More Mulch Madness

More Mulch Madness

My readers will remember last year’s posts on wood chips mulch. I called a local tree service and asked for a truck load of wood chips fresh from the chipper. And this is what I got:

It's about 5' high, 10'across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

It’s about 5′ high, 10’across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

It’s now 16 months later, and my pathways have composted down to almost nothing, and all the garden beds need a new layer as well. So since last year I had way more than I needed, my neighbour, and friends of theirs, thought we could split a load amongst us all.

This is what came last Friday:

Dang close to 20 cubic yards!

Dang close to 20 cubic yards!

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Easily double the size of last year’s mountain.

So besides re-doing all the pathways, adding 3-4″ in all planting beds (over top of foliage that will be soon be turning to mush anyway), I decided it was time to convert most of my back yard from lawn (ie, buttercup lawn) to… something else.

Mulch Madness!

Mulch Madness!

I used Doug-fir cones to mark out the curved edge of the new planting bed/ something else space. Then once I’d wheel-barrowed as much as I could fit, I cut out a 4″ edge of turf and moved bricks from their original location to their new location.

I didn't do such a great job of making a nice smooth semi-circle.

I didn’t do such a great job of making a nice smooth semi-circle. I may yet fix that…

This side is a bit better.

This side is a bit better.

So I’m pretty excited to actually have a chance to “design” something in my back yard. As you’ll have noticed (and I’m sure I’ve said as much) my garden isn’t designed, it’s just a research lab for plants and projects. Now I think I’ll be more intentional about what I do in this new space. Stay tuned… Mind you, you’ll have to be patient while you “stay tuned”, since it will be most of a year before I can actually use this converted area. I left the turf in place (previously I’d dug it up from pathway areas and and turned it over elsewhere, then covered it with wood chips), so there’s a lot of composting yet to happen. Once it’s all raked over, the mulch will be 6-8″ deep.

But there are LOTS of wonderful beneficial bacteria and fungi in my mountain of mulch. Can you see the steam rising off this pile?

Very warm pile of wood chips already beginning the composting process.

Very warm pile of wood chips already beginning the composting process.

Questions? Comments. All welcome.

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Ways to Keep Your Garden Looking Great

Steve Whysall (Vancouver Sun gardening columnist) wrote a great article in Friday’s paper entitled Six Ways To Keep Your Garden Looking Great.

He interviewed Egan Davis, the chief instructor of the Horticultural Training Program at the University of B.C. Botanical Garden, but formerly at Van Dusen Botanical Garden, and one of my Master Gardener instructors. So I’m really happy to report that all of Egan’s “six ways” have been previously addressed here in the pages of Real Life Garden Solutions!

Here’s a quick overview:

1. Mulch. And only use organic amendments to the soil, and only fertilizers that are actually needed. See here for LOTS more info.

It's about 5' high, 10'across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

Mountain of mulch. It’s about 5′ high, 10’across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

2. Make sure your soil is carrying enough moisture. Adding compost will help with that.

3. Leave your fall garden “unkempt” for the critters. Read more here.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably 3-4 mm diameter.

4. I love this one: Don’t be afraid to make changes. It’s one of my design mantras. A garden should be something that delights in changing over the years.

5. Grow some from seed. I haven’t written this post yet, but the pictures are all ready to go…

6. Become a backyard ecologist. Yes, I’ve written lots on this.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It's pretty fat and fuzzy.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It’s pretty fat and fuzzy.

Mulch Volcanos or How Not to Plant Trees

It seems a lot of people and/or landscapers are under the misapprehension that when it comes to soil, more is better. This is not always the case.

In my neighbourhood

In my neighbourhood.

This volcano of soil is doing a couple of bad things to this poor rhodo. Firstly, stems and trunks should never be buried like this. DSCN2343You’ll see more of this in the next few pics. You should always see the root flare at the junction between the stem/trunk and the soil. You’ll see “bell bottom trousers”.

Here’s a beautiful Blue Spruce in excellent condition

Blue Spruce in the neighbourhood.

LOVE this tree: Blue Spruce in the neighbourhood. You can just about see the root flare if you click on the image to enlarge it then click again.

Secondly, rhodo roots are even more shallow than other woody plants, so adding ANY soil on top of the planting area is going to make your rhodo suffer–from too much moisture and too little oxygen.

Very sad little rhodo in a brand new planting bed--the duplex was just finished in the Fall.

Very sad little rhodo in a brand new planting bed–this duplex was just finished in the Fall.

You can and should still mulch rhodos, just several inches away the the trunk, and only about 2″ of nice light mulch (wood chips or well composted compost), not soil.

The Problem:

Also my neighbourhood.

Also my neighbourhood.

Exactly the same thing above–soil (or in this case bark mulch) mounded up around the trunks of these Thuja (arborvitae).  This causes a number of problems: Too much moisture against the trunk will invite disease and bark splitting. It also promotes root girdling, which is when roots start following a circular path around the trunk instead of heading out perpendicular to the trunk. As those roots grow and fatten they will often pinch the channels that draw water, oxygen, and nutrition up the tree. Root girdling is a very bad thing for your tree.

DSCN2374DSCN2375Two views of the same tree. Here the planter put a rodent guard around the base of the tree, which will also also help reduce moisture against the bark. But the roots will still opt to grow up into the volcano soil causing the root girdling again. And then to hide the look of the mounded soil, they planted creeping raspberry (Rubus pentalobus). In other circumstances I’d say this was a good plant for under the tree, but it will hold the soil there (eroding away would be a better thing) and act like living mulch, which will just exacerbate the moisture problem. (It’s a pretty vigorous plant in coastal BC and will begin to take over the lawn area–not a bad thing maybe.)

I plan to write discreet polite letters to the owners of these trees and shrubs offering to help remediate their plantings. Hopefully they won’t be too offended at the local busybody who thinks she knows everything!

Love to get your comments and questions.

Sheet Mulching, or not, or how to save yourself a lot of work

Autumn is a great time to plan and begin to develop new garden beds for next year– as though you didn’t have enough to do.

Sheet Mulching, or not, or how to save yourself a lot of work

Sheet mulching is the process of layering lots of different compostable materials OVER your grass in order to create a new planting bed without digging up and discarding the turf. And it starts with a heavy layer of newspaper or cardboard (or compost then cardboard, depending on your information source). Then there’s a few inches (more) of home-made or bagged compost or composted manure, then a lot of layers of straw (NOT HAY), leaves (preferably chopped/mowed), yard debris (not with weeds or any leaf diseases like black spot), manure (if you have it and if you can stand it), grass clippings (presuming you don’t already have a mulching mower). To a total of around 18-20″ above the original ground level.

Linda Chalker Scott is of the opinion that the layer of paper-product is counter-productive because it prevents/hinders air getting down into the area that you want to compost–the grass turf. She recommends just covering the area to be transformed with 12″ of woodchip mulch.

I’ve tried the sheet mulching thing many times with varying success rates–not least because I don’t have easy access to leaves (almost exclusively conifer neighbourhood), straw, manure, or grass clippings (mine stay on the lawn where they belong). And the racoons love to dig around it,DSCN1426 exposing the cardboard to air, and allowing it to dry out. So in general it’s taken two years to turn a grassy area into a planting bed for flowers or vegetables. Not very efficient, but at least I didn’t have to figure out how to dispose of sod (that can’t go into the yard-waste recycling bin).

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This bed (the area that looks darker and right down to the bottom of the picture) was sheet mulched last fall (2012) with cardboard and 3-4″ of city compost. You can see it was variably effective, with lots of grass and weeds growing through, and not enough composting-in-place of the existing turf.

This year I decided to try the wood chip mulch thing–not primarily to turn turf to planting beds, but because I wanted to add paths into the garden. You may remember seeing these pictures before…

The path is to the left, the right is currently potato bed and will be a shrub border in the fall.

The path is to the left, the right is currently potato bed and will be a shrub border in the fall.

I started in May by digging out the turf in the areas that were to be paths and spreading several inches of mulch. The clumps of turf were placed upside down in other turf areas that were to become planting beds of some kind. So in the picture above, to the left of the brick edging is the path, to the right of the brick edging is a layer of upside-down turf  topped with 6″ wood chip mulch.

...finally meeting up with the "translocated mountain of mulch"!

This mountain of wood chips was mostly grass and weeds up until end May 2013. I needed to put the wood chips somewhere, so decided this would be the storage area until used up, and then I’d see how well the underlying plant material had composted.

Above you see the storage area of mulch, under which is two layers of up-turned turf bricks (probably about 6-8″ deep) from dug-up pathways, sitting on top of a grassy/weedy area.

Through the rest of the spring I continued to use up the mulch on paths through the back and the front, as well as mulching the perennial and mixed  beds and borders.  The neighbours and their friends did  likewise–it was a lot of wood chips!

Now here it is Autumn, and this is what has happened to all that turf:

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A few dead roots is all the evidence left of layers and layers of turf.

DSCN2106

Lovely dark soil, lots of worms.

So I’m convinced: Skip the cardboard, skip the manure, skip the grass-clippings–leave them on the grass! Call up your nearest arborist and get them to drop off a truck-load of wood chips. If you can’t use that much, invite your neighbours to read this blog post and then you can all share the bounty!

Most importantly, though, the first line in this post: “Autumn is a great time to PLAN…”. don’t leave the garden bed development to chance, or what is most convenient. If you can’t quite figure out where  you want to develop new planting beds, ask a neighbour or friend whose garden you admire. They’ll be sure to want to help you! Gardeners love to share their hard-won wisdom!

Comments? Questions? Love to hear it all. Don’t forget to click the “follow” link and the “like” button.

Critters

I knew the mess was from racoons

I knew the mess was from racoons–CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR LARGER VIEW.

Pretty much every time I go into the garden I see the holes dug by hungry big cute rodents. They’re turning over all that turf that I carefully dug and up-ended to “self-compost” under the wood chip mulch. And seemingly throwing around the edging bricks. They’re heavy!

But I didn't really thing about the entire family--clearly mum's been teaching them how to dig.

But I didn’t really think about the entire family–clearly mum’s been teaching them how to dig.

But with at least four of them, it does explain how they can make so much mess.

Following the path to the stairs to the deck.

Following the path to the stairs to the deck.

They know their way around the territory.

Tried to scare them away-- but we knew racoons--especially mummy racoons-- aren't really afraid of humans!

Tried to scare them away– but we knew racoons–especially mummy racoons– aren’t really afraid of humans!

Giving me “the glare”–you’d think I’d taught them!

Anyone else having the same problem? Anyone have any suggestions? I don’t want to do them any harm, just protect my labour investment.