Equestrian Professional's Tip of the Week! - Fall Landscaping

Thursday, September 30, 2010

As shorter days and a falling thermometer herald the start of fall, now is the perfect time to give the landscaping around your farm some attention. There are many benefits to a well-landscaped horse farm.
* Smart landscaping can moderate temperatures in the barn and arena, protect against wind and snow drifts, and create healthier and safer pastures, all without using electricity.
* Plants attract wildlife, especially birds and pollinators.
* An aesthetically-pleasing farm keeps existing clients happy and helps attract new ones too.

Whether you're starting from scratch or maintaining what's already there, much can be done this time of year to maximize the look and functionality of your landscape for years to come.

I've enlisted the help of Pat Kiffney, owner of Green Pony Garden, to offer tips to improve the landscaping around your barn. Some of the information provided by Pat, particularly regarding specific plants to consider, is based on the climate of the southeastern U.S. where she resides; however, the tips provided are applicable to climates of all types.

"Building productive, useful and sustainable plant communities starts with careful preparation and proper siting," says Pat. "Always test your soils using a kit from your county agriculture agent before any major planting." The information provided from a soil test includes nutrient content of your soils - particularly important are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - and soil pH. This information is essential to know how to properly fertilize and lime your soil.

Early fall is a great time to take an inventory of your existing landscape. How did your plants do during the record heat of this past summer? Check their overall health and take note of any damaged or diseased plants. Also note those that survived the summer exceptionally well. Use this information as you plan ahead.

Build a windbreak using hardy, easily established, fast growing trees

One very worthwhile landscaping project to accomplish this fall is to build a windbreak, a tall, dense wall of vegetation that naturally protects your house, barn or arena from the elements. "Base your windbreak around hardy, easily-established, fast-growing trees native to your region" says Pat. "A staggered row of pines and cedars works extremely well in North Carolina. Add red buds, dogwoods, and a chalk maple for brilliant fall colors (toxic plants to avoid, including certain maple species, are discussed later). Plant the windbreak along the north side of your home, barn or arena, where the coldest and most damaging winds generally blow from."

Do you have ponies or other horse breeds prone to founder? Consider planting a row of trees just outside the fence line of your pastures. The shade from the trees will help reduce the sugar content of pasture grasses, reducing the risk of laminitis.

The fall is a very good time to transplant existing trees or plant new ones purchased from your local nursery, as the intense summer heat so stressful to new plants has passed. Prices may also be cheaper in the fall, as nurseries want to unload their inventory before the winter. For saplings purchased from a nursery, early fall is a good time to plant because soil temperatures are still warm enough that some new root growth may occur to help establishment. Transplant existing deciduous trees later in the fall when the leaves have dropped but before the frost sets in. Dropped leaves signify the tree is in dormancy and able to tolerate being transplanted. There are exceptions to this general tenet. Larger trees and some species such as dogwood, sweet gum, and birch that are unusually susceptible to winter damage are best planted in the early spring.

Quicker gratification

While planting a windbreak is a great long-term investment for your horse farm, for a more instant reward Pat recommends planting a few dozen daffodil bulbs later on this fall. "Around Thanksgiving is a good time," she notes. "February Gold,' 'Tete a Tete' and 'Thalia' will give you and your neighbors a cheery sunny greeting if planted by your front gate when spring comes again."

Use "green" landscaping techniques

Pat encourages using environmentally-friendly landscaping practices. "Avoid petrochemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides," she notes. "You want to improve your soil, not sterilize and exhaust it. Ground cover of buckwheat, annual clovers or soybeans, turned over or simply mown before planting are healthier, less expensive methods to improve your soil."

Pat also reminds her clients that their horses provide all the fertilizer they need. Picking up and composting your manure is an economical and eco-friendly way to nurture your landscape.

Permaculture and stacking

Pat also advocates the use of permaculture, an ecological approach to landscaping that mimics the efficiency of nature, where biological outputs are constantly recycled as inputs, often in the form of nutrients.

"A great example of a permaculture technique is stacking, in which plants of different heights are grown together as a community" Pat says. "This results in getting more bang for your buck." For example, Pat recommends planting an orchard of apple trees underplanted with highbush blueberries and sown with crimson clover and alfalfa or winter rye. "Legumes fix nitrogen to nourish your plants, flower blossoms bring pollinators, and ground cover inhibits weed infestations" she says. Sounds better than spraying Round-Up all over your farm, doesn't it?

Using the apples from your orchard to make cider for your friends and barn clients is a great way to get additional use out of your landscaping. Be aware that apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide that can be harmful to horses if eaten in very large quantities (the occasional treat is fine), so keep your horses fenced out of the orchard and be particularly careful of mares in foal.

Identify and avoid trees that are poisonous to equines

When designing and managing your landscape, it is imperative that you learn how to identify and avoid plants that are poisonous to horses. As Pat points out, "red maple (Acer rubrum) is one example; it's toxic when lush summer foliage withers. This of course happens during the fall, but can also happen if the tree or branches fall during a storm. Identifying and removing these maples and other toxic plants from pastures and fence lines can avert tragedy. Here in North Carolina, 'Datura' - so called locoweed - often infests overgrazed pastures. Other plants are more exotic, such as yew and oleader. Cherry, peach, black walnut, and black locus must also be avoided in and around pastures. Consult your county agriculture agent for a complete list and description of plants to avoid."

"All this sounds like a lot of work. It is," says Pat. "But the rewards are tremendous. Walking down the road to your barn protected from the icy blasts of a January norwester by your new windbreak will make all the hard work worthwhile," Pat states with the type of certainty that comes from experience. Your horses, boarders, students, friends, and visitors will be equally appreciative. And remember, happy clients are good for business.