Made in the Shade

 

For the home gardener or professional landscaper who absolutely must work in the sun on a hot day, there are no satisfactory ways to temporarily create sizable shaded areas. Beach umbrellas offer only a small circle of shade, can become dangerous projectiles in the wind, and at any rate are configured for people to sit under, not stand upright under, to gain their protection.

 

A portable canopy, such as may be found at a farmer’s market or a flea market, where it shades a seller’s wares, as well as the seller and any buyer, offers a sizable area of shade but is not as portable as one would like if the need arises to pick it up and move it several times during an afternoon of garden work. Four-legged canopies are also unsuitable on uneven ground, where they are likely to tip even without encouragement from a breeze. Preventing tipping requires the use of sandbags or other weights, and after a few repetitions setting up a so-called portable canopy becomes a real chore.

Guarda-chuvas em Cerveira
Umbrellas overhang a street in Vila Nova de Cerveira, Portugal, as part of an arts festival in August 2013. The original display of umbrellas in this way was in the Portuguese city of Águeda in 2011. Photo by Joseolgon.

Those are two of the more portable, easier to set up options. Other methods of creating shade, such as deploying sail shades, are hardly portable at all. The Labor Day weekend is the traditional end of summer in the United States, yet there is still plenty of hot weather in store for September and even into October. Working in a sunny garden would be more pleasant with the assistance of a device that is easily workable, portable, and gives a sizable amount of shade. What follows are guidelines for the inventor or inventors of such a sorely needed garden companion.

1) In order to be useful, the device should shade an area no less than 100 square feet, and still fold up compactly enough to fit in a small kit bag. It should weigh less than 20 pounds.

2) The device should remain stable on uneven ground and in the wind, though obviously within reason in both cases, and it should do so without the use of heavy weights.

3) One reasonably fit person should be able to erect the device or fold it up within a minute, and it should be easy for that person to move the device from one location to the next, also within a minute.

4) The shading material should be shade cloth with a density ranging from 60 to 80 percent, which allows cooling breezes through, is lighter than a more tightly woven fabric, and remains more stable in the wind.

5) The supports should be strong, light, and corrosion resistant. Use of spikes to anchor the device is inadvisable since shallowly penetrating spikes can be unreliable, and deeply penetrating ones negate portability.

6) Ideally it should cost less than $100, and definitely no more than $200, even though it should be able to take some rough treatment and last a decade or more.

Is that too much to ask? Certainly it may be too late to have the new Shade Giver ready this year, but surely by next year, when summer heat starts seeping in by April or May, some enterprising person will have created a prototype that could become the new Gardener’s Friend. Perhaps instead of a sail it will resemble one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. Whatever the design of the device, it should bring sweet relief to those who must labor under the hot sun and still not hurt their backs or pocketbooks. In these warming times, asking for the protection provided by shade has become a necessary request.


Sagasiglar01
The Saga Siglar, a replica of a Viking ship, sails near Australia’s Sydney Opera House in September 1985. Photo by Islandmen.

— Izzy

 

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Sour Grapes

 

Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.

 

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

Wilted thistle
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.

 

A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy

 

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Timing Is Nearly Everything

 

Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.

 

In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.

F. W. Bolgiano, seedsmen have won confidence for ten years (16186099958)
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.

Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.

Lawn Maintenance Sign At RHS Wisley Garden Surrey UK
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.

But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
— Izzy

 

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Beauty Is as Beauty Does

 

Driving along a newly opened or renovated highway, a motorist is apt to see young trees newly planted beyond the road shoulders or in the median, if the road has one. That’s a fine thing, except it occurs to the motorist that it’s the height of summer, daily high temperatures are in the 90s, and besides the meager contribution of hit or miss thunderstorms, there hasn’t been any measurable rainfall in weeks. Why did the landscape contractor plant those trees at such a time and subject them to such misery?

Economics are the determining factor rather than the health and survival of any individual tree. A homeowner with a quarter acre lot may have six or eight trees on it, and understandably with numbers like that the health and survival of each tree is important to the homeowner. A landscape contractor charged with planting trees along miles of highway may be dealing with six hundred or eight hundred, or even thousands of trees. The industry standard is to expect losses in the 30 to 40 percent range within the first three years, which is the typical length of the maintenance contract after planting. That’s two hundred trees dying within three years out of six hundred originally planted.


Beautification of America Highways 6c 1969 issue U.S. stamp
1969 U.S. Postal Service stamp designed by Walter D. Richards.

The landscape contractor is constrained to replace dead trees within the three year maintenance window, and of course the anticipated costs are included in the contract. It all seems like such a waste. Nature itself is wasteful, of course, because not every young tree survives to maturity, particularly not ones that sprout along a baking roadside in the middle of summer. Still, wouldn’t it be better for the trees if the contractor waited until autumn to plant them?

 

For the trees, yes it would, but again economics are the deciding factor. For most landscapers, at least the ones who care less about hiring knowledgeable staff and more about just having able bodies on hand, labor is relatively inexpensive. The cost of replacement trees has already been included in the contract. What is expensive is hauling water out to the trees and looking after them. If regular rains come along after planting, even if the weather remains hot, then so much the better. That goes into the profit column. The contractor may have other, more profitable work already lined up for the prime fall planting season. The summer highway job was a good filler to keep the crew and business going in what is normally a slow season for planting.

 

It would be better if economics weren’t focused entirely on the short term and instead looked down the road more. When Lady Bird Johnson pushed for the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, she no doubt saw it as a way to improve the nation’s roadsides over the blight of too many billboards and unscreened junk yards, and it was. Her efforts on behalf of the environment both during her tenure as First Lady and afterward were probably the greatest contribution to the nation of any First lady in the twentieth century. She influenced state and local highway departments in establishing standards for roadside plantings. Those standards, however, could use some revision.
Lady Bird Johnson - National Wildflower Research Center groundbreaking
Lady Bird Johnson spreads seeds during the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas, in 1982; photo by Frank Wolfe.

 

Many regulations concerning highway and parking lot plantings require a landscape architect’s blueprints and signature. A landscape architect does not necessarily know any more about plants than a landscape designer or the man in the moon. In many cases, as any knowledgeable landscaper can tell you under their breath after having worked with a landscape architect’s plant selection and layout, they are amazingly ignorant. A landscape architect has a college degree and is state certified, that’s all. The result is that because of reliance on landscape architects’ plans the first rule of proper landscaping is often violated on account of their ignorance or carelessness – the right plant in the right place.

The second revision to regulations bears on the competence of landscaping companies. By the appearance of the results along too many highways,  communities and highway departments seem to be awarding landscaping contracts on the basis of just about anything but competence. Would they award a building contract to a construction company whose buildings habitually failed within five to ten years? Unfortunately, that is what they do when they award a contract to a landscaper whose slipshod planting and mulching practices result in tree failure beyond the usual three year maintenance replacement window. Some problems with trees take several years to manifest themselves, and often the problems are due to the incompetence of the landscaping contractor. Knowledgeable input from local tree stewards and arborist societies about the competence of various landscape contractors during the process of awarding contracts would most likely improve the efficiency of the subsequent plantings over the current 30 to 40 percent rate of failure and make Lady Bird Johnson proud (and as they say in the South, “Bless her heart“).
― Izzy

 

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