I spent part of the holidays on an old cotton plantation in New Hope, Georgia. You’d never know that cotton had been grown there, though, and the landscape where I was staying was in many ways remarkably like parts of the East End. My job was to guide my in-laws on how to develop their 10-acre wooded lot into a livable homescape.On the surface it was pretty remarkable how the land reminded me of the periphery of the Hamptons’ Pine Barrens and areas like North Sea and Bridgehampton. The dominant tree species are oak and pine ranging from seedlings to 50-year-old, 70-foot-tall oaks with thick poison ivy vines from the earth to the treetops. The ground was in some spots covered with crunchy oak leaves and in other areas possessed the soft understory of quiet, soft pine needles with a spattering of ferns.
The soil, however is quite different from our Hamptons sand and sandy loam. In Georgia it’s primarily a red clay soil that stains everything on or near it.
But I had a bigger challenge than the soil. My in-laws had already built their house, then invited me down. They were stunned and dismayed by my first suggestion but if you’re building a new home, looking at a new lot or just want to take a fresh perspective on laying out your property, some of my suggestions to them might be helpful to you as well.
First, inventory the existing vegetation. It will tell you a lot about what’s been going on and what can go on in the future. When landscaping, nothing does as well as natives and their closely related horticultural cousins.
Second, consider the building envelope. What will interfere with access to the house, where will the parking and driveway go and how will cars access the garage then get out again without damaging the lawn or future plantings?
Think about where the septic system will go, as this will affect planting and future access for maintenance of the tank and fields. Also consider where the utilities will come from.
Surveying the building envelope also means looking at the trees that are in or near the area where you want to build or rebuild. What trees have the potential to impact the structures when limbs fall? When leaves, acorns or pine cones fall or when the trees themselves fall, what will be impacted?
You also need to look a bit beyond. On this particular lot, it was evident that the larger trees were all about the same age and beginning to show signs of decline. As one tree 100 feet from the house fell, it hit another and another, resulting in trees falling just 20 feet from the new house.
In your case, you may simply need to do some pruning or limb removal. But in some instances, removing a few trees can solve a lot of safety, light and air circulation issues.
In this case though, mom and dad had left two clumps of oaks standing just 15 feet from the house. They had planned it this way, they explained, and it made them feel closer and part of the woods. But when I explained the issues of the oak leaves building up on their roof, the decay in some of the 10 tree trunks and the squirrel nests just 15 feet from their house, they looked at each other in dismay.
My in-laws, Darwin and JoAnn, are not gardeners. They’d like to be and they’ve been talking about it for decades, but they are not gardeners. They’re perfectly happy with pine needles and oak leaves instead of lawn.
Nonetheless they want to do some ornamental plantings, have a vegetable garden and be able to compost. But what should they plant, where should they plant and where can the vegetable garden go?
You might think that the big issue would be the awful clay soil in Georgia, similar to here, but that’s actually not an issue at all because each planting hole can have the existing soil amended. And a vegetable garden can be raised above the clay that becomes rock hard in the summer.
The big problem is actually shade. So, I asked them to spend a day watching the path of the sun, compensating for the season as the path of the sun would change during the gardening season, then see where it made most sense to put the vegetable garden.
The other criteria for the vegetable garden would be that it would have to be fenced. Yes, they have deer in Georgia. They would also have to figure out how they would get water to the garden as well. On one hand, the need for water would keep the garden closer to the house but on the other, the fencing and need to open the woods to provide sunlight might mean moving the veggies farther from the house.
The compost pile is another decision. Not the most attractive aspect of the gardening scheme, it can be close the kitchen—the source of much of the pile’s food—or near the vegetable garden—where much of the produced humus will be used. Most opt though to keep the pile far from the house and simply carry their kitchen waste to the remote pile.
My in-laws were extremely reluctant to remove any of the trees near the house. I warned them and gave them the scenario of what would happen but they insisted on keeping the oaks 10 feet from the kitchen and living room.
I know I’ll hear more about this in a few short years. Soon the squirrels will be making the short leap to the roof looking for winter quarters, the oak leaves will cause the gutters to back up and flood and sooner or later one of the oak trees will fall in a storm and land precariously close to the house. Or on it.
So these trees having been “saved,” what else did they want to plant? OMG, they wanted to attract wildlife, like deer, so they could watch it from the house.
I explained the issues with deer, such as ticks (oh, do they have ticks) and the deer browsing on their plants. Now, did they really want to attract deer?
I pointed out an oak leaf hydrangea in front of the house and was told it was a housewarming gift from a friend. I showed them where the deer had already eaten the buds and noted that if the shrub wasn’t protected, it would never flower.
The response I got was, “Oh wow, we’d love to see the deer that close to the house.”
But, after a more serious discussion about Lyme disease and a few other tick-borne diseases, they decided that maybe attracting the deer wasn’t such a great idea. But, they wanted to know how they could they attract more birds. Ah, that was much easier.
To attract birds you need to know what the indigenous ones are and which will pass through during migration periods. Then you plant shrubs and perennials and maybe some trees that provide these birds with feeding and nesting opportunities.
We discussed berries, nuts and fruits that birds and would eat with the side benefit of having attractive plants. We discussed perennials that would go to seed and provide sustenance for the regular group of feathered friends, as well as attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
By the time I was ready to head back home up north, I knew that I’d gotten their wheels spinning. For Christmas, I left them with six books on various aspects of gardening in Georgia.
I’m a little dubious though because as driven as they seem to want to be close to nature, they are still not gardeners. But in the immortal words of Alexander Pope, and words that keep me going, “hope springs eternal.”