For Beautification and a Better Environment

Wanting a landscape plan that delivers the best design outcome for your garden and make the most of your outdoor area is never achieved by wishing. You must consult a landscape architect; this is one way to ensure this happens. The residential garden landscape is the canvas upon which you paint a picture. The landscaping ideas and landscape design should be timeless and without allegiance to prevailing fashion. Sadly, many fashionably recent residential gardens today will soon faze out, thereby actually detracting from the value of the property in the future, rather than appreciating the value of the home year by year.

Mainly, you want your designer to plan a garden that supports the architecture of your home, acts as a frame for its architectural style, and exhibits the works of the landscape architect at their best.

Interested in urban recreational spaces?

Read about how landscape architecture is “Saving the world from total breakdown” written by Landscape architect and urban planner Regine Keller here.

Secondly, to design a garden that suits your specific needs and tastes. A good landscape architect must have the skill is to combine these two requirements in a form that adds value to the property.

Before consultation, pen down a “wish list”, including those things you would love in a garden and also those things you would not like.

Then, discuss your wish list with him or her, discuss what will work and what may not, what will best suit the architectural style of your home and will add the maximum value to the property. You also need to talk about materials, styles, approximate costs and the general direction that the garden should go. Never let an architect enforce a “boring” plan upon you! This is one that simply has repetition of similar plants all in neat little rows, with little variation or interest over the long term. Ensure that it is a wide range of textural variation such as:

  • tree bark
  • foliage
  • flowers
  • shapes
  • sizes of shrubs, trees, garden beds)

And, that the plants reflect the best of each seasons – e.g. azaleas in winter, roses and annuals in Spring to Autumn. You may also need to consult about the benefit of landscape lighting – for both functionality (security etc.) and interest. Your garden can look very different and beautiful at night with the interplay of light and shadow. Always make sure you see examples of his work – in a similar setting as your own. This will help you get an idea of what to expect of his creativity and experience. Don’t just go by photos if possible. Make sure, before you sign any contracts, that you fully understand the costings – of the labor and other costs, including architect fees.

Quality landscape architecture

Be prepared to include your own sub-contracting – for example you may be able to buy the plants cheaper, or want to employ for the labor some high school lads who are looking for summer work. At the end of this process, you should have a very clear idea on the direction in which the project should or can go.

Culturally, landscape architects are frequently associated with larger projects, and landscape designers are associated with smaller projects. But in actual practice, that’s not the case 100% of the time. In the landscape design profession, “Landscape Architecture” is generally the broad name of the more advanced level of college education pertaining to landscape design.

Plant Physiology 102

Like animals, the life span of plants varies differently among species and is also affected by the environment they live in. Basically, we can divide plants as annuals, biennials and perennials referring precisely to whether they live just for one growing season (about a year), two growing seasons (two years) or many years; in some cases thousands (some conifers).

Most small plants fall into annuals or biennials, though there are many perennial herbaceous species. However, the ability of plants to live longer has been explored and used by man. A typical and very well studied example is maize, or corn.

The wild species closest to our common corn plant are in fact perennial plants, but due to man-made selection and manipulation, domesticated maize is at best a biennial plant in some varieties. Most maize varieties, or cultivars, are in fact annual plants. Just out of curiosity, shortening its life span was not the only modification that man made to maize.

The domestication of maize took a toll on its ability to fight natural enemies, e.g. nematodes.
Living and surviving throughout different growing seasons is in fact quite a challenge for most plants, as they have to face very different climate conditions (e.g. temperature, water availability, light) through time. In some cases these climatic changes can happen quite fast, thus plants have to adapt and cope with that. In tropical regions, this is not a major problem as we all know that the hot and humid weather is almost constant; changing very little between months.

This constancy is even more evident closer to the Equator. In these regions all tropical plants grow continuously at very similar rates throughout the year and this is why tropical trees don’t tend to have distinct growth rings, as happens with trees of temperate regions. However, some tropical regions face some extreme changes between dry and wet seasons (for example the regions affected by the Monsoon).There the trees do show different growth rates between the two seasons thus showing apparent grow rings, e.g. teak (Tectona sp). In temperate regions the scenario is quite different, and rather diverse.

To best face winter of temperate regions, where the temperature is far from optimum, the sun does not shine, and it rains or snows or gets below zero most of the time, plants lose their leaves and stop growth all together. Oak, lime, ginkgo, ash, and tulip tree are very well known examples of deciduous trees. Why waste energy on keeping their leaves to photosynthesize at minimum levels? Better give it a rest and wait for better times.

The process by which these plants, from annuals to perennials, lose their leaves, thus being classified as deciduous, is called abscission. Contrary to what you may think, what gives them the signal to initiate such a physiological process is not the air temperature becoming lower as winter approaches but the day getting shorter. Whether the sun shines or not, day length is a more regular and predictable phenomenon than the drop in temperature that plants use to “know” that not so favorable times come ahead and so it is time to start preparing things. Clever isn’t it?

However, not all plants from temperate regions lose their leaves. That is, not all of them are deciduous. As we know, pines do not lose their leaves and most conifers like cypresses, sequoias, spruces, firs, cedars, and yews , well as eucalyptus and most tropical species keep their leaves.

In temperate regions, evergreen plants have adopted the strategy to survive by growing very very slowly and thus consuming, or needing of, very little. Losing leaves is not an exclusively winter phenomenon. In fact it may happen in summer or in dryer seasons, e.g. our native baobab tree (Adansonia gregorii). Some species live under very arid conditions in summer, or winter depending on the location, and water is scarce.

The best way to face this cruel summer is to stay dormant or stop growing and save themselves for winter when they really grow. This is quite common in many Mediterranean species where the growing season is the mild and cool winter, e.g. olive trees. Although many plants can adapt and live far from what their normal habitat conditions are, dormancy in plants is in fact a necessary strategy for their healthy growth. Growing deciduous species under “eternal sun” conditions although it may work for some species for some time (usually up two years), it is in fact quite stressful and usually results in death and very short life spans.

Special thank you to Dr Pablo Cabrita (Phd. Plant Physiology)

Plant Physiology 101 (part 2)

…But, back to the normal picture, we can say that a typical plant consists of one or several stems protruding from the soil where a root is anchored. Typically, the stem is further divided into branches from which many leaves and, at special times, flowers pop up. As many of us know, photosynthesis occurs in the leaves in which special openings called stoma (pl stomata) control the exchange of carbon dioxide, water and oxygen with the atmosphere. Water together with minerals dissolved in it is absorbed by the root tips through special cells. Linking the two there the stem or stems, or trunks in the case of trees, that supports the whole plant body above ground as serves also as a reserve organ for future times.

Usually, the plant dimensions bellow ground are as immense as those above it. Roots can “travel” indeed great distances to obtain water. In order to live best with what they get, plants developed special features or strategies to adapt to changing climates and conditions.

For example, to cope with water stress, mainly prolonged drought, some plants reduced greatly the size and number of their leaves. The extreme, of this can be seen in many cacti in which the leaves have turn into spiny structures used for defense purposes mostly.

In cacti, photosynthesis is thus made in the stem which also serves as a water storage organ. This why cacti have big, green, and round stems. In addition, to be most efficient on photosynthesizing cacti, as some other plant species from arid climates, developed as specialized chemical processes, along with cellular modifications, that make to conduct photosynthesis at night and not during the day. This way, they can save water by keeping their stomata closed during the day when humidity is lower. On the other extreme, we have mangroves where plants are faced with prolonged flooding, i.e. to much water. What to do then?

Well, like our cells, plant cells and specially the cells from plant roots need oxygen. As the concentration of oxygen in the water is much smaller than what exists in the atmosphere, plants in mangroves developed structures in their roots called pneumatophores specialized in capturing oxygen from the atmosphere. Also, salt concentration in mangroves is higher than what most plants face and certainly higher than their needs. To cope with these many plants developed special glands that excrete salt while others developed high salt tolerance that allowed them to compete and survive best in such conditions.

These are just extreme examples of myriads of adaptations that plants developed in order to conquer and survive on land.

Plant Physiology 101 (part 1)

Whereas most organisms are dependent on other organisms for energy, plants can capture energy directly from sunlight and convert it into a usable form through the process called photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is the route by which virtually all energy enters life on Earth as we known it. Basically, photosynthesis is the conversion of water and carbon dioxide into glucose, water and oxygen. Water is also, like oxygen, a by product of photosynthesis which is then released into the atmosphere. Glucose is used as the main source of carbon from which plant use to make other molecules they and ultimately we need. For this reason, plants are referred to as autotrophs, i.e. the producers in a habitat opposed to us and all other beings known as heterotrophs, the consumers.

To that end, plants developed special features and strategies which allow them to obtain water and the mineral nutrients that they are not capable of synthesizing on their own. Plants have thus to evolve and adapt to very strange environments and climates, many of which quite adverse to plant life.

Basically, the plant body is quite similar in structure in all species, from the gigantic Mountain Ash to the minuscule cushion plants of Tasmania, even if at first they seem quite dissimilar. Some structures are absent in some species as result of adaptations during their evolution: e.g. some aquatic plants lost their roots as the minerals that they need are dissolved in the sea water they live in; some parasitic plants have no leaves as they get all their nutrients from their hosts and therefore no longer need leaves to photosynthesize.

But, back to the normal picture, we can say that a typical plant consists of one or several stems protruding from the soil where a root is anchored. Typically, the stem is further divided into branches from which many leaves and, at special times, flowers pop up. As many of us know, photosynthesis occurs in the leaves in which special openings called stoma (pl stomata) control the exchange of carbon dioxide, water and oxygen with the atmosphere. Water together with minerals dissolved in it is absorbed by the root tips through special cells. Linking the two there the stem or stems, or trunks in the case of trees, that supports the whole plant body above ground as serves also as a reserve organ for future times.

Usually, the plant dimensions bellow ground are as immense as those above it. Roots can “travel” indeed great distances to obtain water. In order to live best with what they get, plants developed special features or strategies to adapt to changing climates and conditions.

For example, to cope with water stress, mainly prolonged drought, some plants reduced greatly the size and number of their leaves. The extreme, of this can be seen in many cacti in which the leaves have turn into spiny structures used for defense purposes mostly.

In cacti, photosynthesis is thus made in the stem which also serves as a water storage organ. This why cacti have big, green, and round stems. In addition, to be most efficient on photosynthesizing cacti, as some other plant species from arid climates, developed as specialized chemical processes, along with cellular modifications, that make to conduct photosynthesis at night and not during the day. This way, they can save water by keeping their stomata closed during the day when humidity is lower. On the other extreme, we have mangroves where plants are faced with prolonged flooding, i.e. to much water. What to do then?

Well, like our cells, plant cells and specially the cells from plant roots need oxygen. As the concentration of oxygen in the water is much smaller than what exists in the atmosphere, plants in mangroves developed structures in their roots called pneumatophores specialized in capturing oxygen from the atmosphere. Also, salt concentration in mangroves is higher than what most plants face and certainly higher than their needs. To cope with these many plants developed special glands that excrete salt while others developed high salt tolerance that allowed them to compete and survive best in such conditions.

These are just extreme examples of myriads of adaptations that plants developed in order to conquer and survive on land.

Pruning (part 1)

For some, pruning is really an art while for most of us is just one way of getting the most of our plants. However, before stepping into the tricks and secrets of how to best prune your plants it is important to know how plants grow.

How do they branch? When are they most active? Do all plants respond equally to pruning? These are some of the questions which one must have in mind before pruning a plant or even before deciding to have a specific species or variety of plant. Plants can have very different forms and shapes, and in some cases these can even vary between individuals of the same species depending on the conditions under which they grow. However from the gigantic Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) to the smallest weed on the ground one can find patterns and similarities in the way the plant body distributes its aerial parts above ground.

We are all familiar with the pyramidal shape of many pine trees and spruces for example, in which there is a big round trunk tapered towards the apex with many lateral branches, longer and thicker at the base and shorter and narrower closer to the apex. The older and higher the tree gets the thicker the base of trunk and lower branches become while the apex is surrounded by shorter and younger branches, e.g. Norway spruce (Picea abies). This type of branching and grow pattern is called monopodial is common to many trees and smaller plants, e.g. orchids. Typically, when you see one stem with leaves and flowers only, it is mostly indicative of a species with monopodial growth. In monopodial growth, there is what is called apical dominance where the main stem with its apex at the tip is the main, most active and dominant growing part of the plant. The lateral branches and their apices are dormant, with their growth inhibited, or they grow more slowly compared with the main stem.

On the other hand, many fruit tress like peaches, oranges and other ornamental trees like elms, yews, etc, have many branches which gives very diverse shapes and forms far from having a main or dominant branch. In these cases, the apical meristems, i.e. the tissues where cells multiply and grow, i.e. the tips, produce flowers and eventually fruits and they will wither at the end of the growing season. The growth in this part of the plant is stopped and the plant will no longer grow from here. Next season, the grow starts in its immediate adjacent meristems below and their tips will also wither at end of the respective growing season.

This is why, the plant branches in all directions without having a clear dominant direction. This grow pattern is called sympodial growth and is usually used by pruners to give plants funny shapes as many sympodial species respond well to pruning by branching and growing more laterally or diffusively, e.g. maple, camellia. Typically, this is the case with many climbing species and other ornamental species like roses.

However, being a sympodial species does not necessarily mean that it will respond well, or the way we wanted, to cutting and pruning. A good example is the lilac, Syringa sp. While being a typical sympodial species lilac responds very slowly to pruning and cutting. Usually, it takes two to three years to flower again after pruning. This, of course, depends on how extensive and damaging the pruning was. On the other hand, many monopodial species are slower in responding to pruning and one must be careful on deciding which parts to cut. Furthermore sometimes, the single stem is the only stem the plant will ever have, like in many orchids.

Special thank you to Dr Pablo Cabrita (Phd. Plant Physiology)

Pruning (part 2)

Ever wondered why your favourite magnolia, or camellia, stopped growing that particular branch that was expected to flower?

Well, if you had not done anything to your plant, most probably it has decided for you. In this case, it might well be that that part of that particular branch will die in the end. This situation is quite common in many vascular plants and technically it is their way of pruning themselves. That is right, plant also prune themselves.

Except for aesthetic reasons, which drive many people to prune plants, often not having the best results for the plants, they also decide and drive their growth in order to optimise their physiological status. In the same way, in many situations, plants are pruned by people in order to promote growth, improve their health and productivity, in the case of fruit trees for example. In addition, pruning can also be used as a tool to make certain corrections in plant development according to their needs of light, fertilisation and irrigation.

Before starting your ritualistic garden pruning frenzy that I am sure most of your plants wish it would never happen at all, there are some things you should consider. First, as you may have noticed not all plants respond in the same way to being cut. Remember that pruning is always “harmful” to any plant; you are simply cutting parts of a plant’s body. However, it happens naturally and plants are adapted to respond to it. Most often, especially those not so experienced, what people ask is: what is the best time for pruning? Well that always depend on the species rhythm of growth. There are some basic simple rules that one should always have in mind before starting pruning:

First

, no matter the reason behind it, pruning should always be performed after plants flower, or in the case of conifers (which do not produce flowers as you may know, e.g. pine) after they have produced their female and male cones. Why? Typically, all vascular plants end their extremities with reproductive organs that will lead to fruits. Therefore, if you cut a branch before this cycle happens not only you prevent plants to reproduce but also you hinder their growth seriously for that season. Normally, in many species, flowering and fruiting marks the end of a growing season. Which, for most temperate climate species it is more or less about at the end of summer.

Second, temperate climate species stay dormant part of the year, usually winter time. In many cases, they lose all their leaves. For these species, winter is the best time for pruning them, as they do not grow and are metabolically inactive. Therefore, cutting them will not make them to respond immediately. Also, remember that in temperate climates, from where these species come from, winter is the hardest season with many storms and rough wheatear. So, plants from these climates are used to lose branches. Therefore, cutting them during that time will not be that different from what they are used to.

Third, tropical plants, on the other hand, grow all year round, having in some cases flowering cycles. In these cases, there is no calendar season to prune them as they will respond the same way. However, if you want your plant to flower not so long after being pruned, be sure to prune after a flowering cycle. This way, you guarantee that the plant will have enough time to grow and develop well before starting a new reproduction cycle. As these tropical plants do not stay dormant, they need some time (like any other plant) to recover from the shock of being cut.

Have this in mind. From the metabolic point of view, flowering is a costly business for many plant species. Plants need to build up enough reserves in order to flower and they can only do that by having a strong and healthy vegetative system, i.e. leaves and roots. It often happens that people prune their plants and then they complain that the plant stopped flowering or it does not flower as before. A typical example is lilac that responds very slowly to pruning. Basically, one can say that lilac does not like being pruned. Normally, lilac takes two years to flower again after it has been correctly pruned. On the opposite side, as you may have noticed, roses respond quite well to pruning and even do not mind being cut several times during the year.

Special thanks to Dr Pablo Cabrita (Phd. Plant Physiology)

Pruning (part 3)

Continuing the discussion about pruning and basic rules …you should know fungi are one of the several and most common threats to plants.

Remember how mysteriously that plant of yours died even though you did everything by the book regarding taking care of that same plant? Well, overwatering, no matter how little, is a common factor leading to fungi infected plant roots and eventual plant death. But that is for another discussion.

Back to pruning, although many species of fungi have symbiotic relations with plants, thus their existence is beneficial and recommended; many other species of fungi are truly parasitic therefore giving no benefit to their host plants. Interactions between plants and fungi are one of the best studied on plants and fungi are the cause of many plant diseases. It thus important that you be aware that pruning makes a great opportunity to fungi to infect their host plants.

Remember that by cutting a plant part, even a dry branch, you are wounding that plant. Thus, you may create or favour ways through which fungi and other opportunistic agents might enter. As you know, fungi reproduce through spores that are driven by air mostly. However, you can also carry fungal spores on your clothes, your hands, your hair, and eventually the tools that you use to prune your plants. It only takes one single spore to germinate and turn into a serious menace to your plant. To diminish this risk, hygiene is the word you must always have in mind when pruning. Not only for own health, obviously, but most of all for your plants.

Have all your pruning tools always disinfected before you start. Clean them with alcohol or bleach, especially the blades and the all the parts that will contact plant tissue. Let the tools dry from the cleaning and then use them. You would be surprised how many plant diseases and fungi are transmitted this way, by simply using the same tools from plant to plant and not cleaning them after your are done with the task. It may sound silly, but many people are carless in this way when pruning and often complain about the results they are getting. Although, fungi were used as one example of why you should clean your tools, the same principle also applies to other contaminants like rust and dirt that accumulate by using your tools and can seriously affect the cut and exposed plant parts. If you add water or humidity to these, while your pruning and cutting your plants, then you will have the perfect storm, better say nightmare, for your plants in the nearest times. Some plants are more resistant than others and their response to pruning also depends on their own individual status: age; physiological status; and, depending on the species, the time of the year. However, to minimise your part of the risk of infecting your plants when you cut them, get in the habit of cleaning your tools before using them.

One other factor that people forget when pruning is the grow habit of their plants. All branches of a plant have monopodial growth. That is, they exhibited secondary shoots or branches that arise behind the growing apex, tip, and remain subsidiary to it. Often, the apex of the branch will end in flowers that will eventually be fertilised. Whether this happens or not, that branch in particular will no longer growth in length from that tip on and growth resumes in other directions.

When pruning, people often forget about this secondary shoots that most of the time remain as tiny dormant buds on the axils (the junction with the main stem) of leaves or other branches. To ensure that your plant will grow on a particular direction be sure to cut towards the tip after this secondary buds, usually found on nodes. This way although you may have cut a big part of the branch, including the apex, you also have left some secondary buds that will develop after pruning and after the apex has been removed.

People often do not notice this and cut more or less randomly leaving some lengths of branches with no secondary buds remaining. Then surprisingly they notice that that branch in particular not only did not grow but also had eventually died. Well, this kind of “dying” is a natural response of the plant to diminish waist and save resources and ultimately energy.

Special thanks to Dr Pablo Cabrita (Phd. Plant Physiology)