Advancing the science of gardening and other stuff since 2009
Author: Linda Chalker-Scott
Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets.
Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019).
In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award.
"The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors
"The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors
“In the Spring a gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…plant shopping!”
If Alfred, Lord Tennyson had been an avid gardener, I am sure he would have included the above line in his poem “Locksley Hall.” I certainly look forward to visiting nurseries and plant centers in the spring to see what new goodies await. But my enthusiasm is tempered with caution – because bad things can lurk in otherwise perfect plants. I posted a four-part series way back in 2009 (the first year of our blog) on inspecting nursery plants.
I strongly recommend you review these posts before you buy – they are 13 years old but the information is still 100% valid.
Today’s post will add some new nursery nightmares to avoid at all costs.
Free complementary gift!
Make sure you’re buying a cultivar and not a nutrient deficiency
There are lots of interesting cultivars out there with unusual foliage. This dogwood is not one of them. Interveinal chlororis is a symptom of foliar nutrient deficiency – either iron or manganese – most likely caused by excessive phosphate fertilizer.
Fusion can be innovative in music and cuisine. Not so much in plants.
You can’t say they didn’t warn you
Back to nature
The scion of grafted plants is rarely as vigorous as the rootstock. Usually you have to wait a few years for the rootstock to take over, but there’s no waiting with these weeping silver birch specimens! But given how hideously trained these trees are, maybe it’s better that they will be slowly subsumed.
Nothing drives me crazier than simplistic solutions to
complex problems. Given our changing climate, there has been an explosion of
“drought tolerant” and “firewise” plant lists in the gardening world. Most of
these lists are devoid of science and all of them are removed from reality. The
fact is that taxonomy plays a minimal role in determining whether a plant will
tolerate environmental extremes.
Let’s start with the most obvious problems with these lists.
The goal isn’t to have plants that require less additional water – it’s to have
a landscape that requires less additional water. Similarly, the relative
flammability of plants is less important than whether the landscape surrounding
those plants is protected from fire. Plants don’t exist in vacuum and unless
you are strictly a container gardener a single plant’s impact on water use or
fire resilience is negligible. So a gardener’s questions should be “How can I
make my landscape more drought tolerant? How can I reduce the likelihood of
wildfire damage?” And these are questions that can be addressed with knowledge
gleaned from applied plant and soil sciences.
First of all, let’s think about what “drought” really means:
it’s an unusual lack of rainfall. It doesn’t mean no irrigation, and it doesn’t
mean dry soil. Drought is a climatological term, not one associated with soil
water management. Fine roots and their root hairs require water to function. Without
sufficient soil water plants will go dormant or die, particularly during
establishment. Plants that are drought tolerant can tolerate seasonal lack of
rainfall, but they can’t tolerate chronically dry soil conditions.
So we need to look at the landscape factors that allow
plants to survive droughts. This includes
Root systems that are well established. This means no barriers between the roots and the landscape soil system. Barriers include soil amendments and any materials left on roots during transplant (like soilless media, clay, and burlap). Obviously proper planting is key.
Adequate water movement into and within the soil environment. Anything within the soil environment that creates a textural barrier, like soil amendments, prevents water movement. Anything on top of the soil environment that creates a physical barrier, like sheet mulches or compacted layers, prevents water movement into the soil. Sheet mulches include plastics, fabrics, cardboard, and newspaper.
Adequate irrigation to support all plants in the landscape. The easiest way to determine whether there is enough soil water is to focus on one or two well-established indicator plants that you notice are the first to show wilt in the summer. That’s when the irrigation should be turned on. For our landscape in Seattle, it was a south-facing hydrangea.
Properly mulched soil. Mulch is crucial for soil and plant health, especially in terms of soil water retention and temperature moderation. The best choice for a tree- and shrub-dominated landscape is arborist wood chips. The best choice for arid landscapes is stone mulch – but if this landscape is dominated by trees and shrubs, you need the wood chip mulch. Trees and shrubs, by and large, are not the dominant plant form in arid environments. If you are going to grow plants out of place, you need to include the mulch that matches.
These four environmental conditions are key to maintaining a
drought-resistant landscape. In terms of appropriate plants, just realize that
plants with small, thick leaves lose less water than those with broad, thin
leaves. If you want a landscape that conserves water, by all means choose
plants whose evaporative water loss is the least.
I’m not crazy about the term “firewise” as it’s not really a science-based concept. There are natural landscapes that routinely experience fires, and plants native to these landscapes have evolved mechanisms to survive moderate fires. Trees with thick bark, for example, can survive fires that are low to the ground and quick to move through. Other plants may perish in a fire, but leave behind fire-resistant seeds that are able to germinate after the next rainfall. This is not what’s meant by a firewise landscape. Instead, the premise appears to be selecting plants that are low flammability. (Jim Downer tackled this one a few years back but the message just isn’t sinking in.)
Once again, the focus of this approach is mistakenly
directed to plant selection rather than landscape resilience. The best way to
reduce the risk of fire is to have a landscape filled with healthy, hydrated
plants and a soil protected by the least flammable mulch. The two mulches
recommended for drought tolerant landscapes also happen to be the least
flammable: stones and arborist wood chips.
Despite published evidence that arborist wood chips are not very flammable when compared to all other organic mulches, many governmental groups specifically recommend against them. This is a problem. Stone mulches are great choices IF the plants in question are native to arid zones. Trees and shrubs that are not from arid zones generally require the presence of woody debris to enhance mycorrhizal and root health. Without the proper mulch, these woody plants are less healthy and likely less hydrated than their counterparts under arborist chip mulches. That makes them more, not less, susceptible to fire damage.
Most of the confusion around arborist chip mulches is probably the result of regulatory agencies confusing bark mulches with wood chip mulches. Bark mulches ARE flammable as they contain waxes and are not great choices for root and soil health. They should be avoided. Agencies associated with fire control methods need to be better informed about the significant differences between these two types of mulches and how they affect plant resilience.
And finally, it is important to understand that major
wildfires are going to burn anything that’s organic. If you live in such an
environment, the best thing you can have in your landscape is no plant material
of any sort. A buffer of stone mulch is the only logical option.
I’ve promoted root washing of containerized and B&B trees and shrubs for a few decades now. The experimental science is slowly coming along – it can take several years to determine if the practice is more successful in terms of plant survival than leaving the rootball intact. But we know how soils function in terms of water, air and root movement, and we understand woody plant physiology. So it’s pretty easy to predict what will happen when trees, whose roots are held captive in layers of stuff, are then planted, intact, into the landscape.
Early in spring 2021 I purchased a couple of Japanese maples to frame our garage. As always, I root washed these specimens. Here’s a play by play of what we did, and what we found.
After more cleaning and untangling, we have a root system ready for planting. Well, almost.
If you are still wondering why this is a cautionary tale, consider what would have happened if the rootball was planted intact:
The root flare would have been buried below grade.
There would be multiple layers of stuff between the roots and the native soil (i.e., clay, burlap, and media).
The twine circled around the trunk would girdle it eventually.
The poor structural roots would not create a stable support system.
Now, one can argue all they like that there isn’t a robust body of scientific literature to recommend this practice – and there isn’t, yet. But leaving rootballs intact creates textural discontinuities between the roots and the native soil, and poorly structured woody roots are not going to correct themselves. So why not embrace a practice that removes both the soil and root problems?
I like catchy memes as much as the next person. They’re easily memorized and passed on. But “Save the planet, plant a tree” has always bugged me for two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, this simplistic mantra absolves people of doing MORE to improve our environment. It’s a “one and done” approach: “Hey, I planted a tree today, so I’ve done my part.” That’s hardly a responsible way to live in a world where climate change is a reality, not a theory. Planting trees (and other woody plants) needs to become part of a personal ethic dedicated to improving our shared environment, and that includes reducing our carbon footprint in MANY ways.
Second, and more germane to this blog, is that most people don’t know how to plant trees (and that includes an awful lot of professionals who should know better). Planting trees properly requires an understanding of woody plant physiology and applied soil sciences. Otherwise, newly planted trees are likely to die due to one or more problems:
Poor plant species selection
Mature size too large for site.
Species not adapted to urbanized conditions. This includes insistence on using native species whether or not they tolerate environmental conditions far different from their natural habitat.
Poor/improper soil preparation
Working amendments into the soil before, during, or after planting. Your goal is to keep a texturally uniform soil environment.
Digging a hole before seeing what the roots look like. It’s like buying a pair of shoes without regard to their size.
Poor quality roots
Most roots found in containerized or B&B trees are flawed through poor production practices. If you are using bare root stock, you don’t have to worry about this problem.
Can’t see the roots? Well, that leads to the next problem.
Improper root preparation
No removal of burlap, clay, soilless media, or whatever else will isolate the roots from its future soil environment. Take it all off.
No correction of root flaws. Woody roots don’t miraculously grow the right direction when they are circling inward. They are woody; it’s like trying to straighten a bentwood chair.
Planting at the wrong time of year. It’s best to plant trees in the fall, when mild temperatures and adequate rainfall will support root establishment and not stress the crown.
Not digging the hole to mirror the root system, especially digging too deep.
Failing to place the root crown at grade (which means the top of the root crown should be visible at soil level). Look at forest trees if you are not familiar with what a root crown looks like.
Stomping or pressing the soil around the roots. That just eliminates the air space in soil pores.
Adding “stuff” like transplant fertilizers, biostimulants, etc. They are not needed and you risk creating nutrient imbalances when you add “stuff.”
Poor aftercare and long-term management
Failing to add arborist wood chips as a mulch on top of the planting area. Regardless of where you live, natural woody material as a mulch is critical for root, soil, and mycorrhizal health.
Failing to irrigate throughout the establishment period and seasonally as needed. Trees will continue to grow above and below ground, and without a similar increase in irrigation the trees will suffer chronic drought stress during hot and dry summers.
Adding fertilizers of any sort without a soil test to guide additions. Trees recycle most of their nutrients; don’t add anything unless you have a documented reason for doing so.
That’s a lot to think about when you are planting a tree – but when you understand the science behind WHY these actions should be avoided, then you can devise a better plan for planting. And if it all seems to be too much, I have created a twelve-step planting plan that might be useful. Please feel free to share it widely!
Upon reading this post’s title, you may be inclined to stop right there. (That’s why I have an eye-catching photo to lure you in.) While logic may seem irrelevant to your enjoyment of gardening, I can guarantee that reading this blog post will challenge many seemingly logical assumptions you’ve heard or read about. Recognizing unsubstantiated assumptions and avoiding their pitfalls means you can make wise choices about how you care for your gardens and landscapes.
A few definitions are needed before we get started:
Correlation refers to variables whose changes mirror one another. For instance, the addition of nitrogen fertilizer to container plants is correlated to plant growth: as nitrogen levels increase so does plant growth. You can also have inverse correlation, where the variables move in opposite directions. An example is water availability in soil and planting density: the more plants you have in a specified area, the less water is in the soil.
Causation takes correlation one step further: it establishes that one of those variables is causing the change in the other. Using the same examples, we know through published evidence that the increase in nitrogen is causing the increase in plant growth, and the increase in planting density is causing the decrease in soil water because of competing roots. These relationships are obvious to us, but what’s important is that these causative effects have been established through scientific experiments.
Sometimes scientific evidence doesn’t exist to demonstrate causation. That may be because it’s impractical or impossible to run an experiment that tests for a causative effect, or it may be because the experiments just haven’t been conducted yet. The latter is the unfortunate reality for those of us interested in managing gardens and landscapes: there is no major funding agency that supports field research for us. There is research being done, but it’s on a small scale with a shoestring budget…so the body of literature develops very slowly. In such situations, we must rely on established applied plant physiology and soil science to ask whether a suggested correlation might be elevated to causation.
Which brings me to my current source of online irritation: the constant blaming of tree failure on mulch volcanoes. Yes, tree failure is definitely correlated with mulch volcanoes – because lots and lots of newly planted trees fail. But is the mulch to blame? No one seems to care much that there is NO published work to show that mounds of appropriate mulch materials will somehow kill otherwise healthy trees. Instead, observers jump to the conclusion that thick layers of wood chip mulch kill trees. They are elevating correlation to causation in the absence of either experimental research OR known plant physiology. In fact, there is published research to show that thick layers of arborist wood chip mulch enhance tree establishment and survival. And there are many poor planting practices that increase the likelihood of tree failure. But it’s easiest to blame the wood chip mulch, though it’s merely masking a multitude of planting sins.
Not interested in mulch volcanoes? Well, there are lots of other examples of garden and landscape management practices or phenomena that fall into the logical fallacy camp. I’ve linked to appropriate references, when available, that go into more detail:
and just about any gardening product you can think of where there is NO published evidence – or appropriate, established plant or soil science – that supports any causative, beneficial effect on plants or soils. Cornmeal, Epsom salt, gypsum, and kelp products are just some of these.
All of these products, practices or phenomena are correlated with some anecdotal observation (increased yield, healthier soil, plant failure, etc.) that elevates them to causative relationships. But no science.
I’d encourage you to think objectively about your closely held beliefs about your gardens or landscapes. Are you sure that what you’re doing is actually beneficial? How do you know there’s a cause-and-effect relationship? I’m not going to talk you out of your cherished beliefs – but if you are a science-based gardener, you might talk yourself out of them instead.
Four years ago we moved to the family farm (where I grew up) and we’ve enjoyed restoring the 1 acre landscape around the farmhouse. Given that the residential part of this farm is surrounded by pastureland, there is a continual influx of weed seeds into our managed beds. While our thick applications of arborist wood chips have kept out many weeds, they still pop up where mulch hasn’t been applied yet or is too thin.
One of these weeds is Hypericum perforatum (also known as Klamath weed or St. John’s wort), a species native to Eurasia. The latter common name can confuse gardeners, as there are several ornamental species of Hypericum also called St. John’s wort, but H. perforatum is easily identified by the perforations in the leaf. This invasive species is a problem for our cattle, as Klamath weed causes photosensitivity when it’s consumed and can be toxic in large amounts.
In the last few years H. perforatum colonized our stockpile of native soil waiting to be used in our raised beds. It was a small enough infestation that we could pull it all up, but a closer look revealed that some shiny metallic beetles were already busy feasting on the leaves. Putting on my IPM hat, I first needed to identify these interesting beetles. It didn’t take long to find out they were a Chrysolina species.
Chrysolina hyperici and C. quadrigemina (or St. John’s wort beetles) are also native to Eurasia and are specialist feeders – they only feed on Hypericum species. They were imported as biological control agents several decades ago and have been effective in controlling dense populations of St. John’s wort. C. quadrigemina in particular has been reported to feed on both ornamental and native species of Hypericum but not to the extent of causing significant damage.
Both species of the St. John’s wort beetle feed on the leaves, where they also lay thousands of eggs. The larvae that emerge from the eggs are voracious feeders and can defoliate dense stands of St. John’s wort. Like other animals that eat Hypericumperforatum, the larvae become photosensitive and generally feed before sunrise to avoid damage.
Since biological control agents depend on the presence of their host, it’s important to retain a small population of the host. And because this particular beetle is a leaf feeder, one can remove the flowers of the plants to reduce reproduction, but maintain the plants to support the beetle.
Many other introduced, invasive weeds can be controlled using carefully researched microbes and insects. Some of these biocontrol agents may already be found in your area – so it’s important to avoid using insecticides and fungicides, in particular, to conserve these garden assets.
The movie “Field of Dreams” is a family favorite – we love how baseball and the supernatural are interwoven to create a great story. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should – and for those of you that have, you know why it was important for Ray to build the baseball field. Like the magic that unfolded once that physical space was provided, botanical magic emerges from garden soils that support mycorrhizal life. Garden product peddlers have taken advantage of the scientifically-established relationship between plants and mycorrhizal fungi by selling inoculants. And gardeners tend to focus on which of the many brands of inoculants to buy, rather on questioning their efficacy.
I’ve attached a link to my peer-reviewed fact sheet on mycorrhizae for a more in-depth discussion about this symbiotic relationship, but the bottom line is this: inoculants don’t work. To understand why, we need to consider a modified version of the disease triangle. Many gardeners are familiar with this concept, which depicts the three criteria needed for plant disease to manifest: the presence of the pathogen, the presence of a host plant, and environmental conditions conducive to pathogen growth. Pathogen spores are EVERYWHERE in landscape and garden soils – they just aren’t activated unless their host is present and environmental conditions allow their germination. Likewise, mycorrhizal spores are EVERYWHERE in landscape and garden soils. We can make a mycorrhizal triangle to visualize the three criteria for needed for mycorrhizae to develop.
While our understanding of mycorrhizal relationships continues
to expand, we do know some of the environmental factors needed for successful
Soil oxygen. Mycorrhizal fungi are aerobes,
meaning they are active when sufficient oxygen is present.
Woody debris on the soil surface. Mycorrhizal
species are also decomposers of woody material. There is increasing evidence
that a natural woody mulch (not sawdust, not bark) is required for mycorrhizal
establishment. Fungal hyphae colonize the debris, extract nutrients, and
transport them to their host’s roots. Arborist wood chips are an ideal mulch in
this regard as they absorb water and provide an ideal substrate for hyphal
There is a robust body of peer-reviewed research conclusively demonstrating that commercial inoculants applied to plants in landscaped soils have no substantial effect on the development of mycorrhizae. This lack of efficacy has induced some inoculant manufacturers to add fertilizer, especially nitrogen, to increase plant growth and fool consumers into thinking the inoculant was responsible.
The image on the left is the label from a mycorrhizal inoculant. Close inspection (middle image) reveals addition of a fertilizer, which is identical in NPK content to a fish fertilizer (right image).
And here is the lesson “Field of Dreams” provides: if you build it, they will come. Build a healthy soil by mulching with a thick layer of arborist wood chips. Not only do they provide nutrients and absorb water, but their presence reduces soil compaction and increases aeration. You can be assured your plants will be successfully inoculated with your soil’s native mycorrhizal species.
Most of us have witnessed dicot seed germination at some point in our lives – watching the coytledons transform from seed halves to green, photosynthetic structures, while the radicle developed into the seedling root system. This seedling root – or taproot – is important to seedling survival as it buries itself in the soil to provide structural support and to give rise to fine roots for water and nutrient absorption. But that’s where much of our visual experience ends – because we don’t see what’s happening underground. Without additional visual information we imagine the taproot to continue growing deep into the soil. And while this perception is borne out when we pull up carrots, dandelions, and other plants without woody root systems, the fact is that woody plants do not have persistent taproots – they are strictly juvenile structures. Understanding the reality of woody root systems is critical in learning how to protect and encourage their growth and establishment.
Trees, shrubs, and other woody perennials all have juvenile taproots just like their herbaceous counterparts. But these long-lived plants develop different morphologies over time, which are primarily determined by their soil environment. Water, nutrients, and oxygen are all requirements for sustained root growth. Gardeners always remember the first two of these needs, but often forget the third. And it’s oxygen availability that often has the biggest effect on how deeply root systems can grow.
Whole-plant physiologists have known for a long time that “roots grow where they can” (Plant Physiology, Salisbury and Ross, 1992). But this knowledge has become less shared over time, as whole-plant physiologists at universities have been largely replaced by those who focus on cellular, molecular, and genetic influences (and can bring in large grants to support their institution). Sadly, many of these researchers seem to have little understanding about how whole plants function. Simply looking at the current standard plant physiology textbook (Plant Physiology and Development, Taiz et al., 2014) reveals as much. (To be fair, there is now a stripped-down version of this text called Fundamentals of Plant Physiology, [Taiz et al., 2018] but even this text has little to do with whole plants in their natural environment.) If academics don’t understand how plants function in their environment, their students won’t learn either.
Well. Time to move on from my soapbox moment on the state of higher education.
Let’s look at what happens with a young tree as it develops. The taproot grows as deeply as it can, but eventually runs out of oxygen so vertical growth stops. At the same time, lateral root growth increases, because the levels of oxygen closer to the soil surface are higher. These lateral roots, and their associated fine roots, develop into the adult root system, continuing to grow outwards like spokes on a wheel. When pockets of oxygen are found, roots dive down to exploit resources. These are called sinker roots and they can help stabilize trees as well as contribute to water and nutrient uptake.
Gardeners and others who work with trees and other woody species would do well to remember that woody root systems, by and large, resemble pancakes rather than carrots. These pancakes can extend far beyond the diameter of the crown – so this means protecting the soils outside as well as inside the dripline.
Nothing seems to take homeowners more time, or generate more frustration, than maintaining their lawns. In addition to mowing, fertilizing, and applying pesticides for weeds, insects, and diseases, gardeners fret about removing thatch and aerating the soil. Commercial interests have taken note and pedal various “aerifying” products like soap (cunningly described in non-soap terminology), spiked sandals, and thatching rakes. Previous posts (here and here) have addressed ways to decrease fertilizer and pesticide use. This post will look at the science behind aeration of home lawns.
First, let’s acknowledge that most research has focused on maintaining turf on golf courses and playing fields. Neither of these are good models for home lawn management because home lawns have different functions. The turf that one might find on a putting green, for instance, is devoid of most life except for closely mown monocultural (or oligocultural) grasses. The management of these grasses is chemically and physically intensive to preserve a completely unnatural system. Yet these management techniques, including core aeration and vertical mowing (aka verticutting), have seeped into the lucrative home lawn maintenance market, especially to address the dreaded thatch layer common in many home lawns.
What is thatch?
Briefly, thatch is caused by organic material accumulating at the base of grass plants. (It is NOT caused by lawn clippings, which are small and nitrogen rich – they are broken down quickly.) Accumulation of thatch is said to lessen lawn resilience and increase disease, but this appears to be a classic CCC (correlation conflated to causation) error. I’ve seen nothing in the literature to suggest that thatch causes these problems. Instead, I see evidence that thatch is yet one more negative result of poor lawn management. Removing thatch, without addressing the CAUSE of thatch, is an exercise in futility.
Look at these two images of grass-covered soil: one is a typical lawn, and the other is a natural grassland. There are no roots extending below the “thatch” layer in the lawn, while grassland soils support deep and extensive root systems. The problem with the lawn is that the system is not well aerated, meaning that the grass roots are shallow and contribute to the buildup of thatch. Lack of aeration also inhibits a robust community of microbes, which are necessary to decompose the organic material that makes up thatch.
So, lack of poor oxygen and water movement between the grass layer and the underlying soil creates a dead zone in that soil, with life restricted to those few inches of soil where oxygen and water can penetrate. Thatch accumulates and underlying roots from nearby trees and shrubs are forced upwards into the lawn to obtain water and oxygen. This is where lawn maintenance companies promise to fix the problem through core aeration or verticutting.
Does core aeration and verticutting improve home lawns?
While there is scant research on home lawns, the results are fairly uniform: core aeration does not reduce thatch accumulation and does not improve grass coverage. Verticutting can decrease thatch slightly but decreases grass coverage and reduces turf quality. Several quotes from published research stand out:
“All cultivation practices [which included core aeration and verticutting] resulted in some quality loss at various times during the spring transition period compared to the control.”
“Thus, under homelawn conditions, core aeration and vertical mowing should only be used if a specific problem exists and not as routine practices to prevent thatch accumulation.”
“After two years, no treatments consistently reduced thatch accumulation compared to the non-cultivated control.”
There is no published research, anywhere, that supports these techniques in maintaining healthy home lawns. So, it’s time to stop using these heavily promoted products and practices and instead focus on why lawns accumulate thatch in the first place.
It’s all about the oxygen!
There’s no question that lawns can be heavily compacted, but it’s not because grasses can’t tolerate foot traffic. Think about those hundreds of thousands of bison that use to roam the Great Plains grasslands. Even modern cattle ranching, done sustainably, does not damage pastureland by compacting the soil. There’s something else going on in home lawns that creates compacted conditions and the cascade of negative effects that follow; it’s improper soil preparation and management.
When sod is laid for home lawns, several inches of compost are tilled into the soil bed. The tilled soil is then flattened with a roller, and then a layer of sand is applied. Then the sod (which consists of grass and growing media and a mat of some sort) is arranged. And voilà! You have a turfed landscape that more closely resembles a five-layer dessert than a functional grassland. Those layered materials restrict the movement of water and oxygen, and this restricts root growth into the underlying native soil. Not only do these barriers create a shallowly-rooted turf, they compound the problem by stimulating ethylene gas production in grass, further inhibiting root growth. To top it off, the anaerobic conditions in the lower layers restrict microbial decomposition. As decomposition and root growth slow, thatch accumulates. And homeowners despair.
So, thatch serves as a warning sign that soil conditions are poor – and any attempts to permanently remove thatch without addressing poor soil preparation and management are going to fail. Possible corrective actions to improve soil structure and function are beyond the scope of this column; over the years we’ve had blog posts touching on this topic and I encourage readers to explore our blog archives.
One of the popular arguments against mulching landscape and garden soils is that mulch delays soil warming and thus retards plant growth. Given that a well-chosen mulch will moderate temperature extremes – both hot and cold – is this an argument supported with evidence? In today’s post, I’m reporting the data I collected in visiting various parts of my home landscape and gardens and measuring soil temperatures.
For measurements, I used a soil thermometer placed at the
same depth in every soil tested. This required movement of mulch if mulch was
present, so that thermometers were inserted completely into the soil. These
thermometers read the entire length of the probe, so readings represent the
average temperature in the top 5” of soil. I took close-up photos of each of
the areas tested. I took 5 measurements for each location.
Our evening temperatures have been near or below freezing, but the past several days have been sunny and the air temperatures are well into the 50F range. On March 17, it was 68F at 2 pm in the sun, though it was 27F that morning. The morning after (March 18), it was 35F.
There are several interesting trends to see on the
Mulched raised beds have the most consistent
temperatures, with no differences seen at any time or in any location measured.
Unmulched soil mounds have extreme changes,
mirroring air temperatures.
Bare soil in beds under sunny conditions have extreme
changes mirroring air temperatures, but not as great as that in raised beds.
They are warmest during the day and coldest during the night.
Bare soil in beds under shaded conditions are
the coldest soils during the day and even colder at night.
Soil under living mulch (turf) and beds with varying
depths of wood chip are cooler during the day than bare soil in sunny conditions,
but warmer at night.
Bare soil in beds that were newly mulched are much
warmer than bare soils not near mulched areas.
The soil temperature under turf or in beds at
least partially mulched did not change at night (data not shown on graph).
Extreme temperature swings can result in the death of germinating
seeds, seedlings, expanding buds, and other tissues that aren’t cold hardy. This
is especially true of tissues near the soil surface, where temperature are
colder than they are at increased depths. Unprotected soil mounds show huge daily
vacillations; comparative raised structures under mulch are cooler during the
day but warmer at night. And bare soil in the shade is colder than any mulched
soils. Consistency is important for young tissues, as they have few protections
against environmental extremes.
What my little experiment demonstrates is what mulch research
has consistently shown: appropriate mulch materials will moderate soil
temperature extremes due to air temperature fluctuations. Just because a bare soil
is 55F in the daytime doesn’t mean it won’t be 35F at night.