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Maintenance Post SITES™ – Certification Journey at Dancing Tree, Part 2

by Margot Taylor, RLA

As part of the SITES™ certification, I completed a complex chart detailing timing and methods for site wide upkeep. I outlined a wholistic management ideology using physical, mechanical, and biological strategies. My narrative explained how I would protect each resource within the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) framework, which for me assumed chemical free. In summary my strategy would be infiltrate rainwater, build soil biological diversity, and strengthen the ecological structure of vegetation communities. All this, I estimated, could be done in 55 hours per year! Well that’s still a pipe dream.

In 2019, my SITES project will be six years old. Over the years, I’ve developed a management rhythm aligned with the seasons; however, before I dive into my maintenance details, I need to briefly discuss body health. I’ve been blessed with a strong body, but through maintaining my property I can now concede its limits. It is imperative as we grow older that we develop a self-care routine. To keep up a garden we need flexible bodies with strong central cores. I walk, bike, swim, and should do crunches. I laugh that yoga has become my contact sport and that without Erin Bobo and her myofascial massage techniques I’d be a cripple today and unable to perform any yard work. I’ve cut out gluten, most sugar, and drink lots of water and kombucha. And yes, I hire help for the heavy lifting. My doctor last year asked me what I was planning to do to stop attracting the Lyme tick (my annual curse). I explained that I’ve fenced my yard to keep deer and ticks out, I encourage snakes and my house cats to hunt mice, and I check myself daily in the shower. Occasionally I apply some herbal oil that repels ticks, but what I really need to do is get chickens! They love ticks and gobble them up. I did make it clear that I would not hide inside; the outside world is my medicine, I need access to thrive.

Seasonal Maintenance Program

Winter, when deciduous plants are bare, is when I have trees trimmed or removed, rework water management devices, rebuild my trails, cut back perennials, tweak garden rooms, and hunt for vines!

Summer, when the foliage has returned to plants, is when I work to regulate plant growth; edit unwanted plants/weeds; and nurture, transplant, or add desired plants.

Hugelculture elements: Strategically placed cherry logs placed to soak up rain water and increase habitat for soil biological life.

Rainwater Management

For the winter of 2015, I went to Australia to study permaculture, a term for “permanent agriculture.” Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed and refined the permaculture concept, leading to their publication of two manuals on the topic. Everyone should have these manuals in their reference library.  They contain the brilliantly ordered historical knowledge of ancient land workers by climate, simplified by a keen eye for patterns and relationships these manuals find order in methods used to sustain civilizations over the ages. In the first manual is a chart of the Earth’s total water supply. Like similar charts, it provides the storage location (ocean, rivers) and distribution (% of total water), but it also included the dazzling addition of Renewal Time (turnover rates, cycles.) While rivers turn over in nine days, ground water supplies turn over in 4,600 years! If 70% of my Township residents draw their drinking water from the ground, my land practices must focus on restoring groundwater supply! Infiltrate rainwater is my mantra.

Packera aurea lines a trail of woodchips and scattered leaves.

Managing rainwater for optimum infiltration means collecting, holding, and absorbing rainwater to replenish groundwater supplies. With each tree care session, I collect and repurpose wood pieces to stop, slow, and soak up rainwater on my woodland hillside. I dig troughs parallel to my slope in which I layer wood pieces and rock (Hugelculture style). Leaves stay where they fall, or when I clear off trails for fresh chips, I’ll scatter these leaves back on my hillside slopes. I stockpile or collect wood chips for relining my trails or shallow drainage swales. I retain cross-slope trails lined by logs and covered in woodchips to limit soil compaction and thwart erosion. Twigs that fall are snapped into smaller pieces and let lie, or are piled into orderly mounds for wildlife sanctuaries all over my yard! These practices not only help the ground absorb or hold rainwater, they return nutrients in the wood debris back into the soil. Basically, I recycle all organic debris back into my landscape through intentional redistribution and placement.

To manage compaction and thwart force of rainwater runoff, I re-purposed garden debris as edging and filler for garden trails.

Soil Management

I like to tell my customers that trees are miners. Tree roots go deep into the soil, collect trace minerals, and transport those minerals up to their leaves to aid food production. A dropped leaf often contains many of the minerals that if removed would starve the landscape and vegetation of nutrients needed for various life-sustaining functions.

To restore soil vitality, I need to replenish the underground biological workforce. I do so by selecting materials rich in organisms (beneficial bacteria, fungi and microbes) of regional provenance. I’ve applied compost, compost teas, and compost tinctures, all rich in soil life, around garden plants. A life-altering workshop lead by Paul Stamets in Washington State introduced me to the concept of fungal succession. I learned that Turkey Tail and Oyster mushrooms are the pioneers of the Eastern Temperate forest. Having none in my garden, I needed to introduce these fungal pioneers, so I scavenged logs with these mushrooms and scattered them about my property. I’ve also inoculated mushroom spore into logs with limited success.

I work tirelessly to keep soil in place, so I fight to keep it covered. (Thank you, Claudia West.) I use large mulch stuffed socks above and below a planned work area to hold soil in place. I’ll cover freshly exposed soil with woodchips or composted leaves, and ultimately plant over with ground-hugging vegetation.

I move a lot of organic material around my garden. It’s back breaking work. An Australian woman I met cooked up the idea of hitching a large dog to a cart to pull materials about her yard. I love this idea. Has anyone tried?

Resilient landscape design incorporates both plants that are bunchers and those that are runners. Such planting systems reduce weed growth.

Vegetation Management

Jennifer Nichols (landscape designer) and I were tasked with speaking to architects at a conference a few years ago. We wanted to bridge the misconnect between LEEDS certification and building resilient landscapes, for which SITES™ was created. Resilient landscapes are “smart planting designs” and require minimal maintenance because of their wise planning. Our talk explained how to build vegetative systems designed to optimize resources and minimize weeds. It was a presentation by Noel Kingsbury at an ELA conference held at Longwood that inspired our talk. It was our “Ah Ha” moment. My life had been focused above ground. Noel’s lesson was about what plant roots told us about plant growth habit and structure. We passed bare root plant plugs around the auditorium and examined the plant’s roots to deduce how the plant grew. Resilient landscapes imply planting systems, not individuals. A basic resilient system contains both bunchers (upright plants) and runners (horizontal traversing plants.)

A quick survey around my garden, particularity garden edges and perennial beds, revealed mostly bunching plants. The thinking was if I added more runners and low lying plants that filled voids under bunchers, I could reduce my weeding time. This strategy has worked well! Wild strawberries and violets are allowed to voluntarily spread. When there is a new area to plant, I now think about what resilient plant combination would work.

Yearly I add more plants to my landscape. My sister-in-law wonders where I’ll put them, but if my vision is to have all bare ground covered by vegetation, I can always find a space. I plant where gravity serves to help spread a plant and ultimately reduce costs. I place seed heads for plants I wish to spread in a certain area up slope of intended target area.   Even though I will continue to battle with nature as my expanding nature sanctuary brings more wildlife that poops more weed seeds, I’ve harnessed vegetation to help reduce my annual workload.

Looking Ahead

My recent garden review revealed the opportunity to plant more shrubs and trees. (I’m still trying to attract the Indigo Bunting.) I will pay my tree guy to treat for Emerald Ash Borer. I will fight to keep the Pennsylvania ash alive for the next 20 years and retain my small woodland canopy. I will continue to find inspiration from primary sources on ecological gardening to inspire my methods.

I had another “Ah Ha” moment just recently while listening to the audio version of Charles C Mann’s book 1491 in my car. 1491 tries to answer the question what were the Americas like in the Pre-Colombian Era. Based on archeological reports and scientific data, this non-fiction book is very compelling. The staggering truth I learned is that the pre-Columbian North American continent was populated by millions of Native American people, highly evolved civically and culturally. Anthropologists estimate these peoples surpassed the pollution of Europe and the Far East in the 1500s. They fed themselves via a highly evolved land management system across the continent. Catastrophically, 80-90% perished from European diseases before the settlers arrived in the late 1600s. This is why the land was vacant! Mann describes the landscape first seen by European eyes not as “wild and untamed, or virginal.” Instead it was masterfully managed for food production using fire!

I reflected on this historic land management practice and see how useful fire would be in managing my landscape. The excess organic debris would be reduced to ash a great nutrient and carbon sequestering resource I could return to the soil life. By burning, my labor and toil would be sharply reduced, problem plants would be put in their place, and those pesky Lyme ticks would burn! It would be a great win for both my landscape and for me.

About the Author

Margot Taylor, RLA PA & DE is owner and principal of Land Ethics. She utilizes her 35+ years of experience in landscape architecture, natural resource conservation, and environmental education to design and manage an array of landscape projects. Her expertise includes reforestation of riparian habitats, soil and vegetation conservation, and stormwater management. Margot is an adjunct professor at the Williamson College of the Trades, Horticulture Shop teaching landscape design and graphics.


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