Mortal Kombat – garden version

Soil solarization is regarded as an environmentally friendly alternative to pesticides for controlling nematodes, weeds and disease.  Sheets of plastic (generally clear) are spread over the ground and solar energy heats the soil underneath to temperatures as high as 55C (or 131F).  Since the soil environment is usually insulated from temperature extremes, the organisms that live there are unlikely to be resistant to heat stress.

This is a practice best suited to agricultural production, where monocultures of plants have attracted their specific diseases and pests.  Decades of research have shown success in controlling pests in greenhouses, nurseries, and fields.  But there’s a down side to this chemical-free means of pest control.

It shouldn’t be surprising that beneficial soil organisms, in addition to pests and pathogens, are killed by solarization.  Studies have found that soil solarization wipes out native mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  One expects that other beneficial microbes, predacious insects, and parasitoids living in the soil (but so far unstudied) would be eliminated as well.

This may be an acceptable loss to those who are producing crops; soil can be reinoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, for example.  But for those of us caring for our own gardens and landscapes, this is literally overkill.  (And consider that most of us probably have trees and shrubs whose fine roots extend over our entire property.)

So this spring, instead of solarizing your soil, consider some less drastic measures of pest and disease control. Minimize soil disruption to preserve populations of desirable microbes. Plant polycultures (more than one species) in your vegetable garden, or at least practice crop rotation.  Protect and nourish vegetable gardens with compost.  Use coarse organic mulches, which provide habitat for beneficial insects and spiders, in landscaped areas.  Above all, try to treat your soil as the living ecosystem it is, rather than a war zone.

Mulch much?

[Try to say post title three times fast. Heh.]

Here on the GP blogski, we’ve discussed both the merits and shortcomings of many non-traditional forms of mulch; rather, stuff that covers the ground that is referred to as mulch. Shredded rubber, marble chips, lava stone, dyed lava stone (ick), etc.

But this is a new one on me:



Naturally, I immediately shoved my hand in the biggest tub of glass (part of the Scientific Method). It was not…super smooth. A couple of pieces stuck, and there was a bit of sparkly-dust residue. I tried to remember not to rub my eyes for the rest of the day. Not sure I’m buying the recommendation to “use in pathways.”

"Aaargh! My Eyes!"

Pretty colors…soooo shiny. And recycled!

What’s this? A warning label on the aqua mulch: “Parents, please watch your children’s hands around the glass mulch.”Whoops.

Aargh! My eyes!

Is “lasagna gardening” really worth the effort?

This week I got a complimentary copy of Urban Farm, dedicated to “sustainable city living.”  The cover story is Lasagna Giardino – follow this recipe for a lasagna garden that grows perfect plants – Italian or not.

This is not a new idea, but was popularized several years ago as a way of preparing soil for planting.  The article relates the steps:

1)  Prepare the ground by mowing the lawn
2)  Dig up the first 12″ of soil (double digging)
3)  Place a layer of “noodles” (paper and cardboard are popular) – the low nutrient material
4)  Place a layer of “sauce” (the green material)
5)  Repeat as often as you like and “let it cook”

I like the first step of this.  But my second step would be:
2)  Add a thick layer (12″) of arborist wood chips and “let it cook.”

Double digging the soil 12″ isn’t necessary: we do it because it’s hard work, and we think we need to put elbow grease into the project.  Making layers of noodles and sauce isn’t necessary: we do it because appeals to us -lasagna is a tasty comfort food.

There’s a lot of damage that this “recipe” can cause.  Double digging the soil 12″ destroys soils structure. Don’t do it. The layers of noodles and sauce (especially the sauce) can create an overload of plant nutrients. Furthermore, the “noodle” layers – the sheet mulches – impede water and air movement.  They’re not needed to keep the grass from growing through. Wood chips do this just fine on their own.  And don’t worry about that initial 12″ of chips.  Within a few weeks it will settle to about 8″.  Let it sit for several weeks.  Then pull aside some of the chips and take a look.  If the process is done, the grass and/or weeds will be dead and decomposing – a natural compost layer.  You can then plant whatever you like.  Reuse the chips somewhere else in your garden.

It doesn’t look like lasagna, but it’s a heck of a lot easier and more closely mimics a natural mulch layer than lasagna does.

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.