Starr's Mill and Lake, Peachtree City, GA


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"In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt."
~ Margaret Atwood


I'm sure I did! I spent a lot of time playing -- and working -- in the dirt in the spring.

Want to know a good way to meet neighbors you either haven't met yet or haven't seen in a while? Just get out and start digging in your front yard!

People aren't outwardly nosy in this neighborhood but I'm sure many of them were curious at the beginning of our project, and several stopped later on to compliment the results when they saw all the pretty flowers being planted.

Above and below:  Encore Autumn Chiffon re-blooming azalea,
one of about two dozen azaleas we planted in the front yard  (7-2-18)

Not even halfway through this project, I was afraid that maybe I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

Fortunately, it turned out pretty well, if my own opinion and favorable comments from Jim and our neighbors are any indication.

Here's a picture of the front yard before we started digging it up right after the utility locator companies marked the electric, gas, water, and AT&T lines:

"Before"   (5-1-18)

We didn't dig from the red flag to the street, a distance of about 15 feet. That's still all grass and, fortunately, was bright green and fairly thick the rest of the summer and fall.

We completed all the planting on May 27. I took this picture a couple hours before planting the last few azaleas and spreading the remaining wood chips:

During:  almost done!  (5-27-18)

After:  The roses and azaleas grew bigger by mid-October and had continuous flowers all summer and  
fall.  I decided to put pine straw over the wood mulch to reduce erosion and make watering easier.
Note the pink flowers on the Okame cherry tree -- it's supposed to bloom in February!!

Now you know how I spent most of May, 2018. Like many of my projects, it was harder physically and more time-consuming than I thought it would be.

The rest of this page explains why and how we did it.


Maintaining a perfect lawn is either expensive if you hire someone else to do the work or a real pain in the you-know-what if you try to do it all yourself! We should know, considering the number of different houses Jim and I have each owned in several different states.

Even though we were disappointed with the relatively barren back yard when we moved into this house in the spring of 2017, we were mostly pleased with the aesthetics of the front yard.

The centipede lawn in front greened up nicely by the end of April that year and the landscaping on either side was attractive. Shrubs were at or near maturity -- pretty peach-colored Drift roses, Grey Owl junipers, bright pink Lorapetalum (Chinese fringe flowers), deep pink Crape myrtles, and a very tall juniper of some sort on the NE side of the yard (we still aren't sure if that is ours or our neighbor's tree):

Spring:  Dark pink Lorapetalum flowers are in bloom.  (3-3-18)

Summer and fall (above and below):  green grass + roses and crape myrtles blooming  (8-22-17)


Winter:  our first pretty snowfall at this house  (12-9-17)

The two landscaped sides of the front yard look good in every season, especially since all the shrubs except the crape myrtles keep their leaves year-round.

The Lorapetalum even has some attractive bronze and orange leaves all the time, mixed in with the dark green leaves. It also has some flowers all year long but they bloom the most profusely in February and March:


So why would we want to change a thing in the front yard?

Well, during our second spring, weeds in the front lawn were driving Jim nuts, there were some bare spots you can see in the photo at the beginning of this entry, and he wanted a permanent solution -- get rid of the grass!

And replace it with what?? I asked in a bit of a panic.

He just said he wanted it to look "natural" and trusted that I could come up with a solution.

The idea of a "natural" looking front yard is somewhat radical on this rather manicured street where almost all the homeowners have taken out all or most of the original tall native trees in their front yards . . . and put in Bermuda grass that requires a boatload of maintenance by either the homeowners or the numerous lawn service companies that serve Peachtree City. (We've never seen so many lawn and tree service companies anywhere else we've ever lived.)

I took this picture 2-20-18 a few doors up our street before the grass greened up. These yards are
indicative of most in our neighborhood where homeowners took out trees in front so grass grows better.
The little sign in the foreground indicates a chemical lawn treatment was done recently.

Although we employed a professional lawn service for several treatments the first spring and summer we lived here, Jim thought he did enough research -- talking to those guys, having soil tests done by the Extension Service, listening to Atlanta's garden guru Walter Reeves on the radio, and searching the internet -- to learn all about taking care of centipede and zoyzia lawns himself. He's a frugal fella and hates to spend money on things he can do as well or better himself.

Neither of us has ever had either of these two types of grass before (or Bermuda, which is very popular in our neighborhood) and we quickly learned that each requires a different kind of fertilizer, pest control, and weed control -- and at different times of year. Despite using a spreadsheet to keep up with the maintenance requirements, Jim wasn't pleased with the results.

The zoyzia turf in the back yard isn't as much of a problem as the centipede in front, even with the dogs playing (and peeing sometimes) on it. It almost always looks nice because of Jim's diligent efforts to maintain it, although we do have to hand-pick weeds out of it occasionally.

Cody (L, by tunnel) watches as Holly (center) and Casey chase balls in our back yard.  (6-10-18)

Keeping the centipede turf in front (where more people see it!) up to neighborhood standards turned out to be a steeper learning curve than Jim expected, however, and by late April he desperately wanted me to come up with some sort of "natural" solution to replace the grass.

You've already seen my ultimate solution in the photos above.

I tried easier ones first. Jim didn't like my suggestion of just keeping the centipede and re-employing a professional lawn maintenance service to take care of it. Nor did he like the idea of having professionals replace the centipede with zoyzia, since we like it better. Both solutions were too expensive, he said.

I quickly replied that any "natural" solution that would meet community standards to cover half or more of the front yard would have an initial cost that would be higher than several years of professional maintenance! He asked me to go ahead and see what I could come up with.

It was fun to pick out gorgeous plants for the front yard, like this Encore azalea.  (8-30-18)

My "solution" was expensive -- I haven't added it up -- but I did save money by getting most of the shrubs and trees when Pike Nursery had them for 20% off and/or using their Mother's Day gift card special (buy a $100 gift card and get a "free" $25 gift card -- we spent $1,200 doing that = $1,500 to spend). For items at regular price I could get a 10% military discount.

We also saved a bundle by doing every bit of the grunt work ourselves. There was a lot of grunting involved during construction, as well as sweating and even some swearing.


Ambitious amateur landscape designer that I am, I thought maybe we could sort of emulate the beautiful natural-looking landscape of our neighbors directly across the street from us -- not try to copy it, but use it for inspiration.

Out of about twenty-two properties on our two connected cul de sacs, their yard (next two photos) is one of the few with so many trees and shrubs between the house and street.

We love how it looks year-round, with beautiful flowering shrubs and trees in the spring and summer, pretty colors in the fall, and some evergreens in the winter:

The neighbors' yard looks "natural" and is attractive all year long (autumn, above, and winter, below).
[Jim is walking Casey and Holly but the dogs are waiting for me to take the picture.]

The neighbors' yard has handsome, mature trees, azaleas, crape myrtles, other shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers, some of which have probably been there since the house was built 28 years ago.

It's to our advantage that they have kept all those trees and shrubs -- and are right across the street from us, so our new landscape won't look like a total anomaly as it matures.

I knew I couldn't plant (let alone find) mature azaleas, camellias, crape myrtles, and tall trees for our yard but I figured I could come up with a similar "natural" design that would mature gracefully and fill in most of our front yard in ten or twenty years. It could also eventually provide some privacy and shade.

I had some ideas floating around in my head about incorporating a large, artistically-shaped, mulched bed AKA "island" in the front yard but decided to look around nearby neighborhoods more closely on my walks and bike/cart rides to get other landscaping ideas before committing to any particular design. I also looked online at several landscaping/gardening sites for inspiration.

The shape of things to come: view of the landscape island from the window by my desk. Later I dug out a     
little more grass to soften the indented curve on the right so it was easier for Jim to mow around it.  (7-9-18)

After gathering ideas from other sources I drew several potential designs on graph paper, with three trees anchoring the space and several clumps of shrubs around them.

I had some types of trees and shrubs in mind that I really like and/or have grown at other houses in Virginia and Georgia but I needed to do more research online to be certain of what grows well here, how big they get at maturity, and what features they may have that are particularly desirable or undesirable. I wanted the right plants for the right place.

Since our house is just one story, I wanted trees that might get a little taller than the upper roof line but not so tall they tower over the house or so wide they'd dwarf it or create too much shade for shrubs and groundcovers planted under them.

We planted the three trees first. Number 1 is a Japanese maple, #2 an Okame cherry,
and #3 a Brandywine red maple. Each has one or more outstanding features.  (5-12-18)

I had some of the same criteria for these trees and shrubs as I did for the ones in the back yard.

  • I knew the deciduous trees I liked best would drop their leaves in the winter but I wanted them to have pretty leaf colors in the fall and/or flowers in the spring -- something like a dogwood, redbud, or fruit tree, for example.
  • I wanted the shrubs to retain all or most of their leaves in the winter, have flowers from spring to fall, and grow at a moderate or fast rate so the clumps would fill in.
  • And everything had to coordinate not just with other plants in the "island" where we removed the grass, but also look good with the already-established Drift roses, junipers, crape myrtles, and Lorapetalum nearby.

Each new Peach Drift rose bush has a variety of colors and forms of flowers,
as shown above, which is both interesting and unusual.  (8-30-18)

All of this was a tall order but I approached it methodically and got more and more enthusiastic about it as I made decisions about what to plant and where.

Although the process got stressful during the actual construction of the island, especially getting rid of the grass, the planning and purchasing phases were great fun. I love to find the "perfect" plant for a particular location and dream about the Big Picture of how it's all going to look someday.

I'm dividing this project into phases but the remaining ones had some overlap. For example, we started planting some of the shrubs and trees in the front section toward the street before removing all of the grass in the section closer to the house.


Gotta admit, this part was the most fun of the whole project!

In order to take advantage of either newly-arrived plants at Pike's or their sporadic 20% off sales on what I wanted, I purchased most of the shrubs and two of the trees before we even had the grass removed for the island, let alone dozens of holes dug.

And Jim talked me into getting 30 bags of wood mulch at Lowe's even before that when they were only $2/bag! [Note to self No matter how much of any kind of mulch you choose, it won't go as far as you think it will and you'll have to go get more.]

Drift roses in waiting, stored behind the fence until ready to plant  (5-7-18)

I chose two 30-gallon trees -- a Brandywine red maple and an Okame flowering cherry. The red maple can eventually reach 40 feet high and 20 feet wide, the cherry 20-25 feet high and wide. We spaced them far enough apart with their mature size in mind.

The red maple has green leaves in the spring and summer, and long-lasting, brilliant red to reddish-purple color in autumn. The leaves weren't very bright this fall because so many had fungus on them in the summer from too much rain. Some of them fell before they had a chance to turn red. Hopefully they'll do better next year.

Okame cherry trees have beautiful pink blossoms in mid-February, green leaves in spring and summer, and gold leaves in autumn. There are a lot of cherry trees in Peachtree City and they are simply stunning in early spring, just as they are in Washington, DC.

There is a line of what I think are Okame cherry trees on both sides of a street
that's on one of our favorite walking routes. It was stunning in February.  (2-17-18)

The 9-foot-tall Okame cherry tree we purchased looked great until August, when fungus from too much rain made all the leaves turn yellow and drop off. The Pikes manager, a young fella with a masters degree in horticulture, assured me it's normal for cherry trees and some other fruit trees to drop their leaves that early in Georgia, even in non-monsoon years. OK then.

What really surprised both the manager and me was soon after all the leaves came off, new green leaves and pretty pink FLOWERS appeared on the tree -- in late September, for crying out loud! I don't think he would have believed me if he hadn't seen pictures of it on my phone.

Confused Okame cherry tree, blooming in mid-October
instead of mid-February (AND with new green leaves) 

More and more new leaves and flowers appeared in October and many are still there at Thanksgiving! I'm just hoping the tree flowers again in February, when it's supposed to. It's a very confused young tree right now.

The third tree in my plan was the Bloodgood Japanese maple I'd planted in the back yard a few weeks prior to this. I decided it made a better specimen in the front of the house than 'way back near the fence behind the house where even we couldn't see it very well and no one else could, either.

This tree had dark red leaves in the spring when I transplanted it from a more shady spot in the back yard. Then it gradually turned mostly green in the summer, perhaps because it had more sun. In the fall it turned darker red again, and a more bright red in November.

The autumn transformation began with just one precocious little red leaf in mid-October:

The next two photos show its color on November 25:

Above and below:  Bloodgood Japanese maple (11-25-18)

The mature size of the Japanese maple is approximately 15-20 feet tall and wide. It's a very popular tree in Peachtree City because the color is so stunning this time of year.

I also chose about twenty peach-colored Drift roses to match the ones on either side of the yard, six Knockout roses in two shades of pink, and a couple dozen Encore azaleas in a variety of white-pink-salmon colors.

Drifts are called "groundcover" roses because they are relatively low and spread two-four feet wide. They grow very quickly and are covered with lots of flowers from spring to December. They keep most of their green leaves all winter, too. I love them! That's why I have so many in the front and back yards.

Some of the Drift roses I planted in front quickly spread to 3 or 4 feet wide. They've been
full of flowers since I planted them in late May; it's now late November.  (8-30-18)

Knockout roses get taller than Drifts and not as wide the first couple of years but they can get quite large when mature. Our Knockouts have fewer flowers so far than the Drifts. Both types stay green all winter.

Both types also produce more flowers faster when dead-headed after blooming and they should be pruned in late winter/early spring to be bushier. The only other things they require are occasional fertilizing and watering when needed.

Pink Knockout rose  (7-30-18)

Encore azaleas are also fabulous. As the name implies, the flowers keep coming back from spring to fall/early winter. Our roses and azaleas were still blooming in mid-December last year and they're going strong right now in late November of this year.

There are currently thirty-two varieties of the Autumn series of Encore azaleas and we've got more than twenty of them. They have different shades and sizes of green leaves in the spring and summer. Some types have leaves that turn bronze or other colors in the fall. The flower sizes, shapes, and colors also vary from one type to another.

The leaves on Encore Autumn Carnation will turn bronze in the winter. (7-2-18)

Encore Autumn Twist has unique purple stripes.  (7-2-18)

The local Pike's has had a good selection of almost all the different varieties of Encore azaleas year-round, since they can be planted in this growing zone about any time. I spent a while looking at the Encore website to determine which types to use in each of four different groups in which I planted them so the heights, colors, and times they flower would work well together in each clump.

I'll do a separate entry on Encores someday so I can show the flowers on all the different ones we have.


OK, just how did we proceed to prepare the "island" and plant all these things??

First, we had the utility locators come out and mark the locations of the electrical, gas, water, and AT&T lines. They all came within a day or two. This is a critical step before digging.

Unfortunately, no one could/would tell us where our sewer line is. Fortunately, we never hit it!

Here's another view of the marked lines relevant to this project. I took photos
everywhere they marked for future reference, although it's safest to have
them mark the utilities again if we dig somewhere else.  (Day 1, 5-1-18)

The next step was determining where to make the large planting bed and how to make it attractive. I call it an "island" because "pine island" is a common term in this area for large mulched areas with one or more trees, usually pines, in them. You can see them all over the metro Atlanta area in peoples' front yards. There may or may not be an under-story of shrubs or flowers.

From looking online and at other yards in Peachtree City, I knew I wanted sort of a free-flowing, curving design and not just a square or rectangle. The easiest way to do this is to lay out flexible garden hoses until you find a design that is pleasing.

We tinkered with our hose design for a while and expanded it a few feet after starting to kill or otherwise remove the grass.

I should have taken a picture with the hoses but didn't. You can see the original outline in the next picture where the grass is starting to die or is covered up:

The grass in the island was starting to lose its color one week after applying Roundup but not dead
enough to dig it up easily. We went ahead and planted the cherry and Japanese maple trees Day 8.

I placed old, empty shrub/tree containers where I wanted the three trees, then visualized how I wanted the groups of roses and azaleas to be arranged.

I soon realized the island needed to be bigger than originally planned. I had to consider how large everything will eventually get. We can always expand the island in the future if we decide to add more shrubs.

The next step was getting rid of the centipede grass. There's a good reason why it's got that name! By early May, it was green and firmly rooted. I wanted all the roots out and tried to saved as much of the topsoil as I could. Composted dirt went down only about 3-4". Below that was common, ubiquitous Georgia clay. Ugh.

Above and below: By Day 13 we were able to dig up the
front part of the island and plant most of the roses.

We researched different ways to completely remove grass. Some were simply too unsightly for our neighborhood. Others would take too long or cost too much.

The first method we chose was spraying Roundup on about three-fourths of the grass we wanted to take out. That's what is fading or brown in the pictures above.

Using Roundup wasn't totally satisfactory because it took almost two weeks for that grass to die, we were concerned about the effects of soil contamination on the new plants we were putting in, and we still had to carefully remove all the dead grass and roots from the dirt with hand tools.

Day 14: We had several roses planted and mulched, but more grass in the
light brown area needed to come out before we could plant more shrubs.

Day 24: We got a lot of rain the past 10 days, which slowed progress.
You can see how we worked in sections, extracting grass as weather allowed.

While we were waiting for the Roundup-sprayed part to die, we planted the three trees and tried to kill the remaining grass in the island by covering it with a tarp and several bags of the wood mulch we had purchased. That didn't work well because it rained a lot the last half of May and the grass just decayed and got slimy, not brown.

The dead grass we had sprayed with Roundup wasn't real hard to extract from the soil when the ground was dry in early May; it just took a lot of time with digging/beating/shaking it with hand tools to get all the roots out and preserve as much topsoil as possible.

Once we had the first good-sized section cleared on the part of the island near the street, Jim started digging holes for the roses. We'd get several planted and mulched, then I'd get busy extracting grass from the dirt again. When it began raining the third week of May, it was harder to extract even the dead brown grass and roots from the wet soil and our progress slowed.

Above and below:  Day 27, planting the last remaining azaleas (about 15 of them)

The worst part of the whole project for me was digging up the remaining wet, slimy, still-green, decaying grass under the tarp and bags where we didn't use Roundup. It was hard work. I turned the wet clumps over so the dirt and clay would dry out but continuous rain hampered my progress. Some days it was simply too wet to remove grass or dig holes for more shrubs.

I was frustrated because I wanted to get the project DONE. It seemed like an eternity before we got all the grass removed but it was actually only about twenty days.


Jim was particularly helpful here because he dug most of the holes for me. As noted, there were about four dozen good-sized holes that had to be excavated. Then I did most of the planting myself, tweaking my not-so-final design plan a bit as I planted each group of shrubs.

I used the best techniques I know to properly plant all the trees and shrubs -- holes as wide and deep as recommended, amended soil in the bottom, plants put in at the correct depth, lots more amended soil placed around them and tamped down, proper watering, and adequate mulch when done. Each plant had fertilizer in its pot so I didn't add much more starter fertilizer.

Even though all these trees and shrubs are guaranteed for life, it is so much work to plant them that I want each and every one of them to flourish. It's a pain when I have to take any of them back.


At the time I'm writing this in November, all the trees and roses and all but two or three of the Encore azaleas in the island have done quite well.

One azalea died in October for unknown reasons and I got a refund for it. Since we're going to be gone in December and January, I haven't replaced it yet. Two others have some dead branches all of a sudden. Again, I don't know why. I'll see what they look like in the spring before deciding whether to replace them, too.

We started killing some of the grass on May 1 and digging up the first clumps about May 12. We finished planting and distributing the mulch on May 27, a total of twenty-seven days. It would have gone faster without all the rain.

Day 27:  View from the street the day we completed the initial project

I have done only a little tinkering with the island since May 27.

I took out a little more grass in the indentation on the left that you can see in the picture above so it'd be easier for Jim to mow. I added a little yellow/orange rose bush a neighbor gave me near the driveway where she can see it from her house, and one new Encore azalea in a spot near the Japanese maple. I put pine straw over the wood mulch to reduce erosion from heavy rains and to make watering easier.

I've also added some groundcover plants next to the driveway. Initially I thought about planting some sort of sun-loving edging around the island next to the grass. Online research led me to Asiatic jasmine as a possibility, so when the project was mostly done I hunted for it at Pike's.

They had two types, both of which are evergreen, low, and spread up to 24" in diameter. The plants I bought are already about 18" in diameter after six months.

The more common and less expensive variety I found has red, orange, and green leaves. The kind I chose, however, is called Snow 'n Summer. It has softer colors of pink and white with green, which look better next to the variations of pink/salmon azaleas and roses next to it:

I eventually ended up with six plants and put them next to the driveway instead of the grass. They'll get more sun there and won't get mixed up with grass. The more sun Snow 'n Summer gets, the more pretty pink and white colors it has.

I'll continue to look next spring for something suitable to plant next to the grass in hopes of ending the manual edging I have to do occasionally when the centipede invades the mulched island. Hard edging like bricks or concrete aren't suitable because I may expand the island someday and the centipede will grow over and around it anyway.

That doggone centipede grass is still a bit of a problem, isn't it?

Next entryafter all these years -- Jim's return to competing in ultra-distance foot races [well, before I could get to that we had to say goodbye to Cody, so the next entry is about his well-lived life]

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, Casey, and Holly-pup

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2018 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil