Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Clean Sweep for the Spring Garden

With warmer days at hand, many of us are heading outdoors to spruce up our yards. These spring chores offer an excellent opportunity to significantly improve the health of our lawns and gardens, which will later save time, energy, and resources.

To begin, start cleaning up fallen leaves, broken branches, twigs, and dead foliage lying under shrubs, trees, and in planting beds. Sanitation is important in maintaining a healthy garden for a number of reasons: fallen leaves can clump together, inhibiting the passage of air and water to the root systems of your plant. Don't use or plan to use whole leaves as a mulch. Also, there are a number of pests and disease organisms which can winter-over in garden debris. Removing these havens removes the pests.

But don't throw those leaves and other trimmings away! All of them can be easily composted, breaking down into a wonderful mulch or soil conditioner for use this coming fall. Branches and larger twigs can be placed on the ground or inside the bottom of a compost bin to facilitate drainage and aeration. Leaves and other materials -- including some of those weeds which are now popping up -- can then be added to the pile. Gradually moisten materials as you put them in. Avoid adding twigs larger than your thumb in diameter -- and no more than 6-10 inches long.

After your "clean sweep," it's time to consider mulching. There are numerous organic and inorganic mulches from which to choose. Most are helpful in suppressing or eliminating weeds (no weeding! no toxic chemicals!), conserving soil moisture and moderating soil temperatures -- which is critical during droughts and heat waves -- and most can improve the appearance of your yard. However, by using materials like shredded leaves, leaf mold, compost, or wood mulch, you are restoring vital nutrients and organic matter and improving soil health. Remember that healthy soil produces healthy plants.

Mulches can be purchased, made, or picked up free. Many municipalities have wisely elected to make chipped or ground-up leaves and woody debris available for free to residents -- either to be picked up from a central location, or even delivered for a nominal fee in some really progressive communities. Bear in mind that this shredded mulch -- like mulch from tree care companies -- is unaged and only suitable for application around established plantings, or used for pathways or play areas. Fresh-shredded wood mulch should be aged or composted for at least six months before using around tender plants like ground covers, flower beds, or vegetable gardens.

Many gardeners and professional horticulturists prefer using leaf mold or leaf mulch. This material breaks down more rapidly than wood mulch and is easily turned into the soil as an organic conditioner. Leaves which have been shredded by a lawn mower or chipper-shredder can be used immediately as a mulch -- or aged for several months to achieve a finer texture and darker color. Whole leaves which have been composting for six to twelve months can also be used, provided they have decomposed and fall apart while handling. And rich, crumbly black compost naturally makes an excellent mulch.

To ensure weed suppression, it often helps to first lay several sheets of newspaper (not this column) or cardboard on the ground around and under trees and shrubs -- or in garden beds. Dampen the newspaper with your hose to keep it in place, and then pile the mulch on. Never apply a layer of mulch over four inches deep, and never place it directly against the trunks of trees and shrubs.

And now you can enjoy the warmer weather -- and the rest of the year. By cleaning, composting, and mulching, you've established a yard which will stay healthy year-round. Back-breaking weeding can be avoided, many plant diseases have been physically eliminated, climate-related stresses have been headed-off, and your organically-enriched soil will grow healthy, beautiful plants naturally. The way Mother Nature intended.

Growing Fun With Your Compost Bin

You can start to enjoy your compost long before it's ready to use. Since many of us set up compost bins in our vegetable garden, it's time to use those bins to their best advantage. Here's how:

Compost cages can be made from sturdy 10 to 13 foot lengths of wire mesh. Make your cage, fill it with compost-ables (leaves and other trimmings), and plant four to six tomato plants (or veggie of your choice) around the base. As the vines grow, tie them to the cage and guide them up and over the top of the pile. Your compost bin now doubles as a tomato cage -- so you're not wasting space, the materials in the bin serve as a mulch to keep plant roots cool and moist during the hottest weather, and -- best of all -- as the materials decompose, nutrients and micro-nutrients are fed directly into the root systems. No fertilizing, no fuss -- just fruit!

In any sunny location, you can grow pounds and pounds of wonderful sweet potatoes in almost any sort of compost bin using leaves alone. Place moistened leaves in a bin, packing them down, and filling to the top. One full month after the last frost, plant six sweet potato slips (root sprouts -- available at many nurseries and garden centers) into the top of the leaf pile. YOU MUST KEEP THE PILE MOIST AT ALL TIMES. After several weeks the vines will take off, soon cascading over the sides and covering the entire bin. It's compost camouflage! After leaves begin to yellow in the fall, harvest your tubers, use the composted leaves in your garden, and add the vines themselves to next year's compost pile.

Copyright 2012, Joseph M. Keyser

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