Mulching... another exciting maintenance topic... snore. Irrigation, pruning and now mulching, we gardeners really prefer to design and plant the garden, not maintain. So let's get to it and make sure this backbreaking, dress-up chore is quick, easy, and cheap.
We always mulch during the first quarter of the year (Jan, Feb, Mar) when plants are asleep, there’s not as much activity in the garden, and the family calendar is a bit quieter. We also limit the mulch to the edge of the beds. If we design and plant so that trees, shrubs and perennials are touching at maturity and we leave behind a thin layer of fallen leaves, there’s no need to mulch the interior of the beds. We’ve sufficiently shaded the ground to discourage weed germination, and we don't see the interior spaces of the beds in spring, summer and fall anyway. We mulch only to define our edges.
The chips are delivered within a few weeks and dumped on the driveway, ready for spreading. We start by holding a pitchfork vertically and pulling the top of the mulch pile onto the driveway. We then scoop the chips into a deep wheelbarrow using a super-wide, easy-to-wield snow shovel. After dumping the chips from the wheelbarrow into small piles at the edges of the beds, we spread them with a heavy-duty metal rake to create a 3-inch thick edge.
Add a few friends, relatives, kids, and extra tools to the process, and this mundane chore quickly turns into a gabfest with fringe (edge) benefits. Have fun. Think spring!
Ho hum… pruning… just another boring maintenance topic, right up there with proper irrigation. I do, however, consider pruning quite therapeutic. There’s nothing better than throwing on a sweatshirt on a chilly day and getting a few plants ready for spring. Winter, when plants are dormant, is the best time to prune anything if we don’t care about spring bloom. Alas, it’s that time of the year again and a good time to share some tips.
We prune the bulk of our plants sometime between January and March when they’re asleep and there’s not much going on in the gardens. The spring calendar is too crazy for this time-consuming task. Summer is too hot and fall way too late. Minor corrective pruning can be done year-round, as needed.
In our gardens, we occasionally forgo spring bloom for one year because of the way we prune. If we are planning and planting the proper plant for the space we have, then a plant should only need corrective pruning to eliminate crisscrossing branches and open the middle for light. Unfortunately, plant growth isn’t an exact science. Where a plant is happy, it can exceed expectations. In the field, we are also dealing with client mistakes, i.e. that 6-foot Compacta Holly under a 4-foot high windowsill. As much as we love pruning, we despise pruning the same shrubs year in and year out. Instead, once every few years, we hack them back hard and let them grow up over a period of several years. Thus, staggering the job, pruning different shrubs in different years, and always hard-pruning.
Hand pruning is a-must for healthy plants and a natural look. Proper pruning allows filtered light into the shrub, promoting growth from the bottom up and the inside out, the way a plant should grow. To shorten a branch or stem, make pruning cuts ¼-inch above a side or lateral branch. To remove a branch, cut it all the way back to a main stem or trunk. Never make cuts between branches or buds leaving ugly stubs. We’ve included pruning illustrations from Lee Reich’s book, The Pruning Book. Generally speaking, all plants are pruned this way. Ratchet pruners are always easier on the hands and wrists.
Sell those electric sheers and hide those scissor sheers, using them only for ornamental grasses. These pruning devices indiscriminately cut stems leaving stubs throughout. The plant reacts by producing copious amounts of growth at the stub, which shades the interior of the shrub. Ever parted a sheered shrub and looked inside? The branches are dead. No light, no growth, green meatball.
- If we care about bloom and can fit the time into our busy growing season, we hard prune after the plant finishes flowering. This a rule of thumb for most plants… prune after bloom.
- Thicken a shrub by making a few pruning cuts here and there, winter, spring and summer. Because the plant is compromised and out of balance with its root system, it will produce additional foliage and eventually a thicker shrub.
- When deadheading perennials, we make pruning cuts so that the stems are well hidden by the foliage. This may mean the flower stems are cut to the ground.
- Avoid pruning trees and shrubs during the fall months. New tender growth generated as a result of the pruning will not have time to harden off before freezing temps arrive.
Enjoy hand pruning once more by scheduling it during a quiet time in the landscape and removing several years of growth. Do not hesitate when pruning mature healthy plants. They are extremely resilient. Go for it.
Happy New Year! Plant More Natives.
Let's talk about proper irrigation. Bor-ing. I hear you, and I get it. But hold on. Gardening is expensive. We need to protect that investment and ultimately the value of our homes. After siting a plant correctly for sun exposure, proper irrigation for the first two years of establishment is key to the health of the landscape. Yes, two years, not two weeks.
The #1 problem we see in July and August is root rot, initiated by too much water. The #2 problem is overly dry soil surrounding plants that have been installed within two years. These plants just haven't had enough time to develop drought-tolerant capabilities.
Here are the most important tips we share with our clients...
Believe it or not, landscapes without irrigation systems tend to fare better than those with irrigation systems. Clients with systems are more likely to crank it up with little understanding that more water may be doing more harm than good. Muddy soil is a major stressor for most plants. Add extreme heat and now there’s a recipe for failure.
We encourage our clients to observe their living, breathing landscape regularly by strolling the yard in the evening, digging around on occasion, and adjusting their irrigation practices accordingly. No assumptions about the health of the landscape should be made from afar. Evening strolls are quick, easy, relaxing, and tend to lead to landscape success. You are part of the equation.
Plants, especially natives, invite wildlife… bugs eat plants (hardly noticeable), bugs eat bugs, birds eat bugs, wildlife eats bugs, and nature takes care of itself. We leave it alone. Our yard hosts circles of life within a massive food web, and we don’t attempt to control it. Mother Nature does a fine job by herself.
By planting a huge variety of plants in our yards, we create wildlife highways and byways and attract a huge variety of insect and animal species, which can take care of themselves and keep annoying pests and disease at bay without our help. It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there if we plant the food they need (native plants) and let them be.
There once was a time when developers didn’t clear-cut, when houses were built among the trees, and the natural landscapes were preserved. That’s the way it was done, because back then we were just as excited about the land as the house. Today, older neighborhoods have massive 100-year old trees dotting their landscapes, but not so within newer communities.
We were told it’s easier and less expensive to clear-cut, build, and then put back the trees and shrubs. However, we’re now learning there’s a cost associated with this approach, simply because we’re not putting back the natives and we’re not putting back enough plants to replicate the biodiversity needed to support a functional landscape. Also, bear in mind, our national parks and open spaces just don’t cut it. There’s too many of us and not enough functional landscape left.
Within one generation, the cost associated with clear-cutting has been reallocated. We now chew up resources to re-educate the public about ecosystem services and the benefits of biodiversity. We burn resources to redesign and re-landscape for biodiversity. And there’s also a cost associated with installing sterile landscapes and then doing nothing to fix them… fewer functional landscapes.
It’s not because we don’t care. We just haven’t understood the long-term implications, and we don’t know what we don’t know. The research regarding the benefits of using native plants and the ecosystem services they provide is ongoing and just beginning to unfold. However, we can start the conversation with our neighbors and our local planning officials by becoming better educated and inviting the researchers, such as Doug Tallamy, Jules Bruck and their colleagues, to speak within our local communities. With more information, conversation, and careful planning, we can preserve and plant more functional landscapes.
Welcome to my journal. For over 15 years I have created original landscape plans to help homeowners increase property value and really enjoy their yards. I approach every project as an unique opportunity to develop a work of living art, one that will require minimal care and age beautifully with time. In this journal, I will share some of my field experiences and tricks of the trade with you. Please join the conversation and thanks for visiting.