One Hundred Times, Yes!

Ken Muellers.jpg

By Ken Muellers

This is officially the one hundredth article I have written for HOUSE® magazine. One hundred times I have stared at the blank computer screen and debated what to write. Sometimes it’s taken days and much ringing of hands to produce an article, other times the words have spilled out effortlessly. I have worried I would run out of article topics, but over the course of more than 16 years there always seems to be another garden subject to delve into.

I haven’t had to go back to the same well twice. Sure, if you have read many of my “Garden Spots,” you would have noticed some recurring themes such as the omnipresent “Right plant, Right place” concept. If I didn’t push the doctrine of matching your plant choice with the planting site conditions (light, soil, water, exposure and space available) I wouldn’t be doing my civic duty. (There,
I did it again!).

Frequent readers also probably noticed the reoccurring themes of plant diversity and the desire to share the myriad of new and interesting plants with readers. You may have perceived my passion for the subject of gardening and the enjoyment of the environment around us. I would not have been able to write 100 times about something I did not enjoy. Hopefully some of my enthusiasm has rubbed off and I was able to impart some garden knowledge along the way.

I know in doing my research for articles on various topics, I personally have learned a few things. (Who knew moss didn’t have seeds?) Although humans have been gardening for millennia, there are new plants introduced every day and new gardens to be seen everywhere. My career and my life have taken a few twists and turns over the years, as life has a way of doing, but the natural landscape and gardens around me have been a constant source of pleasure.

Fortunately, HOUSE® has been gracious and given me the liberty to choose my topic as long as it had something to do with gardens and landscapes – with the one exception of my foray into travel writing when I visited Iceland. I would like to thank the publisher and editors at HOUSE® for allowing me to wax poetic about various plants from mighty oak trees to tiny spring bulbs and to write about such riveting topics as drainage and compost without questioning my motives. I would also like to express my gratitude to the readers of the articles for putting up with my attempts at humor. (I was telling “dad jokes” before “dad jokes” were even a thing!) If you can’t have a little fun along the way, what’s the point?

So, if the questions are, do I like writing the “Garden Spot” and will I be writing more, the answer is yes, yes, one hundred times, yes! Let’s just see if I can find another hundred topics to write about. Mushrooms anyone?

Screen Planting Alternatives

By Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

As a landscape designer, I am often asked some variation of the following question: “What should I plant to screen out: A. my annoying neighbors, B. the views of my pool from the neighbors, C. you.” Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy a question as you may think (especially for C!). Most people expect a simple one word answer such as “Arborvitae” or “Leylands,” but usually the best answer is not quite that simple.

First off, before you can decide what to plant you have to consider the site conditions including light, wind exposure, soil type and most importantly, the size of the space you are looking to screen, both height and width. The second reason this is a loaded question is that I rarely recommend using only one type of plant for screening, always striving for diversity of plants in the landscape to protect from insects and disease damage.

Commonly used (or over-used) screen plants such as Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis ‘Leylandii’), skip laurels (Prunus ‘Schipkaensis’) and emerald green arborvitae (Thuja ‘Smaragd’) are popular because of their growth rates and habits, but all have their weak points (such as susceptibility to winter/storm damage). For alternatives, there are many great plants from which to choose.

If you have a narrow space to work with, instead of emerald green Arborvitae you may want to consider a variety of upright Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Cultivars such as ‘Steeds,’ ‘Chesapeake’ and ‘Excelsa Schwoebel’ are all available in nurseries and can be pruned to maintain their size. If you have more space, other hollies such as Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’) will provide an attractive pyramid of glossy leaves and grow to 20 feet tall. Another substitute for emerald greens are many varieties of upright junipers such as Hetzii column (Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetzii Columnaris’) or the more “artsy” Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’), which will thrive in exposed sunny locations and is deer resistant.

If you live on a larger property and need to screen out larger areas, green giant arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’) can grow to 40 feet tall and stay dense to the ground. Norway spruce (Picea abies) is a very large evergreen that is great on a large estate. On most properties, its cousins – Colorado spruce (P. pungens) with its bluer color, Serbian spruce (P. omorika) with its narrow habit and Oriental spruce (P. orientalis) with its short dark needles will all be a little more scale appropriate. Another option is Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) which is a nice contrast to other evergreens and it will tolerate more shade than most other conifers.

If privacy is only a concern during the summer months, such as for a pool area (see ‘B’ above), you can get blockage with deciduous plants that will grow faster, cost less money and maybe provide some flower interest. Viburnum ‘Summer Snowflake,’ Vitex ‘Shoal Creek’ and Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) all flower during the summer and get large enough to block-out the neighbors. If flowers are not important, the old standard privet hedge (Ligustrum ovalifolium) can be pruned to almost any height and width.

 If your problem is ‘C,’ you will need to start with at least six-foot-high plants (I’m pretty tall).

Using Tropical Plants in your Garden

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

by Ken Muellers

Some would say tropical plants have no place in a Northeast garden. They don’t belong. The plants look foreign and out of place. The leaves are too big and the colors too shocking. I would argue that is the whole point! When used correctly, these bold, exotic plants can transport us to other places and create interest in the garden contrasting the more permanent plantings that tend to blend with their surroundings.

Tropical plants are a broadly defined group with one unifying characteristic – they come from tropical regions of the planet. Because of that origin, they thrive in a warm to hot climate, and conversely, cannot handle cold temperatures. In fact, freezing temperatures pretty much equal death for this group of plants. Fortunately for us, most of our area is frost free from mid-May until late September, allowing time for these tropical beauties to liven up the landscape.

No plant transports us to a tropical island better than a palm tree. Many local nurseries stock varieties of palms that can be planted in a bed or a pot for the summer to create a lush Caribbean feel. In a small space, a Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) can provide that palm “look” even though it is not actually in the palm family.

Cordyline is the perfect way to add lush, tropical color to your garden.

If big, bold leaves are what you are looking for, elephant ear (Alocasia and Colicasia) are tough to beat. These plants can be bought container grown or if you plan ahead, you can start them as bulbs early in the season. Coming in a variety of colors, these dramatic plants need plenty of moisture. Another great group of plants for huge leaves is the banana family (Musa). With leaves several feet long, these upright plants standout in any garden.

Bananas or elephant ears too big for your space? Consider dracaena ‘limelight’ with its chartreuse leaves, or variegated shell ginger (Alpinia) that can liven up a dark spot. Looking for more color? Try croton (Codiaeum) with its multi-colored glossy leaves or one of the many varieties of cordyline for their spiky, sword-like foliage. If you have shade in your garden, caladium and coleus are two types of plants that can give you exotic colored leaves and tolerate low light.

Dramatic and vibrant bloom of hibiscus.

If you are looking to get flowers along with your bold leaves, canna lilies might be your answer. Many different varieties of canna are available offering pink, orange, yellow or red flowers. Varieties such as ‘pretoria’ and ‘tropicanna’ have colorful foliage to complement their flowers. If tropical flowers are your main goal, nothing says tropical flower better than hibiscus. (It’s the state flower of Hawaii after all.)

Whether you are using these tropicals in containers or in your plant beds, keep in mind all that lush growth requires plenty of food and water to fuel it, so fertilizing and regular watering are a must for good results. If you want to extend the life of your tropical plants, make sure to bring them inside before the first frost in the fall. Or you can take them on a tropical vacation with you. After a long summer, they’ve earned it.

Fragrance in the Garden

Ken Muellers is a NYSLNA Lifetime Certified Nursery/ Landscape Professional and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is a NYSLNA Lifetime Certified Nursery/ Landscape Professional and can be contacted at

 by Ken Muellers

They say that of all the senses, smell is the one most closely linked to memory. From my experiences, I would say that is true. Whether it is the musty old smell of your grandmother’s basement or the aroma from the rose arbor in her garden, those scents bring memories flooding back, for better or for worse. So if you want to create a memorable garden, considering fragrance should be on the top of the list of attributes.

When we think of fragrant plants, we usually think of flowers. Roses, of course, are ones we are encouraged to stop and smell (which I do at every opportunity). But not all roses are created equal in the olfactory department. In fact, the very popular knockout roses have little to no scent at all. Some of the classic old fashioned rose varieties such as Mr. Lincoln, Pink Peace or Iceberg will give you great fragrance. If fragrance is your goal, you may want to sniff before you buy when it comes to roses.


Besides classic roses, some other excellent shrubs for aroma are lilacs (Syringa), Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), and daphne carol mackie which all bloom in the spring. For summer fragrance, besides the previously mentioned roses, summersweet (Clethra Alnifolia) and sweetspire (Itea Virginica) both provide sweet scents as advertised. A couple off-season fragrant plants are false holly (Osmanthus) which flowers in the fall and witchhazels (Hamamelis) that blooms in late winter. I recommend planting one of these scented shrubs near a frequently used door or window so you can enjoy the aroma.

In addition to fragrant shrubs, trees such as magnolia and vines like honeysuckle (Lonicera) offer strong bouquets that can permeate the whole garden. Some spring flowering bulbs like hyacinth and many types of daffodils (Narcissus) have scents that can be almost overpowering if brought indoors.

Many perennial flowers are listed as fragrant, although you have to stick your nose halfway in the flower to smell some of them. Some of the more aromatic ones are hosta plantaginea, asiatic lilies (Lilium), and lily of the valley (Convallaria). Of course, many of the herbs in the garden such as lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme are very fragrant when disturbed. My favorite annual for fragrance is Lantana with its candy like scent.

Although flowers are usually the main attraction in the fragrance department, some plants have scents from other parts of the plant. For me, no hike in the woods is complete without sniffing a crushed leaf of wintergreen (Galtheria) or bayberry (Myrica). Scraping a black birch (Betula lenta) or spicebush (Lindera benzoin) twig with a fingernail and taking a whiff is another must on a hike. Some plants in the woods offer some-not-so-great smells such as the aptly named skunk cabbage. In the garden, boxwoods (Buxus) have an aroma that many despise. Although for some it conjures up enough fond memories and visions of formal gardens from days past that the odor is overridden. Either way, it’s not something you easily forget.


All Decked Out – Decking Material Options

Ken Muellers is a NYSNLA Certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist.

Ken Muellers is a NYSNLA Certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist.

by Ken Muellers

In recent years, the options available for deck materials have changed on many fronts. Some materials have become available in our new global markets, a few have become scarce from overharvesting, some have been banned for environmental concerns and still others have been created by science. So here is an overview of some of the current choices for outdoor decks.

Pressure treated lumber, which consists of softwood (usually southern yellow pine) impregnated with chemicals to render it more rot and insect resistant, is one of the cheapest options. Lumber treated with CCA has been banned for residential use since 2004 and has been replaced by other options such as ACQ and CA treated lumber. Due to its less attractive appearance and concerns about chemicals, many deck builders reserve this material for the understructure of the deck where it will not come in contact with users.

This leaves three other categories of materials for the deck surface: softwoods (such as cedar or redwood), hardwoods (such as mahogany or ipe) and composites (ChoiceDek, Evergrain, Timbertech, Trex, Veranda or Weatherbest to name just a few brands).

The softwoods have been popular for years for their beauty, natural rot and insect resistance and their workability. Unfortunately, due to this popularity, the availability of quality lumber at a reasonable price has diminished over recent years. This, along with long term maintenance concerns, has led many to look at other options.

Use of hardwoods for decking has been growing in recent years as international sources of materials have become competitive with domestic softwood prices. Hardwoods offer durability and unmatched beauty; however, installation is more difficult due to the inherent hardness of the wood which makes it virtually impossible to hammer a nail into.

As with any natural material, some long-term maintenance is required. For this reason, many choose composite deck materials over real wood.

 Composites typically are made from plastics mixed with wood fibers to provide the durability of plastic along with the positive properties of wood. Some of these composites are made of recycled materials which appeal to the environmentally minded. They come in a variety of colors and offer different surface patterns, most designed to create the appearance of real wood. Because composites are manufactured, they are available in greater lengths than natural wood, are splinter-free and are virtually free of imperfections. One slight drawback is that they may become hotter in the sun than natural wood.

Another surface material that is gaining popularity is outdoor porcelain pavers that look like wood. If you are planning a deck at grade (not raised above the ground), this is a good option because you will not have to worry about the understructure rotting out since it is set on concrete.

Whether you prefer the classic beauty of softwood, the elegance of hardwoods, the durability of composites or an at-grade porcelain paver deck, make sure that the deck area you build is designed with function in mind, so you get the most out of your investment. After all, no one wants to play with half a deck.





Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be reached at

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be reached at

Long before a ‘Vine’ became a short video that kids watch, and long after those videos are gone, vines have been part of the garden, both beneficial and malevolent. The right vine, in the right spot, can add flowers, privacy and interest where other plants simply will not fit. The wrong vine in the wrong spot can wreak havoc in the landscape.

What distinguishes a plant as a vine is the need for support. Vines use different methods to climb up walls, posts, fences and even other plants. Many vines such as wisteria, clematis and honeysuckle (Lonicera) use twining. That is to say, they wrap themselves around and around an object for support. This is important when you want (or don’t want) a vine to climb something. These vines will not do well climbing a flat wall for example, but do great on a trellis. Problems arise when this type of vine is growing up a tree or fragile structure. As they mature, they can choke or crush what they are growing on. Thick vines such as wisteria, bittersweet and wild grapes can overpower their support, be it a tree or trellis, over time. These aggressive vines can be heavily pruned in the off season to keep them in check.

Vines like grapes (Vitis) and peas use tendrils to hang on. This means they need smaller objects to wrap around, like a wire or a string. Some vines such as climbing hydrangea (H. anomala petiolaris), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) and English ivy (Hedra helix) attach themselves to structures using aerial rootlets. This allows them to hang onto walls where twining vines cannot climb. It also means they can sometimes leave marks on what they attach to.

After you have considered the type of support needed, you can choose what other attributes you want from your vine such as flowers, fall color, berries or attractive foliage. The flowers on both trumpet vine and honeysuckle will attract  hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden. Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) offers fragrant yellow flowers in the spring. Most varieties of clematis provide showy blooms in the spring, but autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) has small fragrant white flowers in late summer. For blooms all summer long you may want to try a tropical mandevilla such as the pink blooming ‘Alice Du Pont.’ Just keep in mind, it is not cold hardy, so you will need to plant a new one next year.

One of my personal favorite vines is climbing hydrangea which has attractive white flowers for much of the summer. There are also vines with unique foliage such as the large leafed dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia) and variegated kiwi vine (Actinidia kolomikta) with its random pink and white leaves. For fall color, Boston ivy (Parthenocissis tricuspidata) is hard to beat.

A few species of vines that were brought here have escaped the garden and have made themselves a little too at home. Vines like kudzu (the vine that ate the south), oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and wild grape have taken over woodland edges in various regions of the country. If one of these vines is inhabiting your property, you should remove it before it spreads and damages your other plants, not to mention the rest of the neighborhood!

Plant Diversity in the Garden

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

We have all heard the expression “variety is the spice of life.” Well, I propose that for plants in the landscape it is much more than the spice of life – it can be the difference between life and death!

Some of the greatest landscape tragedies begin with ignoring this simple principle of a diverse landscape. Case in point, American elm trees. Planted for their stately beauty, they once graced main streets in almost every town in the East, but this popularity helped lead to their downfall. When Dutch elm disease arrived in the States, the beetles which help spread the fungi that causes the disease found it very easy to jump from one tree to the next, until almost every elm was dead. The great quantity of elms, and their proximity to each other, provided an opportunity for the disease to spread easily.

Lesson not learned. A few decades later, after rows and rows of Canadian hemlocks are planted for privacy screening throughout suburbia, a little insect called Hemlock wooly adelgid made an appearance on the scene and quickly went from plant to plant (after all, we were kind enough to line them up for them) devastating millions of hemlocks.

Lesson still not learned. Now we are facing potential mass loss of ash trees from Emerald ash borer. Ashes, which are widely planted as a street tree throughout the mid-west, are easy pickings for this pest. At the same time, Oak wilt is threatening our oaks and Asian longhorn beetles are a potential disaster for our maples.

In all these situations, the practice of mono-culture (planting all the same thing) has already, or may lead to, devastation from pests and disease. Most plant pathogens are specific to a particular genus (oak, maple, pine, etc.) and many are specific to a particular species of that genus (red oak, pin oak, swamp oak, etc.). By planting different species, we can all do our part in preventing the next plant pandemic. Just as any investment advisor will recommend a diverse portfolio to prevent heavy losses, a good horticulturalist knows that a diverse landscape will help prevent disaster.

This varied landscape also has other advantages over mono-culture. You will also attract more diverse wildlife. With plants providing a variety of different flowers, seeds and berries at different times of the year, birds and other critters will have more opportunities for food and habitat. Another reason is aesthetics. A diverse landscape will provide a more natural appearance. Having a mixed border planting with groups of a few evergreens interspersed with flowering trees and shrubs will provide a much more attractive view than a single row of some overplanted evergreen (can you say Leyland cypress?). If you do need a screen of all evergreens, try to use small groupings of different types. Not only will it give you varied textures, colors and sizes, it will lessen the potential for disaster from insects or disease.

There are so many unique, beautiful plants, it is a shame that the same few plants are used over and over. So, next time you are looking to plant something new, try to break out of the rut and choose diversity.

Irrigation-A Key to Plant Success

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at   

Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at


In our region, we average a little over 40 inches of rainfall a year. In theory, this is enough water for most established plants to live. I say, “in theory” because of a couple key caveats. One is that the rainfall comes when the plants need it, which it often doesn’t. The other is the pesky word “established.” When plants are newly installed, they often have a very limited root system which can take in only a fraction of the water an established plant can. That is why proper watering is so critical in a new landscape. And the best way to ensure plants receive adequate water is an automatic inground irrigation system.

Irrigation systems are typically made up of three main components, the controller or clock that acts as the brain of the system, the lines and manifold that distribute the water throughout the landscape and the various emitters or heads that release the water to the plants.

Since water pressure is usually not sufficient to water the entire yard at once, systems are divided into different zones for coverage. This allows for each portion of the landscape to be watered for a designated amount of time programed into the controller. A good system will separate lawn areas from planting beds, as these two have different watering requirements. The water can be emitted though rotary heads (the ones that turn around) usually used for lawn areas, mist heads that are often used for plant beds or driplines, which are ideal for hedges. A drip system uses tubing with emitters spaced along its length allowing a slow trickle of water to be released at the roots of the plants. This is the most efficient way to water since very little is lost to evaporation as with mist or rotary heads. The disadvantage to a drip system is that you cannot see what is getting water and what is not, so you do not usually know there is a problem until you have dead plants on your hands.

With any system, it is important to monitor and adjust for the time of year and natural rainfall. The running time on each zone can be increased or decreased depending on the need. Most systems incorporate a rain sensor that prevents the system from running after a substantial rainfall. But seasonal adjustments need to be made manually to up the watering times during warm, dry periods and reduce watering in cooler, wetter times. As a landscape becomes established over the first couple years, less and less supplemental water will be needed, and the system should be adjusted accordingly. When the plants are established, it is better to do a deep watering once or twice a week, rather than short, frequent watering. This deep watering promotes root development to reach deeper for moisture and, thus, make the plant more drought resistant.

With the cold winters in our region, it is important to have an in-ground system winterized to prevent the pipes and heads from being damaged by frozen water left in the lines. This is done by using compressed air to blow the water out of the system at the end of the season.

Look at that, I got through a whole article without any jokes about how irrigation isn’t a dry topic; well almost the whole


Vegetable Gardening

Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

When you mention the term “gardening” the picture that pops up in most peoples’ minds is probably an image of a backyard vegetable garden. This is where many gardeners spend their time in the growing season tilling, planting, watering, weeding and hopefully harvesting the literal fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. If you have never had your own vegetable garden, you may find the idea of starting one a bit daunting, but with a little planning, a bit of work and a few seeds, you can enjoy picking your own produce without a trip to the market.

For first timers, I would recommend starting small. An 8 foot by 8 foot plot is big enough to grow a diverse garden without being overwhelmed by weeding and watering halfway through the summer. Start by laying out your garden in the early spring before the planting season begins. Placing the garden in a sunny spot is the first key to success. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of sunlight to do well.

Properly preparing the soil is the second key to a great garden. Tilling or loosening the ground will allow roots to grow and allow the soil to retain the right amount of moisture for the plants to thrive. You may want to bring in good topsoil and create raised beds to make maintenance easier.  If your soil is less than ideal, the best way to improve it is by adding compost (see last issue’s article about the wonders of compost).

Keep an eye on the calendar because planting time varies from plant to plant and region to region. Some plants like radishes, spinach, carrots and snap peas can be planted early, before the last frost date, which is around Mother’s Day in our area. After the threat of frost has passed, you can plant the rest of your garden. Cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans, squash, eggplant and, of course, tomatoes are some easy to grow garden favorites. If you are growing more than one tomato plant, I would recommend planting different varieties so you have tomatoes ripening at different times and you increase your chance of success. Make sure to leave enough room; as the tomato plants grow, they will need to be staked or supported with wire cages.

Many plants can be grown from seed, but the novice gardener may want to begin with starter plants from the local garden center to get a jump start on things. When choosing what to grow, make sure to plant vegetables that you and your family like to eat (no Brussels sprouts in my garden!).

Once the garden is planted, it’s weed, water, repeat until harvest time. Staying on top of the weeds will leave more nutrients in the soil for the plants you want. Mulching with straw or shredded bark mulch or underplanting with companion plants will also help keep down the weeds. Since most vegetable plants require regular feeding to produce a good crop, you should also work in applying a slow release or liquid fertilizer (that will not burn the roots) during the season.

Be sure to keep an eye out for garden pests that are out and about. Insects, rabbits and deer can all beat you to the harvest if you are not careful. If you have kids, a home vegetable garden is great for them to see that carrots come from the ground and lettuce is actually leaves. And after they have had their first home-grown tomato, they will realize that the ones in the supermarket are a poor substitute for the real deal.



Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist
and can be contacted at

Step right up! If you are a gardener and are looking for a magical elixir to cure all your garden woes, then look no further! This miracle product will help your plants grow no matter where you live. It improves your soil regardless of what type you have. Clay soils, sandy soils, wet soils or dry, this product is for you! But best of all you can get it for free.

No – this is not some snake oil sold off the back of a wagon, this is good old compost. As many seasoned gardeners will attest, compost has many benefits. The organic matter in compost adds nutrients that plants need to thrive. These organic nutrients will reduce the need to apply chemical fertilizers. It also adds microbes, such as beneficial bacteria and fungi that bring life to the soil. When added to clay soils, it improves drainage and pore space and when added to sandy soils it helps with moisture retention.

Although you can buy compost from the store, many gardeners scoff at the idea of paying for something you can get for free. After all, if you have a landscape, you have all the ingredients you need (and you may be paying to get rid of them!).

The components of compost are broken into two main groups – browns and greens. Browns consist of dried leaves, twigs, bark and wood chips. These add carbon. The greens are made up of grass clippings, green leaves and vegetable waste and they bring nitrogen to the mix. When combined (you want more browns than greens) and ample moisture is added to the mixture, these elements will breakdown into humus. Keep in mind, the smaller the pieces you add to the pile, the quicker they will breakdown. Avoid adding any animal by-products or pet waste to the pile.

For the decomposition process to happen, you need enough of these materials to reach critical mass. It usually takes at least a few cubic feet of material to start the decomposition happening. These metabolic processes produce temperatures over 140 degrees. This heat also kills off pathogens and any potential weed seeds in the mixture. These natural processes take time, but you can speed it up by turning the layers periodically. This allows oxygen in to help in the metabolic process while still providing enough heat for good results. There are compost tumblers on the market to do this on a small scale.

To start composting, you can simply pile the material in layers in a corner of the yard, or if space is limited, constructing a compost bin may be in order. It is useful to have two or three bins so you can have one that is ready for the garden, while the next batch is just getting started.

How ever you store your compost, I recommend putting it away from entertaining areas to avoid unpleasant odors intruding on your party. If you like your neighbors, and want them to keep liking you, don’t place it on the property line downwind from their entertaining area either.

If compost is good, compost tea is even better. Compost tea
is basically compost extract, concentrating all the benefits into liquid form that can be spread or sprayed on and around your plants. If interested, you can find recipes on line.
If you have neither the time or patience to make your own compost or compost tea, the store-bought variety can suffice (it’s kinda like cheating though).




Ken Muellers is a designer at The Laurel Group and is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

When the weather turns cold and the plants out in the landscape have called it a season, many gardeners retreat to the warmth of the indoors. But for many a restless green thumb, the gardening doesn’t come to a stop. The gardening just moves indoors.

Although we often talk about extending your home outdoors into the landscape, indoor plants are a great way to extend your landscape inside the home. What I refer to as “indoor” or “house” plants are really outdoor plants from other parts of the world which have climates that are much more moderate than what we have in our area. Although that may seem like an obvious concept, it is important that we realize these plants still need the elements they would require in the great outdoors such as light, air, water and nutrients. Since they come from many different regions of the world, some require more or less of these elements, depending on their native habitat.

As with picking plants for the landscape, it is important to try to match the plant with its intended environment, such as selecting plants that require low light if you don’t have good southern exposure, or plants that don’t require much water if you are not great about consistent watering (or don’t happen to have a leaky roof!). Many plants that we consider indoor plants come from the tropics and need plenty of light and moisture. Because the air found in most homes is so dry, it is actually a very hostile environment for most plants. This is one reason why it is a good practice to mist your plants with water. It is also a good idea to give your plants a “summer vacation” outside on the deck or patio when the temperatures are warm enough. Just make sure you transition them gradually so they can acclimate and do a thorough check for insects when you bring them back into the house.

Since potted plants have a limited amount of soil to draw nutrients from, you need to make sure to feed (fertilize) them periodically to keep them healthy. Some plants can outgrow their pots over time and become “root-bound.” At that point, they may benefit from being re-potted in a larger container.

Having these plants inside will benefit you with better air quality in your home as they filter the air of chemicals such as formaldehyde and trichloroethylene while adding oxygen. Not to mention the psychological effects (oops, too late, I just mentioned them) of having nature around you.

If you are new to indoor gardening, some popular, easy-care foliage plants include spider plant (Clorophytum), corn plant (Dracaena), peacelily (Spathophyllum), mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria), pothos and philodendron. If you are looking for flowers, Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) and Clivia both will flower once a year, while African violets and bromeliads offer color almost anytime. If you can’t keep any of these plants alive, it might be time to consider silk flowers. With them you don’t have to water, but you still need to dust them.


Tried & True or Unique & New

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is a NYSNLA certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at   

Ken Muellers is a NYSNLA certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at


Choosing what to plant can be a daunting decision for a gardener. Whether it is one plant to fill a blank space by your front door or planning an entire new landscape, you have to find a way to narrow the field of potential candidates. A trip to the local nursery or garden center may be a good way to start, but sometimes at a fully stocked nursery, the number of options may grow when you see all the beautiful plants you want to give a home. For someone who has done a lot of landscaping over the years, (yes, I’m older than I look) the choice comes down to two basic options – tried and true or unique and new. 

The safe bet, and the path most taken, is using plants that you have seen or had success with in the past. These “battle tested” plants form the backbone of suburban landscapes all around us. Plants such as azaleas, yews, hostas, daylilies and pachysandra, to name a few, are in every garden center and almost every landscape. With all the other plants to choose from, why do we just see these same plants everywhere? They live! With all the challenges a new plant in the landscape faces – not enough water, too much water, poor soil, insects, disease, the heat of summer and the cold of winter – these tried and true plants have survived. They have not only survived, but have been shown to have attractive leaves, flowers, berries or other attributes, that earned them the right to be planted again (and again and again). When planted in the right spots, in the right combinations, these usual suspects can make for a beautiful, low maintenance and long-lived landscape.

But is there something more? What about all those other interesting plants you see at that local garden center? What about the new hybrid varieties of plants that are just hitting the market? How about that unique flower you saw when you were traveling on vacation? Although these may be wonderful additions to your garden, when you find yourself saying, “Wow! Why have I never seen that plant before?” you may want to find an answer to that question before you plant them.

Sometimes these unique plants are rare gems waiting to be discovered. After all, someone had to be the first to plant a Knock Out rose in their yard. And what true gardener isn’t thrilled when they see a new flower for the first time? But sometimes these odd plants are just poorly suited, fussy or difficult-to-grow-plants that you don’t see because no one can keep them alive in the real world. Others require specific conditions and will only thrive in a particular niche. For every new plant success story there are plenty of plant obituaries to counter.

For me, the choice is kind of like picking what beer to have when I go out to dinner; do I order the local craft brew and get to experience new and interesting flavors or do I simply have a bottle of Budweiser? With the latter, I know what I’m getting, but with the former, I may find a new favorite. Happy drinking – I mean planting!


Danger in the Garden – Poison Ivy

Ken Muellers is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and can be contacted at

Would you like to have a plant that has beautiful fall color, lush glossy leaves and can grow almost anywhere? Sounds too good to be true? Well in this case it is just that. The plant I’m speaking of is my arch nemesis, my kryptonite – poison ivy.

I love being outdoors and around nature, but that love and the desire to run though the woods is tempered with the knowledge that Toxicodendron radicans formerly known as Rhus radicans, aka, poison ivy, could be lurking out there waiting for me.

Poison ivy is called “poison” because the oil from the plant, urushiol oil, causes an allergic reaction to most people when they get it on their skin. I say most because about one in six people don’t get a rash from this oil. For the rest of us, the reaction can include an itchy rash that can blister and ooze for weeks after contact.

Many myths about getting poison ivy lurk out there just like the plant itself. First, the leaves are not always shiny and reddish; that’s just typical of the new growth in the spring. Contrary to what many people believe, you will not contract poison ivy from touching someone that has the rash, but you can contract it from touching pets or clothes that have the urushiol oil on them from rubbing against the plant. You can also get it on you from any part of the plant - leaves, stems, roots and berries, even if the plant is dormant in the winter or even if it is dead. And yes, burning it can release the oils into the smoke that if inhaled, can be very dangerous. If you do have the plant on your property, it can be eliminated with careful use of a general herbicide such as Roundup.

If you do have a close encounter with the vine, you want to get the oil off your skin as soon as possible. There are several products including Tecnu and Zanfel that are designed to break up the oil and minimize any reaction. I have heard of (and tried) a wide variety of wacky remedies over the years including bleach, salt water, oatmeal and herbal concoctions. For severe cases, you want to see a doctor who can prescribe medication that should help. Unfortunately, I personally have had little, if any, relief from any of the wacky or professional solutions.

Because contact with the plant can cause problems for so many, it is important to be able to identify it so you can hope to avoid it. Some common phrases to help you that most boy scouts can quote for you are; “leaves of three, let it be” (the leaves are in groups of three on the stems), “berries white, run in fright” (it is one of a few plants with white berries) and my personal favorite, “if it is hairy, be wary” (the vines often have aerial rootlets that look like hairs clinging to the trees). Poison ivy’s two evil cousins, poison oak (T. diversilobum) and poison sumac (T. vernix) are a little harder to identify, but they are also less common. Because I develop a severe case when I come in contact, I’ve learned to spot poison ivy easily. I tell people I can spot it a quarter mile away. That’s probably an exaggeration; my eyesight isn’t what it used to be.

The good news is that although this native plant thrives in many different habitats including sandy shores, woodlands and open fields, poison ivy does not typically grow in elevations above 4,900 feet. So heading to the mountains might provide a safe haven. The bad news is that recent studies show poison ivy thrives in a CO2 rich environment. With climate change speeding along and CO2 levels on the rise, I guess I better get a new prescription for eyeglasses!


Landscape rehab - before your garden drives you to drink

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional
and can be contacted at 

As we emerge from winter and start to observe our world around us again, some of us may look around and notice that our landscape is a bit past its prime. Maybe the shrubs in front of the house are as big as the house, or you have to turn sideways to get to the door because the bushes have grown in the way. Maybe the plants have been pruned so much that they are starting to take odd shapes that look like something from a Dr. Seuss book. You may see gaps in the beds where plants have died or been removed because they got too big over the years. These are all telltale signs that your landscape is due for a renovation.

At this point you have several options ahead of you. You can leave it be (you didn’t really want to be able to see the house anyway). You can work with the existing plants by pruning or transplanting what is there to make the most of what you have. Some plants such as yews, ilex and euonymus can take severe pruning back to bare wood and recover over time. This “rejuvenative” pruning, when done properly, can reduce overgrown plants to a more manageable size. The downside to this approach is, it may take a few years for the plant to recover and look good again.

The other option for an overgrown plant is transplanting it to another location where it will have more room to grow. Unfortunately, the effort/expense to properly transplant a tree or shrub often outweighs the value of the plant. Also transplanting can remove as much as 90 percent of the fibrous roots putting severe stress on the plant. Sometimes a plant may have sentimental value that will make this cost and risk worth the extra effort.

If pruning or transplanting is not the solution, removal might be the answer. The challenge with that scenario is where do you stop? Often an overly mature landscape has plants that have grown together making it hard to remove only some of the plants without exposing bare sides of the adjacent plants.

Once you have removed any undesirable plants, you most likely will want to add new planting to fill the void. But before you begin randomly filling holes with new plants, make sure to avoid the problems that got you there in the first place. You should look at the landscape holistically and not just one plant at a time. Start from below the ground and make necessary soil improvements such as adding compost before planting. You may want to consider creating a progression of bloom throughout the seasons, so when one plant is finished blooming another starts to flower. Make sure to incorporate evergreen plants that will form a backbone of the garden year-round. Consider how the different colors and textures of the various plants will play off each other. 

I recommend planting battle tested plants that you know have a proven track record in the area. Pay special attention to matching the cultural requirements of the plant (light, soil type, moisture and ultimate size) to the site you are planting. This “right plant-right place” principle will help you avoid pest and disease problems and minimize the maintenance your landscape requires to look good for years to come. With good planning, you will greatly extend the lifespan of your landscape. 

If you are overwhelmed by all this, it may make sense to call in a professional landscape designer who will bring their plant knowledge and prior experiences, along with a fresh set of eyes to help solve your landscape woes. 


Drainage – Keeping it Dry

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

When I started my gardening career on the South Shore of Long Island where I grew up, I never gave drainage much thought. The sandy soils that I was used to didn’t allow puddles to sit very long. When my career path took me to the North Shore, and its heavier clay soils, I suddenly discovered that drainage is an integral part of landscaping. Not only is good drainage important for the survival of most plants and essential for avoiding moss and molds developing, it is actually required by code in many towns. 

When I say “drainage” what I am really talking about is controlling and getting rid of excess water from rainfall. The two main strategies for dealing with this water are a) dealing with it on the surface, or b) putting it below ground. 

Putting the water below ground usually involves a system of catch basins to catch the water, drain pipes below the surface to direct the water and dry wells to store the water. To know how much of all this you need, calculations are done to figure out the volume of water to be contained based on a determined amount of rainfall. Many towns will require you to accommodate 3 inches of rainfall over any impervious surfaces (areas that don’t absorb water, such as roofs, driveways, walks and patios). All parts of the system, from drain to dry well, have to be large enough to handle the volume of water expected. Catch basins can range from small 4-inch diameter plastic grates to 30-inch diameter cast iron grates on top of a concrete box. Dry wells also can be as small as a 2-foot by 2-foot plastic ring to as big as 12-foot diameter cast concrete rings stacked on top of each other going 20 feet down. Once the water is in the dry well it needs to percolate into the soil around and below it (otherwise it would fill up after a rainfall and that would be it for your drainage system). For this reason dry wells sometimes need to be placed deep below grade where sandy soils exist that will absorb the water. 

Some of the drawbacks to putting the water below ground are limited capacity and the fact that catch basins, pipes and dry wells can clog up over time. It can also get very costly to install systems for large volumes of water.  For these reasons many designers prefer to handle the water on the surface.

The advantage of controlling it on the surface is that you can see what is happening. If handled correctly, it can also be less expensive. Water is usually directed by creating “swales,” which are shallow valleys in the grade that allow the water to move from where you don’t want it (usually near or in the house) to where you do want it. These swales need to have enough pitch or slope for the water to move and not puddle. A recent trend is to direct this runoff to low areas planted with moisture loving plants. These rain gardens, or bioswales not only help absorb and filter the water, but also can be an attractive solution to the problem.

When done well, a drainage system is something you don’t even see or notice. Some may consider this a waste of money, but in the long run, I’d consider it money well spent. And with a little luck, it will keep your yard as dry as this article.

Planting Trees - Large and Small

by Ken Muellers

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

Ken Muellers is a NYS certified Nursery/Landscape Professional and can be contacted at 

As a landscape designer, I sometimes realize that the part of my job that will have the greatest long-term impact is planting trees. Sure, we design patios out of stone and concrete and we plant acres of sod, but when I am long since gone from this life, the trees that I have planted will not just remain, but will have grown to literally overshadow those patios and lawns.

Because of this enduring effect, planting the RIGHT tree is all the more important. When picking that tree, it is important to remember that a small tree can grow to be a big tree, but a crappy tree will never turn into a good tree. In other words, if you are trying to economize, buy a smaller specimen of a healthy, well formed tree of a preferred species and variety that will grow, rather than a “bargain” tree that will only be a liability over time.

Some people are looking for the instant gratification of planting a mature tree. With enough money, and an accessible site, you can plant trees 30 or 40 feet tall. But the effort and cost involved may exceed the benefits. This is because as the tree you are moving gets bigger, the size of the rootball must get proportionately larger too. Which means bigger equipment to move the tree, and more challenging logistics to get it to where you want to plant it.     

There is also a law of diminishing returns that comes into play. This is because the larger and older the tree, the longer it takes to get re-established. They say it takes about one year per each inch of trunk diameter for a tree to get settled back in. So if you plant a tree with a 2” diameter trunk, it will start spreading roots and putting on new growth in a year or two, while a large 9” caliper specimen tree may take a decade to acclimate and start growing again. So the two inch tree may even out-grow the larger tree in the years following planting. This is because when a tree is dug to be planted, it can lose up to 80 or 90 percent of its roots. That is also why it is critical that you give a new tree plenty of extra water.

Sometimes relocating a large tree can be done with a mechanical tree spade. Mounted on the back of a truck, these behemoths can scoop out a 90 inch rootball along with the tree and transport it to an awaiting hole. This can help minimize root loss and increase survivability. The key limiting factor is both the location the tree was in, and where it is going – both have to be accessible by truck.

As far as the best time for planting trees, it really has more to do with digging than planting. The stressful aspect is digging the tree and losing all those roots, not planting it. So if a tree is in a nursery already dug, you can plant it almost anytime the ground is not frozen. Some trees, such as cherries, birches and beeches prefer to be only dug in the spring. They call these trees “fall digging hazards.” When I am asked what is the best time to plant a tree I prefer the old standard answer – “Last year.” Better to plant a small tree soon, than a big tree never. Happy planting!