One of my first calls when I started as a Clemson Extension agent was to an office that was having trouble with its indoor plants. Thank goodness I was just verbally directed to the area with problems. When I got to the space, I looked at the plants for what seemed like several minutes before I realized they weren’t real.
Why they even called me I can’t remember, but maybe the district director of someone who had been to that office sent word back to have an “expert” come and take a look. Like in many offices, the person in charge of office greenery is loosely designated, which more often than not means that either no one waters live plants or that several people assume that unassigned task. In that case, the plants get not only overwatered, but no one empties the containers they sit in, which just compounds the problem.
When my siblings and I were growing up in Forest Acres in Columbia, all sorts of prohibitions and expectations existed about what was nice and allowed. One of my older first cousins was so immersed in the past that she not only never wore pantyhose, but the old-school stockings she donned had seams in them.
It was de rigueur to only use white lights on Christmas trees and any outdoor decorations. When I still had hopes of maintaining my position in what a friend refers to as “clinging by your fingernails to the collapsed aristocracy,” I remarked to a coworker in Atlanta that we only had those “nice” white lights on our holiday decorations. She grabbed her bosom as if I had said my grandparents had made their money selling bootleg whiskey (don’t I wish, maybe we would have a Kennedy fortune today) and said in a shocked voice, “You had electric lights on your Christmas tree?”
Here in Saint Matthews, Edward’s aunt by marriage had absolutely the most impeccable knowledge of social niceties occasionally overcome by a viciously sharp wit for criticism. She was mortified when the Council of Garden Clubs awarded the first prize for Christmas decorations to the huge old house where she and her sister-in-law lived alone.
Our aunt had gone into the plunder room and brought out some fake wreaths, which she hung on the double front doors and inadvertently left the porch light burning, which was the sign that you wanted to be included in the judging. She was mortified as she certainly would never intend to take a shortcut and expect to be recognized for it. She even placed a fresh wreath on her husband’s grave each year.
All this is to say that with recent vagaries in fortune during business closings and job losses, the ability to find people to do yardwork other than “mow and blow,” and perhaps those touchstones of what’s really important as we mourn people whom we’ve lost and as we feel extraordinary grace for having survived these dreadful past years of the pandemic, I believe many of us are reevaluating what really matters.
At a house tour in Newberry this past year, people went from a meticulous rose garden to a large country property where the owner said she wanted to come home from work and see flowers after she finished feeding the horses. So she put artificial flowers in pots and had them scattered throughout her evening stroll pathway. It was cheerful and made the pine straw walkway fun.
In a yard I pass on the backroads to Orangeburg, the homeowner keeps large pots of artificial flowers by her driveway; I have gone from disdaining that practice to enjoying those spots of color that brighten my drive home as I pass many abandoned and burned-out trailers. She’s trying to spread joy; why should we be snooty about that? We visited our three children, who all live in Los Angeles, over Christmas and were entranced by the creativity with which people decorated the outside of their tiny apartments and homes.
Irrigating the recommended inch per week during our now extended growing season with even more required occasionally when we have periods of higher-than-normal temperatures means frightening utility bills as sewer charges are greater per gallon than the cost of the water itself. Reducing the size of your lawn is the first step toward a more sustainable landscape, which can substantially cut your water use.
Look at old houses in the country where for decades no one has watered, and yet the ‘Formosa’ and ‘George Taber’ azaleas thrive along with patches of centipede grass. To me the placement of a “show house” plopped down in the middle of a huge lawn is like looking at a naked woman instead of someone in a Lycra-enhanced bathing suit or a cocktail dress with a modestly revealing neckline that teases one’s imagination. By using groupings of low-maintenance plants and trees that once established can go for relatively long periods of time without supplemental irrigation, you can achieve what Mary Beverly Taylor Haque referred to as “view-step-dichotomy.”
She was teaching landscape design to a class of us horticulture students at Clemson 40 years ago, and several of the young guys (I was a nontraditional student 10 years older) in the class had spent a fortune buying specialized mechanical pens and such — boys and their toys. She was introducing us to the idea that by partially hiding or concealing a permanent feature — be it a fountain or a house — you created interest.
One fellow was a little overwhelmed by this abstract design idea and just put his head down on the desk as he realized it was going to be a while before he could use his French curves and finely nubbed pens. But the concept is true. We are intrigued by that which is partially obscured; we enjoy a sneak peek.
At Brookgreen Gardens, the grand alley of live oaks was once underplanted with invasive English ivy. Now it is mulched. Reducing the size of your lawn makes it less labor intensive and can still be attractive, even if you are a hopeless gardener. Hire a landscaper who has a deep knowledge of plants and their needs and will take into account that you are going to do little after they are established. Mulch is a gardener’s best friend if you select the right one as it keeps plant roots cool, helps the soil hold water, and suppresses weeds.
Do not be seduced by a bed of gravel or decorative stones — you can’t pull weeds out of them, will have to spray that area with an herbicide, and they make the temperature around plants blisteringly hot. Longleaf pine straw, unless you live in a fire-prone area, is a sustainable product that, as it breaks down, adds that always ephemeral organic matter to your soil. The large size pine bark mulch tends to float away with heavy rains, so get the smaller one if you want to use that.
Although hardwood mulch is often dyed — I haven’t embraced that use of color yet — the dyes are safe and if that floats your boat, so be it. If you use that mulch, be prepared for lots of mushrooms, including a great conversation piece, Mutinus caninsus, as only fungi can degrade the lignin and cellulose in wood mulch and will happily colonize it.
At the Hyatt Hotel in Greenville, they use artificial turf in small areas bordering the sidewalk; it has some weeds growing in it as organic debris has collected on it and fits in attractively in that difficult spot. If you need a small grass-like area for people to use to walk to your front door, you could use it there. For large areas it gets super hot in summer. Pets doing their business there can be a real problem since no organic microorganisms are present to take care of that waste. Or consider large pavers set in sand, which make a fine and easy walkway, and you can pull weeds if they pop up.
Foundation plantings don’t have to be a solid line of shrubbery. A solitary boxwood-like shrub, such as the new varieties of Ilex glabra or a boxwood with immunity to boxwood blight, by the front steps and three grouped at the corner of your house can be elegant and take only the smallest bit of time to prune. For a small yard, in addition to pavers as walkways, group three small trees such as redbud or Grancy greybeard in a completely mulched area instead of planting grass.
If your yard is huge, you can of course plant white, chestnut, or live oaks. They are the larval food source for more than 500 caterpillars and thrive best when, like at Brookgreen, they are completely surrounded by mulch.
If you follow the steps above, you can have a yard that, after a few years of watering to get well established, will require only yearly applications of more mulch, which you should top-dress with compost to improve your soil’s ability to hold nutrients and water. Just empty a bag into a cart and throw it around by hand.
If you want a focal point, consider getting some really great looking colorful containers, putting them in groups of three of various sizes by your back patio or that area near the street where you want some special interest but don’t want to have to drag a hose to every couple of days, and pack them with artificial plants labeled for outdoor use.
After looking at sites online, it seems you’ll have to do some searching, probably ordering a few to see which look the best and sending the rejects back until you find just the right ones. The ornamental grasses seem to be the most lifelike, so stuff your great looking containers with them and you’ll have a focal point that will only need water to wash pollen off the leaves.
If you are often out of town, at — oh, my heart be still — a mountain or lake house for most of the summer but want to have your home base maintain an attractive presence in the neighborhood, give them a try in those situations.
And if you are home for holidays, don’t worry about a December with 90 degree days desiccating your wreaths so carefully hung in every window. Give yourself a pass and get high-quality artificial substitutes, which will last for a decade and equal out the carbon footprint of shipping from the North Carolina mountains. Our children early on became enamored of bubble lights, and we can’t imagine a tree without them. Too cool for school. And nowadays, who even wears stockings? It’s a new world. Walk into it bravely.