Keep Calm and Carry On: Part II

Recently I posted that many of the “rules” that gardeners cling to so tightly regarding tree planting (i.e., dig the planting hole 3 times the width of the root ball, always amend the backfill with organic matter) are probably better considered ‘suggestions’ than rules.  While these practices won’t hurt, there are much better ways to spend time and effort to ensure long-term survival when planting a tree.  Here are the top four:

Irrigate.  No matter how much time and effort goes into the ‘perfect’ planting hole; for most parts of the country, trees that are not irrigated after planting are doomed.  Linda advocates watering in several small sips during the week; I still stick to the old school notion of one long soak per week.  In the final analysis, logistics will probably dictate which approach you use.  Either way, the key is to provide trees with water during the establishment year and even into the second year after planting, if possible.

Mulch.  Organic matter placed properly on top of the planting hole will do more good than organic matter placed in the planting hole.  Study after study demonstrates that mulch conserves soil moisture by reducing evaporation from the soil surface, controls weeds, and moderates soil temperature.  Oh, and that business about wood-based mulches ‘tying up’ or ‘stealing’ nutrients from landscape plants?  Maybe for bedding plants, but not for trees and shrubs.  Our research and other studies indicate that, for the most part, the type of organic mulch makes little difference compared to not mulching at all.  Hence, my motto “Mulch: Just do it.”

Proper planting depth.  Width of the planting hole may not matter, but planting trees too deep is a recipe for disaster.  Burying roots too deep reduces oxygen levels around the roots and starts a series of unfortunate events for the tree.   Find the root collar flare and keep it visible.

Bad move.  The contractor was going to install drain tile but decided not to at the last minute to save money. Ouch.

Right tree, right place. In my experience, the number one reason newly-planted trees fail in the first year is lack of watering and aftercare.  After year one, improper tree selection takes the top spot.  Here in the Upper Midwest, poor drainage and heavy soils take their toll year after year.  Lack of water can usually be addressed, but once a tree is planted in a spot that is too wet for that species, it’s usually a long, slow, and agonizing decline.  And it’s amazing how often people will ignore obvious red flags in selecting trees.  Our Dept. of Transportation recently planted 25 eight-foot B&B eastern white pine, which are notoriously salt sensitive, about 30’ from I-96 at a rest area between Lansing and Detroit.  Predictably, after one winter’s exposure to deicing salt spray all the trees were dead or wishing they were dead.  Right tree, right place.  This ain’t rocket science, folks.

Sheet mulching – benefit or barrier?

Alert reader Matt Wood pointed out a recent article in the NY Times on mulching with newspaper and wondered about my take on the topic.

For use on landscapes, I do not like sheet mulches of any stripe.  They tend to hinder to air and water movement, most especially in unmanaged landscapes like restoration sites.  A classic example is the use of cardboard or newspaper covered with wood chips.  The chips are easily dislodged, exposing the sheet mulch which quickly dries out and becomes hydrophobic.  Thus, the roots of desirable trees and shrubs lose out on the water, while the weeds surrounding the edges of the mulch benefit from the runoff:

Published research on sheet mulching in landscape settings confirms the drawbacks of sheet mulching.  But the article in the NY Times is about vegetable gardens.  This is a different situation – more akin to agricultural production than to landscape horticulture.  Vegetable gardens are routinely managed during planting, thinning, weeding, and harvesting.  Newspaper sheet mulches in these situations rarely dry out and, when kept buried and moist, do break down quickly.

So – keep the sheets on the (vegetable garden) bed where they belong!

Another W.O.W.

We’ve been beating up nurseries over Why-Oh-Why (W.O.W) do they sell things like Scot broom.  Here’s one of my  favorite W.O.W’s from the landscape side (Homeowner division).

Why-oh-Why do people think grass clippings make a good mulch?!  This photo comes from near my home.  The homeowner put the clippings down about two months ago.  All the trees were dark green and healthy before the clippings were put down.  Note how chlorotic the trees in the middle have already become and the dead lower limbs where the trunks were covered.   We’re all for mulch but this ain’t it!

Rubber mulch – the discussion continues

Almost a year ago I posted my complaints about rubber mulch (you can find the posting here).  This week I was contacted by Jesse, a purveyor of rubber mulches.  We’ve had a very civil discussion about the topic, and he asked me to review his fact sheet (which you can see here).

Which leads me to today’s assignment. I have no personal experience with rubber mulch, so I’d like to hear from you about your experiences with this product.  Specifically:

1) Have you seen fungi growing on rubber mulch?

2) Have you had issues with the heat captured by the product – either to your feet or to your plants?

3) Does the mulch continue to smell, especially when hot?

4) How quickly do you notice degradation of the product?

Obviously this is anecdotal, not scientific, evidence.  But the scientific literature regarding rubber mulch is thin, and anecdotal evidence can often indicate directions that science should explore.  Perhaps this can be the beginning of such a study.

Why won’t landscapers use mulch?

A few weeks ago I was in Olympia (it misses you Bert!) reviewing grant applications.  As I tend to do whenever I have time and my camera, I set out in search of gardening goofs that evening.  Here’s the edge of a relatively new commercial site I discovered:

OK, not too bad so far.  We’ve got a nice stone mulch next to the curb, then a lovely groundcover, in flower, that also functions as a living mulch.  But what’s that we see in the upper half of the photo?

Yes, it’s Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), an aggressive perennial weed that spreads by stolons and can make dense monocultures of prickly nastiness.  In fact, the front is already advancing on our little groundcover:

Had the landscapers continued with mulching the soil rather than leaving it bare, these thistle seeds might not have germinated.  But for whatever reason, the bulk of the landscape was left bare:

I’m sorry, but this just looks ridiculous.  There was some obvious care in laying the stone mulch and groundcover, but then the landscaper seems to have run out of time and/or money and just plopped in some bulbs and corms.  It reminds me of a birthday cake.

I don’t understand the rationale behind this.  Was this a real design?  Did the client run out of money?  Or (as the more cynical side of me wonders) was this done deliberately to create a high maintenance landscape requiring lots of weeding in the future?

Thoughts?

Pigmented Mulch in Paradise

Just back from a quick vacation to Little Cayman island.  Truly a dot on the map – the whole island is about 7 miles long and a mile wide. Only 150 locals and a couple hundred tourists are on island at any one time.  It’s beyond laid back, with few attractions other than the resident iguanas and red-footed boobies (booby jokes abound).

Airport terminal/post office/fire station.

The big draw is diving – LC is the home to Bloody Bay Wall, one of the most famous dives in the Caribbean.  The reef drops off like a sheer cliff, from 40-60′ to more than 1000′.

All the action is underwater!
(Let me know if you want to see more slightly blurry diving photos.)

“Fascinating, Holly.  But what does this have to do with painted mulch?”

The extent of the landscaping for most yards: conch shells arranged in interesting designs and/or piles. But as we pedaled past a rather upscale condo, I came to a screeching halt. A gorgeous Bismarckia nobilis had caught my eye, but then I saw what was under it. Egad.

Everything comes to Little Cayman by a weekly barge or little prop plane and is wildly expensive. Four-pack of batteries? $15. A six-pack of beer is $20. TWENTY DOLLARS!!!

So, good readers, what we have here is possibly the most expensive mulch on the face of the earth. I can’t even imagine.


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How to get rid of your lawn

With increasing interest in reducing monocultural swaths of turf, summer water consumption, and the drudgery of mowing, many people are eliminating part or all of their lawns.  We did this at home some years ago and can attest to the tangible benefit of reduced water bills during our dry summer months.

The question I often get is – how? Do you dig up the turf and throw it out, then fill in with topsoil? Or do you cut it, flip it, and then plant on top of it? Or do you cover it up with cardboard to kill it?

We’ve tried all of these methods over the years (except sheet mulch, because you already know what I think about that).  What I now recommend is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way to both remove turf and protect the soil. Here it is in four easy steps:

1) Mow your lawn as close to the ground as possible. Scalp it. If you can wait until it’s not actively growing (summer here in the west), that’s even better. Don’t water it!

2) Cover it up with – yes, you guessed it – a really thick layer of arborist wood chips.  They need to be at least 8″ thick and can be as much as 12-18″ deep without negative effects. They will settle quickly, so you do need to put enough down to maintain a 6-8″ depth after a few weeks. The depth is important to suppress the turf as well as any persistant weeds (like those you can see in the above photo).

3) Wait. Turf decomposition will depend on temperature and water availability – warm and moist conditions are optimal. After 2-4 weeks, pull part of the mulch back and check out what’s underneath. When it’s easy enough to dig through, then you can…

4) Plant. Be sure to move the mulch aside and plant into the soil. Replace the mulch to cover the disturbed soil and keep the weeds down. It only needs to be 3-4″ deep at this point.

It’s that easy.

Is Black The New Brown?

Mulch is always an interesting point of discussion as well as the topic of several past GP posts. But I honestly can’t recall if we’ve covered dyed mulch, and can’t search the site, so here goes.

I recently received a request for information from Debbie Dillon, a fine Urban Horticulturist with Virginia Cooperative Extension.  She noted the increased use of dyed mulch in the Northern Virginia area, and has been fielding questions from both landscape designers and homeowners regarding the safety of said mulch and the potential for harmful effects on plants. Black seems to be a fave color of late.

All I could offer her at the time was “Bleccch, I really don’t care for it” and a promise to investigate further. Armed with a bit of spare time and Google – here’s what [little] I’ve found out.

There are several products out there, such as Solarfast MCH and Mulch Magic. They’re used commercially on bulk mulch and are also available to the homeowner without restriction. From the Solarfast website – “Solarfast MCH is a colorant used to restore faded mulch back to its original color. It is environmentally friendly and does not contain hazardous chemicals, heavy metals or other ingredients that are known to be harmful to the environment.”

Is it safe?

The MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Solarfast was incomplete – it did not list components. The MSDS for Mulch Magic indicates the black contains carbon black, red contains iron oxide, and brown contains diethylene glycol monobutyl ether (as well as carbon black and iron oxide). The composition beyond that (carriers, surfactants, etc.), was not noted.  Diethylene glycol monobutyl ether is a fairly common solvent for paints and inks with purportedly low environmental toxicity, but can irritate skin and eyes. Carbon black can be made from various sources but is basically a petroleum product, used in laser printer and photocopier toner as well as the manufacture of reinforced rubber (i.e. tires).  Most concerns are related to worker inhalation at the point of manufacture. Iron oxide is, well, oxidized iron, and has been used as a pigment for quite a while (i.e. cave paintings at Lascaux, Bob Ross, etc.).

What about the plants?

There are many, many studies on pigmented film mulches (usually polyethylene) in fruit and vegetable production.  Certain colors can alter plant growth and processes, such as flowering and fruiting, stem length, etc., but I couldn’t find a thing regarding dyed, wood-product mulch. Issues of concern might be that the dye is disguising the composition of the mulch. Apparently dyes are frequently used on “pallet mulch” – shredded pallets, usually made from softwood. Another concern might be the increase in root-zone temperature, especially from the use of heat-absorbing black pigments. Could soil temperatures warm to the point of causing a too-early bud break?

Is it aesthetically pleasing?

Apparently “yes”, to some, because there’s a market for it. What do you think?


This photo was taken in April at a local medical center (it was a rainy morning, pardon the low light). The fairly typical commercial landscape surrounding the building is dotted with beds and trees freshly mulched in black. Note the classic mulch “volcano” in the background. No sir, I don’t like it. But that’s just me.

Toxicity information on compounds noted available at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – Summaries &  Evaluations,  http://www.inchem.org/

Permaculture – more concerns

One of the gardening topics I’ve researched extensively is the use of landscape mulches.  (You can read a literature review I did a few years ago here.)  So I was more than a little frustrated to see one of the worst mulching techniques – sheet mulching – extolled in the book Gaia’s Garden (pp. 85-90).

Sheet mulches, like newspaper and cardboard, can be used successfully as a temporary weed control measure (i.e. a few weeks before planting a vegetable garden).  Long term, they are not a sustainable choice and often cause more damage to the system than the presence of weeds.

The two-dimensional structure of sheet mulches functions as a barrier to not only weeds but to the movement of air and water as well.  While this may initially increase soil water retention since evaporation is reduced, over the long term they will create soils that are unnaturally dry.  This condition is worsened on low-maintenance sites,where neglected sheet mulches easily dry out, causing rainfall or irrigation water to sheet away rather than percolate through.

In contrast, wet, poorly drained soils will become even more so as layers of moist paper or cardboard restrict evaporation and aeration.  Moreover, this condition encourages root growth on top of the sheet mulch, which can injure desirable plants when and if the sheet mulch is removed.

There are other disadvantages as well.  Exposed newspaper and cardboard mulches are easily dislodged by the wind, animals and pedestrians and often provide food for termites and shelter for rodents such as voles.  Combined with a somewhat marginal ability to control weeds compared to other organic mulches, sheet mulches are arguably one of the least attractive or effective choices for a sustainable landscape.

Sheet mulching proponents will argue that newspaper and cardboard are only part of the mulch structure – that organic materials such as compost and wood chips need to be added as well.  To which I respond – then why bother with the sheet mulch?  Why not just use deep layers of coarse organic materials?  That’s exactly what forest duff layers consist of.  It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that thick layers of coarse organic materials are the best and most natural choices for mulching.  (See, for instance, my  Ecological Restoration article on using a foot of arborist wood chips to suppress blackberry and enhance native plantings. )

The appeal of sheet mulching is its formulaic structure and logical approach – it’s like making lasagna (the name of yet another nonscientific approach to mulching).  Unfortunately, sheet mulching is neither natural nor particularly effective.

Building healthy soils?

I love living in Seattle…but I’m getting increasingly impatient with the City’s “Building Healthy Soils” propaganda.  For years I’ve questioned their recommendation to perpetually amend landscape soil with organic material to no avail.  Let’s see what you all think of their “fact sheet” (which you can read here in its entirety).

“The best way to improve the soil is to add plenty of compost or other organic matter throughout the entire planting area before planting. Thoroughly mixing these materials deep into the soil helps provide water, air and nutrients to plant roots.”

Hmm.  No mention of how to determine IF your soil needs improving; without a soil test, you have no idea what your baseline organic matter level is.

But perhaps this recommendation is only for vegetable gardens and annual beds?  Nope.  In the next paragraph, we’re told to “Mix in organic material before planting lawns, perennials, trees and shrubs.”  We’re given helpful how-to instructions:  “Use a shovel or digging fork to mix amendments into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. It is important to amend the entire planting bed — not just small holes for each plant. When planting individual trees and shrubs in lawns or existing beds, amend an area at least 3 feet wide, or 3 to 5 times as wide as root balls over 12 inches in diameter. Rototill large areas where digging is impractical.”

Now we’ve got a serious problem.  This practice is recommended for existing beds.  Not only will extensive digging or rototilling destroy any soil structure you might have, it will also take out the roots of any desirable plants in the vicinity).

But let’s continue to ignore reality and go on to the annual recommendations for adding compost to soils.
“Clay soils: 16 cu. feet (.6 cu. yard) = 2 inch layer of compost for new gardens. Use 1 inch per year in established gardens.”
“Sandy soils: 24 cu. feet (.9 cu. yard) = 3 inch layer of compost for new gardens. Use 1 – 2 inches per year in established gardens.”

Is the compost used as a mulch in these existing gardens?  No – the guidelines are prefaced with this instruction:  “Gardens: mix compost to 10- to 12-inch depth.”  (Can’t say this does much for promoting root growth either.)

This document shows a breathtaking lack of understanding of how landscapes function, especially over the long term.  It takes an agricultural practice (annual organic amendment of crop fields) and misapplies it to permanent landscapes.  It is devoid of the research which continues to show that improper soil amendment can cause serious problems such as soil subsidence, perched water tables, and nutrient overloads.  This last point is especially important to anyone living near aquatic ecosystems, since excess nutrients always end up in the water.

Before you plant this year, find out what your soil needs before amending it.  And remember that mulching is the natural (and sustainable) way to add organic matter to the soil.