Publications (Paul's Blog)

April 29, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:30 pm

The future of landscaping is on the brink of radical change. At present, we are beginning to see some cities and communities incorporate ordinances or covenant agreements that involve land use, plant selection, and/or irrigation options. The following statements are my opinions on where the future of home landscaping is headed in the very near future.

Water will, of course, be the driving force behind political action at the local, state, and federal levels. Without a doubt, we are the last generation that will waste water by spraying it up in the air. Evaporation and runoff will be all but eliminated by the mandatory use of drip systems. At present, many cities all over the U.S. either have ordinances in place or they are moving in this direction. Our irrigated farms in the Texas Panhandle are steadily switching over to drip. The Ogallala aquifer continues to drop and many fear that the end of irrigated farming in the Panhandle is near. Bottom line is that as our population continues to grow the demand for fresh water keeps going up. The supplies keep going down.

Besides drip, another option that is gaining popularity is water collection. The only problem with this has been that most people visualize the old rain barrel that was common with previous generations. A fifty gallon drum may supply enough water for a few potted plants on the porch but just isn’t enough for a large vegetable garden, a hungry lawn, or a bunch of new sapling trees. We need to think bigger. Truth is, if we could go back in time to visit grandpa or great grandpa we would find that these folks dug huge cisterns or dammed the creek to make ponds. The rain barrel was just a convenient source.

I predict water collection has a bright future, especially for city dwellers that don’t have room for a pond or water well. We have recently begun selling recycled fifty gallon drums and two hundred fifty gallon plastic containers at the nursery.  Interest in these has been good. We also have access to tanks that will hold thousands of gallons and these are large enough to really make a difference. My wife and I have about five thousand gallons of collection capacity. We rarely have to haul supplemental water and we do not pay a water bill at the house. No kidding!!

As xeriscape (dry landscape) techniques become the norm, plant selection will become critical. Your local native plant species will be the obvious best choice. Notice I stated local natives. At present, buzz words on plant tags like native, heat tolerant, drought tolerant, and so forth are relative terms. You must question native to where, how much heat, and how long a dry spell can the plant really endure? All plants are native to somewhere……….Right? Thirty five inches of rain per year would be a drought in Florida, about normal in the DFW Metroplex, and a flood in El Paso.

The criteria for choosing plants will be based on average rainfall. Some cities have recommended plant lists while others have ordinances that require native or well adapted plants be used in all new construction.

Unfortunately the traditional wholesale plant industry is located in areas that receive thirty five to forty inches (or more) of annual rainfall. In Texas, most wholesale growers are found east of I-35. This is not a good situation for those of us living west of that line. However, this too is beginning to change. We are seeing wholesale growers in West Texas and the greater Southwest. These folks are doing quite well providing dry country plants for their particular needs. Consequently, many of these plants require an arid environment so they are not easily grown in humid, high rainfall locations where most of the big wholesale operations are located. Plants that are grown locally for local consumers will be the wave of the future. We need more growers who will specialize in local natives and plants that will adapt to local conditions.
Another major factor that is impacting home landscaping is the use of the land itself. Habitat gardening is becoming popular even in crowded neighborhoods. Many people have found they enjoy planting for birds, butterflies, or simply wildlife in general. Texas Parks and Wildlife offers a certified “Wildscape” program that has been very successful, especially among city dwellers.

For those with larger properties, Parks and Wildlife has another program that is growing exponentially. This program allows tax exemption for people to leave acreage as natural habitat and develop food plots with water sources for deer, turkey, and quail. This also results in the general well being of all the creatures that live in the wild. Wildlife sanctuary programs work better for people who buy property for recreational use rather than following the old guidelines of growing hay and feeding cattle for agricultural exemption.

The latest issue concerning land use is carbon sequestration. Apparently there is a new program where landowners are paid to leave acreage in its natural state as a repository for carbon. Seems our politicians are beginning to understand the value of green spaces to remove carbon from the atmosphere. At any rate I feel it worth mentioning even though I don’t know much about it. Those who have large properties may find it worth checking into.

There are also some housing developments that are leaving sizeable portions of natural areas for the common use of residents. Some of these developments have covenant agreements that each resident leave a certain percentage of their property as natural habitat. These communities are very appealing to those enjoy the great outdoors for whatever reason.

As a naturalist and landscape professional, I am very pleased with this movement toward a sustainable future. The challenge of working with new ideas and native plants has been a blessing. The best part of it all has been the success of our clients. People say they want low maintenance. Following Nature’s plan and incorporating better technologies is the best way to reduce cost and have more time to enjoy the benefits. Even an older property can become an example of the future of landscaping. Just replace those high maintenance plants a few at a time and think along the lines of living with Nature rather than attempting to control her.

The Eyes Have It

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:16 pm

My cousin, Kenneth, who has built a successful career in advertising, once related to me how heavily we rely on our vision. According to Ken, vision comprises about 75% of our sensory perception while touch, hearing, taste, and smell combined make up the other 25%. Naturally, Ken works hard to produce advertisements and logos that are visually appealing. I became acutely aware of the obvious truth of my cousin’s statement as I opened my own business as a retail nursery.

My previous experience with plants and horticulture had taught me that the most important part of any plant is the root. Unfortunately this is the part we cannot see. However we have all had the experience of tenacious weeds that will not die until we extract the roots. If you will think about it a moment you will realize that in order to survive, plants absolutely must have the ability to regenerate from the roots. In Nature we have freezes, ice and snow load, fire, flooding, hail, and strong wind events that can seriously damage or completely remove the top of any plant. Yet as long as the roots remain, the plant will grow back eventually. Even though most of us are aware of these things, we seem to lose sight of it (literally) when we shop for plants.

If I am showing someone a group of plants that are just beginning spring growth they will choose the one with the most leaves. When buying flowering plants, they will choose ones that have open flowers instead of buying the ones that are just beginning to form buds. When discussing growth habit I will make it a point to explain that this particular tree or shrub usually grows as a crooked multi-trunk as opposed to a straight single trunk but the customer will pick the straightest one in the bunch. Another amusing example is peach and plum trees. The average person will usually select the straightest and tallest trees only to find when they get interested in proper pruning technique that it is recommended to cut these trees back to 2 or 3 foot tall to encourage an open (yes, that means crooked) multi-branched growth form. Perhaps the best example of all is sod. Most people want to buy fresh sod that appears to be healthy. Sod becomes increasingly harder to sell as it starts to yellow and finally brown yet the greenest freshest sod there is still has had most of the roots cut away. Therefore it is destined to turn brown anyway unless the customer waters constantly until the roots begin to heal.

The eyes tend to overrule that other sense, our common sense, when faced with what appears to be exactly what we want. Plant growers and garden centers are well aware of this. Why else would each and every tree you find come strapped to a pole to keep it straight? Is this really good for the tree? It certainly is not. Why else would most flowering plants be grown in the controlled environment of a greenhouse, pampered to perfection, and force fed chemicals to make them appear healthy? Take one of these lush beauties home to the real world and neglect it. You’ll find it really wasn’t as healthy as it looked. Most growers will go to great lengths to produce healthy looking plants. Why else would a big name wholesale outfit in the Houston area spend $30,000 a year on fungicides to keep leaf fungi off their red tip photinias?

Our eyes are very important and useful when shopping for plants. Just don’t let them fool you into making a poor choice. For instance, we know that magicians are really just good at misdirecting our sight. Still the fact that we usually don’t actually see the sleight of hand makes the act entertaining.

In other words, when buying plants just coming out of dormancy, it may be wiser to choose the one that hasn’t begun to leaf out. The early bloomer just may get caught in a late freeze. Likewise, buying flowering plants that are just budded and not blooming will mean that the flower will open after you plant it instead of fading quickly as the plant puts more energy into growing. When buying a tree or shrub that has a multiple trunk, go ahead and get the really crooked one. Those generally grow to make the most interesting specimens as they mature. When buying peaches and plums, select the short stout ones with good lower branches as opposed to the tall ones. If you are buying bedding plants out of a greenhouse, at least be aware of where you are and what it will take to acclimate your pampered transplants. And yes, even yellow or brown sod can be brought back to life, plus the nursery may be willing to let it go at a fraction of the cost. Basically what I’m saying here is that with a little knowledge and common sense you can learn to temper what your impulsive eyes are telling you.

What cousin Ken would tell you in a heartbeat is that it is especially hard for us to deny what our eyes can see, even if  our common sense deems otherwise.  A very good example occurs each and every Spring when people become anxious because their tree, shrub, or perennial of some kind has not shown any new growth yet. Here in North Texas we usually see some winter damage each year. Experience has taught me that winter damage can cause the plant to begin top growth much later depending on the severity of the damage. My stock answer is to advise people to wait at least until mid-May before going to the trouble of replacing the plant. Sometimes it does take that long for plants to struggle back from a long or abnormally cold winter. Yet more often than not, people will insist that the plants are well and truly dead even though they have just asked for my professional opinion. Their eyes have seen that dead top already and I assume they are merely calling me for confirmation. I once had a person actually email me a photo of a “dead” plant that had new growth plainly visible at the base of the plant. Still I could not convince them that it was still living.

Always temper your vision with a little common sense. Never lose sight (forgive the pun) of the fact that plants need deep strong roots as well as healthy leaves and stems. A little bug damage, weather damage, or a few spots on the leaves should be considered normal. Plants are rarely perfect in their natural habitat. Don’t expect perfection in your garden. What you see is NOT ALWAYS what you get!!!

Black Is Beautiful

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:06 pm

Carbon is black. Coal is black. Crude oil is black. The ink on this paper is black. Compost is black. Humus is black. What these things have in common is carbon derived from organic matter. The carbon molecule is the building block upon which all life on this planet is based. Therefore, soils rich in organic matter are black or at least dark colored………and that is beautiful in the eyes of a gardener.

All potting soils are black. I’ve yet to see a potting mixture that wasn’t. Regardless if the mixture is intended for roses, bedding plants, or even cacti, they all have this in common. While the various mixtures may contain different additives the bulk (and consequently what we a paying for) of any potting soil is that black stuff. The message this should convey to all gardeners is that the most important thing is the compost/humus content. The other ingredients are about fine tuning that mix to a specific plant or purpose.

Come to think of it, if I were to open all the various bottles and packages on the shelf at our totally organic nursery, the prevailing color would be black or dark brown. Even the products like corn meal, alfalfa, and orange oil will eventually turn black as they break down to form humus. Once again, this is because all these products are derived from living sources which are carbon based. The only exception that readily comes to mind is DE (diatomaceous earth) which is already millions of years old and still white. I don’t expect that to turn black anytime soon.

That being said, I think that we all need to be reminded occasionally of this most basic ingredient. It is easy to get sidetracked into thinking that there is some miracle product or ingredient that will make all our gardening endeavors successful. That ingredient does exist, but it is not whatever new and improved product that, without a doubt,will be accompanied by a huge advertising campaign, the miracle is, in fact, compost.

Now please don’t misunderstand. I sell lots of organic products and I believe in what I sell, but I am first and foremost a gardener. Experimentation is an integral part of gardening. For instance, this past season I did an experiment with high levels of lava sand on some corn. The results were impressive so you can be assured that all of this year’s corn planting will get a healthy dose of lava sand. Whether the result was due to the high mineral content or paramagnetism or perhaps both (?), I really can’t say but it was enough to convince me that something in the lava sand made a difference. However, I have not lost sight of the fact that the rest of last year’s corn which was planted in regular composted garden soil did just fine without the additive.

I am reminded of an article I read some years ago that was written by a rose enthusiast. This senior citizen certainly enjoyed her rose garden. She described the routine regimen which included the use of a high nitrogen synthetic fertilizer once a month. In addition she had her gardener apply foliar sprays, fungicides, and plenty of fresh compost plus mulch. No doubt her roses were getting all they needed, and then some. I wondered just how much of this was overkill.  It is a fact that plants can only use so much nitrogen. What is not used by the plants will form nitrates which are toxic to most living critters and in fact is the number one pollutant of our water resources. By contrast, my roses just get compost and mulch. I’ve never received any recognition or won any prizes for my collection of antique roses but I do have plenty of customers who like what they see well enough to buy them.

I can also honestly say that I have not had any outstanding problems with insects or disease in my rose beds or in the nursery. Sure we see some occasional black spot and some aphids in early Spring but none so damaging as to warrant a routine spray program. This brings us to yet another attribute of that black stuff we call compost.

As we continue to study life in the soil we find all sorts of microscopic creatures who live symbiotically with plants. These microbes actually protect their host plants from disease pathogens plus contribute to general health and vigor which helps the plant survive insect attacks. Beneficial microbes are present in all soils but are most abundant in soils that have higher levels of humus. A good soil profile will consist of a fresh mulch of organic material on top with progressive layers of material decomposing to eventually form humus. This creates an ideal environment for beneficial microbes to set up housekeeping not to mention earthworms and beneficial insects that can be seen with the naked eye.

So what we are doing with all the other various soil additives and foliar sprays is really fine tuning. These things do have advantages especially when it comes to growing non-native plants like vegetables or exotic bedding plants. Whatever the case may be, we should never lose sight of the vital ingredient……………that black stuff.

When you remove the compost/humus element what you have left is a basically lifeless soil with poor water retention, poor mineral exchange, and no storage capacity for dissolved nutrients. Yes, we can grow plants hydroponically in a soilless medium, but this is a very intensive form of gardening and not the sort of thing most of us are willing to take on, certainly not in the home landscape.

As I said, experimentation is part of any gardening effort. I think that we are all guilty at times in expecting too much from the new products we buy each year. We all fall victim to clever salesmen and well planned marketing schemes. Sometimes we get confused in all this and need to remind ourselves that the miracle is truly in the life/death/decay/new life cycle of carbon in Nature. I’ve often stated that if I were only allowed one weapon in my gardening arsenal, I would choose compost.

The concept of organic gardening is based upon compost. Switching from toxic or synthetic products to safer and sustainable methods is a step in the right direction but does not fully embrace the concept of organic gardening. You must accept Nature as your partner and mentor. Otherwise you will find you have merely replaced one set of products for another. In Nature, black is beautiful, for that is the color of rich soil.

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