Friday, March 23, 2012

Landscaping Made Easy, Part 1: Wax Myrtle

Update April 27, 2013:  See also this subsequent post regarding the management of wax myrtle trimmings. 

In a posting last September, I described my first impressions of Centerpointe, from back when my husband and I were searching all over Clear Lake for a home.  Those first impressions weren't very favorable because of the utter lack of vegetation visible even in sections of the neighborhood that are several years old now.  My first impression was that Centerpointe was perhaps the kind of subdivision where people throw up tract homes and then fail to incrementally improve them, which is the kiss of death for real estate values.  I even compared my first impression to Alcatraz!
This is a screengrab from that post, comparing the rows of houses looking at each other to rows of prisoner cells looking at each other.
That description may seem very harsh, but I wanted to be totally honest about how I felt it compared to other options.  I was a house-shopper at that time, looking at many different neighborhoods.  Did I see the same absolute lack of vegetation in other subdivisions?  No.  Look at nearby Victory Lakes the next time you drive down West Walker Street, for instance.  It is also a newer subdivision, so naturally there are no huge trees there yet.  But what you do see is homeowners making an effort.  There's STUFF in many of their back yards.   Small but well-established trees and bushes adding privacy, that kind of thing.

You might want to argue that Victory Lakes is a higher price point neighborhood and that's the reason for the difference.  I'm here to dispel that kind of conclusion.  Good landscaping is extremely cheap if you're smart about how you obtain it and grow it. 

So what I'll do now is begin my originally-intended series of posts to describe landscape plants that I feel are most suitable for a neighborhood like Centerpointe. 

Number one on my list of recommendations is Texas Wax Myrtle.
They have an amazing fragrance.  Sort of like basil.
But don't take MY word for it - go to the second paragraph down in Houston landscape guru Randy Lemmon's list of "Ten Most Underutilized Landscape Shrubs" and read what he has to say about it. 

Several homeowners have expressed their frustration to me because they feel they don't know what type of trees or shrubs would actually FIT into their tiny back yards and still provide some privacy while not overwhelming the space.  Wax myrtles fit that bill perfectly, because they are so malleable: they can be trimmed any which way you want.  If you want to maintain them as small shrubs, you can do that.  If you want them to form a tall screen, they'll do that.  If you want a small tree, you can train them to be small trees.  If you trim them one way and don't like the job that you did, just wait a month or two and they'll fill back in again and you can then start over. 

They can be grown in raised mulch beds or as standalone shrubs put directly into the ground.  Speaking of mulch beds, there's no trick to creating them, but let me run through the basic steps here anyway, for the benefit of any new homeowners who have never done it before:
First you decide where you might like your backyard raised bed to be.  I laid a garden hose on the ground and moved it around in order to get it the way I wanted.  Those two largest plants in this photo are two of the wax myrtles we installed.
After deciding on the bed lay-out, I used spray paint to mark the edge...
...then pulled up the grass sod where the beds were to go (use a shovel and cut it out square by square - it's really good exercise.  Don't plan on doing it quickly - it's a lot of work, but you have to get the grass out so it won't poke up through the mulch).

After the sod has been stripped, dig holes for each of the plants.  Holes should be about 1.5 times wider than the plant, but the top should be flush with the soil top so it can "breathe".  You can cover the top of the root ball with mulch, but most new plantings should not have the very tops of their root balls buried fully into the soil. 

Once everything is planted, simply cover the entire area with a few inches of mulch.  You can also place a landscape fabric between the soil and the mulch if you wish (I did not) to further suppress weeds from coming through. 

Mulch can be bought in bags at the hardware store, or for a cheaper solution, you can order it for about twenty or thirty bucks a cubic yard (a cubic yard is a lot!!) from local sales outlets such as Living Earth down off FM 646 (1000 Dickinson Ave).
One of the benefits of wax myrtles is how fast they grow:
Compare top of six-foot fence with top of wax myrtle.  This guy was barely over six feet tall when he was purchased (remember, in the photos shown previously, they were in their plastic containers, which added over a foot to their height when placed on the ground).  A year and a half after planting, and after surviving one of the worst drought years in recorded history, these suckers are nine feet tall

It will form a uniform hedge if you want it to.  I trim out the bottom growth and sideways growth to encourage additional height.
The only potential drawback that I see with this plant is that it would be a bit more difficult to create a manicured look to it, if that were your goal.  They are a bit scruffier than some other screen or small tree choices.  But they are native to Texas, very drought-tolerant, they smell good, they are disease-resistant, and they grow like crazy.

And they're fairly inexpensive.  If you go to Houston Garden Center on IH-45 just south of League City Parkway at this time of year, which is the absolute peak season for landscaping sales, the relatively large size pictured above might be as much as $300 per container.  But we bought in September, when almost everything at Houston Garden Center goes on sale for 70% off (Houston Garden Center is well-known for it's annual 70% off sales!), so we paid about $100 apiece for ours.  Which are now nine feet tall.  What else could grow into an opaque nine-foot hedge within 18 months and cost so little?  Very few other choices. 

It takes a bit of work to get them in the ground, but it's well worth it.  And you really don't need to go to the trouble of putting them in raised beds if you don't want to.  Just dig a hole and pop them in, and they will likely do fine. 

Or perhaps add the raised bed around them at some point in the future when you have the time.  The important thing with landscaping is to get the plants themselves installed as soon as possible after buying or building your house.  You've heard of the time value of money?   Well, the same principle holds true for plants, which is why I was initially so dismayed to see so many areas of Centerpointe still without a single leaf of vegetation.
Mysterious-looking wax myrtle seeds.
There's a house behind us, but you can't see it.
That's because we're providing privacy for our owners,
who only paid $100 apiece for us.

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