Botanica Atlanta | Landscape Design, Construction & Maintenance


Atlanta Garden Design

Garden Benches

Posted by Bonnie Helander on July 10, 2013 at 1:30 PM Comments comments (0)

I am a fan of old gardening books and poems and have loved some of the books and quotes from the English author, Mirabel Osler, an acclaimed garden writer and designer. She urges people to cast off gardening rules and regulations and simply enjoy their gardens. Her book, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, urges less restraint and more interaction with the natural environment.

I really appreciate Ms. Osler’s emphasis on garden seating. She makes a wonderful observation that I have seen to be often true. She notes, “Have you ever noticed how few sitting places you fine in private gardens? How seldom the versatility and importance of benches is considered? True gardeners, with their peerless taste, dexterity and inspired planting, never stop…to sit is almost an offense, a sign of depravity and an outrage towards every felicitous refinement that has gone into making a garden.”  If I could paraphrase her charming words, gardeners never sit down because there is too much to do and time is a wastin’!

Yes, “true” gardeners often don’t take the time to stop, relax and reflect on the beauty in their own outside spaces. They are too busy making lists of what still needs to be done before nightfall!  I am often guilty of looking at my garden and seeing its imperfections instead of its wonder.

We need more garden benches placed throughout our gardens to remind us to sit a while and just unwind. But if you need more reasons to add a garden bench or two, let me give you some…

Garden benches are practical – we all need places to sit. If placed in a protected area, you can enjoy the garden even in the rain. A bench in the shade cools you from the sun. Some benches even have raised lids for extra storage.

Benches make great focal points that draw you into the space. A colorful bench can make a garden pop. A bench can add subtle interest by its shape and texture. Even a broken down bench that you can’t sit on displays structure and whimsy. A bench covered in snow creates a work of art.

This colorful blue bench makes a great statement holding a collection of birdhouses.

The shape of this bench gives a southwestern feel amid the plantings of succulents.

My old, broken-down garden bench is now used as a focal point in my shade garden.

Snow clinging to a garden bench adds an artistic flair.

A bench seen from a distance beckons you further into the garden.  Rounding a corner and finding a charming bench tucked into a shady nook is a great surprise in the garden. Even if a bench is rarely used, it holds the potential to be used for rest or a friendly chat with family and friends.

This bench at the end of the path pulls you further into the garden.

This garden path leads to a charming grouping of benches and swing.

Garden benches placed near areas of interest allow you to really appreciate the garden through all your senses. I always want to add a bench near a pool, pond or fountain or by a bed filled with fragrant flowers. There you can sit and enjoy the soothing sounds of water and the sweet smells of your blooms.

What a treat to sit and while away the hours listening to the soothing sounds of water!

Garden benches can provide a place of enchantment – a secret place for you alone. Add some comfortable and colorful pillows and cushions and a good book and you have a special nook to while away the hours.

A secret retreat for you alone!

Young lovers have courted on these benches at Hills & Dales Estate in La Grange.

Garden benches are friendly and every garden needs a few!  Here are some more of my favorite garden benches. I wish they were all in my garden…

This is my favorite bench I've ever seen in a private garden - what a great focal point as you round the path to find this old bench covered in moss and lichen.

Sometimes benches tell a story. This is a replica of the bench in the parterre at Barnsley Gardens where the owner saw the ghost of his dead wife, telling him to complete the garden and estate for his children.

I love the mixture of textures with the wooden bench, the flagstone patio and the terracotta pots.

Benches can add whimsy. This is my Georgia Bulldog vignette I stage each football season!

Finally, Mirabel Osler also wrote, “Sitting in your garden is a feat to be worked at with unflagging determination and single-mindedness – what gardener worth his salt sits down?  I am deeply committed to sitting in the garden.”

Design Elements in a Japanese Garden

Posted by Bonnie Helander on June 18, 2013 at 1:10 PM Comments comments (3)

When I chose my Peachtree City, Georgia home in 2004, I was really sold on the lovely Japanese Koi pond in the back garden. At the time I did not know anything about Japanese garden design. As I studied the topic, I realized how complex the principles are to create a “simple,” serene Japanese garden which is often a stylized version of a perfect garden.

My garden includes this Koi pond as the major focal point. The plants are Japanese inspired, including Japanese maples, juniper, Japanese aralia and loropetalum.

Base on the Zen philosophy, symbolism and esthetics are important. When you enter a Japanese garden, you should experience a sense of tranquility and being part of the natural environment. You will find an asymmetrical design that combines elements of water, rocks, plants and focal points including stone lanterns and water basins, arched bridges, pagodas, tea houses, and arbors.

Over the years, I have enjoyed visiting public display gardens that feature a Japanese garden. In each of these venues, I’ve seen similar elements that help to create the “feel” of this style. Below are some tips from landscape designers to create your own Zen garden.

1.    Strive for simplicity – “achieving maximum effect with minimum means” - In a Japanese garden you will find the imaginative use of simple, natural materials to create a lovely and tranquil setting. Boulders provide the “bones” of the garden.

The entrance to this Japanese garden "room" is a simple gravel pathway with boulders giving structure as the border.

The use of boulders, stepping stones and greenery highlight this simple Japanese fountain.

2.    Be Subtle: Subtlety is achieved through the use of evergreens as the primary color. Conifers, pines, moss, bamboo, hardy banana and Japanese maples give structure and convey subtle changes in color and textures.

Notice all the tones of greens and the various textures that make this garden beautiful.

Hardy Japanese banana adds another shape and texture to the greenery.

Stylized trees, trimmed shrubs and weeping trees add more interest.

3.    Create mystery – A key design element in a Japanese garden is to fashion scenes that cannot be viewed all at once. To see the whole vignette, you must continue to travel down a winding garden path further into the garden. Various focal points will draw you in including lanterns or stone pagodas. There is a sense of anticipation to explore the next turn.

As you peek inside the gate to this garden room and see the pathway ahead to the lantern focal point, you are beckoned forward into the garden.

This tea house is partially hidden and entices you to explore further down the path.

4.    Incorporate water as a key component of the garden – Japan is a nation of islands and water is an expression of the sea which is an important part of the culture. The sound and movement of water is integral to this style of garden. You can go “big” by designing a lake with islands and a waterfall, or just add a small pond or simple water basin. Koi gives an additional splash of color and movement. An arched bridge is a charming addition over a stream or dry creek bed.

This stunning red arched bridge crosses a large pond in the Japanese Garden at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University.

Water lilies and lotus add another touch of green with pops of color from the lush blooms.

Turtles sun on boulders providing a place for wildlife and keeping visitors in touch with the natural environment.

You hear the faint sounds of spilling water as you come around the curve in the path to discover this classic Japanese fountain and lantern.

5.    Design a traditional Japanese structure – A pavilion, tea house or pagoda offer guests a place to rest, reflect and relax.

This pavilion tucked near a small pond is a quiet place of reflection.

6.    Add a raked sand and pebble garden for contemplation – The dry Japanese garden is a contemplative element where the sand represents the sea, the raking represents the waves and rocks and pebbles represent the shoreline.

A raked sand dry garden is reminiscent of the sea.

Favorite Plants that Perform

Posted by Bonnie Helander on May 20, 2013 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (1)

Whenever gardeners get together, they often share opinions on what are their favorite plants. For some plant lovers it is difficult to choose a favorite. They will simply say, “I love whatever is in bloom at the time.”  For me, “favorite” implies a plant that performs well without a lot of hassle!

I love plants that are not fussy and don’t involve too much care. Don’t we all! That is why I don’t grow many roses – except Knock Out® roses which take little effort at all to maintain. I love plants that have few issues with insects or disease and that don’t need prodigious watering in the summer. I fell out of love with hydrangeas because mine always seemed to wilt in the heat and look pitiful all summer. But I fell back in love with them when I moved them to a happier place - a raised bed with amended soil that has more tree cover. They look fabulous because I finally gave them the right conditions.

Pink Knock Out® Roses bloom all summer long! 

Walking around my garden recently this spring, I noticed several plants that give me much satisfaction and joy. If you are looking for some low-maintenance but beautiful plants to add to your southern garden, please take a look at some of my favorites.

Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica) – This lovely tropical evergreen shrub has impressive large palmate lobed leaves and a pretty white flower in early winter. It thrives in partial sun to shade and looks great behind lower-growing ferns and hellebores.  The shape and exotic look is a nice addition to the shade garden.

Japanese Aralia - lovely tropical flair

Autumn Fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) – This is an attractive evergreen fern that stands up straight during winter cold. In the spring the new foliage is a lovely copper color and then turns a deep green. It can spread in the shade to a 3 or 4 foot clump, adding impact. Autumn ferns prefer shade but are tough and can take a little sun and some drought conditions.

Autumn Fern - evergreen with coppery fronds in the spring

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’ ) – This is a “must-have” native shrub for part sun/shade. It offers not only beautiful, long-lasting white blooms in the late spring but red/burgundy foliage in the fall and peeling bark for winter interest. This may be my most favorite plant because it has so much seasonal interest and requires little care.

Oakleaf hydrangea - three-season interest and worry-free shrub

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) – Another of our native plants, this fast-growing semi-evergreen vine is not finicky and flourishes in full sun or part shade and in dry or moist soil. In the late spring it produces small trumpet-shaped flowers in orange-yellow that are a favorite of hummingbirds. I call it semi-evergreen because it can lose many of its leaves in a cold spell but you will be amazed at the fast and luscious growth in the spring. It’s a great vine for a fence or wall.

Crossvine - vibrant yellow and orange tubular flowers attract hummingbirds

Spiraea – Even though spiraea looks like dead sticks in the winter, it provides so much delicate spring and summer interest that I just love it! I have several varieties but particularly like ‘Magic Carpet’ (Spiraea japonica ‘Magic Carpet’ ) which is a dwarf plant that takes full sun. The foliage is two-toned with gold leaves accented by red tips. The flower is a vibrant pink. ‘Ogon (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’) takes full sun and is larger than ‘Magic Carpet,’ growing to about 4’ tall.  In early spring you will see abundant tiny white flowers amid narrow yellow foliage that turns bronze in the fall.

'Magic Carpet' spiraea - dwarf shrub with gold leaves and red tips

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) – I have three Japanese maples that were planted before I bought my home and they are focal points in my garden. I don’t know the varieties but all begin the spring with vivid burgundy foliage that fades to green in the hot summer before bursting again into a deep red in the fall.  The shape of the trunks provides winter interest.  I recently planted a ‘Coral Bark’ that as the name suggests has a bright coral bark trunk for more interest all year.  If you don’t have a Japanese maple in your garden, you must snatch one up at the next plant center sale! 

Japanese Maple - vibrant burgundy foliage welcomes spring 

Feel free to comment and share your own plant favorites! 

The Joys (and Challenges) of Owning an Ornamental Pond

Posted by Bonnie Helander on May 7, 2013 at 3:05 PM Comments comments (2)

When I was planning a move back to Georgia and looking for a new home in Peachtree City, south of Atlanta, I fell in love with the second house I saw. I stepped through the front door and my line of sight went directly to the back patio door where through the glass I could see a lovely pond and waterfall.  This small but serene water garden is what I get to enjoy as I sit on my back deck.

My pond as viewed from my back deck.

Over the last 9 years I have learned so much about the joys and challenges of maintaining an ornamental backyard pond. For me, the pros really do out-weigh the cons but sometimes I get a little annoyed when the reality of nature encroaches on my vision of a perfect little pond paradise. Right now I am dealing with a very persistent Great Blue Heron that has discovered my pond and my fish!  I have a collection of about 30 small Koi and gold fish that have been merrily enjoying their wet environment until the monster heron intruded on their space. Now the fish are so traumatized that they are hiding and I have not seen them for days.

A Great Blue Heron is visiting my pond almost daily, making life a misery for my fish!

The heron has already killed about six of my fish. I set up a heron decoy (which didn’t work) and then I netted the pond for about three weeks. This seemed to solve the problem so I took the net off until I found another dead fish and saw my heron friend again three times in one day! So back goes the net for a while.

But the heron also points out one of the reasons I love my pond - it attracts wildlife - birds, fish, frogs, dragon and damselflies and other assorted creatures. Plus the beauty of water-loving plants is not to be missed! I look forward each year to the stunning colors of blooming hardy water lilies, lotus and iris. And, no matter what the season, the sound of falling water is a soothing addition to my garden that can mask street noise and allow me to decompress after a long day.

Dragon and damselflies are a wonderful addition to any pond.

A hawk sits on top of my bird feeder and stares into the pond looking for easy prey.

If you are thinking about installing an ornamental pond or pondless waterfall, you will benefit from the expertise of a professional landscape designer to create a water feature that will be naturally integrated into your outside space. Once the pond is installed, you need to keep on top of maintenance to ensure your pond is healthy for your plants, fish and other wildlife.  Excessive algae are a big issue in backyard ponds, especially as the temperatures warm up. Fish add to this problem but aquatic plants help counteract the algae by absorbing nutrients that encourage algae growth. Plants like water lilies also shade the pond from sun, further discouraging algae growth. It’s a balancing act but once you get the hang of it, you will so enjoy the experience of owning a pond.

Professionally-designed pond with lovely plants and boulders

Who wouldn't be charmed by this pond and waterfall!

Water lilies are not only beautiful but shade the pond, cutting down on algae.

If you want to add the sound and movement of water to your landscape but are looking for something simpler than a pond, why not add a fountain?  You can find directions online for DIY projects to make a small water feature out of an array of containers such as a wine barrel or ceramic pot. And, you probably won’t have any trouble with a heron!

This vintage fountain provides the soothing sound of water in the garden.

I love this Japanese lantern and water fountain - such a great focal point.

This simple, cobalt blue bubbler can be purchased at a garden center and adds color, sound and charm to the garden.

What a strking addition to a front courtyard, welcoming family and friends!

The Wildflowers of The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain

Posted by Bonnie Helander on April 20, 2013 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

A love of nature and hiking led to my passion for gardening. It is really impossible to match God’s natural creation for stunning beauty, but in the wild you can get powerful inspiration for your own outside space. While living in San Diego, I was captivated by the landscape of the West – towering mountain vistas, the sparkling allure of the coast and the haunting beauty of the deserts. Returning home to Georgia I soon discovered many amazing natural places where you can find beauty, solitude, serenity and ideas for your own garden.

Charles Seabrook, who writes the column, Wild Georgia, for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, recently described his trip to see the wildflowers at The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain.  The Pocket is one of Seabrook’s “35 natural wonders of Georgia you must see before you die!” In this hidden cove in the northwest corner of Georgia, you will find a treasure trove of rare and unusual plants that are found in a small target area around Pigeon Mountain, a spur of Lookout mountain.

The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail is a protected part of The Pocket within the Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area that is maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The trail is really an 800-foot boardwalk above the wildflowers, so visitors can enjoy the plants but not trample on them and destroy the sensitive habitat. What is so wonderful about the boardwalk is that it is wheel-chair accessible, allowing those with physical challenges to enjoy this natural space.  Here are a few of the colorful wildflowers I spotted along the way…

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) - trumpet-like, nodding blue flowers

Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) -  four overlapping yellow petals

White Trillium (Trillium flexipes) - stalked three-petaled white blooms

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) - violet to blue flowers in terminal clusters

Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida) - violet, bell-shaped flowers

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) - tiny, white five-petaled flowers with no stem leaves and White Trillium (Trillium flexipes)

Beyond the boardwalk is a winding rock-strewn trail along the creek that leads to some gorgeous waterfalls.  Here you will see the limestone cliffs that leach calcium into the cove to produce the pH neutral bottomland soil that is so conducive to the growth of the many unusual wildflowers. On this portion of the trail I really appreciated the moss and lichen-covered boulders and the woodland ferns, with wildflowers adding a haphazard spot of color. At the falls, children and adults enjoyed wading along the rocks and rock climbers were rappelling down the cliffs.

Moss-covered boulders and ferns along the trail to the waterfalls

Rushing falls

Waterfalls and limestone cliffs at the end of the trail

The wildflowers along the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail will vanish by the end of April, so you have just enough time to make a quick trip to the cove to see the color show! To get to the site, take Hwy 193 North from LaFayette to the intersection of Davis Crossroads where you will see the Pigeon Mountain Country Store. Here you can stop for a bite to eat and also purchase the definitive guidebook on wildflowers in the area – Wildflowers of Pigeon Mountain by Jay Clark.  Turn left on Hog Jowl Rd. and go about three miles and at the top of the hill turn left on Pocket Road.  Drive carefully on this road for about a mile, crossing a small creek to come to the parking lot near the trail.

After you get inspired by the wildflowers of Pigeon Mountain, why not consider adding some of the more common wildflowers that flourish in Georgia in your own garden design?

Get Garden Inspiration at Gibbs Gardens

Posted by Bonnie Helander on April 8, 2013 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Spring is here (along with the pollen) and if you are like me, you are ready to tackle new projects to enhance your outside space…but where to begin and what to do?  Why not start by visiting some of our amazing Georgia public gardens for ideas and inspiration. Recently I made the trek up to Ball Ground in the North Georgia mountains to spend the day at one of the most breathtaking places you will ever see – Gibbs Gardens. Although the gardens just opened to the public last year, they have been over 30 years in the making. In 1980, Jim Gibbs, an acclaimed Atlanta landscape designer, settled on these lovely 300 acres, built his personal home on the high point with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and began designing a garden showplace.

View of the Japanese Garden at Gibbs Gardens

Gibbs Gardens contains 16 gardens, 24 ponds, 32 bridge crossings and 19 waterfalls! There is something for everyone and you will find ideas galore to incorporate into your own private landscape. Here are a few of the ideas I took away from my day at Gibbs Gardens:

Mass plant garden beds for big impact…Daffodils are the highlight of early spring at Gibbs Gardens – masses of daffodils that reach into the millions! People travel from all over the world to view the biggest daffodil display outside of Holland! Why not plan to mass plant a bed of daffodils and other spring bulbs next fall in your front garden for a major statement next spring? Now I don’t expect you to plant a million bulbs but a few dozen would be nice! Not only will your spirits be lifted by the cheerful colors but your neighbors will appreciate the show.   Planting bulbs close together in larger numbers is more appealing than just planting a few bulbs here and there around the garden. Roses, day lilies, zinnias, hydrangeas and gardenias also look great planted en masse in a garden bed.

Millions of daffodils are mass planted at Gibbs Gardens for a stunning 6-week display.

Plant a four-season garden…Yes, it’s great to see the daffodils, azaleas, dogwood and cherry trees blooming in the spring, but what do you have in your garden to continue the show after these flowers fade?  Gibbs Gardens was specifically designed with four-season interest in mind and no matter what time of year you visit, you will enjoy blooms and colorful foliage. Think about your own outside space and what time of year you need to add some color and interest. Hydrangeas and roses start to flower in May and if you plant several varieties with early, middle and late bloom times you can extend the show for several weeks. The foliage of Japanese maples comes in many stunning colors from chartreuse to burgundy. When gardens are starting to wilt in the heat of late summer, lantana, coleus and asters can take center stage. Plant a variety of camellias and you will be rewarded with blooms from early fall through the next spring! Check out Long-Blooming Garden Plans.

After the daffodils are spent, seasonal color continues with mass planted hydrangeas.

Roses and day lilies continue the seasonal blooming throughout the summer.

The colorful foliage of Japanese maples also gives seasonal interest.

Place containers of eye-popping annuals anywhere you need an extra punch of color…At Gibbs Gardens you are greeted with a vibrant collection of colorful containers as you walk to the Welcome Center. Many more pots are arranged throughout the gardens in places where people gather like the outside dining area at the café and the pool/entertainment area at the manor house. View containers as movable gardens that you can place wherever you need some pop and change out the annuals seasonally for a fresh look.


At Gibbs Gardens, containers are placed where people congregate and wherever a spot of color is needed.

Containers are changed out seasonally for a fresh look. Coleus foliage adds color to summer pots.

Plan a visit now to Gibbs Gardens for more great garden ideas!  



"Winter Rose" Holds Promise of Spring

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on March 27, 2013 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (2)

Punxsutawney Phil sure misled us this year! Instead of an early spring, we are still facing chilly days and overnight frost warnings. March has been much more a lion than a lamb. But there is one sturdy little plant that laughs in the face of adversity and brings joy to the hearts of gardeners each winter – the lovely Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) Named the 2005 "Perennial Plant of the Year," hellebores have evergreen glossy green foliage and charming nodding, cupped blooms that begin to open in January in my Zone 8a south metro Atlanta garden and perform well into May. That first hellebore bloom is my promise that spring is just over the horizon.

Plant them under deciduous trees and the winter sun will encourage flower growth. As trees leaf out and temperatures warm, hellebores will thrive in the resulting shade and won’t even mind the trees snatching most of the moisture. Drought-tolerant once established,deer-resistant and pest-free, these little charmers will look their best if you cut back winter-worn foliage as the flowers begin to appear. New large lobed leaves will grow quickly and because of its extensive root system will spread into a great ground cover.

Large evergreen leaves of hellebores make an attractive ground cover.

Hellebore blooms sport a kaleidoscope of colors – creamy white, pale green, pink, burgundy and purple or a combination of all these colors! And colors deepen as the flowers age. Most of the flowers bow toward the ground but newer hybrids are treasured for their more upright, outward facing blossoms. Look for ‘Ivory Prince’ (Helleborus 'Walhelivor' Ivory Prince) with creamy blossoms that become infused with rose and chartreuse as they age.

'Ivory Prince' from Skagit Gardens

The Helleborus Gold Collection®(HGC) is a selection of hybrid hellebores all propagated vegetatively to guarantee variety identity and uniformity and are considered by many as “the best of the best” with upright flowers and extended bloom time. Look for ‘Pink Frost’ (Helleborus x ballardiae Gold Collection® Pink Frost) which begins blooming in November; ‘Merlin’ (Helleborus x ballardiae Gold Collection® Merlin) and ‘Cinamon Snow’ (Helleborus x ballardiae Gold Collection® Cinnamon Snow).

Mass plant hellebores under trees or shrubs for a big impact. Companion plants include early spring ephemerals like Galanthus (Snowdrops), ferns, azaleas and other shade-loving plants. Add a good layer of mulch after planting to protect them from summer heat and help retain moisture. But, know that hellebores are fuss-free and can take some abuse. I made the mistake of planting some in an area that got late afternoon sun during the hottest summer months. They died back in the heat and I thought they were gone for good but this winter have popped up again and are blooming! I will transplant them to a shadier area soon. 

Mass plant hellebores for impact.

Hellebores look great in front of ferns and azaleas in the shade garden.


Add some of these fabulous winter-blooming hellebores now to enjoy the color show, and you might find them on sale! But you will most appreciate them next winter when you long for the promise of spring.                                                                                                                    

Author:  Bonnie Helander


Smart, Native Replacements for Chinese Privet

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on December 23, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Image: Eric Hunt



If you had a chance to read my last post, it is probably pretty clear that I am not one to recommend planting Chinese privet Ligustrum sinense anywhere in the Southeast. Quite the contrary, my training, experience, and landscape philosophy combine to make me a strong advocate for the plant’s removal and replacement with native species.


Bright, aromatic berries. Cascading flowers. Glossy leaves. You may be surprised to see the variety of attractive qualities that native privet alternatives can bring to your garden. Here you will find three descriptions of carefully picked plants that might inspire you to replace Chinese privet in your landscape:


Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)Images: Andre Easter, B. A. Bowen, and Marlin Harms


Native to the Southeast, as far north as New Jersey, and as far west as Texas, wax myrtle is famous for its berries, which traditionally have provided the wax for bayberry candles since colonial times. In the landscape, the plant grows as a large shrub or small tree and presents glossy, green leaves from its light gray bark. In the garden, wax myrtle is useful as an ornamental shrub or screening hedge, attracts birds for food and shelter, and has a subtly pleasant aroma.



Drooping Leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana)Images: Horticultural Art and Sam Valentine


Growing naturally in dense thickets alongside mountain streams, drooping leucothoe (also called highland doghobble) is a medium-sized shrub with arching, lateral branches and evergreen leaves. Frederick Law Olmsted selected it for his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, and it still can be found there, growing where his rocky, mountain garden meets a spacious, sunlit lawn. Drooping leucothoe has something of a baroque form that is highlighted each spring with distinct, dangling chandeliers of white, urn-shaped flowers.



Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)Images: Cory Janiak, Steve Coleman, and Cody Hough


While some plants appeal to your sense of sight and others more to your sense of smell, northern spicebush speaks to both senses equally. Native to the Eastern United States and a bit of Canada, northern spicebush naturally dwells in the same bottomlands and streamside understories that Chinese privet is aggressively choking out. Glossy red berries (technically referred to as “drupes”, and deep green leaves give this plant noticeable color contrast, and the allspice-like aroma that is released from crushing either will give you an idea of where the shrub got its name. The spicebush serves as an important host plant to several butterfly species, including the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.


Here I have offered just a few of the many native plants that surpass Chinese privet in terms of landscape value. Additional candidates to consider include tag alder (Alnus serrulata), Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana), black chokeberry (Photinia melanocarpa), red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia), and blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium). From fall foliage to spring flowers to drought and shade resistance, each of these species has unique attributes that demonstrate their overall superiority to Chinese privet, and you can rest assured knowing that these native species have been thriving across the Southeastern landscape for thousands of years.

Images: Tony Adcock, John Slapcinsky, Maggie Camera, and Charlie Hickey



Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP


Step Away from the Privet!

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on December 1, 2012 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Images: Green Bay Nursery and Fotolia


A simple privet hedge. It seems like an innocent enough thing to desire for, but here in the Southeast, Ligustrum sinense – the plant commonly known as “Chinese Privet” – is creating a world of trouble.


Aesthetically, Chinese privet is quite a nice landscape plant. Unless it is allowed to get out of control, the woody shrub grows densely, remains evergreen except in the harshest winters, and is quite resilient even in drought-like conditions. All of these qualities contribute to its suitability as a hedge and screening plant. In the Southeast, it can be found growing anywhere from three feet to thirty feet tall, and it tolerates both shade and sun with vigor. The shrub’s small, oppositely arranged leaves are a rich green, the bark is a smooth, light tan, and the plant’s abundant white flowers give way to equally abundant purple-black berries.

Images: Melissa Bright, Kai Yan Joseph, and Amy Surowiec


Chinese privet was introduced to North America as an exotic ornamental shrub in the mid-1800’s, but some of the plant’s enviable qualities, including its robustness in drought and shade and its lustrous dark berries, have made it a real problem child in the Southeast. Less than two-hundred years after its introduction, the Asian plant has survived and spread so well that at least one agency reports that Chinese privet has choked most river floodplains and valleys in the Piedmont region.


Originally, the forest floor beneath the South's tree canopy was a largely open, balanced habitat where a diversity of ferns, herbs, shrubs, and small trees thrived in an ever-fluctuating, harmonious state of competition. But now, in the blink of an eye, man has unwittingly upended these beautiful, natural ecosystems with just one plant.


Even though Chinese privet is not intentionally planted in the wild, the abundant purple-black privet berries that are likely growing on your neighbors’ shrubs will be consumed by birds for nutrition. After they have been digested, the berries' hidden seeds will ultimately be deposited or “planted” in your landscape, as well as in woodlands miles away. There, in the unmaintained wilderness, privet out-competes native plants for sunlight, nutrients, and groundwater, and the result is a severely altered landscape where wildlife habitats are disrupted, scenery and sunlight is blocked from human enjoyment, and entire populations of less aggressive native plants are endangered.

Image: Georgia Department of Natural Resources


The problem is so widespread, the odds so insurmountable, that even militant human intervention has made only limited progress. Chinese privet forms tough, resilient roots, so that even if one goes to the trouble of lopping off each plant at ground level, it will only be a few days before it is pushing up new sprouts. Herbicides can have some success, but applying toxic chemicals always has its own associated risks and side effects. Some creative institutions and businesses, including the University of Georgia, have been experimenting with goats and other livestock in order to remove the invasives by targeted grazing.

Images: Virginia Commonwealth University - Rice Center and Weeds Network


"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Aldo Leopold, an influential environmentalist, scientist, and author of A Sand County Almanac, wrote those powerful, concise words. Even if it has taken Americans two centuries to realize it, few would debate which category – ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – Ligustrum sinense would fall into.


But what can a lone homeowner do to brake and reverse the privet problem? Quite a bit, actually. Begin by identifying any Chinese privet plants on your property, whether they were intentionally planted or are simply hiding out. My next blog will describe native alternatives that meet or exceed Chinese privet within your property lines without contributing to the regional epidemic beyond.



Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP


The Spice of Life

Posted by Stuart DiNenno on October 17, 2012 at 10:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Images: Sam Valentine


Gold. Red. Yellow. Burgundy. Fire-orange. Violet.


You could easily imagine this variety of colors being dabbed from a painter’s palette and onto his or her canvas, but these vibrant, expressive colors are also offered up by nature. Every year, as winter approaches, the leaves of deciduous plants morph through their unique spectrums. Parks, woodlands, and gardens erupt into a flamboyant exhibition of color.

Images extracted from “Leaf & Death” by Jeff Scher



Earlier this week, I stumbled upon “Leaf & Death,” a short stop-motion film by New York Times Op-Ed contributor Jeff Scher. Set to a jazzy 1929 orchestra tune, Scher’s animated leaves reminded me of two things. First off, the video cemented my growing awareness that autumn is firmly upon us. Secondly, it reminded me that the generous array of colors presented by trees, shrubs, and vines this time of year is nothing short of a work of art.

Images: Martin LaBar, Sam Valentine, and Liz West


Years ago, I had a conversation with one of my college friends, Maria, a young Columbian woman who was studying abroad in the United States, and the exchange still sticks with me. Walking through the University of Georgia campus on a crisp, chilly night in late fall, I looked over to see my friend’s teeth chattering. Facetiously, I asked Maria how she liked being this far north of the equator.


With the cold wind tugging at us both, I would have understood if her response was something to the effect of: “I’m not used to this cold weather!” Instead, Maria stated – quite assertively – “I like living where there are seasons. It’s beautiful.”


In North America, fall colors are something of a red flag that short, cold days are quickly approaching. During those bleak winter months, it is both common and understandable for Americans to fantasize about living in a year-round tropical paradise like Columbia. But Maria illuminated to me that life in such a climate offers significantly less in the way of seasonal variety. And variety, after all, is the spice of life.


Author: Sam Valentine, BLA, LEED AP