dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the category “landscape design”

WHEN to plant WHAT

Cherie's planting season wheel

My confession that rules were blatantly disregarded when I planted shrubs during  July brought sorrowful bent heads and looks of disapproval.  And those were just from Gus the Wonder Cat…..

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I'm crazy enough to plant shrubs in summer!

Gus the Wonder Cat is wondering why I’m crazy enough to plant shrubs in the heat of summer!

I can imagine what your thoughts on the subject might be.

As a designer, I often myself tempted to The Dark Side, putting FORM before FUNCTION. Someone always pays when that happens. Sometimes it’s Mrs. Skywalker. This time it’s me. I’ve been shlepping water hoses through the common area next to my house several times a week and the newly-planted beauty berry still doesn’t look, well, beautiful. If you don’t want you to fall into the same trap, use this graphic telling you when to plant what at your house.  Your plants will thank you for following the rules. And Gus will think you’re a genius.

Need to know HOW to plant trees and shrubs? Here’s a video from my friends at The National Gardening Association Wanna TRANSPLANT a shrub or tree in the next few months? Here’s how!

Understory beauty berry bush, like this variegated 'Snow Storm' variety, prefer cooler temps when planted and show distress at anything less.

DEAD ENDS take on new meaning: this variegated ‘Snow Storm’ beauty berry is making its displeasure known, dying off on the tip ends after leaving the shade cover of a nursery for the sun cover of July.


FREE FRIDAY! and Summer is NOT the time to plant

To celebrate August, the end-of- summer (since schools start ever-earlier), I’ll have a FREE FRIDAY tomorrow. Go to my author FaceBook page and pick which one of my children’s books you want and I’ll pick you. Or Gus the Wonder Cat will pick for me. IF he’s in the mood for that kind of thing. He IS a cat, after all.  If you don’t FB, just comment on this post to get your name in the hat.

River rock boulder at A&A  Stone (www.A&

Arkansas creek boulder Linda helped me find at A&A Stone. Thanks Linda!

Following an afternoon choosing boulders for my entry garden (I’ll show you the before/after soon), I distinctly heard my name called. Sensing the voice beckoned from the nearby garden center, I was compelled to stop and walk through the rows of newly arrived plant material to make certain my garden was not lacking. As any other gardener would have, I soon recognized my garden was indeed lacking and began piling necessities onto the wagon to remedy my plight.

My usual time for summer gardening is morning. And when I say “gardening” in the summer, it means making the rounds to be sure everyone is happy and healthy, yanking a few errant weeds: maintenance type chores. Theoretically, PLANTING is an autumn/winter/spring activity. However, since I do not practice what I preach, feel free to drive by and see WHY you should not put out plants in Texas’ summer, which typically lasts from April-October. Other than the desert-dwellers, my new babies are suffering tremendously. Even the true East Texas Pineywoods natives, with almost daily spritzes of hydration from the end of a hose, show a waning spirit.

I don’t blame them a bit. It is August, after all.

I’m putting together a program on WHAT TO PLANT WHEN. If you want to know the answer to that age-old question, respond to this post and I’ll send you the chart.

Living with Low Spots

After it rains, our back yard takes forever to drain. It’s so discouraging to plant things and they drown. How can we get rid of the water without flooding our neighbors?

Drainage dilemmas plague many folks, either with seasonal sinkholes where water collects after a rain or a spot that’s always spongy and nothing grows well but weeds. Now we are talking shallow depression in the yard here, not hole-big-enough-to-eat-the-house-Florida-style.

raindropsLike a leaky roof, you probably don’t even think about drainage until it rains.

Landscaping professionals may disagree on HOW to solve drainage issues, but most agree the best solution financially and physically is to work with what you’ve got. Obviously if muddy waters rage through your yard like the Mississippi at flood stage – and you’re not interested in water-front property – you might need to a more comprehensive remedy. However, if your problem is periodic or simply a nuisance, here are a few inexpensive or even FREE ideas to try.

GRADE: Lawn grass responds best to a minimum 1/4″ drop vertically for every foot horizontal distance. That grade should point AWAY from your house, meaning soil at your home’s foundation should be the highest point. (Unless you live on a mountain, but that’s another post for another day.) Why? Constantly soggy soil means constantly soggy grass which means a lawn in constant distress. Expect diseases, especially fungal infection, and the pests that follow to become the dominant feature of your landscape if the slope’s too slight.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

DRAINS: A “dry river” can be installed to quickly wick water away from your low spot.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A bit of river rock, making sure it’s headed DOWNHILL, is an easy fix. But if the stones block instead of remove water, might as well invite the neighborhood over for a  pool party next time a black cloud hovers. Water gushing  down your river?  A large boulder or clump of ornamental grass strategically located slows the flow. If the runoff is more than a dry river can handle alone, or if the area is not conducive to such a feature, consider a French drain instead of or besides. There are plenty of how-to’s online for French drains. If you hire drainage done, you might take the advice of a landscaper friend of mine when interviewing installers: “If you call in somebody to help with drainage and they don’t have a level in their truck, run ’em off!”

PLANTS: If the area is wet for a short time and not a nuisance, consider planting natives that thrive with wet feet, soaking up the extra moisture. Or how about creating a wildlife or bog garden, or even a water feature to take advantage of your problem? Check your local native plant society for a list of appropriate ones for your area.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

Duel purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

Dual purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

RAIN BARREL: At my house, rain barrels are going in at the gutter downspouts. When I build my new porch, I’m planning the roof based on collection of rainwater so my garden is self-sustaining when irrigation limitations come back, as they surely will.

Before you head for the big guns, be sure your plumbing or irrigation isn’t leaking and you’re watering properly.  Then next time it rains, look for your low spots. Choose a remedy that will turn your problem on its head, making the area the HIGHlight of your landscape. Not so discouraging after all, is it? cc:



River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.






This week I’ve been working with my friend Cindy Huey on the area in my front yard near the entrance. When we moved to this house a few months ago, there were two huge sago palms (which are highly toxic, by the way) and 20 shrubs in an area barely large enough to support one of the sagos. The planting was original to the house and, as usual, the builders weren’t thinking past selling the house. That’s reasonable for them, but awful for the buyers. Or for the NEXT buyers, 12 years later. Although the previous owners did a great job on maintenance, everything was planted only inches from the sidewalk. Keeping the dwarf bottlebrush and boxwoods from attacking visitors must have been a constant chore and certainly a battle I chose NOT to fight. I transplanted the bottlebrush to the side yard and gave away the boxwoods, which are not a good plant choice for our area anyway.

Since I’m a professional landscape designer, you might wonder why I might need another landscape professional to help me at my house. It’s more fun and more productive to have an outsider’s view: more fun because Cindy’s enthusiasm over plants makes working with her a blast; more productive because it’s hard to make decisions when it’s YOUR STUFF. As a plant freak myself, I know how many options I have, so how can I possibly choose just a few? Thought some of you might have this dilemma, too, so I’ll share criteria for picking just the right plants for my entry garden.

1) Does it fit? Choose plants that will not overwhelm and overtake the space when full-grown. Yes, a one-gallon shrub looks Lilliputian next to a house, but it will grow. It’s pretty important that visitors can physically enter the entry.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

2) Does it fit? No, I’m not repeating myself. Well, I am, but I’m talking about a different kind of fit here. While the sago palms went well with the stucco of my home if I wanted a Gulf Coast vibe, my style is more California Spanish. I’ve also replaced water guzzlers for water savers, planting native and well-adapted succulents, perennials, and soft grasses and installing a Mexican beach pebble mulch. This allowed me to cap some of the irrigation. If we experience a repeat of the last 3 years’ water rationing, we’ll be ready with plants that love the heat and humidity, but don’t mind drying out periodically.

3) Does it look good? All the TIME? I enjoy putting out annuals for seasonal color. Since we don’t have a lot of big seasonal changes in South-east Texas, annual color lets me fake-it-till-it-makes-it. While we have tons of great warm season perennials and some plants that will bloom year-round in years we have no freezing weather, I enjoy my mums in fall, johnny-jump-ups in winter, daffodils for spring. Yes, all of these will probably make it all year, but I don’t want to let them go into the off-season on my time, making brown yuk the highlight of my landscape. Color pots are the answer for my front entry. By putting evergreens as the base planting, I can pop a pot into the scene and WHOLLA! seasonal interest! It also allows me to shift the pot of gross looking but still living plants to a side area and bring out the new seasonal container. (See how I do it HERE.)

Follow these 3 rules for the entry and your plant pallet dwindles down to a manageable decision. Now the backyard is a different subject all together, ’cause RULES? We don’t need no stinkin’ RULES! We’ll head to the backyard soon, so stay tuned.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Wild about Wildflowers, Part 1

Bluebells at Denver Botanic Gardens, where it’s hard to find the ice cream but easy to find the flower.

This week I had great fun with the Ft. Bend Master Gardeners in Rosenberg, Texas. They wanted to hear about one of my plant passions: wildflowers. (I’m sharing a list of my favorite wildflowers at the end of this post, plus a FREE BOOK for a lucky winner!)

Many Americans alive today were not around to remember when wildflowers were called “weeds.” That transformation in thought is a recent developement. (RECENT if you are an old fart, like me.) The Beautification Act of 1965, championed by then 1st lady-Lady Bird Johnson, brought much deserved appreciation for our natural beauties. (Okay, I wasn’t in school yet when LBJ was president, so maybe I’m not THAT old.)

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX.

The entry sign at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX. For more info on the childhood of Lady Bird Johnson, read MISS LADY BIRD’S WILDFLOWERS, by Kathi Appelt with art from Joy Fisher Hein, illustrator of my book, BLOOMIN’ TALES.

For many years, our native wildflowers were sought after as foreign favorites, proven to be hardy additions to European gardens. A prophet in his own land, right? Mrs. Johnson’s love for her Texas roots – and the attached flowers – bloomed into a determination that her fellow Americans were missing the boat. Or at least the wheelbarrow.

So what is a wildflower? “A flower not intentionally planted or seeded,” says Wikipedia. How is that different from a weed? Maybe it’s not. A new friend from Ft. Bend Master Gardeners (thanks, Vic!) says “a weed is a plant that no one has discovered a use for yet.” In my experience, a weed could be a misunderstood wildflower. It’s often a plant that happened to take hold in a spot where it’s unwanted. A wildflower in a flower bed might be okay, but that same plant in the lawn is considered a weed. Why do they seem to thrive in the lawn instead of the well-tended garden? Because most prefer a depleted soil. We take too good of care of them, in other words.

There’s some disagreement on whether a plant should be indigenous to an area to be truly considered a wildflower. Insects, animals, and birds probably prefer dining on natives over foreign plants. Most of us are leery of unknown foods, right? In my book, an INVASIVE plant is always a WEED. Intent on crowding out our native plants, gorgeous flowers lull us into a stupor as they plot to take over the world.

Weed or wildflower, here are 10 of my favorites. Next week I’ll share 10 more easy-to-grow wildflowers.

I’d also like to hear and see some of your favorite wildflowers. Share your wildflower stories and shots with me as a comment here to be in the running for a FREE copy of my children’s book BLOOMIN’ TALES, full of legends telling how some of our wildflowers got their names. And if you are in the Austin area next weekend, the illustrator -Joy Hein- and I will be signing copies on Saturday, April 27th, from 1-4 in the Wildflower Center’s bookstore.

  • fragrant aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
  • beauty berry (Callicarpa americana)
  • beebalm (Monarda spp.)
  • blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
  • bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum)
  • blue sage (Salvia farinacea) (Salvia x ‘Indigo Spires’)
  • butterfly weed (Aeslepias tuberosa)
  • cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
  • Hinkley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinkleyana)
  • purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

New Year’s Anti-resolutions

This year has begun the same way last year ended: I’m behind.

My intentions – like that of most other bloggers – are pretty straightforward. Most of us try and get a new post up every couple of weeks, if not weekly. My record does not reflect my intentions.

Yes, it’s been a crazy year… near death for my sweetie… a move…  grad school in another state … a new book out (well, sort of two books since it’s in TWO EDITIONS with different information in each)… me two surgeries and then surgery on two relatives that required travel and care for a week each… our 1st grandbaby born.  Is my year any different from anyone else’s, though? Have you overheard someone exclaim, “this year was so calm. I’m bored” ?I know I haven’t!

So rather than promise change, I’m gonna make a different kind of promise to you and to myself, an ANTI-RESOLUTION of sorts. (Did you know they have an APP for that, too?) I’m predicting unpredictable flurries of activity on this site, with random silences. There will be no pattern seen by the naked eye. Or even by the bespectacled one, for that matter. If I get lots of landscaping questions (usually in the spring and fall), you will see lots of posts. If I don’t, you probably won’t. What I’m saying is the frequency depends on YOU, not me, this year. This is not to put a guilt trip on anyone. It’s kind of like when my girls don’t call, I assume all is well.

When you DON’T get a call from your kids, is that 1 degree of separation from Kevin Bacon?

I do have many garden-blogging friends who report in a regular fashion. Some even posted their New Year’s gardening resolutions. Not me.

If you have a problem in your garden, or don’t; need some organic lawn care advice, or don’t; have a photo of something you need identified, or don’t;  need some life encouragement, or want to offer encouragement to others, let me know. If I don’t hear a peep, neither will you. c:

Build a crate coffee table

crate table

This week I’m working on projects at my daughter’s house as we await the imminent arrival of my 1st grandchild. Her nesting has created a long list of honey-do’s and momma-do’s and at the top of her list was something she’d seen on Pinterest: an exterior coffee table made of wooden crates. Upon visiting the Abilene, Texas Habitat for Humanity ReStore on another quest (also on the list), she mentioned needing two crates of the same size/shape for her project to the guy checking us out. He motioned for us to pull around back where he loaded – gratis – two said crates.

Home(I think West Texas folks are just nice like that. Probably didn’t hurt my daughter is 9 plus months pregnant and I’m old….)

Wanna know how we made it? Here’s the low-down on our method, with a few extra hints, gratis.

1) Talk someone out of relatively clean twin crates. (HINT:Take a pregnant woman with you for apathy. Also, if you can pull them OUT of the car, place the crates so they must be moved in order for your spouse to get into the house, encouraging them to help with the project.)

Expect to use 3 cans of spray paint because of the rough texture of the crate’s wood.

2) Paint said crates (I used 3 cans of spray paint and a mask, but in West Texas winds, that was barely enough) along with 4 sections of 4×4’s as spacers, if desired.

3) Screw casters into the corners of the crate that will be the bottom part of the table. (HINT:You might want LOCKING CASTERS unless you’re okay with the table being used as unapproved playground equipment.)

Why is it called “toenail” when you put screws in at an angle?

4) Toenail deck screws attaching the spacers to the bottom crate, then to the top crate, creating a two-level table. (Or a really fun, really cute, and really DANGEROUS trolley for kids.)

Oooooh, wouldn’t this be a cool serving trolley or wine bar if each crate was cut in two and stacked FOUR high?

(HINT: I’d love to see YOUR photos if you make one of these, but wait till my daughter goes into labor before you send it. I’d like to rock my new grandbaby while SHE works on projects!) c:

Locking casters will keep your table stationary, but aren’t nearly as much fun when table surfing.

Garden gypsies love change!

We’ve moved. Again. For the last time. Again.

People ask “how can you leave your gorgeous garden?” Those people don’t know me. I’m a garden gypsy. When I get close to being finished, it is time to move on and find a new challenge.

BEFORE: the front entry of the garden – the front door is on the side of the house on a different street, so no one could find it. Okay for salesmen; not okay for UPS.

AFTER: the front entry of the garden – we created a new entry walk, brick wall and gate off of the cul-de-sac, which was our actual address. Everyone could find us, but need the secret handshake to enter.

It’s difficult to see things objectively with your own child. Someone says “oh, your yard is beautiful,” and I can’t help but tell them what things need to be fixed, bringing out negative aspects no one saw but me.

I guess we all need someone in our lives to breath affirmatives into our ear – and into our gardens – giving us a fresh look at what is GOOD. My “old” garden is good now, ready for another caretaker, one who loves plants but doesn’t have a vision for planning their landscape. I often wish I was more like that….. Probably not as much as my husband wishes I was like that.

BEFORE: the view to the golf course – NOT!

AFTER: the view to the golf course – adding a broad crushed granite path framed our view to  the course and an observation deck gave us a new view to the tee box and green. Edging keeps the wildness the wildlife and I love at bay.  There are lots of spots to harbor golf balls that go astray, and no, I’m not giving them back if they land in my yard!

Thought I’d share some shots of my “old” garden, giving insight into a couple of the challenges we found there six years ago and how we worked past them. Look for photos of my “new” garden and the obstacles – and delights – I find there in the upcoming weeks.

Hope you’ll share your gardens with me, too. Do you have problem spots that need a remedy? Send your photos and let’s discover the good in YOUR garden!

Planting seeds straight into the ground

Lately, I’ve gotten several questions about the best way to start seeds in the ground, also called straight sown seeds. (Of course, I don’t DO straight lines, so that is a bit of an oxymoron at my house…..)  I don’t know that my way is the BEST, but it works well for me.  I’m open to suggestions – and welcome royalties from a patent partnership –  if you’ve found one that’s better.

Bottomless, this pot-o-basil is not what it appears.

HIT: starting your own plants from seed is inexpensive and EASY if you protect the seedlings!

First off, be sure you’re planting the seeds at the proper depth. If they’re from a packet, it should tell you how deep to put them in; as a general rule, seeds and bulbs require planting between double – and – triple their height. (Here’s my friend WILLIAM MOSS with Patti Moreno showing you how it’s done with veggies.) If you’ve planted them properly, you’ll start seeing green several days or weeks – or even months – before they are established well-enough to become actual rooted plants. During that time, the underworks are branching out to support the upperworks, making it vital you baby those fragile seedlings. I find the main protection my new seedlings need are actually from ME, though. Forgetting I’ve put seeds down, I mulch over that bare spot. Or I can’t remember what I put there because the tag is missing.  Sometimes a heavy downpour is the culprit and my seeds end up down the street.

We even have a neighborhood pooch whose owner allows him too much roaming space and he did in some cassia seeds with a well placed dump.  Yes, it is organic, but come on!

I used to stack rocks, cairn-like, stick a flag in it with the plant name, and cross my fingers as I walked away.  Either the flag, the rocks, or both ended up missing.

All you need to be a seed superstar is a plastic planting pot, scissors and a marker!

Now I hold on to all those small pots when I buy plants at the nursery and recycle them into seed starting studs.  I use a few the traditional way, but what works even better is making them into a TEXAS-STYLE SEEDLING CORRAL. I cut the bottom out, turn ’em upside down, and write down the plant’s name and the date I planted it with a silver marker.  Then I bury it partially into the ground, up and over the “lip” that used to be the top of the pot. Then I add a bit of potting soil and push the seeds into place.  I’m always looking for activities to lure in kids to gardening and think this might be a great one for little ones to try.  (As a bonus, this method allows me to know exactly where I need to mist when it dries out, and it holds in the water for longer.  And this isn’t proven, but it seems the black color of the pot absorbs the day’s heat and gets my seedlings going faster in early spring.)

Cut the bottom 1/4 off the small plastic plant pot and turn it on its head for a plant perimeter/marker.

Ignore the label on this one….it’s actually G. aestivalis winklerii ‘Grape Sensation,’ not ‘Purple Passion.’ But I wouldn’t know WHAT or WHERE it was without its seedling corral, would I?









You might want to cut the perimeter away once the seedlings are up….

or just leave it in place so you remember those bulbs are there even when they aren’t in bloom.

WARNING: if a varmint wants those seeds, even an armed guard can’t stop ’em!  Need proof?

Here’s who came to dinner at my house last week.  Yes, those are carefully dried/saved/planted hibiscus seeds this little guy decided to grab in the run-through at Casa Colburn-a!

To pool or NOT to pool……is that the question?

Yep. That’s the appropriate question. But how you come to a conclusion might be more important than the question itself.

courtesy Iguana Pools

Working with my landscaping clients over the last two decades in deciding whether or not they NEED a pool, the answer is easy: no.  No one needs a pool; pools are a luxury.  (I have to admit I’m talking out of both side of my mouth on this….I hate being pool-less so much we’ll meet next week about installing one at our new house.)  Being a gardener in Texas – for part of the year – is a delight.  Then there’s summer, lasting from it-isn’t-as-cool-this-morning till it’s-finally-cool-again-this-morning.  In between, there are a few rough days, too.  (If you call Phoenix home you might say I have no idea what hot is, but I’ve tasted your HOT. “It’s a DRY heat” is a valid comment.  There’s nothing dry gardening in Houston’s heat, including my t-shirt!) So here are a few questions you should ask when determining if a pool is right for your yard.

Above ground pools are less expensive, but not as long-lasting. Photo courtesy

A built-in spa/water feature might be just the right size to wet your whistle while warming your buns! Photo courtesy

1) WILL I USE IT?  I don’t mean “will I see it?”  I mean will I get in it and swim, or is it just a way to take the edge off the heat.  Is the idea of a pool the objective? What KIND of pool do I want: one for laps or is a diving board a must-have.  Maybe a spa, a water feature, an above-ground pool or even an outdoor shower will solve the dilemma. Try a kiddie or blow-up one from the dollar store for a few days to test if it’s the right direction for your family instead of diving in head first.

2) WILL I MAINTAIN IT? Pools are hard work.  Yes, there are pool cleaners that run around like the toilet scrubbing bubbles, but the best pool cleaners wear shorts.  And have great legs.  Oh wait.  That’s another story.  The point is someONE has to not only look at the pool regularly, but check its pH or pay the consequences that look like a B-grade 50’s movie.  Maintenance can be costly; however, not doing it is even more expensive.  No longer is chlorine the only option for water purity, though. There are alternatives now when it comes to the type of swimming pool sanitation systems available, from UV to salt water (now up to 90% of newly installed pools, according to a friend of mine who’s a long-time pool builder),  ozone to natural filtration, such as beneficial microbes.  Not all systems are widely available, and remember that often the “research” has been done by someone trying to sell that particular system.

Make a splash to drown out ambient noise, like traffic or the neighbor's barking dog. Photo courtesy of The Southern Bulb Company.

Pools are limited only by your imagination and budget.

3) CAN I AFFORD IT?  Permanent pools are expensive.  Not just the initial financial expense, either.  They cost time AND money on a weekly basis. It could become your new hobby, edging out golf clubs and everything else on your free-time list. Another consideration I’d like to offer is “can I afford NOT to have it?”  If you have older kids, a pool might mean your home becomes the gathering spot. On a hot summer afternoon, I knew exactly where my daughters were and probably much more than I should have known about their friends.  That’s been a huge pay-off, in my book.

If you are considering installing a pool, ask questions not just of the pool experts, but of the TRUE experts: pool owners.  And don’t ask the guy that put in a pool two months ago.  Ask the one with the bleach stained shorts and nice legs.  He’ll answer the RIGHT question!

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: