The Principled Gardener Part 3 – Unity of Three

We all know three’s a crowd right? Right, but in design-speak that’s not a bad thing – in fact it’s a very good thing. Massing or grouping plants in threes or other odd numbers is good design – there’s something very pleasing about this configuration because it creates unity.

How so you ask?

Well first let’s look at what happens when we use even numbers – the eye wants to divide these in half…because it can. This visual division disrupts unity. If, on the other hand, we group elements in odd numbers the eye can’t divide this group and unity is therefore maintained.

Three Hemerocallis  ‘Stella D’oro’ and a bird bath make a lovely vignette. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Five Hosta sp. nestled amongst ferns and daylilies in this woodland garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Generally speaking odd numbers are preferable, but with larger groups (8 or more) this ceases to be important – the eye will automatically view these as a unified mass. So if you live on an acreage and have a shelterbelt consisting of 100 spruces, I’m not going to insist that you should have 99.

With larger plant groupings odd numbers are no longer required – the eye sees this grouping of Hemerocallis sp. as a unified mass, as it does the Heuchera sp. behind. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Don’t get carried away with threesomes though – if all your plant groups are trios, the composition will lack visual credibility and look somewhat contrived. Instead, use some groups of three, some fives or sevens and some singles.

Two Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ flank Syringa reticulata, creating a symmetrical backdrop. Photo: Sue Gaviller

So is there ever an occasion when even numbers are appropriate? Yes – as with all the design principles, it’s acceptable to periodically ignore a particular guideline, providing you know why. In other words it must be done with purpose. For example, if you want to ‘stage’ a feature tree, it could be flanked on either side by two smaller shrubs to create a moment of symmetry – this will draw attention to the more dominant feature.

Another example would be when plantings are used to reinforce a design line – in this case it doesn’t matter if even or odd numbers are used since the resulting visual movement trumps any tendency of the eye to break groups in two.

This planting plan contains several even-numbered plant groupings – in this scenario unity isn’t compromised because the plantings follow the design lines, hence the eye follows the same lines resulting in good flow.

Sometimes a group of three consists of three similar but not identical features, for example a grouping of boulders or containers.

This trio of containers, though not all the same size or shape, still provide unity of three because they’re all black ceramic and planted in a similar fashion. I chose the colour scheme based on the coral-coloured stucco and the black trim on my client’s house. This too provides unity – by repetition.  Photo: Pat Gaviller

Yes indeed three’s a crowd – ‘oddly’ satisfying isn’t it?

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Yikes! Yellow Spots on my Lawn!

Well not yellow I guess – more like dead brown (is that a colour?) Those of you with dogs know of what I speak – we eloquently refer to these as ‘pee spots’. Since we garden in a dry climate in heavy clay soil, most of us have accepted that a lawn of putting greens quality is unrealistic, but the unsightly patches of dead lawn can undermine the beauty of an entire yard. So what can we do?

The Design Solution

Designing an area for Fido to ‘go’, whether a dog run, or a small space with a pea gravel surface (pardon the pun), may help keep the offending substance off your lawn. This space should be situated where it can be screened from view by either a fence or plantings. And for the sake of the neighbours make sure it is screened from their view too – and please clean up solid waste regularly (daily is best).

The amount of space you allot for lawn in your design can impact both the degree of urine burn as well as how you manage it. For example, having a large lawn space can potentially lessen the severity of damage because it is less concentrated in one spot. However, you will then have brown spots spread over a large area, thus the visual effect will be fairly broad. A small lawn area on the other hand, will sustain more concentrated damage but a smaller area of your design will be visually affected.

This circular lawn space is small and well delineated so resodding monthly is relatively easy.
Photo credit: Prairie Outpost Design

As well, a small lawn area lends itself easily to reseeding or resodding – a colleague of mine with a very large dog has a small circular lawn space which she resods once a month, when her lawn is more brown than green. Because the sod never puts down very deep roots it’s easy for her to roll up when it’s time to resod. In addition her lawn is bordered on one side by a low wall and the rest by an edging of pavers, so there’s no guess-work as to where the design lines are. She tells me it was designed this way purposefully – a small and well delineated lawn that’s easily replaceable so, in her words, “the whole yard doesn’t always look like sh**!”

The Horticultural Solution

Dog urine kills lawn because it is rich in urea, a nitrogenous waste product of protein metabolism. The effect is therefore akin to pouring full strength or insufficiently diluted fertilizer on your lawn, causing nitrogen burn. This is why there is a dead spot encircled with lush green – at the edges the urine is more dilute so the lawn responds as it would to properly mixed fertilizer.

If Fido does happen to relieve himself on your lawn you can prevent the ensuing dead patch by simply watering it down, thus diluting the nitrogen. You don’t have to water your whole lawn, just take note of where doggie pee’d and dump a watering can full of water on the area within 24 hours. Of course the bigger the dog the larger it’s liquid waste capacity. This will in part determine how much water you’ll need to effectively mitigate the damage, as will the overall water content of the soil at the time – you’ll notice that during rainy periods the incidence of ‘pee spots’ is somewhat reduced.

The Culprit – hard to believe this sweet brown beauty is responsible for so much damage to my back lawn.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Since we can’t always be on guard to witness all dog spots in the making, we will invariably still find ourselves gazing upon dead patches on our lawns. There are a number of remedies for this:

  • Zeolites – have the ability to absorb nitrogen, hence can bind the excess. This can work preventatively as well.
  • Sugar – sugar is a source of carbon for denitrifying bacteria in the soil, hence sprinkling a bit on the dead spot may aid these bacteria in removing the excess nitrogen.

Depending on the type of grass and the severity of the damage the above two suggestions may be enough for the grass to rejuvenate or fill in fairly quickly. Otherwise you can do one of the following:

  • Reseed the area – I mix loam and grass seed 2 to 1 and apply the mixture to each spot. Seed germinates within 7 to 10 days. I repeat this process whenever there are a number of spots.
  • Resod – this doesn’t have to be the wholesale resodding I mentioned earlier in the post. Just cut out the dead patches and replace with a piece of sod cut in the same shape.

A mixture of grass seed and loam is applied to dead patches, gently tamped, and watered daily – seed should germinate within 2 weeks. Photo: Pat Gaviller

2 weeks later – grass seed has germinated and is filling in nicely.

The Other Solution

In addition to the above-mentioned preventative and remedial actions, Fido himself can be part of the solution. This of course requires an expert’s take, in a field other than my own. Enter Pat Gaviller, veterinarian and self-proclaimed ‘dog advocate’. Please read on for more ideas on facilitating a peaceful coexistence between our lawns and our four-legged friends.



by Pat Gaviller

How does Fido become part of the solution? With your help of course – for Fido to be a good boy (or Fifi to be a good girl), you have to step up and do some training. Luckily this is quite easy, especially if you start young. However even an old dog can learn new tricks.

The Training Solution

First it helps to know that puppies develop substrate preference – the surface on which they prefer to pee – at the age of 8 ½ weeks. So, think ahead and right from the start have your puppy peeing on the same surface you’ll want him (or her) peeing on in the long run – it will make training easier. It can be a bit of a challenge if during this narrow time window the ground is covered with snow (there’s not much snow around in the middle of July). But necessity trumps preference, and dogs can be retrained – have you ever seen a dog frantically looking for that last patch of melting snow to pee on? Now you know why!

Step 1: you’ve chosen what you want your dog to pee on. Step 2: decide where – dogs also become habituated to a general bathroom location. Step 3: take your puppy to the chosen bathroom area – frequently – practice makes perfect. To quote Jean Donaldson from the book The Culture Clash, (a highly recommended read for anyone wanting a well-trained, well-socialized dog): one requires a “solid history of rewarded trials in the desired location, the yard”, or the run, or wherever you’ve sited his bathroom. This brings us to Step 4 – the reward. Of course for reward one can use the obvious – food; but don’t forget that simply relieving the full bladder is also a reward in itself, and going for a walk afterwards is yet another. Vary your rewards for the best chance of success. For those who are highly motivated you can now move to step 5 – elimination on command. Although for perfect execution the command should be given the moment before the dog starts to pee, for most of us this is can be a somewhat daunting challenge with a new puppy. Not to worry – from personal experience it works pretty well if you just say the command the moment you notice your puppy (or grown dog for that matter) start to pee, i.e. “Go Pee”; wait til he/she’s done; “Good Dog”. Repeat every time puppy pees – of course preferably in the desired location…. This is classical conditioning. After a couple of weeks of saying “Go Pee” when puppy is peeing, you can try saying it before puppy pees, but when you know he/she has a full bladder. Voila – puppy will likely perform. This comes in quite handy in a variety of other situations too – and you’ll be sure to impress your friends!

A word of caution here: once Fido & Fifi are dutifully eliminating on command, do be careful on how you phrase a question to them. In other words, if the command is “Go Pee” and you ask them “Do you have to Go Pee?” they will only understand the words they know. And they may simply ‘Go Pee’ instead of waiting ‘til they get to the chosen bathroom area. To avoid confusion use phrases like “Do you need to go outside?”, or don’t ask, just take them. Truth be told we natter away at our pets far too much as it is and like our kids, they learn to tune us out after awhile.

And I feel compelled to add a few comments on dog run etiquette for those who choose to use this option.

  • Please don’t abandon Fido & Fifi in the run for long periods of time while the rest of the family enjoys the comforts of the house. They need and want your companionship.
  • Don’t leave Fido & Fifi out in the run all day while you’re at work – this is asking for trouble with barking problems. Respect your neighbours and avoid noise-bylaw fines.
  • Clean up after your pet daily. Feces left in the run create more than just odour issues for you & your neighbours. As the feces dry up, small bits of fecal material and the bacteria & parasites they may contain, can blow around in the wind resulting in health hazards for both humans and dog. Gives a new perspective on ‘dust devils’ now doesn’t it?

Mars vs. Venus

It’s time to put to rest once and for all the myth that female dog urine burns the grass and male dog urine doesn’t. The only difference between male and female dog urine is the presence of a few hormones and pheromones, which have absolutely no effect on our grass. Fido & Fifi are very interested in these minute differences because they can smell them. And I’m sure they can also figure out what each other had for dinner via the same method…..but I digress. The reason Fifi’s urine is typically more damaging to our lawns is purely a volume and directional issue. Fifi usually goes all in one spot, directly on the ground. Meanwhile, Fido is on a mission marking his territory. He’s lifting one hind leg & spraying his urine, a little here, a little there – some of it hitting the ground, but much of it on more vertical surfaces like trees, shrubs, gates, fences, or the proverbial fire hydrant. This makes it easy for any other dog passing by to catch a whiff close to nose height. And Fido only does a little in each spot to make sure he has enough to go around. It’s Fido’s behaviour that spares your lawn, (and kills your junipers…) not some magical difference in his urine.

Given that Venus is at various times either the morning star or the evening star, I might as well also address here the ‘difference’ between morning and night urine. Yes, there can be a difference, though it will vary from dog to dog depending on diet, time of feeding, and kidney function. Typically the first urination of the morning has the potential to be more damaging for 2 reasons: 1) It’s usually a large volume – the dog hasn’t been out all night and hence has a full bladder; and 2) most dogs sleep through the night, without drinking any water and therefore the kidneys concentrate the urine to prevent dehydration. A high volume of concentrated urine is a recipe for lawn damage. When Fido & Fifi eat, they also drink more. And if they’re lucky the day’s activities have also allowed both an increased water intake plus more access to outdoor elimination areas. Increased water intake lowers urine concentration, and increased frequency of elimination may lower urine volumes, both of which give our lawns a bit of a break.

There’s an App for That

Yes, for those with neither the time nor the inclination to deal with this issue in any of the aforementioned ways, or even as an adjunct to the above methods – there’s always Greenum. Greenum is a commercially available, natural supplement available at your local vet clinic as well as many pet stores. Made by “Mark & Chappell” the tablets contain Brewers Yeast, Flaxseed Oil, DL-Methionine (an amino acid), and Yucca schidigera extract. It is the last 2 ingredients that help reduce the ‘lawn-burn’ effect of dog urine. DL Methionine acidifies the urine (don’t think vinegar, just less alkalinity), and the Yucca extract binds the ammonia in the urine. Less alkalinity + less ammonia (less nitrogen source) = less lawn burn.

Greenum is available in a beef-flavoured tablet form as well as tasty treats. There is a spray too – but the spray is applied to the lawn, whereas the tablets and treats are given to Fido & Fifi. Greenum is safe for pets and the environment. In fact if you overdose by 2x you simply nullify the effect. The tablets are available in different sizes for different size dogs; treats come in 1 size only. As with any supplement – natural or otherwise – you should still consult your vet before starting your pet on Greenum, especially if the pet is already on other medication.

So there you go – greener lawns and a peaceful coexistence with Fido & Fifi.

Have fun,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Curtain Call – Farewell to Sweet Syringa

So y’all know how much I love lilacs. Well I’m sad to say they are nearing the end of their bloom period, so I wanted to give you a look at the closing act before the curtain is drawn on another season.  I know, enough with the lilacs already – I assure you though, today will be my last post on this loveliest of blossoms (at least for this year) and I promise to keep it short.

Syringa reticulata – Japanese Tree Lilac

These gorgeous, very late bloomers have been flowering for a week or so in our part of the world. They weren’t in bloom for my June lilac post but they are so utterly stunning this year, that I had to bring them to your attention. The Japanese tree lilac is the last of the lilacs to bloom and has some unique characteristics not shared by others in the genus:

  • They are a true tree, as opposed to a large shrub that gardeners prune into a tree ‘shape’ and labour to maintain.
  • The bark is a dark chocolate-brown with very noticeable lenticels.
  • The flowers are borne in panicles like all other Syringa species but have much finer texture, their feathery appearance in striking contrast to the large shiny leaves.
  • The scent isn’t recognizably lilac; it’s hard to describe, but if you get a whiff of something sweet and a bit spicy, like vanilla with a hint of anise, look around – there’s likely a tree lilac in the vicinity. Their bright white blooms make them easy to spot.
  • There is even a variegated cultivar which blooms later still (mine is just coming into bloom now) – ‘Golden Eclipse’ has large green and gold leaves.

Intense white blooms cover this compact tree. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Soft fluffy blooms, dark green foliage and richly textured, chocolate-coloured bark make the Japanese tree lilac a must-have in the urban landscape. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Full feathery plumes light up a sapphire sky. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Syringa reticulata, with its honey-sweet scent is a favourite of bees and butterflies. Photo: Cathy Gaviller

Syringa reticulata 'Golden Eclipse' is a very hardy variegated cultivar - leaves on new growth emerge dark green splashed with lime and older growth has bright green and gold variegation. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’ is a very hardy variegated cultivar – leaves on new growth emerge dark green splashed with lime and older growth has bright green and gold variegation. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sum it all up and you have a great specimen tree – a tree with four season interest. The Japanese tree lilac has real design value and in my opinion is greatly underutilized in the landscape. It’s perfect for use as a dominant feature – for its elegant form (particularly if multistem), its colour (especially Golden Eclipse) and its coarse texture.

Syringa reticulata is a worthy closing act to a truly fine show that began 6 weeks ago – the lilac show.

So say goodbye to sweet Syringa – may their scent be with you.

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.