How and Why to Mulch

We never stop learning. No matter how much we think we know about a subject, there is always more to learn. 


Take mulching, for example.  Mulching is simply covering the soil around plants with a protective material, organic or inorganic.  This helps maintain moisture in the garden, decreases soil compaction, modifies soil temperatures and adds nutrients and humus to the soil as they decompose. 

It’s that time of year to mulch existing perennials, shrubs and trees. While a little chicken manure is good worked into the veggie garden, composted horse manure works better as a mulch for the rest of the garden.  Chicken manure is high in phosphates and too much can inhibit beneficial microbes in the soil.  It also feed the weeds.  They love it.  A better method would be to cover a layer of compost or  composted horse or steer manure with a thick 4" layer of wood chips.

Wood chips offer additional benefits: They’re local, free from arborists, and affordable from the transfer station in Ben Lomond  . Any disease in the chips doesn’t transfer to healthy plant roots, as long as you don’t dig the chips into the soil.  You can also buy clean chips from landscape supply yards or in convenient bags from nurseries.

To make the most of , learn what kind of soil you’re working with.  The University of Massachusetts at Amherst  ( www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/ ) offers a basic standard test for $9.  It includes  pH, buffer pH, extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), extractable heavy metals (Pb, Cd, Ni, Cr), and extractable aluminum, cation exchange capacity, percent base saturation. 

Our local soil testing laboratory in Watsonville, Perry Laboratory, offers a comprehensive test.  Their web site is  www.perrylaboratory.com.  The landscape package they offer includes basic fertility, micronutrients, salinity, alkalinity, texture, organic matter content and lime content. The main difference between the two labs is that Perry’s  will give you  specific recommendations based on your results to improve your soil. 

Make sure you get fresh mulch spread over your garden plants soon.  You’ll be amazed at the difference in your garden this season.  A mulched garden is a happy garden. 

Start your cool season veggies

Plants and trees know when it’s time to bloom and begin growing for the season.  Driving around our area I’ve seen the huge flowers of the saucer magnolias starting to unfurl. Many plum trees look like pink clouds they have so many blossoms. It’s time to start planning and planting the vegetable garden.
 
Towards the end of this month start your tomato and pepper seeds indoors so they are ready to transplant outdoors in 6-8 weeks. Meanwhile, begin sowing seeds of cool season vegetables outside. Prepare the soil by amending with compost and plant seeds for carrots, peas, spinach, beets, chard and lettuce. You can get a jump on your spring harvest by setting out starts of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and green onions.

If you don’t want to wait even that long to start eating your own healthy vegetables, try growing micro greens inside your house like houseplants. It’s similar to sprouting alfalfa, cress, sunflower and buckwheat seeds in a jar and eating them before the second set of leaves emerge. Micro greens, however, can be grown in soil, sprinkled on sponges or fine textured fabric. Because they won’t be around long enough to flower or fruit, they don’t need much light. . It takes about 30 days for micro greens to set their first leaves and be ready to harvest. When the first leaves appear they are at the peak of their nutritional concentration.

What do they taste like? Well, carrot greens, after they set their first true leaf, taste exactly like a carrot. Emerging radish leaves are spicy, cabbage is mild, while sunflowers are nutty. The first swiss chard leaf tastes like spinach, beets have an earthy flavor and kale is slightly sweet. The most intense flavor comes when that first leaf opens as they begin to manufacture energy from light.  Think of them as chia pets you can eat.

Fruit & Flowering trees from Bare Root

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how to get a bare root plant off to a good start in your garden.  Over the years I’ve planted Floribunda crabapple, Autumnalis flowering cherry, Eastern redbud, Purple Pony and Blireiana flowering plums and Jacquemonti birch all from bare root.  They’re soooo easy to plant this way.  If I had more roomand sun these are some of my favorite trees that I’d add to my own garden this year. 

If you want a tree that’s both highly ornamental and produces great tasting fruit as well, try Saturn flowering and fruiting peach.  The fruit is large, yellow, freestone and delicious.  As if mouth-watering flavor isn’t enough the tree produces masses of large, double, pink flowers making a spectacular show in the spring that rivals the most ornamental cherry tree.

I love flowering crabapples not only for their spring blossoms but for the small fruits that attract birds in the fall and winter and Prairifire is one of the best.   Red buds open to bright pinkish red single flowers that cover the 20 foot tall tree.  Purple foliage follows which turns bronze green by summer.  Fruit is deep red, only 1/4" in size, and hangs well into winter on the tree.  This crabapple has excellent disease resistance to scab, cedar-apple rust, mildew and fireblight which sometimes plagues some crabapples.  It would make an outstanding ornamental tree in your garden.

I eat a lot of almonds.  One handfull is only 160 calories and is an excellent source of vitamin E and magnesium and a good source of fiber and phosphorus as well as protein, potassium, calcium and iron.   I’d plant a compact Garden Prince almond if I had just a little more sun.  They grow to 10-12 feet and can be pruned easily to 8 feet.  Soft-shelled, good quality sweet kernels ripen in late September to early October on self-fertile trees that set large clusters at a young age.  Dense, attractive foliage follows showy pink blossoms. 

Looking for a tree to provide shade for the patio table?  How about a drought tolerant Golden honeylocust? Fast growing to 40 feet tall with a 35 foot spread this beautiful tree’s leaves emerge a bright, golden yellow at the tips contrasting with the deep green inner foliage making it look like a flowering tree bursting with bloom.  Seedless and thornless, this tree has spreading arching branches and casts filtered shade, allowing growth of lawn or other plants beneath the tree’s canopy.  It’s tolerant of acid or alkaline soils, drought, cold, heat, and wind.

Another good shade tree to consider is the Golden Rain tree.  Enormous panicles of golden yellow flowers drape from the branches in the summer when you spend more time outdoors.  Fat, papery fruit capsules resembling little Japanese lanterns last well into autumn. Growing about 30 feet tall,  open branching casts light shade underneath,  perfect for a hammock on the lawn but this tree would also be a good patio or street tree.  Very adaptable to different soils as long as drainage is good.

This last suggestion is just plain fun.  If you have the room and enjoy putting together flower arrangements, why not plant a ?  Long silvery catkins covered with pink caps are very showy in the winter when the plant is dormant.  The mature height is 15 feet tall with a 10-15 foot spread but can be kept to shrub size by cutting to the ground every few years.

Remember that while these trees and also the pussy willow need six hours or more of sun during the growing season they are dormant in winter and don’t mind being in shade for that part of the year.  So if you live where winter sun is scarce you can still grow edibles and ornamentals successfully.

Planting Bare Root

At first glance,  bare root trees,  shrubs , vines and berries don’t look very inspiring.  It’s hard to imagine that those dormant branches harbor a bounty of fruits, flowers and vegetables.  It can all be yours, however, by planting from bare root stock now available in nurseries.

What exactly are bare root plants and why do they make a good choice when you want to add to your garden?  Bare root plants are carefully dug up at growing grounds  with their roots bare, meaning that most of the dirt around the roots has been removed.   One of the largest growers harvests 2 million bare root plants iSyringa chinensis
n a 30 day period, usually in December.

One of the primary advantages of bare root plants is that they tend to have an extensive, well developed root system as a result of being allowed to develop normally.  When the trees are handled well, the root system is left intact, and the tree, shrub, vine or berry will have a better chance of rooting well and surviving when planted.   Bare roots don’t have to adapt to any differences between container soil and your garden’s.  Bare root trees are also cheaper to ship because the lack of a dirt ball makes them much lighter, and this lightness makes them easier to handle, too.

Shop for your plants in January or February while they are still dormant.  Once leaves emerge or flower buds start to swell your tree or shrub’s roots have already started growing and they won’t do as well.  With this in mind be wary of spring sale bareroot stock.  Also trees or shrubs in packages may have had their roots pruned to fit inside or the packaging material may have dried out or become soggy.  Better to see the roots for yourself before you bring your new addition home.
   
The age of bare root trees and shrubs varies. Generally they are between a two and three years old.  You will not be able to see much when you purchase a bare root plant, as it will be leafless  since it is in a dormant state, but in the spring, it will come to life and transform the garden.

There are several steps to planting bare root trees.  It’s important to plant your new arrival soon after you bring it home to insure the roots do not dry out.  If you’re unable to plant right away, lay it down and cover with moist soil or compost. When you’re ready to plant,  first trim any roots that are broken with sharp pruners.  Broken roots can rot but cleanly cut ones will heal and grow. Then soak the plant in a tub of water for an hour , while you prepare the soil for planting.  Loosen the soil in a wide radius around the area where you plan to plant.  Then, dig a big hole much larger than the root ball of the plant and as deep as needed to accommodate the roots  so that the roots will have room to stretch out, rather than being compressed in the planting process. 

Next, wrangle an assistant if you are planting a large tree, shrub or vine like a wisteria.  While one of you holds the plant in the hole, making sure that if it has a graft this is above the level or the soil.  The other should gently shovel in dirt, trying not to pack it down too hard. You want the soil to be loose enough to filter down among the roots.  Make sure that the assistant holds the tree straight and in such a way that the roots are suspended in the hole, rather than pressed against the bottom. If your soil is extremely sandy or clayey amend it with 20% compost.

As you shovel in soil, make sure that the roots are spread well apart.  Fill the hole halfway, gently shake the plant up and down to let soil sift down, then tamp lightly and fill the rest of the hole. The soil should fill in the air spaces around the roots and when you water it in the first time, use lots of water to eliminate the air pockets and settle the soil.  Making a watering ring around the plant makes watering easier and you’re assured that the root zone is thoroughly watered.  When the planting is finished, mulch the tree, leaving  a few inches of unmulched soil around the trunk.   Don’t water again until the soil is dry an inch or two down.  Winter rains hopefully will  take care of this for you for a long time.  Dormant plants need much less water than actively growing ones and their roots develop poorly in soggy soil.
 
Only stake your new tree if you live in a windy area.  A trunk will attain a larger diameter if it’s allowed to move slighly in the wind.  Usually it’s not necessary to prune a young tree much while it is trying to grow new roots. Trimming a long branch or leader by a third is OK if necessary.  You can start limbing up a shade tree after a couple of years if you wish.

There are many fruiting , flowering and shade trees to choose from.  Also shrubs like roses, lilacs and pussy willows are available bare root.   Wisteria vines are especially easy to plant  bare root as are .  Don’t miss this opportunity to add to your garden’s bounty.    

 

Benefits of House Plants

That beautiful Christmas tree is now a pleasant memory and you’ve put your houseplants back in front of the windows and on the end table under the reading light.   Do they look a little tired?  Dusty?  Yellow and leggy?

How can you make  houseplants thrive in the winter when the level of light is lower and our houses are dry and heated by wood burning stoves or central heaters?  What are the easiest plants to grow inside?  Can they really remove pollutants from the air inside my home?

If these questions and more have you up nights in a quandry,  this column is for you.  You can have the interior of your house looking like the tropics in just a few easy steps.
 
Allow your plants to absorb as much precious light as possible by dusting off the leaves.  You can do this by using a moist cloth or paper towel to wipe each leaf or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Running water through the soil a couple of times will leach out accumulated fertilizer salts, too.  Although you do want to reduce water and fertilizer during the winter months, your plant will enjoy their bath.

If you’ve had a regular watering plan, scale back.  Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry.  Poke your finger about an inch down into the soil for a typical six inch houseplant.  If it’s dry,  water.  Be sure to dump excess water out of saucers  after 15 minutes to keep roots from rotting.   If your plant is in a larger pot,  allow the soil to dry two inches down from the surface before watering.  It’s not unusual for a plant of this size, if in a cool room, to go 2-4 weeks between waterings.  Plants that need water once a month or less in winter include anything resembling a succulent  ( jade plants,   echiums, cactus).  I water mine lightly every six weeks
.
Here in the Santa Cruz mountains many of us live under trees that block available light during the winter and  cloudy days can further lower the amount of light your plants receive.   Move plants into the best light. you have.   If a plant  is sitting in a dark corner, move it closer to the window.  You may have to choose how many plants to overwinter based on available window light.  To avoid unnecessary trauma, don’t repot a plant in winter. If you’ve acquired a new plant, it’s best to put it inside the next size pot for the time being and replant it when the growing season resumes in March or April.  Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing during the growing season.

Plain green leafy types do best when there’s less light.   Scheffleras, arboricola,  philodendrons like heart-leafed , selloum and split-leafed,  pothos, Chinese evergreen, peace lily  and ferns look good even in dreary conditions.  They come from the under-story of jungles and grow naturally in low-light areas. 

Fertilize less often.  Some houseplant growers skip fertilizing in December and January, starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February.  Think of your houseplants as essentially dormant in winter.  They need fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Avoid cold drafts.  Most houseplants can handle slightly cooler temperatures at night but detest blasts of chilly air.  Avoid placing most plants near drafty, high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway.  Ficus trees are famous for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Many common houseplants  help fight pollution indoors. They’re reportedly able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air, through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. Some pollutants are also absorbed and rendered harmless in the soil.  Plant physiologists already knew that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process. Now researchers have found many common houseplants absorb benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, as well.

Some houseplants are better at removing from the air, while others do a better job on benzene; none is much help when it comes to tobacco smoke. But there are enough known plants that do a good job of removing pollutants from the air we breathe to cause us to view houseplants as more than just an attractive feature in decorating the interior environment.

If your home is old enough to be leaky and drafty, you may not need to worry about "sick-building syndrome."  But if you live in a newer, energy-efficient home with windows and doors tightly sealed, or you work in a building where the air feels stale and circulation seems poor, the liberal use of houseplants seems like an easy way to help make a dent in the problem.

One is the common succulent, Aloe vera (now renamed Aloe barbadensis), also known as "medicine plant." Many people already have one in a bright kitchen window because of the soothing, healing properties its viscous inner tissue has on burns, bites and skin irritations.

Most of the plants  evolved in tropical or sub-tropical forests, where they received light filtered through the branches of taller trees. Because of this, their leaf composition allows them to photosynthesize efficiently under relatively low light conditions, which in turn allows them to process gasses in the air efficiently.

Soil and roots were also found to play an important role in removing air-borne pollutants. Micro-organisms in the soil become more adept at using trace amounts of these materials as a food source, as they were exposed to them for longer periods of time. Their effectiveness is increased if lower leaves that cover the soil surface are removed, so there is as much soil contact with the air as possible.

NASA studies generated the recommendation that you use 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants in 6 to 8-inch diameter containers to improve air quality in an average 1,800 square foot house. The more vigorously they grow, the better job they’ll do for you.

The best indoor pollution fighters are:

    * Hedera helix   English ivy
    * Chlorophytum comosum   spider plant
    * Epipiremnum aureum   golden pothos
    * Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’    peace lily
    * Aglaonema modestum   Chinese evergreen
    * Chamaedorea sefritzii   bamboo or reed palm
    * Sansevieria trifasciata    snake plant
    * Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’   heartleaf philodendron
    * Philodendron selloum   selloum philodendron
    * Philodendron domesticum    elephant ear philodendron
    * Dracaena marginata   red-edged dracaena
    * Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’   cornstalk dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig’   Janet Craig dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii’   Warneck dracaena
    * Ficus benjamina  weeping fig

Planning for Extreme Weather

Drought one year,  rainy the next.  How do you plan for these weather events in your garden?

CLIMATE-PROOFING used to mean tossing a little mulch on the garden, hauling pots of tender plants indoors or under an overhang.   But global warming and cyclical climate change has caused weather to grow so volatile that these traditional practices just don’t cut it anymore. Our gardens need year-’round help to deal with the new weather realities, including increasingly rain events in the winter and dry springs and of course our usual dry summers. . If you doubt the significant effects of climate change on our gardens, think about all the plants you consider hardy that may have died off in a really cold spell or the usually drought tolerant plants that didn’t like our dry spring last year.   The list varies by microclimate, but might include escallonia, abutilon, verbenas, Melianthus major, phormium and yuccas. Have you noticed birds returning earlier in the spring and lilacs blooming two weeks ahead of when they flowered 30 years ago?

We need a fresh arsenal of garden strategies, and it will help if we better understand the changing weather where we live and garden.  Our climate is influenced by the Santa Cruz mountain range and moderated by the Pacific Ocean.  Sixty inches of rain is "normal" for us but it’s been a few years since we’ve had this much.  While there is great year-to-year variability in our weather,  we need to be prepared for the worse case scenario.  You can lose both precious plants and trees as well as all the money and work you put into the garden.

How to deal?

• Begin by choosing tough, sturdy, self-reliant plants that need less water and fertilizer. Healthy plants are naturally resistant to pests and diseases when put in the sun/shade/water situations that suit them.

Compost-enriched soil provides the foundation for thriving plants that are more resilient to disease, drought or insect damage. Healthy soil absorbs water like a sponge and also stores carbon from the atmosphere, helping reduce greenhouse gases.

Reduce water consumption by using drought-tolerant and native plants, and by grouping plants with like water needs. Water with drip systems or soaker hoses; use tools like watering bags to keep new trees healthy. Remember to check whether your soil is dry before irrigating, and make sure you are watering more than just the surface.

Weed regularly so you aren’t wasting water on nuisance plants. To keep weeds down and water in, mulch garden beds at least once a year in late winter.

Global warming is creating what climatologists call "heavier rainfall events." This means more runoff and more stormwater problems. We can help by avoiding chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and using porous surfaces like pebbles, gravel or pavers for patios and driveways rather than solid concrete. Install rain barrels and cisterns to capture rainwater to use for irrigation. Consider taking advantage of low-lying or boggy spots in your garden to create a rain garden, planted with moisture-loving natives, to slow down the passage of rainwater through the soil.

• Nurture the birds, bees and insects in your garden that are also confused by climate change. Make your garden a healthy habitat for all living things by eschewing chemicals. Plant a diverse array of flora that blooms early and late to encourage pollinators. Add natives and plenty of berried plants to feed and attract creatures.

• And finally, a few ideas on saving energy: Solar garden lights are the smart way to go; cut energy use on other outdoor lights by putting them on a timer. If you aren’t yet lawn-free, at least get rid of your gas mower, blower and weed eater, and use rakes and hand clippers; you’ll be rewarded with blessed quiet as well as energy efficiencies. You might consider arbors and pergolas for shade in summer and rain protection in winter. And it might not be a bad idea to invest in a rain barrel.

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