Plants for Your Flower Garden, Making The Right Choices

Information Card, usually found in the pot with the plant

Choosing the right plants for your flower garden is key to the success of your gardening project. Not only do you need to consider what colors you want, but the height of the plants as well. For your garden to be successful, you need to pay special attention to the type of plants you intend to place in your garden. Different plants need different conditions in order for them to live and thrive.

So how do you ensure that the plants you want will do well in the location you want them? Thankfully, we don’t need to be a botanist to know. Most green houses and home improvement centers have done all the homework for you. The plants are usually grouped together by their category and the conditions that the plant needs in order to grow. They also have tags placed in the pots with them that have all the information that you should need in order to make sure you are getting a plant that will work well in the location you have picked out for it.

Backside of Plant Information Card

Backside of Plant Information Card

Category: Annual or Perennial, an Annual is only good for one season and a Perennial will come back year after year. So choose these plants based on whether or not you will want to change them for next year or if you would like them to return each year in the same location.

Conditions: Some plants like the sun, lots of sun. Others do well in the morning sun but will dry out and die if exposed to the hot late afternoon sun. And others do well in partial shade and still others do best if in complete shade. Also consider the soil conditions, some plants need moist soil and others do quite well in dry sandy soil, and some like it in between. So you can see that there are a lot of choices to consider. Don’t place a shade loving plant, like Hosta, in full sun and dry soil, they will burn up and die.

Use the tags on the plants to help you make your selection so that you get the right plant for the right location. That’s how even the most novice gardener can have a truly successful flower garden that will impress your family and friends.

Have fun with your home improvement projects.

Walkways and Patios, Construction with Concrete Pavers

Finished Patio constructed with pavers.

Finished Patio constructed with pavers.

Walkways and patios can easily be construct by the do it yourself homeowner with concrete pavers. It will take some planning and a lot of sweat to accomplish, but the money you will save will be well worth it. On average, the labor cost of hiring someone to do the job will be at least as much as the cost of the materials, if not more. Contractors often add a mark up charge of around 2% to 5%, or more, on the materials, a cost that is passed on to you. It is a standard practice in the industry and one that you should plan for if you are considering a contractor.

Plate Compactor

Plate Compactor

Why use concrete pavers instead of just poring a concrete slab? Well, for one thing, one person can accomplish this without the help of anyone else (assuming that you are in good health for this type of labor). Of course a little help can go a long way to getting the job done faster, but it’s not necessary. Another reason is that concrete, no matter how well prepared, pored, and worked, will eventually crack, chip, and even flake. Removal of damaged concrete is a chore that will require much more work and expensive equipment to remove and replace. Repairs to concrete are often ugly, mismatched, and hard to accomplish, and are temporary at best. The use of manufactured concrete pavers is uniform, and gives the appearance of cobblestone, or even flagstone, without the drawbacks of a potentially bad pored concrete job. Another problem with concrete slabs is that they often develop ugly stains that are difficult or even impossible to remove. Concrete slabs are also prone to upheaval if the ground below it freezes, causing uneven settling when the ground thaws. This is the primary reason for cracks, which develop because the slab is no longer fully supported. Pavers on the other hand, will heave and resettle. If, over time, the pavers become uneven, they can easily be removed and reinstalled in their original position.

Construction is really straight forward, and as long as you stick to these steps you will have a wonderful walkway or patio that will last for many years, and is easily repaired if required. You can use any of the manufactured concrete products that are readily available at your local home improvement center, but stick to these basics for a trouble free installation. For simplicity, we will be using 6 inch by 9 inch concrete pavers for this patio project. You will use the same method of construction if you are constructing a walkway.

Step 1: Lay out the area carefully for the patio. Pay close attention to the dimensions and ensure that the borders are square to any structures that the patio will be placed against.

Leveling the sand for the pavers

Leveling the sand for the pavers

Step 2: Level the area for the patio, keep in mind that you will need a slope of 1 inch drop for every 4 feet of patio to ensure drainage, and that the patio should drain away from the foundation of any existing structures (such as the homes foundation). Remove any sod that is in the patio area, sod will not compact and will give under the weight of the patio causing an uneven surface. Also, make sure you leave room for the the thickness of the base material, leveling sand, and the thickness of the pavers you are installing. Use a 3 foot level and a straight 2×4 to get your grade right.

Step 3: If your patio has a low side, a retaining wall will be needed, calculate the added dimensions of the retaining wall into your overall size requirement. In this project I used preformed concrete wall blocks for the retaining wall. The retaining wall will have to be constructed before the patio construction can begin. Dig the foundation of the retaining wall, below the frost line in your area, and make sure to include any variations in the walls height, such as the drop needed for proper drainage as discussed in Step 2. Remember, level and accurate is what you must pay special attention to, if the foundation is not right, then neither will be the final result. You can use leveling sand to ensure that your retaining wall is level with the rest of the project. If your wall has more that one course, use wall adhesive when placing the top course to ensure that the wall blocks do not move. Next back fill the area behind the wall and level the area for the patio.

Note: You will need some sort of retainer for the edge of the patio, or walkway, that is not supported by a wall or home foundation. There are a number of ways to do this, one is to use a plastic retainer for pavers that has a flange that you drive spikes through to secure them in place. Another way to do it is to use wall blocks for the border, this is much more permanent and will add a little contrast to your design as well. Just install the wall block the same as you would a retaining wall as described in Step 3.

Step 4: Next you will need to rent a plate compactor to ensure that the soil underneath your patio is firm and will not sink causing your patio to sink with it. For small or narrow projects, such as a walkway, you can use a tamp, but if the project is wide enough, you should use a plate compactor in order to make sure that the soil is fully compacted and hard. Recheck you drainage slope and make any adjustments needed before you go to the next the step.

Cut Off Saw

Cut Off Saw

Step 5: Spread and level your base material, in this instance I used Crusher Run, a fine gravel, for the base. I personally recommend it because it is extremely durable and will not shift later on, and it is inexpensive. Use the plate compactor to settle the base and the recheck your drainage slope, adjust as necessary and compact it again. Make sure that the slope is right, the next step will go much easier if you do.

Step 6: Use lengths of black iron pipe as a spacer and to give a straight surface to level your leveling sand. I use black iron pipe in varied lengths that is about 1 inch in diameter (pipe is measured by its inside diameter, so use 3/4 inch pipe which will give you about an inch, also iron pipe is very ridged and not susceptible to flexing) to ensure that the leveling sand is consistent. Spread the leveling sand onto the base material and use a 2×4, or other straight edge, to level the sand. If the sand is dry, be sure to wet it down with water so it is just moist, this will aid in the leveling and ensure that it stays where you put it. At least 2 pieces of pipe will be needed to keep the sand level. (see picture). After leveling the sand, pull up the pipe and fill in the spaces left by the pipe with a concrete trawl, smooth it out with the surrounding sand.

Step 7: Lay your pavers on top of the sand and keep the joints, spaces between the pavers, tight. You can use any pattern you like, from simple staggered to complex designs. Place the pavers carefully so that they are level on the sand.

Step 8: Cut your pavers at the end of each run to fit the space as needed, you will need a cut off saw with a diamond blade, which is more durable than composite blades, and should last you the entire project. You can rent a cut off saw for about $35 a day or so, but the tool rental store may require you to buy the blade. Some blades can be expensive, I have gotten good duty from Harbor Freight blades, their about $50 for the 14 inch blades. If your project is large and will take you a few days to complete, you might consider buying your own cut off saw instead of renting, it might be cheaper in the long run.

Step 9: Sweep sand over the the laid pavers to lock them in place. QuickCrete has a product that is called Power Lock, which locks and seals the joints if you prefer not to use sand. This is a mortar type product and works very well, just follow the instructions on the bag. Sweep up the excess and your done.

If your project is a large one and you can’t finish laying your pavers in one day, be sure to lay plastic sheeting or a tarp over the areas that are unfinished. This will keep the sand moist and prevent it from moving if it rains.

Enjoy your new patio or walkway, have fun with your home improvement project.

Water Gardening, The Beautiful Lotus

Lotus in still pool of a lake

Lotus in still pool of a lake

The beautiful and majestic lotus is a wonderful addition to your pond. Asia, north Australia and easter North America offer two species of this plant. Lotuses have 4 general size categories which are miniature, dwarf, medium, and large. They are marginal plants found in the shallows and muddy banks of pools. Lotuses have very large, circular leaves, held horizontally above the waters surface by their stems, which may reach as high as 6 feet. Some of the leaves can get as large as 2 feet in diameter with blooms 12 inches across. There are also miniature lotuses that grow only to about a foot high with leaves about 6 inches in diameter and blooms about the size of a tennis ball.

Lotuses should be contained in the largest pot possible.

Lotuses should be contained in the largest pot possible.

Lotus sizing:

Miniature ……… 6 to 8 inches

Dwarf ………….. 10 to 12 inches

Medium ……….. 2 to 4 feet

Large …………… over 4 feet

The lotus bloom contains a seedpod in it’s center with the bloom petals arranged around the pod. These seed pods are often dried and used in flower arrangements, as well as the wonderfully strong and fragrant blooms when harvested while the bloom is open. The blooms petals have been used as an air freshener for centuries by placing them in a bowl of water.

The lotus needs lots of sunlight, but there are some that may do ok in partial shade. They flower for 6 to 8 weeks beginning in May or June in the deep south in the United States, and July farther north. In the south the plants may bloom a second time in September. They also require temperatures in the 80’s in order to produce their blooms. Lotuses love humid weather and thrive in the muggy heat. Although the blooms only last 4 days, they will continue to grow new blooms throughout the blooming season.

Lotuses come in many colors and sizes

Lotuses come in many colors and sizes

Lotuses are planted in pond pots, the largest possible for your pond, just under the surface of the water or at a depth of about 8 inches at most. The pot you plant them in will keep the tubers, or roots, from spreading and taking over your pond. Select a location where the plant will get as much light as possible. After the growing season is over the leaves and stems will turn brown, now is the time to cut the dead foliage. Trim them all the way down to the waters surface. And never expose them to chlorinated water, which could burn their leaves.

All lotuses are hardy plants and will winter well in freezing temperatures, as long as their tubers (roots) do not freeze. If the plants pot is near the surface, relocate it to deeper water for the winter to protect it from freezing. If the plants are not to be wintered under water, put the pot in a trash bag and store it where it will stay cool, but not freezing, and in a dark and damp location.

Lotuses come primarily in yellow, white, pink, and some with mixed coloring. There are some in blue and purple as well. You should be able to find the color you want in the size you need with a little research.

If your climate is warm enough in the summer, plant a lotus or two and enjoy your home improvement project.

Algae Control for Fish Ponds and Water Gardens

Algae can be a real nuisance, it detracts from the beauty of your water feature and is hard to control. When we talk about algae we always say “algae control“, and that’s because it is always present in bodies of water that are outside. Algae spores are carried into the water by wind, rain, runoff from surrounding areas, and even animals can deposit them in the water just by stopping by for a drink. So how do you control it? The first thing to do is to understand it better.

Green water algaeHow about a little biology, I know – your not in high school anymore, so don’t worry, there is no quiz. Algae comes in a variety of forms from single cell organisms to more complex cell structures. It needs water, warmth, and lots of sunlight. It also needs nitrogen and phosphates to grow. Since your water feature or pond is likely to be outside it’s a sure bet that it’s getting what it needs during the warm months of the year to thrive. It is also very vigilant, it doesn’t take long for it to completely take over.

There are several types of algae, but the ones you are most likely to have in your water garden or pond is string algae and green water algae. There are scientific names for them that are difficult to pronounce, not to mention remember, so we will omit them here. String algae gets its name because it forms strings with it’s colonies or a mat of algae when on the surface, which can be scooped out of the water with a net. But green water algae is the hardest to get rid of, it will turn your water green. This is called algae bloom. It will turn so green in fact that you will not be able to see any deeper than the surface of the water if not put in check. It can even reduce the levels of sunlight that penetrates the surface to such a level that it chokes out underwater plants. That’s ugly, and who wants ugly?

So what do you do? There are a lot of ways to control algae, the best way is to have a complete and balanced ecosystem in place that will counter act algae blooms before they begin. But for the average water gardener that may not be possible due to size constraints. The best way to attack the problem is to prevent it. So how do you do that? First realize that fish, birds, fecal matter, dead plants, decaying fish or bugs, leaves, grass and twigs all contribute to excessive nutrients (nitrogen and phosphates) that algae require for growth. Planting water plants that help deplete the nitrogen and phosphates in your water will go a long way to help prevent algae growth. Oxygenators and other underwater plants do a great job at this, because nitrogen and phosphates are what they use to grow. Another great plant to use is floatingString Algae water plants, their roots are not confined by soil under the water and draw nitrogen and phosphates directly out of the water without having to filter it through the soil. Other water plants, like water lilies and lotus, also do a good job with this and help maintain the balance. Another benefit is the shade that plants add to the waters surface. Water lilies are great providers of shade and so is the lotus. Just make sure to choose the right ones for your climate.

Marginal water plants will supplement the other water plants as well, like rush, cat tails, swamp grasses, and many more. All these plants help reduce the nitrogen and phosphates in the water and deprive the algae of the breeding ground it needs.

Another source of algae control is bacteria, I know, no more biology, right? But, bacteria is present everywhere, and having the right bacteria in your pond keeps it healthy by breaking down waste and decaying plant matter, which provide the nitrogen and phosphates that we have already talked so much about. The bacteria that you need can easily be added, or supplemented. If your just starting your water garden or pond you can add the bacteria in a powder or liquid form which you can get from you pond supplier. Small and medium ponds and gardens should get a new dose of bacteria in the spring once the water temperature reaches and maintains at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can also control algae using barley straw bags or barley straw mats in your pond. These mats and bags of barley give the bacteria a place to form it’s colonies were they decompose the barley straw adding a natural algae inhibitor to the water in the process. You can also get barley extract to add to your water if you don’t want to mess with decaying barley straw, but barley straw is usually only effective for small to medium ponds of 3000 gallons or less and need to be added and removed on a rotational basis to maintain the process, which might be a little more of a hassle than the average pond or water gardener wants to maintain.

For quick results, like getting green water under control, try AlgaeFix. It’s safe for fish and pond plants and will take care of your algae problem fast. But, it’s not the solution to maintaining the water quality, it’s more like a bandage until the other control strategies have time to effect a natural balance.

Use a combination of all of these, the plants and bacteria, to control your algae problems. These measures will take time however, the plants need time to mature in order to have an impact on the algae. Enjoy your home improvement projects.

Plants For Your Water Garden

Water Gardening can be as simple or as complex as you want. The simple water garden is good for the small pond, and more complex water gardening is best reserved for the large water garden. The most obvious reason is space, which will define how much diversity a pond can contain and sustain. If you’re a beginner, I would suggest keeping it simple to start with so you can get a good idea of how your plants will develop and the space they need. It is easy to expand later on after you grasp the basics.

There are six categories of water plants that you should familiarize yourself with. These are: Submerged Plants and Oxygenators, Floating Water Plants, Water Lilies, Marginals, Water-Lily-Like Plants, and Lotuses.

Hardy Water Lily

In keeping with the simple and easy water garden, we will focus on three of these categories. You can add from the other categories as space and your expertise accumulates.

Water Lilies. I have chosen this category first because of their visual impact. Water Lilies are among the favorites of water gardeners and you should think about including them in your garden as well. Water Lilies are broken down into two groups: hardy and tropical. Hardy water lilies survive cold climates and winter well where as tropicals must have special care to keep from freezing. You can tell them apart because of their leaves, hardy ones have smooth edges on their leaves and tropicals have a crinkled appearance. Also hardy lily blooms open during the day and close at night while most tropical ones open at night and close again in the early to mid morning hours. Tropicals also have a stronger scent then the hardy variety. Most water lilies grow in 3 to 4 foot depths, but they do quite well in ponds with only 6 to 18 inches of water. If you live in a climate that often freezes your ponds surface during the winter, plant your lilies below the level of the ice. This will protect their roots from freezing and allow them to flourish again in the spring. Also, if freezing is the issue, use water lilies from the hardy variety. Since water lilies from both groups offer a wide selection of color, you can easily find the plants you want without sacrifice.Floating Water Plant, Eichhornia Crassipes

Floating Water Plants. Floating water plants are those that sit on the surface with no need of having their roots in soil to get their nutrients. Their roots simply dangle beneath them and collect nitrogen and phosphates from the water that could otherwise cause an algae bloom. These are extremely easy to grow plants, and some even have blue blooms. Although some are winter hardy, most are not. They are the cheapest of all water plants to have so treat them as annuals. Since they are rich in nitrogen and phosphates, (which they extract from the water), you can add them to your compost pile and make great natural fertilizer for the rest of your garden. They are prolific growers and can take over you pond quickly, so you will want to thin them out in mid season and as often as needed.

Water-Lily-Like Plant, Ranunculus aquatilisWater-Lily-Like Plants. These plants grow in soil from 1 inch to 2 feet below the water surface. They grow with their leaves and blossoms on the surface like lilies but are botanically different, so they are classified differently. Examples are Hawthorn and Frogbit. These plants also have wonderful blooms and will add contrast and variety to your water garden.

Water plants are easy to plant. You will need containers for your lily and lily-like water plants and your floating water plants need nothing at all. Also, if you intend to add fish to your pond, it is a good idea to cover the soil in your containers with small river stone or a simple wire or nylon mesh (1 inch chicken wire or bird wire works well). This will prevent the fish from digging in your containers to get at the plant roots (which they love to eat). Water plants are easy to take care of as well; usually just a little thinning out is all that is required. An added benefit of water plants is that they reduce nitrogen and phosphates in the water and provide shade, all of which will reduce ugly green algae. Once the planting is done, your ready to start enjoying your water garden.

Water Gardening is easy and fun, and can provide your garden with beauty for years to come. Have fun with your home improvement projects.

Water Gardening, Installing a Pool for Water Plants

Add a new dimension to your garden with a water feature for plants. Water gardening is fun and easy once you get started and will provide a beautiful focal point in you garden. No matter how small a space, you can have a water garden. Small water gardens can be just as attractive as larger ones, it all starts with the planning. In this article we will look at the addition of a small, prefabricated pool.

Water Garden PoolThe first thing to consider is where to place your water garden. Choose carefully. Your water garden should complement your garden, if you already have a developed one, or you may choose to have it as a center attraction in a new garden scheme. It’s up to you. Also consider placing it so that it is visible from inside the home, this will have the added attraction of bringing the outdoors indoor. But remember that these prefab pools will look smaller, typically from around 36 to 72 inches in length, once it is installed and usually only have a depth of about 18 inches. (There are larger ones available but they are rare). This shallow depth will make it difficult to winter lilies and fish, if you choose to add them. If you live in an area where you experience freezing temperatures for extended periods, plants and fish may not survive. Also algae control can be difficult if your pool does not have moving water or enough shade, which is something to consider before you buy (we will discuss algae control in another blog).

Construction is very straightforward. Usually you can purchase your pool as a kit with complete instructions for their installation. It will entail digging a hole to place the basin in, slightly over sized, to accommodate it. You will want to be sure that your final depth has tamped, that is compactedPrefabricated Pool, soil. You can accomplish this by using a tamp. A tamp is a flat, cast iron base, usually 8 inches square, with a handle protruding from its center, and is available at your garden or tool center. This will limit the amount of soil compression, or sinking, that may accrue. Then sand is usually used to rest the bottom of the basin on and to fill all voids around it to add support. Remember that water is heavy and the plastic used in these prefab pools need to be supported so they will not distort. Be sure to keep the basin level during installation, that way it will be uniform and not have a low side that water can escape over. The method for back filling around the outside of the basin is to add about 4 inches of water to the pool and then back fill the outside with the sand. Continue alternating filling with water and back filling with sand until you have the basin fully installed.

Adding stones at the edge of the top lip of the pool will disguise the plastic and add a decorative accent, adding harmony to your project.

My next topic will be plants for your water garden, so check back for ideas and considerations on plants for your water garden.

For more ideas on ponds see Fantastic Fish Ponds.

Have fun with your home improvement projects.

Garden Walls

Stone Garden WallsGarden Walls are an excellent addition to any garden. They add structure and points of interest to your garden. All garden walls perform some useful function. Using walls for raised beds for planting, for erosion control, or to better utilize unused space, are just three examples of how walls provide a practical function.

The first thing you should do is to evaluate your garden for the addition of walls. Do you need to control erosion, or terrace a hillside to better utilize an area of your yard or garden that is just a slope with no practical purpose? Many elements can be combined to enhance this previously unused space, and transform that area of your property from difficult, or unusable, into a very desirable addition. Not to mention adding significant value to the home. Use your imagination to envision how your garden walls will look, and don’t forget accessibility. Adding stairs to your wall project will greatly enhance the usefulness of the walls you build.

There are several materials that can be used to construct your garden walls. Stone is a wonderful way to enhance your project by adding structure with a natural look. Or you may prefer cast concrete blocks, which come in a variety of color, size, and texture, for you project. Wood beams is another alternative for garden walls, but be aware that wood in contact with the soil is highly prone to rote, even if it is treated to protect it from the elements. Pick the material for your walls carefully, because they will be with you for a long time.

Garden WallConstruction of walls is very straight forward. The first type of construction we will look at is mortar less construction. In this type of construction the material used is simply stacked one on top of the other, paying particular attention to not allow vertical joints to line up one above the other. In other words, you want to stagger the joints for each row from the previous one as much as possible. This provides a good interlocking which adds strength and longevity to your wall. Free stacked stone is a good example of a mortar less construction technique that is very durable. Examples of free stacked stone walls can be found still intact after centuries of performing their intended function. Cast concrete blocks intended for landscaping walls, and landscaping beams fall into this category as well.

The other option is using concrete and mortar construction. Mortared stone walls provide a very permanent wall. Proper construction of these walls consist of using concrete and stone in the construction of the wall, and mortar for the spaces on the walls face and top. This type of construction is very ridged and does not allow for movement of the material used, usually stone, block, or brick.

Wall foundation is very important no matter which type of construction you decide to use. Due to weather conditions, winter versus summer, the ground may freeze, depending on your location. The general rule is that you want to prepare the foundation of the wall below the frost line. The frost line is the depth at which the ground freezes in mid winter. You need your wall foundation to extend 6 to 8 inches below this depth and on compacted, hard, ground. This will protect your walls from ground upheaval in freezing temperatures. This is especially important if you are constructing concrete and mortar type walls, which will crack if the foundation is not properly laid at the correct depth. Mortar less walls are more flexible to these conditions, usually returning to their original position when the ground thaws. The manufactures of landscaping block provide instructions for laying their foundation when using this type of material for your walls. Read their free pamphlets, which can be found where the product is sold, so you understand how deep to place the foundation and how it is installed.

If you need advice on building and placement of garden walls, you can consult a landscape designer to assist you in your project. Or try Landscape Design – Do It Yourself to help plan your project. There is a lot of free content you can use for your project.

Have fun with your Home Improvement Project.