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.

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

In Living Color

One of the passions I developed as a fairly young man was ornamental gardening and light landscape designing. I have lived at four different houses over the last thirty years, from the most southern to the most northern sections of the 7b agricultural zone, and have had the opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of plants.  My wife and I currently live in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains where the Piedmont shifts into the Blue Ridge.  The southern Appalachian region is one of the most diversified botanical places on the planet, with rich soil and enough rainfall to support lush, thriving ecosystems.

Flower garden
Flower garden

We were fortunate to find a house two years ago with previous owners who were just as passionate as we are about surrounding the house with beautiful plants.  They had done a lot of work with the structure of the property, especially in the front of the house.  They had established two beds in front of the porch, split by a brick walkway and steps.  Short to medium-sized shrubs are spread out on either side to complete the dressing of the house, and a large island is positioned between the house and the street, which has a nice and expanding collection of trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials.  Among our own additions to that island is our favorite container, the large concrete planter with a “face” in full relief (visible in the background of the photo above).  We call her Annabel, named after Annabel Lee, the poem composed by Edgar Allan Poe, because she has a melancholy face reminiscent of the poem’s theme.  We usually plant something each year in Annabel that will make her look like she has hair growing from the top!

I am by no means a Master Gardener, nor am I much of a purist when it comes to plant selection.  I have a growing appreciation for native plants and received a book on native plants of the southeast as a Christmas gift.  I hope to incorporate more native species in our garden in the years ahead.  I love annuals and typically fill the front porch beds with New Guinea impatiens and coleus.  We have to be very diligent in spraying most of the plants in the yard with deer repellent, and non-native plants are much more susceptible to damage from animals.  Still, I love the big bang of color provided throughout the growing season by imported and hybrid annual cultivars.

For Father’s Day many years ago, my sons gave me a mortar-fabricated flat stone engraved with the following words: “Gardening comes second only to reading.”  The stone is still a permanent fixture in our garden, as it has been in every garden I have tended.  In many ways, this statement could easily be adopted as my philosophy, with the possible addition of family, music, and a few other passions.  I have savored countless hours in planning, designing, planting, and maintaining shrub and flower gardens.  It is another one of those activities that is so restorative for me.  It grounds me, with no pun intended.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “the earth laughs in flowers.”  What a wonderful way to express the joy experienced in nature’s palette displayed in the beauty of plants.