Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Wildflower Wednesday: Dirca palustris

This native shrub, sits at the bottom of a significant slope between the back of our house and the wildlife pond. Water tends to pool here during periods of heavy rain making it the perfect plant for this site.

Known as [eastern] leatherwood, it is found in the forest understory from the eastern coast of Maine to Florida and into the Midwest of the United States (see map). It is a shrub that indicates an old growth forest, of which there are few remaining, making it an uncommon find in its natural habitat.

The botanical genus comes from the Greek word dirke, meaning fountain. This is a reference to the boggy habitat this shrub prefers to grow in.

I picked this shrub up about 8 years ago from a native plant vendor at a symposium. It is the earliest blooming native shrub in our garden and has performed very reliably, flowering each February/March. The quaint tubular flowers appear first followed by leaf out. You can see in the photo below that youngest leaves are hairy.

At maturity it reached about 3-6 feet but is extremely slow growing.

When the bloom period is over it becomes a nice anchor for other plants in this area. I have a variety of native ferns that develop fronds just when the leatherwood finishes blooming.

The bark has a gorgeous golden hue which is attractive during the months when it stands bare. Interestingly, the bark is extremely flexible. One can bend a branch easily without breaking it. The twigs and bark were used for making baskets, bow strings and fishing line by Native Americans. Some people can have a reaction to the bark. The roots, fruit and bark are all toxic so be warned.

This is not a common plant in the nursery trade but you may find it at a native plant nursery or native plant sale. If you can get your hands on one of these shrubs, plant it along a creek bed, pond margin or area that retains moisture. Preferably somewhere you will frequent in spring so you can enjoy its early blooms.

I'm joining Clay and Limestone, our illustrious host, for Wildflower Wednesday. Be sure to check out what other fabulous wildflowers bloggers are sharing.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Creating a New Outdoor Living Space

Continuing with our home renovation that we completed last year, this is a look at our new outdoor living space that is attached to the new all season room

This was our starting point. Approximately, 1,000 sq. feet of turf. This space was never used except as a walk through to get to other parts of the garden. We really wanted to get rid of the lawn (!!) and create a space where we could eat meals with friends and family, relax and enjoy the wildlife around us. A space that would be functional yet decorative. 

We began by playing around with different shapes for the patio area. We considered a circle, but it didn't work with the existing flower bed lines and we felt that we were loosing lots of usable space with rounded corners. Ultimately we settled on a square/rectangle shape. 

The exposed soil around the turf in the photo above is where shrubs bordered the lawn. Indian hawthorns to the right and ligustrum hedge (blah!) at the top. It was a very happy day when the chain saw was fired up and these shrubs were finally removed. In the photo below, you can also see we had creeping rosemary cascading down the embankment, which was transplanted in kitchen garden and Encore azaleas behind them (the last of the builder installed shrubs).

With all the plants removed or transplanted, the master masons were ready to get to work. This is the same crew that has worked on all our hardscaping projects and they are fabulous. Incredibly hardworking and talented professionals.

The framework for the fireplace was built first. It is angled off the existing retaining wall, shown by the yellow arrow.

Southern Meadows

There is a pretty significant slope down the back of the retaining wall where the azalea shrubs were. Our wildlife pond is at the bottom of this area. Eventually, we would like to expand the pond by adding more of a cascading waterfall down the slope, but that is a project for another year. 

Southern Meadows

This is the backside view during installation. The first ledge of the wall is the top of the original retaining wall. It needed to be built taller in order to have a level patio. It was surprising to learn how much of a grade there was, because the space looked pretty flat. At first I wasn't sure I liked the idea of heightening the wall, but I really like the ledge and variations in height. The birds also enjoy sitting here.

The future patio area (no more turf!) was graded and prepped for the concrete slab. The patio area is approximately 800 sq. feet and wraps around the all season room, so that we have stairs outside all doors.

Southern Meadows

Concrete was poured as the sub-base. Then flagstone was artistically placed to give it an attractive pattern with irregular shapes. 

Southern Meadows

We had a crew of guys here working, so while two worked on the flagstone, others continued to frame the fireplace. It was fascinating to watch how the fireplace was built with cinder blocks and angle iron for support. The interior was constructed with fire brick.

The masons had to deal with some inclement weather, but they forged onward under a plastic tarp.

It all came together pretty quickly. The crew had our project completed in just over two weeks.

Southern Meadows

To balance the large fireplace on the one side, we had a planter stand build in the top left corner. I'm still looking for just the right container to place here. Once the patio was washed down and cleaned, we moved our teak table and chairs to the patio. We purchased some additional outdoor furniture, including a bar table and chairs. We are still looking for the right seating for in front of the fireplace.

Southern Meadows

Coming off the top of the patio, we created a path that leads to the back driveway. We bordered the path with landscape stones and mulched it. It's hard to believe now that this area was once turf.

The fireplace is a massive 6 feet on the interior. My husband wanted a large wood burning area that would give off lots of heat. He got it! And, I have a place to put lots of plants when the temperatures warms up and the fireplace isn't in use. I can't wait to do more plant shopping! The top of the fireplace has a vent cover so rain doesn't fall directly into the fireplace. Clean up of ashes is super easy and goes right into the compost pile.

Southern Meadows

We replaced the ugly down spout with a decorative rain chain, which is something I've wanted for years. I often see them on homes I visit on the Garden Blogger Fling tours, but not so much here in Georgia. 

Knowing I wanted to add a rain chain, the contractor designed this basin and drain to take the water to the slope behind the retaining wall (photo below). It has worked beautifully! The redirected water is keeping the shrubs, trees and perennials on this hill sufficiently watered.

Southern Meadows

We have used this space quite a bit already. The kids were all home for the National Championship game (Go Tigers!) and mild weather allowed us to entertain outdoors comfortably. 

Some final views of the project. We've had so much rain lately, it's been challenging to get outdoor photos, so you'll have to image the space under sunnier conditions.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Converting a Covered Patio into a Four Seasons Room

Earlier this year we embarked on a significant project that was our first major renovation to our home since we purchased it eleven years ago. We've invested most of our time and effort to garden design with a multitude of projects over the past 8 years including a new front stoop, retaining walls, stone stairs and walkways around the house, brick and wrought iron fencing wildlife pond, stack stone walls, raised kitchen beds and curved wall with seating area and fire pit.

From our wish list of projects, we've finally come around to the back deck. A place that has been deteriorating over the years; warping wood, nails popping out of the floor planks, all surrounded by declining shrubs that didn't fit our style. Over the years I've tried to spruce it up, but it really just needed to be redone. It was time to turn this deck into a usable, welcoming space where we want to spend lots of time.

The before photo: covered back deck surrounded by Indian Hawthorne shrubs
After much contemplation and discussion, my husband and I decided to invest in making this space a room that could be used during all seasons. Enclosing the back deck was the solution. This process began in 2017 when we had an architect draw up plans. In January (2018) we began interviewing contractors. We soon discovered that it is much harder to find people to work on a 'small job' than we imagined. It wasn't until June that we had a contractor signed with construction beginning in August. 

We kept the framing of the original back deck since it was structurally sound, maintaining the same footprint. The railings, flooring and interior ceiling were all removed.

We considered several outdoor decking options. It was important to find a durable yet attractive flooring, as this is a high traffic area and soon to be home to many plants. We decided on a composite decking called Moisture Shield which is easy to maintain and earth friendly, as it is made from 95% recycled material. We also liked the tongue and grove (with hidden fasteners) option so that the flooring would be tightly sealed keeping critters and moisture out of the room.

After the flooring was installed, the framing went up. The view already felt more open and connected to the garden without the obstruction of the former railings and shrubs.

We selected floor to ceiling windows to let in as much light as possible. French doors on the east side allow for large items to be moved in and out of the room, and are flanked by two long windows. Two sets of sliding doors were installed on the north side of the room to provide easy access to the [grass] area that will become a patio/outdoor living space (next post-coming soon). Originally I had my heart set on folding doors here but they would have significantly increased the cost of this project. It turns out the sliding doors are very practical and work beautifully.

Exterior view with doors and windows installed
The east side view looks out to the turf and flower beds. The west view looks out to the pond and woodland garden.

interior view of double doors looking east to flower beds 

full wall of windows looking west to woodland garden
The tongue and grove white pine ceiling and bead board walls provide a brightness to the room. I really like the light wood, so when it came time to choose a color I selected an almost clear stain called Pickled Oak, keeping the natural look of the wood. 

The exterior was sided with cedar shingles, which complements the window dormers on the house. The project finished up in early December with painting, staining, hanging of ceiling fans and hardware installation.

Exterior east side with French doors flanked by full windows
With the structural part of the room completed, it was now time to decorate and bring in the furniture and plants. As the back wall was still the original [exterior] house siding, I decided to paint it a dark blue (Naval SW6244), hopeful that the wall would fade into the background allowing the plants and wall d├ęcor to be the focal point.

Shopping for furniture was easy. My husband and I walked around a local, family owned, outdoor furniture store and immediately fell in love with this set. Made from Ipe wood, it is durable and easy to care for.

A couple of floating shelves provide a great place for plants and some fun art from our travels. The dresser was pulled from another room and is a handy place to store items.

Various plants from around the house and a few that come indoors for the winter were set in front of the wall of windows, soaking in the winter sunlight. The 4 tiered stand was previously in our bedroom, but works better in the all season room as a plant stand.

Flanking either side of the French doors are more plants. A large container of Bougainvillea has been flowering non-stop since we moved it here. It loves its new environment.

A Ficus tree that was gifted to us from a friend stands tall in the other corner. This tree has been moved many times around our house and never seemed to fit anywhere properly. Happily, this room provides the right scale for this tree and it looks at home here.

Our new addition has become the most popular room in our home. We can sit comfortably here even on the coldest of winter days and enjoy watching the birds, rain falling or wildlife peruse through the garden. It lifts my spirits as I feel connected to the outdoors while enjoying the comforts of the warm indoors. 

Next post I will reveal the new outdoor living space that we added around the four season room.