Archive | November 2017

Improve Your Soil by Raking Less

by Terry Ettinger

1024px-Listí_na_hrázi_rybníkaIf you dread the annual fall leaf-raking marathon, I have good news for you: Raking and collecting leaves every autumn is a tradition without scientific basis. Research has proven that mowing leaves into your lawn can improve its vigor, and observation shows that unraked leaves in planting beds don’t smother shade-tolerant perennials. Based upon research at several universities, the organic matter and nutrients from leaves mown into lawn areas has been proven to improve turf quality. At Michigan State, researchers set a rotary mower to cut at a height of 3 inches and then mowed an 18-inch-deep layer of leaves into test plots. That’s the equivalent of 450 pounds of leaves per 1,000 square feet. The tests resulted in improved soil and healthy lawns with few remnant leaves visible the following spring.

You can achieve similar results if you set your mower to cut at the same height as in the Michigan State study, and mow at least once a week during peak leaf fall when your lawn reaches a height of 4 inches. Leaves shred most efficiently when slightly damp, so mow after a light dew. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will never rake another leaf and improve the quality of your soil. Build planting beds with leaves. Under trees or in other shady spots where a lawn won’t grow, you can create planting beds from fallen leaves as a source of soil-building organic matter. Shredded leaves applied as mulch protect tree roots from heat and cold and retain soil moisture during dry spells. Some gardeners believe that excess leaves can harbor insects or disease, but I have experienced no such problems in my garden.

autumn-494390_960_720After we bought our property, I created planting beds where the leaves would naturally collect on our densely shaded and sparse front lawn. It’s been 15 years since I’ve raked a single leaf dropped by these trees. Instead, the leaves settle among the hellebores, epimediums, Japanese forest grass, hostas, and spring-flowering bulbs, where they decompose over time, just like on the forest floor. Easy, ecological, and fiscally responsible To treat leaves as trash is both environmentally foolish and financially ruinous. Currently, many municipalities encourage residents to rake leaves to the curb for collection, but before they are collected, heavy rains often wash the leaves into catch basins. There, they decompose and release phosphorus and nitrogen into streams and rivers that flow through the community. These excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms during the summer, which result in lower oxygen levels, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic species to survive.

Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower. Sprinkle the leaves with a 1- pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden. Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay. Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.

Municipalities, both large and small, spend thousands, even millions, of dollars each year to collect, transport, and process autumn leaves, tying up resources that could be used elsewhere in our communities. If we all keep our leaves on our properties, we will improve our gardens, save money, and enhance the environment we all share. Your own source of free fertilizer A little effort can supply an organic source of nutrients for your plants. Here are two ways to use your leaves:

  1. Pile composting for mixed borders
  • Rake the leaves into loose piles or in wire bins about 4 feet square within your borders.
  • Mix in a few shovelfuls of soil, and add 20 to 30 gallons of water to aid decomposition.
  • Pull the piles or bins apart in the spring, and spread the decayed leaves throughout the border
  • Cover the decayed leaves with a 1-inch-deep layer of fresh mulch.

2. Sheet composting for annual beds

  • Rake your leaves into the empty beds, and shred them with a lawn mower.
  • Sprinkle the leaves with a 1-pound coffee can’s worth of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden.
  • Turn the leaves, and water thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer, which speeds decay.
  • Turn the leaves again in spring, and plant right through the remaining clumps, which will provide nutrients as they decompose.
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Spring Bulbs

We’ve been blessed with some fairly warm weather for this late in the year, and I suddenly remembered that I haven’t put my bulbs into the ground yet! Project for tomorrow!

RX-DK-HTG04001_spring-bulbs_s4x3_lgFlowering bulbs are one of the brightest spots of spring when you live in the north and enjoy a long winter. Such a dazzling display arising from such homely beginnings is truly miraculous. A minimal amount of time, effort, and money in the fall is rewarded spring after spring with a spectacular tapestry of color, texture, and fragrance.

In addition to true bulbs (daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and lilies), this plant category includes corms (crocuses and gladioli), tubers (begonias, anemones, and cyclamens), tuberous roots (dahlias and foxtail lilies), and rhizomes (irises and trilliums). When selecting bulbs, choose those that are big, firm, and plump — generally the bigger the bulb the bigger the bloom. Avoid bulbs that are soft or have moldy spots.flower-bulbs-494399_960_720

When planting, choose a spot with rich, sandy, well-drained soil that is easily viewed from your window and plant bulbs in abundance, en masse, and in natural free-form drifts. Prepare the ground by digging a wide trench and working in compost or leaf mold. A good rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs three times as deep as they are high. Remember that anything too studied looks artificial – then throw caution to the wind and toss a handful of bulbs up in the air. Plant them, root-end-down, wherever they land. This landscaping method is a great stress-buster, and you will be pleased with the results of your no-design-is-the-best strategy.

87701Or, use a bulb planter to make 6- to 8-inch holes for large bulbs, and 2- to 4-inch holes for smaller bulb species. Space small bulbs 3 to 4 inches apart and large bulbs 5 to 6 inches apart. Topdress with any commercial bulb fertilizer.

With either method, cover bulbs with top soil and water them thoroughly. In cold zones, bulbs can be left in the ground. In warm and temperate zones (where temperatures remain above 20ºF/6ºC), chill the bulbs in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator (away from fruit) for 8 to 10 weeks before planting.

Select bulbs with different bloom times for a show of color from late winter through summer. Left undisturbed, the bulbs will colonize and produce profusely for years to come.

Early bloomers: Snowdrops (Galanthus), Winter Aconites (Eranthus hyemalis), and Crocuses. Crocus tommasinianus, in Easter-egg shades of pale lavender and deep purple, is usually the first to appear (and the corms are squirrel-resistant).

Mid-season: Daffodils and Jonquils (Narcissus), Siberian squill (Scilla), Grape Hyacinth (Muscari)

Late spring: Tulips, tulips, tulips! Colors range from brilliant red to deep maroon, from snowy white to bright yellow, and from beautiful shades of orange to variegated varieties in all colors. Shapes include the scalloped parrot, the pointed lily, and the artistic fringed tulip. Extend your tulip time by growing varieties bred for early, mid, and late blooming.

OCMGA Learning Garden #1

The Outagamie County Master Gardener Association is located on the grounds of the University of Wisconsin – Extension in Appleton. In 2013, we built a Learning Garden with the idea that we could experiment with different growing methods, provide hand’s-on learning for our Master Gardener classes, and hold educational classes for the public. Because this is one of our core projects, I’m hoping to have ongoing updates about our efforts.  Today, we’re going to reprint an article that appeared in our 2014 newsletter, written by OCMGA Master Gardener Mary Learman.

This was the second year for The Learning Garden. The purpose of the garden is to be able to demonstrate what can be done in a small space. There are four distinct plots, any of which could be used in a small urban landscape. Next year we’ll be adding a fruit tree espalier and grapes. Not only is this a space to teach others about gardening, it is also a space for us try something new.

IMG_1916The first lesson for us was how to manage a project like this. It is a fairly large space, 35’ x 26’. That is an intimidating amount of space to plan, plant and maintain. Last year, it was a struggle to keep on top of things. This year an adopt-a-bed program was initiated. The area was divided into five different areas, and a call went out for volunteers willing to take care of one plot. The response was gratifying. Teams were formed for each of the areas. Each team planned, planted and maintained a plot. We did cross check with each other to minimize duplication. Also a watering schedule was established. Twice each week, people were assigned to water the entire garden. No one person needed to be on “watering duty” more than twice through the season. One of the big learnings for us this year was that breaking things down into manageable segments is key to making the project a success.

IMG_1915

A big change that will make our life easier next year will be the installation of an irrigation system. We’ll have two rain barrels in place and soaker hoses that will have the option of using those barrels or city water. Another big change for next year will be using the garden as an educational tool. It will become a part of the level 1 training program. We’ll also be conducting public classes on the site.

For more information on one of our experiments (Soil Temperature Experiment), visit our previous blog post here.