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Native plants 'take over' Lake Keowee home
By KELLY DAVIS
August 27, 2005
Three-fourths of an acre of hardpan.
That is what greeted landscaper Rick Huffman when he visited Bill and Nancy Wech’s home on Lake Keowee in 2002, asked by the retired couple to design a landscape on the sloping lot around their newly constructed home.
The Weches were not native-plant enthusiasts. They had in mind a traditional "manicured, sculpted landscape," but in Mr. Huffman they had unwittingly found a native-plant guru. He began educating them.
The result is a low-maintenance, wildlife haven, a landscape almost entirely designed with native plants in natural communities that offers something pleasing every day of the year. It is a refreshing reversal, Mr. Huffman said, of the march of invasive species threatening wild plant communities throughout the Appalachians.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
The Wechs’ top priority at the time was to get something on the ground.
"This yard was taken all the way down to hardpan, by necessity," Ms. Wech said. "We just knew we needed professional help. I don’t think it would have ever occurred to either one of us to lean toward native plants."
But Mr. Huffman, whose Pickens company, Earth Designs, specializes in what might be called eco-friendly landscaping, sensed in the Weches a willingness to accept new ideas. He already knew they were willing to invest, since building a complete landscape from topsoil up is inherently expensive. Overall, they have spent upwards of $100,000, he said.
The decision to "go native" was made easier by a couple facts. One is that Ms. Wech does not consider herself a green thumb, and native plants, when placed in the proper environment, typically are more difficult than many landscape plants to kill.
"I’m not good with plants," Ms. Wech admitted. "My house is filled with silk stuff."
Another factor was that Mr. Wech is an outdoors enthusiast who had ideas — now fulfilled — of building his own rock walls and stairs to complement Mr. Huffman’s design.
"They were not on the same page as we were," Mr. Huffman said. "We did a lot of educating and they came a long way. I’m real proud."
After a few conversations, they decided to not to merely cover their hardpan with lawn and shrubs, but "to bring back the nature, bring back the good insects, to create a habitat," Ms. Wech said.
BLOOMIN’ GOOD RESULTS
Today, the Weches’ landscape is about 90-percent native, with nary a blade of traditional lawn grass. There are some wild grasses, however, such as switch grass and pink muhly grass, chosen both for color and texture.
And while it avoids the manicured, sculpted look of an English mansion surrounded by squared-off boxwood hedges, neither is the landscape wild nor chaotic.
"There’s definitely a plan," Ms. Wech said. "That’s what’s funny about it. There is an element of formality. When you look at it, it’s pleasing. During the day, we sit in the living room and see all this stuff that blooms. I’ve never had so many blossoms."
Starting in 2002, the landscape team first had to shape the underlying hardpan and bring in loads of topsoil, followed by mulch. They integrated coconut fiber mats into the steeper areas to stabilize the soil. Over time, the mats disintegrated as plant roots took hold to take over.
Some of the existing native trees did not survive, but many were brought in as replacements, and some "volunteer" trees are being left, Ms. Wech said.
In designing the landscape, Mr. Huffman considered not only a changeable palette of blooms, but texture. That was one reason he acquiesced to an unusual request by Ms. Wech to include sweet gum trees.
"I’m the only person Rick knows who would pay to have sweet gums planted," Ms. Wech said.
The trees’ sticky fruit balls are an annoyance to most people, but she decided to place one in an area with little foot traffic, and with the intent of keeping it pruned as a shrub. She said she appreciates the species’ attractive fall foliage and wildlife food value.
"No one is going to be playing where this is planted, and it makes a nice shape," she said.
Similarly attractive to birds, particularly bluebirds, are a couple Eastern red cedars Mr. Huffman put in as an alternative to Leland cypress.
There is no rule that non-native’s cannot be used. Ms. Wech puts out several non-native annuals for accent color each year, for example. However, the perennial natives in most parts of the landscape are the dominant species, and provide the most eye-catching texture or blooms.
The design is built around plant communities, meaning plants that would normally grow together in particular conditions of light or moisture, Mr. Huffman said. That adds a sense of nature and improves the success of the plantings.
"The key is the right plant in the right place," he said.
By design, the landscape is everchanging, with something for every part of the year.
"There’s no one particular point or time of year you see everything," Mr. Huffman said. "What was there in March is out in summer. There are asters and goldenrods in fall and the wildflowers come back in spring. It’s really seasonal."
There also are some unique features Mr. Huffman points out with pride, including a two small bog gardens filled with carnivorous pitcher plants, rushes and irises — another plant community — that sit at the base of runoff areas to filter water before it enters Lake Keowee.
One goal is for the landscape to mature in such a way desirable plants will spread and fill in to choke out weeds, reducing maintenance. A native-plant design can reduce watering and pesticide requirements, although some work will still be required, including pruning and regular mulching.
"There is no such thing as a completely maintenance-free landscape," Mr. Huffman said.
Just as wild plant communities grow and change through the years, this native-based landscape on a suburban subdivision lot also will evolve in time.
"It’s a project I don’t think will ever be quite finished," Mr. Huffman said.
The end result is a win-win situation, which the Weches attribute to Mr. Huffman, "an honorable man," and Mr. Huffman attributes to his clients.
"They let us do things that maybe others would have hesitated to do," Mr. Huffman said. "They’re terrific clients."
Kelly Davis can be reached at (864) 260-1277 or by e-mail at davisk@IndependentMail.com.