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

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

Building Ponds and Waterfalls

Since starting this blog over a year ago, I have written several posts about waterfalls my family has visited in recent years.  I am attracted to water.  Some of my best memories from childhood through the present involve vacations at the beach, tubing down rivers, kayaking on ponds and lakes, and swimming in pools.  There are very few sounds that are more calming to me than waves crashing against the shore.  I love the music that water makes as it moves in nature — creeks, rivers, cascades, and falls.  I like how water divides land, how it reflects the sky and sparkles like diamonds with bright sunlight.  It is cliche to say that water is the source of life, and yet it is an indisputable fact that life on this planet would be impossible without water.

My appreciation for the gifts of water led me to begin contemplating about ten years ago how I could incorporate water into my garden.  I had seen ponds at homes and in public places, but I had never thought about creating one for myself.  Then I got divorced.  When such an emotional life-changing event occurs, some people turn to abusing alcohol, taking drugs, or other reckless behavior.  But, I have two sons who were both teenagers when my marriage ended.  They needed me to be sober, responsible, and engaged in their lives as much as possible within the limits imposed by the breakup.  Besides, addiction is not a problem for me, nor is it how I combat stress, anger, sadness, or any of the other strong feelings that accompany the dissolution of a marriage.  I needed a distraction, something that could occupy my mind and muscles while getting me out of the house.  So I started digging a hole in the backyard.

First pond 2006
First pond 2006

It took me several days just to dig the hole, and almost that long to get the sides level.  I read books.  I watched videos.  I drew pictures and diagrams.  I had a fairly steep embankment running down the side of my house (I ended up keeping our house) that extended into the fenced back yard and somewhat leveled out beside the posts of the back deck.  I envisioned a cascading waterfall built into the bank, where I had planted an assortment of shrubs several years earlier.  I consulted with a local landscape supply store about liners, flex hose, pumps, skimmers, and rocks.  The rocks I purchased were generally no larger than a honey dew melon, and I didn’t have a lot of money left after buying the mechanical supplies.  My property was bordered in the back by woods and a small creek.  Fortunately, my younger son was quite enthusiastic about the project as it developed, and was more than willing to help me drag rocks from the creek bed and up the hill to the pond site.  We moved a LOT of rocks, some of which were quite large.  My back will never be the same.  It took several weeks to finish, but the end product was really beautiful.  I even bought a few fish to complete the package.  Furthermore, the process of building the pond gave me the distraction I desperately needed and an opportunity to spend some quality time with my young teenager when he really needed my attention.

Second pond 2008
Second pond 2008

When my second wife and I got married, I moved in with her to a house located on a Georgia Power Company lake.  Even before we got married and I moved away from my house, I was already missing my pond.  Of course, there were several million gallons of water within a stone’s throw of our back door, and we had huge, clear windows looking out on the large cove where we lived.  I could fish in our back yard, climb onto a jet ski right off our dock, and go swimming without leaving home.  We were planning to get married on the patio looking out over the lake, and I was determined the sound of running water was going to be the music for our ceremony.  I went to work a couple of months before the wedding.  This time, I didn’t have a steep slope to work with, so I created a small “hill” for a waterfall using the dirt I removed for the pond.  The setting didn’t look as natural as the first pond, but I was able to landscape and plant sufficiently around the perimeter to make this second pond attractive.

Now we have left the lake house behind, along with our former jobs, and have moved to live and work in the north Georgia mountains.  I’m not sure my body could have taken the punishment of building a third pond.  It is quite grueling, especially digging the hole and then hauling and positioning the rocks.  But my wife and I both love water.  We seek it when we go on hikes.  We soak it up when we make our annual trips to the coast.  We spend many hours during the warmer months on nearby lakes cruising around in our kayaks.  We needed water at our new home, but there were no streams in sight of our property.  So we splurged.  We hired someone to build a pond and a waterfall for us at our new home.  It took the better part of a summer, but our contractor is an artist.  He took great care preparing the location behind our house, even though we were certain there wasn’t enough room for the size project we had in mind.  He made it fit, and he made it magnificent.  Once again, we are mesmerized by the sound of a cascading waterfall for at least seven months out of the year.  True, this third pond doesn’t look quite as authentic or natural as the smaller ones I created, but it has most certainly exceeded all our expectations.

Third pond 2014
Third pond 2014

Pool

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.