Monday, October 29, 2012

2012 Fall Meadow Prep Updates

Summer is over and the sites waiting to be converted to native meadow are ready for seeding.  The tarps have been patiently blanketing the ground since we prepped the site back in July (click here to see the initial site preparation.)  Lifting the tarps 3 months later reveals that they have effectively smothered the existing carpet of turf grass and annual weeds.   Now the seeding can begin.

The seed mix for the meadow contains native forbs (flowering plants, annuals, perennials) and grasses.  In time it will grow into a natural mosaic of plants, patches and drifts developing in the niches and micro-climates they find most comfortable.  Over time this mosaic will shift and change, through a process called succession.  Some of the plants, like the Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan), will come on strong in the first year, with a spectacular show of yellow flowers all summer long.  Still others, the warm season grasses in particular, may not really take off until a few seasons later, biding their time until they eventually fill in and lend their slender form to the swaying field.  This dynamic nature is part of the reason we find meadows to be so exciting.  On top of the visual aesthetic, an established meadow hums with life, providing food and shelter for countless creatures.  Far more interesting than flat green grass.

Seed mixed and ready to sow.  On sites of this scale we broadcast the seed by hand.
The seeded soil.

On sites with a significant slope it's necessary to install protection from potential rain induced erosion (lest your developing meadow run down hill to visit the neighbors).  Here we've rolled out and staked down straw erosion mats to protect the soil until the plants have established.  By the time the straw naturally composts away the new plants will have sent down roots to begin holding the soil in place.

Now we wait.

In time it will grow into a natural mosaic of plants, patches and drifts developing in the niches and micro-climates they find most comfortable.  Over time this mosaic will shift and change, through a process called succession.  Some of the plants, like the Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan), will come on strong in the first year, with a spectacular show of yellow flowers all summer long.  Still others, the warm season grasses in particular, may not really take off until a few seasons later.  When they do it's a beautiful sight gracefully dancing in the wind.  This dynamic nature is part of the reason we find meadows to be so exciting.  On top of the visual aesthetic, an established meadow hums with life, providing food and shelter for countless creatures.  Far more interesting than flat green grass.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pycnanthemum muticum

Pycnanthemum muticum, Short-toothed Mountain Mint

Mountain Mint is a terrific, multi-tasking native perennial.  It attracts beneficial pollinators to the garden like a magnet.  It is incredibly aromatic and makes a wonderful tea or addition to herbal lotions.  It is not a true mint like peppermint or spearmint (Mentha spp.), so it doesn't behave like those notorious garden mints that spread everywhere.  Because of the strong fragrance it tends to keep deer away when planted among other garden plants.

This is a hardy native plant.  Individual plants get to be 2-3 feet tall and spread about 2 feet.  They tolerate full to partial sun and a medium moisture level (however I've known it to grow in some fairly dry conditions).

In any garden a critical part of growing your food is attracting bees and other insects to do the actual work of pollination.  They move from flower to flower, bringing the fertile pollen down into the flower where it can begin growing into the tomatoes, apples, zucchini, etc. that we eat.  To ensure that the pollinators visit your yard, it's wise to plant things that will really draw them in.  For anyone considering keeping bees, this plant is among my top recommendations.

I like to harvest mountain mint in the spring while the leaves are tender and the scent is strongest.  You can harvest while it's blooming, if you're nervous about bees I recommend doing this in the early morning, the bees are typically still waking up and haven't clocked in to work yet.  You can use the plant fresh in tea or you can dry it for later use.  To dry it, hang bunches from the stems indoors for a few days until it is bone dry.  If you'd like to expedite the process, leave it in a hot car on a sunny day with the windows cracked.  I've done this in the morning before work and had the mint be bone dry by the end of the day.  Pycnanthemum tea is really tasty and very refreshing.  In the spring its very nice combined with some spicebush (Lindera benzoin) twigs added to the mix.  

Wether you grow fruit and vegetables, make your own tea, keep bees or not, Mountain Mint is a fascinating plant simply due to the number and diversity of insects it brings in.  Don't be too concerned about getting stung, as the insects are so engrossed in collecting the nectar that they don't seem to notice you watching.  All of the activity on the flowers is also sure to attract the interest of some other beneficial insects to the garden.  Plant some Pycnanthemum muticum and watch the garden come alive.  

Praying Mantis waiting for lunch on some Mountain Mint.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Preparation for Fall meadow installation in Hopewell, New Jersey

Working on a 1/4 acre meadow project developed by  Weatherwood Design in Hunterdon County, we used a new technique for us to treat existing vegetation due to the sensitive nature of the site and its' proximity to a first order stream.  As with any meadow seeding, pre-existing vegetation has to be accounted for, identifying and protecting patches of desired species while eliminating undesirable ones.  That can be achieved in many ways, most commonly and especially with larger projects, by using the most benign yet effective herbicide in a very controlled manner.  Anticipating a fall seeding, efforts were taken to eradicate existing vegetation, which included stiltgrass, multiflora rose and cool season grasses.  After mechanical removal of roses and other unwanted woodys, the entire project area was scalped and covered with black plastic.  It's the first time we've employed this particular method and we do have some reservations about using such a large amount of plastic.  For one, it's still an oil-based product so we're certainly not utilizing an environmentally friendly product. Secondly, we'll have to dispose of it in a landfill as UV degradation will most likely not allow us to reuse it.  Thirdly, with limited to no gas exchange (perhaps only at some of the seams where overlap occurs) and no water infiltration, we're concerned with the overall biological health of the soil during the period of coverage.  Keep in mind that the plastic was used in this instance as an alternative to herbicide use as the project site possesses wetlands and serves as sensitive habitat to which we definitely wanted to  minimize our impact.

The black plastic in action...

Other viable alternatives to using the plastic are desodding the turf with spades - no fun,
or burning it with a torch - maybe too much fun (?)

Before the initial preliminary mowing of the intended meadow area, we like to flush out the existing wildlife, walking back and forth across the field to send the more mobile wildlife scurrying to safety.  The slower guys, like toads and box turtles, are assisted out beyond the perimeter.  Some really neat critters call these woods home, including a species of Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis, which we encountered in the back woods.  We also encountered a few little Wood Frogs, Rana sylvatica, hopping about the site.  The amphibians in particular are a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem.  A conventional herbicide preparation for this meadow would probably not have fared well for these guys.  We are hoping the solarizing technique will prove to be a minimal impact in exchange for increased long term species diversity and overall system health.

In addition to prepping for the meadow, additional multiflora rose was mechanically removed in hopes of allowing continued establishment and proliferation of our native spicebush, Lindera benzoin, as the dominant understory.

Wood Frog, Rana sylvatica.

 More to come as the meadow progresses!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Featured Project: Poconos Summer Cabin

Entry landscape, with raingarden bottom right.

In early 2010 we began working with a client at their lake front property in the Poconos.  The existing landscape design tied the home into the surrounding woodland landscape and aimed to build on local native plant communities.  Beyond the installation of prescribed  stonework and planting we were also responsible for further development of the client's initial design.

Entry steps and landing (walls not constructed by Land Stewards)

The project features a great deal of stone work.  In naturalistic gardens like this one, we want the stonework and boulders to blend into the landscape, appearing as if they were there all along.  Naturally irregular boulders were arranged to form steps, landings, and thresholds, making for beautiful transitions throughout the landscape.  Vegetated swales and raingardens were installed to facilitate the movement of water around the property away from the home, slowing and absorbing the water into the ground.

Raingarden plants:  Magnolia virginiana,  Juncus effusus,  Iris versicolor,  Hibiscus moscheutos
Roadside raingarden, intercepts stormwater from the road


Raingarden with nurselog (which quickly became a hangout for a local frog)

Mature oak and hemlock trees can be found all over the site.  Care was taken throughout the installation to protect these trees while site work and planting took place.  This helps to preserve the remaining canopy while we reestablish a healthy community of understory plants.

As the initial work around the home has been completed, we have now been able to focus our efforts to the peripheral areas of the property.  Unlike the immediate landscape outside the home, these areas require less direct input.  The lake is surrounded by a patchwork of  blueberries, black chokeberry, ferns and numerous other indigenous plants growing in wild populations.  Here we have taken more of a management stance in the landscape, suppressing the more aggressive patches of weedy plants while fostering existing healthy communities.  Into these bottomland areas we have also planted understory trees and shrubs.  Paw Paws (Asimina triloba) and Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) have been planted along the path leading down to the lake.  In time the patch of blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) will provide a nice trailside snack on the way down to the dock.

Natural stone steps down to the dock.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Featured Project: Temple II: North Gratz Street

In 2011, we continued with Phase II of the Temple North 16th Street project by 1260 Housing Development Corporation.  Land Steward's involvement in the project was to design and install a second phase of landscapes just a few blocks away on North Gratz St.  Here 1260 has restored 29 historic townhomes, creating 40 energy-efficient family apartments.  This project has been awarded LEED Platinum status, the largest of its kind in the nation.  For more information on the housing restoration by 1260, click here.

Our role in the Gratz street project was to design and install the 18 individual rear yards on the site.  The goals of the project are that the landscape would be low-maintenance, conserving water and resources, not requiring the extensive irrigation systems, pruning, fertilizing and mowing typical of a conventional landscape.

The way we achieve these goals is by trying to design landscapes that work with nature and not against it.  We begin by selecting plants that are well suited to this environment.  We find that a palate of native perennial plants is most appropriate, since they have developed along with the local environment.   They also help to preserve local native wildlife, while also providing a sense of place and identity to a project.

In nature, bare patches in landscapes don't usually remain that way, some plant will almost always hurry to fill in the gaps.  On Gratz street, any bare patch of soil that wasn't constantly mown would soon be overwhelmed with weeds.  For this reason we try to choose perennial plants that seed heavily or spread out quickly by their roots.  This allows them to rapidly spread out and hold their own against the weeds.  In a few seasons they are able to establish themselves and spread to fill in any gaps, not only suppressing weeds, but also casting dense shade on the ground.  This helps to keep the ground cool and prevents it from drying out even in the heat of summer, allowing the plants to tolerate longer periods between rainfall.

The best way to hold onto water when it does rain is to have deep healthy soil, rich with organic matter.  On Gratz St., organic matter was added to the planting beds in the form of compost.  This will serve as a sponge for holding moisture, as well as provide nutrients for the growing plants.  Over time, dead leaves and other vegetation will add to this organic matter and increase the soils water holding capacity.

When selecting plants for any project we like to incorporate plants that are not only appealing to the eye but those which also carry out different roles in the landscape.  Some of the plants used on Gratz Street, for instance, Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), Highbush and Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum, V. angustifolium) and Wither-rod viburnum (Viburnum nudum) are beautiful landscape plants that also yield edible fruit people can enjoy (if you can get to them before the birds do!)  Plants like Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)  and Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) have fragrant leaves that can be used as healthful herbs added to food or tea.

To reduce the need for mowing on Gratz Street, the lawn areas throughout the site have been seeded with a No-Mow seed mix.  This mix of clumping fescue grasses will stay reasonably short and requires mowing only a few times a year instead of the weekly mowing required by regular turf grass.

This project on Gratz Street is still fairly new, we are excited to see how things fill out in the spring.  We look forward to updating this post with photos in the coming season!

- 2012 update.
Plants are settling in nicely.  While some patches have succumb to the typical wear and tear of an urban site, the majority of the plants are going strong the second season, spreading out and setting seed.  Blueberries are loaded with fruit and flowers are blooming and buzzing with life.

Blueberries...not quite blue yet!

Caterpillar enjoying the Meadow Anemone (Anemone canadensis)

Wildflowers and ferns spreading out
beneath a Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
climbing a chainlink fence

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Featured Project: Temple I: North 16th Street

In 2009 Land Stewards was hired by 1260 Housing Development Corporation to design and install a series of low-maintenance, drought resistant landscapes as part of a larger affordable family housing project along N 16th St in North Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from Temple University's Main Campus.  The project, Temple I: North 16th St, involved the historic restoration of 22 townhomes along one block, restoring and enhancing the beautiful brick and stone work of these classic houses and transforming their interiors into healthy, energy efficient homes.  From the start the project aimed to adhere to and obtain LEED certification standards and upon completion 1260 was awarded a LEED Gold rating for the project, just a few points shy of Platinum.  The following phase of this project, Temple II: N. Gratz St. did in fact earn a Platinum rating (the largest affordable housing project in the country to do so).

The scope of the landscape work done in Phase I consisted of the rear yards of the rowhomes as well as the reclamation of 6 vacant lots throughout the block.  1260 desired for the spaces to be low-maintenance, requiring minimal watering, pruning, fertilizing or mowing.  This would reduce the energy and resource demands typical of a conventional residential landscape.

The design was developed around low maintenance perennial gardens for the residents to enjoy with places for kids to explore and play, while also providing quiet spaces for relaxing.  The individual backyards behind the units have been opened up into communal garden spaces with long meandering paths.  Sight-lines where kept open in order to maintain views into the gardens from the street, ensuring pleasant views for those passing by as well as safety for those within.  Work on the landscape began in October 2010 and was completed just two months later in early December.

 Installation of Meadow Planting and Raingarden,
The boardwalk through the raingarden also
provides access to a small blueberry patch.
Lot 1736/1738 N. 16th St
The project features a palate of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and vines.  Native plants were selected for their suitability to the local climate and rainfall patterns.  In an urban environment like this one, invasive weed pressures are very high, so many of the plants were also selected for there ability to reseed quickly and out-compete the exotic weeds that would quickly take over urban spaces.  The palate of native plants contributes to greater biodiversity throughout the landscape, creating a healthier more balanced ecosystem that will provide food and habitat for dwindling populations of native wildlife.

Natural stones, boulders and cairns were placed throughout the design for climbing and sitting.  These stones also create micro- climates, creating more varied habitat for plants and animals.

As part of the design, each lot has a series of raingardens and swales intended to divert rainwater from the city's combined sewer stormwater system, slowing it down and allowing it to seep into the ground, hydrating the soil.  The beds have all been graded with subtle undulations, using the forest floor as a natural analog.  This create a diversity of drier upland areas and lower, water absorbing pockets.  In these pockets you will find native wetland plants, like Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus), Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) and Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

In the drier areas of the site, sweeps of native meadow grasses and wildflowers were planted to provide year-round interest, as well as habitat for local wildlife.  Stands of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Bushy Beardgrass (Andropogon glomeratus) sway in the breeze, providing year round color and movement in the landscape.  These tall grasses develop deep root systems, permeating the tough soil and allowing the ground to absorb and hold more water.  Throughout the season the plants will also drop bits of dead vegetation that will compost down, adding organic matter to the soil.  As the plants grow and the soil develops it will increase its capacity to function as a water holding reservoir.  In drier times plant roots will be able to tap into this reservoir, making the landscape much more resilient to periods of drought.

There is no irrigation required anywhere on site, once the plants were in the ground they relied solely on natural rainfall.  This forces them to develop deeper roots, seeking out water for themselves in the soil rather than relying on resource intensive irrigation systems.   they have already gone through an entire year like this  and have done very well.  Many have started to spread out and make themselves at home, all the while spreading their seeds to fill in around themselves.

Another objective in our design was to provide opportunities for the children moving into these homes to experience nature in their own backyards.  Places to explore safely right outside their doors.  All throughout the year the gardens will provide a changing landscape, with new interesting flowers, textures and colors to observe as the seasons change.

Preparation of the garden area outside of
the shared laundry facility.
1700/1702 N. 16th St.
1st season of growth
1736/1738 N. 16th St.

Rain garden on east side of 16th St.
In this rain garden: 
Carex grayi,
Senecio aureus, Eupatorium dubium,
Magnolia virginiana.

Walking paths and lawn areas were planted
with Path Rush (Juncus tenuis), a short
grass-like groundcover requiring
minimal mowing once established

After one growing season the plantings have shown a lot of promise.  While some patches have fared better than others, the overall impression is that the plants are beginning to fill in and hold their own.  We look forward to see how things continue to develop in 2012.  More pictures to come as the year progresses!

Also stay tuned for the second phase, Temple II: North Gratz St., which achieved LEED Platinum status.

Photo Update July 2012:

Joe Pye Weed, Golden Ragwort and
White Turtlehead in the raingarden

Little woodland in the city.
Little Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium dubium,
the pollinators' delight.

Black Chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa.
Each shrub loaded with berries,
each berry loaded with antioxidants!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Happy New Year from Land Stewards!

Happy 2012 everyone!  We at Land Stewards are celebrating the new year by launching our new blog page.  Here we will be posting articles on featured projects, noteworthy herbal, edible and medicinal plants in the landscape and relevant news about the world of ecological landscape design and permaculture.  We will also be providing advice on how to utilize your landscape to help you and your family live a healthy more sustainable lifestyle.  Stay tuned for more info.