Tim’s Tips – Choosing the Right Mulch

Tim’s Tips – Choosing the Right Mulch

by Tim Wittmaier

Hardwood MulchMulches I Recommend

Type of Mulch – Compost
Reasons to Use It – Breaks down and puts organic matter in the soil and keeps the weeds out if it is applied 3″ thick. May prevent plant diseases. You can make your own if you know how.
Possible contraindications – Not long-lasting.

Type of Mulch – Hardwood Mulch
Reasons to Use It – Long lasting and looks attractive. Smothers weeds well.
Possible contraindications – Applying too much can smother plants.

Type of Mulch – Shredded Bark
Reasons to Use It – Breaks down in a season or two and contributes to soil health by increasing organic matter and aiding beneficial soil organisms. Attractive and weed free. May help smother small weeds.

Mulches To Avoid

Type of Mulch – Dyed
Reasons Not to Use It – It is poor as an organic matter additive – it breaks down slowly and can rob growing plants of nitrogen. Often contains nails and other debris from ground-up trash wood which can be from pallets, old decking, demolished buildings or pressure treated lumber. May contain Chromium, Copper and Arsenic.

Type of Mulch – Cypress and Cedar
Reasons Not to Use It – Poor as weed control, over-rated. Possible source of insect contamination from the Southern states. We will already have enough insect problems because of the warm winter – no reason to risk bringing in more.

Type of Mulch – Hot
Reasons Not to Use It – It’s still breaking down and the temperature can get too hot for plants if spread during warm weather. Allow to cool off before applying.

Type of Mulch – Rubber
Reasons Not to Use It – Collects too much heat for plants because it’s made out of tires. It is useful for kid’s playgrounds however.

Gardening Sustainability

Lasagna Gardening

Lasagna Gardening

What is Lasagna gardening? No, it’s not growing delicious tomatoes and herbs that you can put in your lasagna, though you may eventually be able to do just that depending on your conditions. Lasagna gardening, also known as sheet composting, is an organic gardening method that entails covering the ground with layers of materials of organic origin and allowing them to naturally break down over time. The benefits of this method are less time and labor spent weeding and tilling, creating healthy soil for healthier plants, and reaping the many benefits of compostable materials instead of wasting them.

If you are thinking of starting a new garden bed next spring, fall is a good time to begin it and lasagna gardening is a good method to use if your chosen ground is covered with vegetation that you want to kill off. I’m demonstrating with a section of a shade garden that is covered with liriope. I like it but I have too much of it so I want to get a section ready to put in something new later. If you’ve ever tried to dig up lirope you can imagine how much time I will save by just smothering it! This method works for grassy areas also or any piece of ground covered with unwanted vegetation. Here is what my section of garden looked like before I started.

Liriope that I want to smother with lasagna gardening.
Ironically, the Liriope that I want to smother with lasagna gardening is the best looking plant in this section right now. The Bee Balm on the left and the Columbine on the right are not at their best in late summer. Next spring they will be gorgeous!

First gather up all the compostable materials that you can. The first layer consists of cardboard, paper, newspapers and other recyclable paper based products. I have been saving for a couple of months so there is more than enough for this section.

Mark off the space that will become your garden. You can transplant the vegetation already on the spot if you need it elsewhere. If it’s ok to kill it, just cover the area with several layers of cardboard and paper without leaving gaps in between. If it’s windy, wet the paper as you go – I dunked mine in a bin of water before applying. The paper will block the light and kill the vegetation underneath which will decompose and eventually become plant food.

Lasagna gardening helped me get some good use out of junk mail, product packaging, and other unwanted paper products.
Lasagna gardening helped me get some good use out of junk mail, product packaging, and other unwanted paper products. This is about five grocery bags full.

Wet the layer after you’re done applying it if it’s not already wet. This helps jump start the decomposition process.

Build subsequent layers by alternating green and brown compostable materials. Examples of brown materials are dried leaves, shredded paper, and dried dead plant materials. Green materials are grass clippings and fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen. Layering the green in between the brown helps to break the pile down faster, but it will eventually break down even if you have a small amount of green materials in comparison to brown. Add in whatever else you would normally put in the compost – eggshells, coffee grounds, and the like. In my case since I live in a condo community where people walk their dogs nearby, I didn’t want interesting odors to attract them to my garden so I left out the kitchen scraps and used only paper and cardboard.

If you want to do some fall planting, you can put soil and fertilizer on top of your compostables and plant now. If you are planting on top of tree roots, don’t make your layer more than 8 inches thick as anything deeper may kill tree roots, according to the book “Making the Most of Shade” by Larry Hodgson. If there are no tree roots to damage, you can make the lasagna 12 inches thick. I don’t know what I’m going to plant yet or whether I’m going to plant in spring or fall, so I topped off mine with wood chip mulch.

Wood chip mulch protects the lasagna gardening area until I'm ready to plant.
Wood chip mulch protects the lasagna gardening area until I’m ready to plant.

When I’m ready to plant I plan to just add soil on top of the mulch, because my lasagna is nowhere near 8 inches thick yet and it won’t hurt to make the new bed deeper. I’ll add nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer at the time to accelerate the breakdown of the wood chips.

Gardening Lawns Sustainability

Garden Maintenance in Wet Weather

Garden Maintenance in Wet Weather

The unusually wet weather we’ve been having in the St. Louis area is causing my garden to flourish like never before – for now. In periods of heavy rain you should check your garden and yard for possible detrimental effects. Here are some things to look for.

1. Check and see if your mulch is washing away. If it is, replace it quickly so that the next rainstorm doesn’t wash your soil away.

2. Make sure plant roots haven’t been exposed. Replace the soil around them if that’s the case.

3. Heavy rains can wash away fertilizer – reapply compost and organic fertilizer. The reason I recommend organic fertilizer is that chemical fertilizer is likely to wash away and harm bodies of water that storm runoff washes into. Also if you are not sure how much fertilizer is needed to make up the loss, plants can’t be harmed as easily by excess organic fertilizer as by excess chemical fertilizer, so there is less chance of problems caused by over-feeding.

Here is some more information if you would like to learn more about organic fertilizers:

Benefits of Organic Fertilizers: An Overview

The basic NPK of Organic Fertilizers

4. Do any plants need staking? Since I garden in part shade, it’s not uncommon for some of my plants to lean a bit because they are reaching for more sun, but some are leaning far too much due to being beaten down by storms and need some help. Stakes are not the most attractive things but green stakes and green twine, available at Schnarr’s, help the appearance considerably. Organic fertilizers build stronger plants, according the article “Benefits of Organic Fertilizers: An Overview” on the Dave’s Garden web site, so that is one way to prevent having to do so much staking in the future.

Gardenn maintenance may include cutting back and staking plants

5. Wet weather plus a crowded garden is a recipe for possible fungus problems on your plants. Inspect your plants for signs of fungus and treat the problem if you have to. You might consider thinning plants out or moving container plants farther apart until things dry a bit to facilitate air circulation. Wet weather is kind to transplants, so if you want to do some thinning and start a new bed with the excess plants or give them away to a gardening friend, wet times could be a good opportunity.

Garden maintenance may include staking plants damaged by rain and hail

6. Is your mulch becoming a growing medium for mushrooms and other fungi? Since I use a lot of wood chip mulch, I frequently encounter interesting fungal growths in my garden and with wet weather we are likely to see more than usual. When I see one, I try to find out what it is before I decide if it needs to be controlled. My favorite mycology reference site is Tom Volk’s Fungi.

Garden maintenance may iclude monitoring surprise fungi in the garden

If the fungus doesn’t need to be controlled, my usual practice is to leave it alone since I find the variety of fungi fascinating and beautiful. If you have pets or children, health concerns, or a fungus that is harmful to plants, you may decide control is necessary. While I’m a fan of eating wild foods if I am sure of what it is, I have never eaten a mushroom from my garden no matter how delicious it looks. I am not a mycologist or skilled forager – I recommend only harvesting mushrooms or any wild foods with expert help since the consequences of making a mistake can be catastrophic.

7. Are any spots in your yard becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes? Check saucers, bird baths, containers, wheelbarrows and anything in your yard that can collect water. You can dump the water, treat it with a mosquito dunk, add a bubbler (mosquitoes prefer still water) or add fish to eat the larvae if that’s feasible. Bats and dragonflies are excellent mosquito predators. Making your yard more hospitable to those species is a great way to increase mosquito defense.

8. Do you see any drainage problems in your yard? Heavy rain can reveal opportunities to improve how water flows across your property. Since I live in a condo, I only have the ability to address small-scale issues – if you have a large-scale problem come into Schnarr’s to talk to our knowledgeable staff. If we can’t address the problem we can recommend an expert to consult. Small-scale problems in my own garden usually consist of spots where excess erosion happens or water tends to puddle due to how rainfall drains off my building. If you are interested in adding a butterfly puddling area, bog garden, rain garden or water feature to your yard, a spot that already collects water is a great place to consider building it. Most of those options are not available to me because of where I live, so I like to control erosion and puddling by digging small trenches to interrupt the water flow and filling them in with lava rock. You can use any kind of gravel for this, but I like lava rock because it fertilizes the soil as it breaks down and the porous nature of the rock provides some natural water filtering capacity. I can extend the trenches to reach areas that I want to get more water and if I cover them up with mulch or plant over them the appearance is harmonious with the rest of the garden.

Such trenches can also become a decorative feature, like these two examples:

Stone and brick used to drain downspout

Ornamental dry creek bed

One puddling problem I had a few years ago was caused by a leak in my soaker hose. The resulting puddle was threatening my neighbor’s air conditioner so I fixed the issue with a gravel filled-trench – that was a quicker solution than digging up the whole hose out of the trench it was in and it bought me time to address the leaking soaker hose later.

Be sure to consult the Missouri One Call system before doing any digging!

I don’t know if a rain chain is particularly functional, but if it adds to your enjoyment of the rainfall why not make one?
Creative DIY Rain Chains

9. If water is puddling around plants and those plants are not of a type that can tolerate such conditions, you can create holes around them with a garden fork to help the water drain away so the roots don’t rot.

If you have a problem area that needs a long-term solution and you don’t want some kind of water-loving garden feature there, you can try moving the plants and building a raised bed in the spot. Fill it with soil that contains a lot of organic matter and soil amendments that facilitate drainage, such as sand or ground up lava rock. Apply organic matter to the surface as well – that will attract earthworms whose burrows will help the water drain. See how much water your new bed tends to accumulate then plant appropriately. The Missouri Botanical Garden plant finder is a great tool for helping to find appropriate plants for special conditions.

Excess rain can be aggravating and destructive, but wet conditions can also be an opportunity to make improvements or add new interesting features. Walk your garden
and yard, observe the effects of rain and see if you get any good ideas!