A few years later we started a family and moved into a larger house on a steeply sloping lot.  It was a challenging yard, but over the years I began to mold it into something that I could work with and make attractive.  One of the most successful projects was the creation of a lush entry-way garden leading from the parking area to the front door, which is pictured in the photograph above.  Before moving away from that house, I also created two azalea islands under oak and sweet gum trees in the front yard, a pathway leading through ornamental trees and shrubs in the backyard, and my first small pond with a waterfall. (See my post from May 17, 2016 to learn more about the waterfalls and ponds I have designed through the years.)

Pond garden at sunrise
Pond garden at sunrise

When I met my second wife, she was living on a lake in central Georgia.  When we married, I moved in with her.  The previous owners of this lake house had invested considerably in the landscape, but my wife had made several improvements before we were married including upgrading the irrigation system, replacing an old patio, removing pine trees, and installing ornamental shrubs and trees.  We decided to have our wedding ceremony on the patio overlooking the lake and a small pond and waterfall that I finished just a few days before the big day.  Over the next two years I added plants and landscape lights around the pond to make the area into a separate garden spot, complete with a bird feeder and a bench.

Patio lake garden
Patio lake garden

The new and expanded patio was a perfect place to add a container garden, so we began looking for interesting pots, such as the sculpted face pot and stand that we affectionately named Annabel — the face on the pot looks melancholy and reminds us of the subject of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”  The patio container garden was framed by a beautiful stand of Loropetalum shrubs that my wife had planted shortly after she moved into the house.  This garden was completed by a chiminea and a hot tub, which is just out of view at the lower left corner of the photo above.  The gently sloping grass of the yard and the view of the large cove beyond were a perfect backdrop to this little slice of paradise just outside the sliding glass doors leading from our master bedroom.

Front island garden
Front island garden

In 2013 we moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.  This part of the state is in a different plant zone than our previous location.  As such there are some semi-tropical species that we can no longer have in our yard, but other ornamentals that need cooler temperatures are perfectly at home here.  Our growing season is a week or two shorter also, but climate change is bringing earlier springs and extended autumns as the years go by.  The previous owners of this house did a fine job of building the “bones” of this property, with a large planting island in the front yard and a fairly deep shrub bed in front of the house.  We have made a few changes, such as adding some annual planting beds and thinning some of the dwarf Nandina on the side of the house.  We have also added to the plants in the front island (pictured above) and covered it all with a healthy layer of wood chips.  The greatest addition we have made to the property is the installation of an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall, providing us with yet another opportunity to create a new garden oasis.  Although I did not build this “pond,” my wife and I did help with the design.  We have worked very hard over the last two years on the landscaping around the pool by installing a river rock border, bringing in new plants, and arranging container plantings around the decking. The sound of running water is such a pleasant feature of this space, which of course, is also a perfect area for enjoying my first passion . . . reading.

Pool waterfall garden
Pool waterfall garden

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.