When Weeding Uproots More Than Plants

Once a year, I need to weed the area around my entryway. Most of it is “fern covered” but the cracks in between the slate paving stones have to be cleaned out once.

And for some reason, there’s an area under a mugo pine where the ferns won’t grow, so that will get weedy too. I haven’t figured out a good ground cover for under there yet.

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So I start with an area that looks like this.

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And finish with this.

This year there was a minor complication. I was weeding out my slate cracks….

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Can you tell what happened? Perhaps with this closer photo.

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I wound up “weeding” up an ant colony. I had to go away for a bit to let them resettle themselves.

But it could have been worse, of course. It could have been hornets!

Dealing With the Fallout from Last Year’s Yard Poisoning

I know that I have a lot of new readers this spring so you all may not have been following me last summer when I told the tale of my neighbor’s lawn care company accidentally  “fertilizing” my lawn and spraying weed killer on my vegetables,  perennials and shrubs.

When the very nice and very apologetic management came out, I was assured that there would be no residual effects this spring.  I was told that whatever was sprayed was not like a glysophate, so it shouldn’t have a killing effect.

Really. I find it interesting (and frankly heartbreaking) that none of our clover has come back in the lawn. How long is this soil going to remain contaminated by whatever they put down?

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We have only one small area of violets. The area around that yellow magnolia used to be covered in blue.

And my vegetable garden? The raised bed right under the yellow magnolia? All the perennial herbs are dead. Some had been in that bed for almost a decade.  It wasn’t that bad a winter. So clearly I don’t dare use it for vegetables this year. I will grow flowers and hope that I don’t poison the pollinators.

Our yard had been organic for literally decades. I have no idea how long it’s going to take the “good” soil bacteria, organisms and other living things to recover.

This is just an unbelievable experience.

Let’s Leave The Ants Be

On Monday I had a photo of muscari, or grape hyacinths. I said that I would talk more about those in a different post. This is that post.

It’s not Pollinator Week yet–that’s June 18-24 this year. But nevertheless, I always try to talk about one of the unheralded pollinators of the garden, the ants, this time of year, because in my part of the world this is when they are making themselves known and so this is when most folks are reaching for sprays, traps–or worse.

Please: if the ants are just harmlessly going about their business somewhere safely away from your home, please just let them be. Ants serve valuable purposes in our ecosystem.

If they are in your house–fine. Do what you must. But before your break out the heavy duty poisons, try discouraging them by washing away their trails with a soapy cloth. It doesn’t always work, but it you get it early enough, it will.

Ants are actually good for your ecosystem. If you have heavy soil, they will help break that up.

But more important, they pollinate. They pollinate lots of early spring wildflowers. Here in the northeast, many of our spring ephemerals like bloodroot, trillium, and others with a special sort of structure called an eliaosome are pollinated this way.

I also find that my muscari are, if not specifically “pollinated” by ants, certainly propagated by them. I have never planted any in my lawn–and yet, my lawn is full of them. At first, I thought chipmunks or squirrels must have done it–and then I realized that it was the ants.

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It’s not a question of the muscari naturalizing–these plants are too far apart and much too widely spaced to have done that. And they are far too random for the seed to have just scattered (although I suppose anything is possible). Rather they appear in small clumps as if they were brought there somehow–which is why I originally blamed the chipmunks.

It’s a nice effect–and since I am the only one in my neighborhood to have it (and the only gardener crazy enough to let the ants be, no doubt), I suspect this is what’s happened.

So with our bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators in such trouble, why not give your ants a chance? You might be pleasantly surprised.

 

 

Sustainable Gardening

It’s easy to walk into a big box store–or even some garden centers–and get very discouraged by the bewildering array of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. All you need to do is approach these aisles and you can smell these products. And generally, they are not good smells.

With all of that going on, then, it’s hard to remember that we’ve come a really long way since that first Earth Day over 50 years ago! More than ever before, people are indicating an interest in growing organically and growing their own food organically.

And more than ever before, people are listening when you tell them, please don’t spray this–or please don’t spray now–because you will endanger our pollinators. Those sorts of things really are resonating with a majority of people in a way that they might not have 10 or 20 years ago.

In fact, I have even had people tell me that the word “sustainable” is too out of date. I am not sure what the current word or term or phrase might be. I kind of like “sustainable.” To me, it indicates something that’s going to be around awhile. Isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

The other thing that’s almost mainstream these days is native plants. Even the box stores are carrying them. They may not have big signs screaming “Get Your Native Plants Here!,” but they will have some tough, hardy natives that grow well in almost every region available.

Part of this has to do with planting for pollinators. Part of this has to do with planting for unpredictable weather–natives seem to cope with that much better than other plants (once they are established, of course). And part of this has to do with the fact that natives are just nice plants to grow–many of them bloom for a long time, or produce berries or have lovely fall color–all attributes of other ornamentals that might be harder to grow or fussier in other ways.

Back on that first Earth Day, almost no one was growing natives–or if they were, their neighbors were looking upon them with suspicion as “long haired hippies”, no doubt.

And those first Earth Day chemicals? Names too terrible to mention. So we really have come a long way.

Don’t Be Too Quick To Clean Up In Spring

It’s mid-March. Next week is astronomical spring, otherwise known as the vernal equinox. If you’re lucky, you have some signs of spring coming up in your yard or somewhere nearby.

I must encourage you, though, please don’t be too quick to tidy up in the yard. We gardeners are a manic bunch, aren’t we, hating to see even a leaf out of place? What is it we think might happen?

Please leave some of the leaf litter in place until some real warmth takes place and holds awhile.

This would be the same for some plant stems–if you left any in the garden in the fall.

Why am I asking you to leave your garden messy? Simple. There are “things” living in the leaves and the plant stems that need time to emerge and find new homes. If you clean up leaf litter too early,  you might be destroying overwintering butterfly larva, or worse yet, the lovely mourning cloak butterflies that are sunning themselves there.

If you cut down and discard hollow plant stems, you might be discarding all sorts of beneficial bugs, including valuable native bees.

When we talk about all the “good bugs” in the garden, these are the ones that you want. If you’re not seeing them, ask yourself if your clean-up practices might be accidentally contributing to their demise. You surely wouldn’t want that.

On a warm spring day, go outside and take a walk instead. That will help you get over the urge to tidy too soon–and you won’t feel too lazy!

 

Should I Amend My Soil?

This is a tricky question. On Friday, you heard me talk about my heavy wet clay. Countless times, I have had people ask why I don’t amend it?

Probably the first 10 years that I lived there, I tried. I used compost. I used bark mulch. And nothing seemed to make a difference. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening.

The Spoiler was happening, I think. Long time readers have seen the photos I post every fall of soil all over my porch from his leaf blowing. The amended soil, which was mostly in the top layer because I don’t till or turn my soil (more about that on Friday) was getting blown away when he blows leaves. And even though we now try to retain as many leaves as possible on the property an in the gardens, some do have to go down to the curb for town-wide recycling.

So that’s my new version of garden bed amending–leaving the leaves where they fall to decompose in the beds. If it works for nature, it’s good enough for me.

But a more important part of this is about planting holes. Remember several years. Back? The adage was to dig a $5 whole for 50 cent plant. That’s no longer true.

The reason you were supposed to dig the huge hole in the “old days” was so that you could mix all the soil you took out of it with all sorts of “good stuff:” compose and good planting soil and maybe even some fertilizer. They you partially back-filled the hole, set your new plant in, and filled around it.

Please, no more! What gardeners and soil scientist have discovered is that we were creating giant planting containers int he ground and our trees’ and shrubs’ roots had no incentive to leave the nice “$5 hole” that we made for them to go out into the rest of our regular garden soil (really, if you heard the description of my soil on Monday, and then this lovely soil, and you wee a plant root, what would you do?!)

So now, the idea is to just dig the hole that you need, no deeper and just wide enough to get your plant in. Do not amend the soil because then the plant will have no reason to grow out into your own garden soil. Interesting.

Of course, with my soil, there was never any $5 hole digging anyway, so I can tell you that I have never done any of that nonsense.  I was always lucky if I could pry a spot open large enough to get  a tree into. Luckily, we are already heavily wooded so I don’t have to plant too many trees.

But it’s always nice when you find that what you have been doing all along is suddenly the “new” correct thing. Wow.

 

Gardening Ideas, Continued

On Monday I talked about living mulch–or the idea the ground cover plants could actually fill in the spaces between perennials and shrubs and be used instead of truckloads of bark or cocoa hulls or whatever it is you prefer (I refuse to even consider the idea that it might be colored mulches, although I know that box stores sell gross tonnes of the stuff every spring. Whatever.)

Today let’s talk about watering–or not. I know that lots of you are not blessed–or cursed–with my heavy wet clay. You may think you are. I’m continually surprised by how many folks tell me that they have heavy wet clay soil. Then I’ll ask them how often they have to water an established plant. If it’s more than once a month, I’m going to tell you that you don’t have the same heavy wet clay that I do.  In a drought, I may have to resort to turning on a soaker hose once every 6 weeks–or not. That’s how well my soil holds water.

What does that mean? A lot of my plants rot if they are not carefully selected for these conditions. Anything the least bit succulent-like–forget it! Lavender? Nope. Heaths and heathers, which should ordinarily love my highly acidic soil, can’t take the wet. Herbs are grown in containers or raised beds (and obviously those need more water).

But roses do fine, hydrangeas are great, because they’re usually very thirsty plants and thirsty plants aren’t going to have an issue in my yard.

This is all another way of saying “know your conditions and know your particular microclimate.” I killed a lot of heaths and heathers before I figured out what the problem was and that there wasn’t enough compost to amend the clay.

We’ll talk about amending on Monday–but before I finish up this topic, I want to talk about how to properly water a plant as it is getting established.

Less frequently and deeply is the proper way. What does that mean? It rarely has anything to do with you standing over the plant with a hose (unless the plant is an annual in a pot–those are the only plants that are acceptable to water by hand with a hose).

If you have a hose that you would like to leave running at the base of the plant at a trickle for an hour (for a large shrub,  longer for a tree) that’s fine. You need to water the plant down to the depth of 1″–and do check, don’t just guess.

Do this once a week. And then, unless it’s a rose or something that needs a lot of water, don’t do it again for another week. If you have questions, let your garden center advise you. Fewer, longer waterings are better. You are training your plant to endure periodic dry spells.

Whatever you do, do not rely on a sprinkler system to water for you. That’s the quickest way to kill a plant. It encourages shallow roots that cannot stand up to drought.