Thursday, March 31, 2011

FAQ: How should I prepare a planting site for mondo grass?

Q. How should I prepare a planting site for mondo grass? The area is covered with weeds. Should I use landscape cloth?

A. Begin by taking a soil sample of the area. Contact your nearby Cooperative Extension Service for assistance. Follow the recommendations of the test results.

If your soil is friable (soft enough for planting), don't bother cultivating. Cultivating will stir up weeds seeds that have been dormant since Noah. If the soil is compacted and does need to be cultivated, allow time for new weeds to germinate. Spray weeds with glyphosate, allow weeds to die, then plant. Glyphosate does not persist in the soil, so it won't damage the mondo when  you plant. Do not lay landscape cloth. After planting, add about 3 inches of mulch. The mulch will discourage weeds.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Ground Cover Roses - Get The Drift®

Advertised as the newest thing in roses for small gardens, the same company that introduced the Knock Out® roses, is promoting Drift® roses. Knock Out® roses are extremely popular for their disease resistance and extremely long bloom period. Just so are the Drift® roses. These, however, are naturally dwarf and spreading, so you can use them as ground cover or in borders. If you have an unsightly slope or hillside, they should be just the ticket for adding color throughout the growing season. Plant them on terraces to cascade over the edges, and I can see a lot of potential for container gardens, too.  Varieties include Apricot Drift®, Icy Drift®, Sweet Drift® (a clear pink), Coral Drift®, Pink Drift® (a deep pink), Red Drift® and Peach Drift®. Flowers are small and doubled. Some are so frilly they remind me of heirloom cabbage roses.

To find them, go to the Star Roses web site and look for the link that takes you to their participating garden center search engine.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Biltmore House and Gardens

Last fall, I returned to the mountains of North Carolina to revisit some of my favorite landmarks. One, in particular, has always fascinated me: the Biltmore House. I fondly remember many childhood trips in the mountains, traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting family friends in Celo, camping and picnicking, plunging all-nippley into Toe River, screaming down Sliding Rock, exploring the site of the Biltmore Forest School, visiting the Biltmore Estate, and stopping at the Biltmore Dairy shop for scoops of ice cream. (My grandmother agreed that Jersey cows produced the best.) Located beyond a gatehouse nearly the size of a modest home, even by today's standards, one of America's finest landmarks is mostly hidden from view. Follow me to see what lies behind the garden wall.

The story of Biltmore House and Gardens is one of enterprise. Located in Asheville, NC, the house is a grand New World chateau. The visionary owner was George Vanderbilt, grandson of the shipping and railroad entrepreneur, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilt family descended from Jan Aertszoon Van der Bilt, a Dutch immigrant to New York (1650), who began his new life as an indentured servant. Apparently, Jan recognized a good opportunity, even as a servant, and latched onto it. By the time Jan's great-great-grandson, Cornelius, came along, the family was more comfortable financially. The Vanderbilt family built upon good foundations. But it was Cornelius who became its financial patriarch. While working for his father's ferry service in New York harbor, Cornelius learned from his father and decided, at age 16, to begin his own ferry service nearby. With a keen mind for business, Cornelius expanded his steamship and railroad ventures through very troubled times to become one of America's wealthiest men.

George Vanderbilt II, grandson of Cornelius, was less concerned about business. He was an art lover, collector and traveler by nature, but kept good principles in mind. While touring in the North Carolina mountains with his mother, at the age of 26, he decided to build a home there. Construction was begun by 1889. Quietly purchasing real estate, he eventually amassed an estate of about 228 square miles.

George hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead to help him with the work. Hunt is well-known for his designs including the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Clark Hall at Case Western Reserve University, and other Vanderbilt mansions unfortunately demolished. Hunt co-founded the American Institute of Architects. Olmstead and his firm are as famous for landmarks such as New York City's Central Park, numerous other parks, and many academic campuses. Craftsmen, builders and laborers from as near as down the road and from as far as Europe were brought to work on the project. A small village sprang up around the construction site. The results are the magnificent house and gardens you can visit today. Inspired by art of the French Renaissance and chateaux of the Loire Valley, the Biltmore House is a masterpiece.

Though intended to be a private residence, Vanderbilt envisioned Biltmore as a sustainable estate based upon progressive agriculture, dairy and forestry enterprises. Many of the parcels he had purchased from locals had been depleted by poor farming and timber practices. Olmstead suggested that Vanderbilt hire Gifford Pinchot to manage the land. The Vanderbilt estate became "The Cradle of Forestry" in the United States.

George was still a bachelor when he opened Biltmore House in 1895. Two years later, he met Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, married her in 1898, honeymooned in Europe, and brought her to Biltmore. They had one child, daughter Cornelia (1900-1976). Biltmore became a home for hospitality, diplomacy, scientific enquiry and the arts.

Vanderbilt died in 1914 of complications following an appendectomy. Edith raised Cornelia alone at Biltmore. In 1924 Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil, a British diplomat. Cecil was a descendent of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and chief advisor to Elizabeth I. Cecil opened the house to the public in 1930 to fund the continuing operation of the estate and generate interest in local tourism. The Cecil family owns and operates Biltmore today, and their enterprises continue to grow and flourish.

When you visit Biltmore House, you can view the surrounding countryside almost as though little has changed since the 1890s, except for the tower on Mt. Pisgah. Never mind that interstate highways and the city of Asheville have grown up around it. Biltmore remains as grand and peaceful as it seemed in the Gilded Age.

After touring the home, the garden visitor will pass through the magnificent wisteria arbor on the way to the shrub garden. Many of the shrubs are under-planted with perennials blooming in season. Paved paths make the walk quite comfortable. Though we visited in October, the spring garden trail was as beautiful in fall, often offering glimpses of the conservatory and the walled garden. Other trails wind through the surrounding woodland, featuring naturalistic plantings ranging from rhododendrons to bog gardens.

The Biltmore conservatory is a delight. Various sections showcase tropical plants as well as cacti and succulents. Though you might think that the gardens of Biltmore house are too grand and ambitious for the backyard gardener, many displays present ideas easy enough for the casual hobbyist to adapt. Container gardens, potted arrangements, perennial borders, interesting plant combinations, and even bird house displays will inspire you. I was impressed with the simple elegance of this dish of sedum adorning the south terrace of the house. There's always something to surprise, like this unique variegated kudzu vine, for example.

There is really too much to see and do at Biltmore House than will fit into a one-day visit. I recommend buying a two-day pass so that you can enjoy the grand enterprise at a leisurely pace. If you live near enough, purchase an annual pass and visit at least once each season.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

FAQ: What's wrong with my centipede lawn?

(I visited the site and took a soil sample to the local Cooperative Extension Service office for testing.)

Your lawn problems are related to shade, mowing height, soil pH, phosphorus and potassium levels, fertilizer, irrigation and soil erosion on the slope. In addition, tree roots are surfacing in the front yard. Sod will not grow over the visible roots.

Centipede grass does best in full sun. Most of your front lawn is shaded. There is nothing that can be done about the shade.

Your grass is cut too short. Centipede grass should normally be cut at a mowing height of 1-1/2" to 2", but due to the shade (lack of available light) the mowing height should be increased to 2-1/2". This provides more leaf surface and allows the sod to make the best use of available light.

Soil pH is too low (4.3). Raise it by applying dolomite (pelletized lime) at a rate of 55 pounds per 1000 square feet.

Phosphorus and potassium levels are too high. Centipede is very sensitive to high phosphorus levels. There is nothing that can be done to reduce the phosphorus and potassium levels. Time will take care of it. Do not use fertilizer containing phosphorus or potassium.

Apply 1-1/2 pounds of 34-0-0 or 1 pound of 46-0-0 fertilizer per 1000 square feet after spring green-up and again in mid-summer. Irrigate immediately after fertilizer application. Irrigate during dry weather to avoid stress.

There is nothing that can be done about the visible tree roots, though some soil could be added to repair eroded areas. If soil is added in the spring, sow annual rye grass to help prevent further erosion.

There are alternatives to maintaining a centipede lawn in difficult circumstances.

The first alternative would be to have the front lawn sodded with St. Augustine grass. St. Augustine is more shade tolerant. Sod roots should be in full contact with soil, so sod should not be put down over surfacing tree roots.

Another alternative would be to grow a more shade tolerant ground cover instead of sod. Trachelospermum asiaticum (Asiatic jasmine), Glechoma hederacea (Creeping Charlie), Ophiopogon japonicus (Mondo) and Herniaria glabra (Rupturewort) would be good choices. Alternative ground covers should be prevented from growing into neighbors' lawns.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

FAQ: Will my shrubs die if I cut them back too much?

Q. Our house will be painted soon. The painter says that my shrubs are in his way and should be cut way back so he can work. I'm afraid they'll die if I cut them back too much.

A. I understand. Frankly, your shrubs will probably suffer more from the painter, if you don't cut them back. If they are in his way, they may be overgrown and in need of renovation. You should be able to cut broadleaf shrubs drastically after the danger of severe freezing temperature is past. Spring and summer will bring fresh new growth. Conifers should not be pruned back severely.
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