Posts Tagged ‘mulch’


Weeds? (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

Strolling the garden in the wee morning hours is a ritual for my spouse and me, one that lets us see how each plant is faring as the summer progresses. We check stems and leaves for pests, tuck in errant vines, and admire blossoms.  But when we get to the old perennial bed on the side of the driveway, excited chatter turns from new sprouts and swelling flower buds to dismemberment and destruction.

 The bed, which should be a showcase of the yard, is overrun with bindweed and thistle.  Passersby approach the riot of flowers with eagerness, only to recoil in horror at the sight of perennials being choked by weeds.  Days spent trying to get them under control only serve to make them determined to overrun the garden.

 A tug of war has ensued; during the day the weeds pop up under cover of foliage or coil around taller perennials.  Each morning, I halt in my tracks to pull them out.  Balancing a full cup of coffee while bending over to yank out weeds has become a special skill, one that my spouse admires as nary a drop of the tan liquid is lost.

 While I’m impressed with the growth of most plants at this time, the weeds are coming up faster than I can keep up.  Pulling them is a season long job.  In pursuit of weed control many gardeners abandon some rudimentary connections to the world around them, such as notifying your boss that you’ll be late – again – to the office.

 Some of the tougher weed characters in the garden may change from year to year.  This year there is Western Salsify (Tragopogon dubius), a grassy-looking biennial that is sprouting in many gardens.  Western Salsify’s grass-like leaves arise from a central stalk which, when damaged, oozes a milky sap.  Because it has a long taproot, plucking from the soil when it is very young will give the best control.

 Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) grows to monstrous size, often two to three feet tall with flowers that bristle with spines.  The seeds of this annual weed are tiny and rapidly spread.  Redroot pig weed can be recognized by its characteristic reddish stalk and taproot.  Pulling it when it is young will give good control.

 Perhaps the best-known and most hated weed in our gardens is field bindweed (Convovulus arvensis).  Despite being a member of the morning glory family, there is nothing ‘glorious’ about it.  It snakes through the garden.  It entwines itself through branches, along trellises, and into every nook and cranny of the area.  Pulling this plant results in a nightmare out of Greek myth – four hydra-like plants sprouting from the single plant pulled.  Stamina is required in pulling to control this plant because it must be done repeatedly and frequently, until the energy in the root system is exhausted and the plant can no longer regenerate. 

 Gardeners should beware of the sinister puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris), also called goat’s head, due to the shape of the burs.  This plant starts off cute, with many small leaflets forming a mat across the ground.  When it becomes mature, the plant’s small burs develop a chemical on them that stays in the skin after the bur is pulled off, leaving a

painful sting that lasts for quite a while.  Any plant that is known to flatten bike tires and seriously injury livestock should be removed.

 If pulling weeds to the point of obsession is not for you, mulching garden beds is a great method of weed control.  In order to control weeds mulch should be applied to a depth of four inches across the surface of the garden.  Weed control fabric, when laid underneath the mulch may help, but research is suggesting that this fabric may limit water and air from getting to roots.

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Now that your Christmas tree — which brought such joy — is tattered and dry, how can you keep its spirit alive throughout the year?  By tearing off its limbs and grinding it up for mulch.  Though this may sound like Halloween got mixed up with Christmas, treating your tree to a gruesome end gives it a makeover that will have other plants cozy through the rest of the winter.

This year, the weather’s been dry, with warm days, freezing nights and plenty of wind; this is a recipe for disaster for plants in our landscapes.  Moisture from exposed ground is wicked away and in bone-dry soil, roots wither and die.

Perennial beds endure the double jeopardy of the freeze-thaw cycle, where soil heaves and cracks; exposure to the elements kills roots and bulbs.  In spring, your perennial bed will be a shadow of its former self, spotted with dead plants surrounded by a chalk outline of leaves and stems.

Fortunately, this is something that can be remedied with a nice drink and thick blanket, but get yourself up off the couch on the next warm day to go outside and water those perennials.  Then cover them with the ground up Christmas tree.

When experts say “apply a thick mulch,” how deep do they mean — a bag or a truckload?  While you don’t need to pile mulch up to your chest, the depth of the coating depends on the size of the wood chips. Because they compact more, smaller chips should be applied thinly; no more than one to two inches thick.  Larger wood chips should be spread three to four inches thick. More than this and you run the risk of smothering the plants.

Evergreen branches from the Christmas tree are excellent blankets, giving evergreen plants extra protection from the winter.  Evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials, at risk from sunscald (called winter burn), can’t replace moisture pulled from leaves by windy, sunny days when the ground is frozen.  Boughs trimmed from your tree will buffer these plants from the worst of the elements.

Use only those branches that still have needles clinging to them, laying them two layers deep across the perennials.  In spring, slowly move them off of the plants to let air circulate to the plant, and ensure new sprouts harden off as they grow.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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After years of envying other gardeners’ bounty, I finally got my wish for a little more spice in my summer.  Year after year, despite my best effort, the garden lacked a little zest until Bill Renner, a friendly Colorado Master Gardener, gave me his secret:  all I had to do was let things heat up and Mother Nature does the rest.

The result is a harvest of peppers bigger and bolder than any I’ve ever had – so full of chiles, belles, and jalapenos that I fear for my family’s stomachs this winter.  After a weekend spent harvesting, roasting, and peeling, 16 bags are nestled in the freezer just waiting to warm cold evenings with a hot, sweet meal.

His secret?  Peppers love the heat, and I was cooling them off with a blanket of mulch too early in the summer.  Keeping roots cool is a core tenet of gardening in a hot, arid land, but not every plant likes to be coddled.

Peppers are tough plants that like their soil a tad dry and plenty warm, so I didn’t mulch until well into July, when soaring temperatures baked the earth.  The peppers loved it, setting fruit and growing large until they produced so many pods just looking at them made me sweat.

Sure, there were a couple of blemishes, but with this primer, you’ll learn to ignore a few spots and get rid of the problems:

What:  Light colored, thin-skinned spots on the fruit, becoming sunken, bleached, and papery. 

Cause:  Sunscald.  Skin crisps under the baking glare of our high altitude sun.

Cure:  Select cultivars with good leaf coverage.  Because our wind can push leaves off of the fruit, provide wind buffers if you live in a windy spot (essentially the entire state of Colorado).  Cut off affected area and enjoy the rest.

What: Ends of the peppers are rotten, look water-soaked, then dry out.

Cause:  Blossom end rot, caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it.

Cure:  Use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation, and mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly. 

What: Peppers are malformed, with yellowing, concentric rings around spots.

Cause:  Cucumber mosaic virus. Viruses can cause odd-looking problems. 

Cure:  Spread by aphids and occasionally by gardeners, once virus has gotten into the plant, pull it.  There is no cure; the plant just becomes the mothership for the disease.  

What:  Plants are wilting, leaves have brown spots and the fruit develops large, rotten spots, often bordered by white mold.

Cause:  Phytophthora, a soil borne fungus that is a problem in chronically moist ground.

Cure:  Provide good drainage, and later your irrigation.

What:  Leaf spirals, cupping or distortion.

Cause:  Peppers are sensitive to herbicides. Many gardeners don’t spray their food plants; instead, the damage is from drift.  Drift can occur from applying weed killer on windy days. 

Cure:  Limit applications of weed killer to cool times of the day when wind is calm.

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Today’s blog post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch. 

Crop To Cuisine

Across the country, vegetables plants are all the rage.   There’s an air of optimism with putting these in the ground, in what the media is touting as a return to victory gardens.    But the name “victory garden” is a puzzler here in Colorado; after all, we’ve long known that anytime we even get a plant to grow it’s a triumph worth celebrating.

 Every season, we battle drought, concrete soils and hurricane force winds; then summer arrives and things warm up; the heat bringing worse foes:  weeds and bugs.  With this, new gardeners can get discouraged. weeds popping up in garden

 There’s no resting on the laurels of a newly planted bed; once the irrigation starts weeds pop up, unfurling leaves and colonizing areas faster than you can pick them.  That blush of green you see isn’t a young lettuce bed; its purslane or Kochia, getting settled into your ground.

 Plucking and pulling every day seems like an endless task, so give yourself a break and put down mulch in that vegetable patch.  A quick, easy way is to clean your bed, put out your soaker hoses, then lay two sheets of newspaper down over the soil (black and white pages only, not color).  Top this with three to four inches of straw or grass clippings.

 This simple mulch is very effective in keeping weeds down, since seeds don’t sprout and grow up from under it.  You’ll still get some weeds, though, since any seeds blowing into the area can germinate and root down through the mulch.   straw mulch

 In addition to keeping weeds to a bearable level, mulching over soaker hoses is water thrifty – it helps retain moisture in the ground for plants to take up, and reduces how often you need to water.

 Once the mulch is down, check under it before you water, to get an idea of how long it takes to dry a bit under the covering.  Then pull up a lawn chair, pour a lemonade, relax, and wonder what the heck those small dots are savaging your prize seedlings.

 Flea beetles.  Just the thought sends shudders through a gardener’s world, because they herald the first true battles of the season, where the winner takes all.  Just remember – this is YOUR victory garden, not theirs.

Western Cabbage flea beetleMost of the flea beetles plaguing our plants spend the first part of their lives below ground, though some can develop on the leaves.  Beginning with the eggs laid in cracks of the soil, after hatch the wormlike larvae grow, dining on tender roots.  Typically this isn’t the problem stage – it’s the adults you need to worry about.

These small, shiny beasts with jumbo sized hind legs are voracious feeders that leap out of the way of danger.  Even your shadow sends them scattering for cover. Gnawing small, circular holes into leaves – called shotholes – their attacks can result in seedlings being stunted or killed.  Many of our vegetables and ornamentals are at risk – potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce – everything is fair game to them. 

This assault on your garden must be met swiftly, unless you enjoy seeing the look of horror guests get as you parade them through your shredded stalks.  Options for flea beetle control vary, but before you break out the serious chemicals, try a few earth friendly ideas like floating row covers popularly called ‘Remay’. 

 This light cloth tented over your plants keep bugs at bay, but you’ll have to lift it to allow pollinators to get at the blooms.

 Radishes planted as trap crops around your garden work well, particularly for attracting one of the types we have here, the Western Cabbage Flea Beetle.  Plant them close together in a border or the insects will keep flying further until they find your prized crop. 

 Yellow or white sticky traps may work, although they must be placed so closely together it will be hard to move around your garden.  Anyone who’s worked with these gooey glue boards knows that they capture anything that comes into contact with them:  dirt, bugs, leaves, and small toddlers.  They get disgusting quickly.

Diatomaceous earth is great as an irritant to repel the beetles.  Made from crushed fossilized sea creatures, diatomaceous earth is a powder that, sprinkled on the plant, causes discomfort to the beetle’s exoskeleton.  Like a scratchy sweater, it irritates the flea beetles and they move on, into the neighbor’s yard.  You have to keep applying the dust, though, after every rain.

One of my favorites is vacuuming off the beetles – I love how the sight of this stops traffic on my street.  Like a deranged June Cleaver who can’t stand the sight of a dirty garden, I’ll toss on a set of pearls and march forth, vacuum cleaner in tow. 

Years of experience have taught me that the household vacuum is best for this task; shopvacs won’t do.  These bugs are little – you only need a gentle pull to get them off the plant.  A machine capable of pulling up nails is too big; one slip with that type of suction and in a pppttthhhp!  your seedling is a distant memory.  You’re left with shredded parts clinging to the hose end and a bunch of flea beetles, bowing down before you, in awe of your sheer destructive power.

 No, a dirt devil is the perfect size and if you move with finesse, you’ll get a bagful of beetles in no time.  Point the nozzle at an angle to the leaf so you don’t draw up the plant instead of the bugs.  Be prepared to repeat this several times per week – there’s plenty more beetles out there willing to reinvade you garden after you and your vacuum leave.

 One note:  if you do vaccum your bugs, you have to empty the bag.  This is not for the squeamish – take the vacuum away from your garden, open the bag cover, and grasp the neck of the bag near the entrance from the machine.  Pinch this shut as you remove the bag, tie off the end and dispose of it.

 If you’re not in the mood for light housework in the garden, try Neem.  Made from extract from the neem tree, this helps gardeners keep flea beetles under control.  It’s available as a spray at your local garden centers.

 With each challenge you’ll find more to celebrate once your harvest get rolling.  If   you’ve got a brand new garden, one where food has never been grown before, log onto Grow Local’s 2,009 gardens in 2009 website to register your plot and take the grow local pledge.  This project is devoted to bringing people closer to the earth and the food it provides.

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