Friday, April 4, 2014

Bad Mulch + Lousy Application = Dead Plants!

Time for my annual diatribe against bad quality mulch and poor (read ignorant) mulching practices.  When I say ignorant, I am referring to 'professionals' who are paid and should know better.

I know my last post was negative too, but that's what happens when it is April and you haven't had any warm spring days and you still have several feet of snow on the back deck.

This is one of my favorite pictures, a 15' Dogwood with
a 2+' high 'Volcano' of mulch applied last year.
I look forward to see how it flowers and leafs
out this year. ©2014 BDG

Let's start with a positive… properly applying good mulch to your gardens each spring is one of the best practices to keep your gardens healthy, happy and beautiful.  A good quality, natural mulch without dyes, that has been aged for a season or two, will quickly add organic material to your soil without robbing it of nutrients or moisture.  For a more detailed summary of mulches and proper mulching practice, read my post from last spring called, Reed Versus The Volcano (Tree Volcano That Is).

Basically, use good mulch and apply a thin layer each spring.  Two-three inches is more than enough in shrub borders and around trees, while half that is needed in perennial beds (compost is preferable to bark mulch here.)  By the end of the season, the mulch should be mostly broken down.  If you have left over mulch in your beds in the spring, rake it over to loosen it up and add a very thin layer of new mulch on top.  The key factor is that the mulch application does not raise the level of the bed year over year.    This 'volcanization' is what kills plants and trees over time.

Following are some images over recent years that track the demise of plants as a result of improper mulching and bad mulch.  The time differential is one year, that is how quickly mulch can suffocate and kill.

I promise an upbeat and positive post next week, it can't still be cold..

Last year's spring mulch application, a solid foot of
mulch was added.  ©2014BDG

This spring before mulching, half the plant is dead.
No question as a result of the mulch.  ©2014BDG

Last year after mulching.  You can see stump in
 background from tree that was removed a year earlier.
These trees have been 'Volcanized' for years.  Those are big
trees and the mulch is almost 2' high.  When the
trunk goes straight into the mulch and not
flaring out then it is WAY too deep ©2014BDG

This spring before mulching, they removed one tree and
left one unhappy tree.  ©2014BDG
This is what the second tree looked like
last year before being removed this
week.  "Dead Tree Standing"

Friday, March 28, 2014

I Declare Today The Ugliest Day Of The Year!

This snow pile is over 30 feet tall with every imaginable
piece of trash.  The line that separates the light from the
dark makes it appear like a glacier.  ©2014BDG
While at the mall today I saw the piles of snow from the winter, and they opened my eyes and mind to this time of year when everything looks so bleak and dirty.  As these mountains of snow melt, the concentration of dirt, sand, trash and other miscellaneous items is so concentrated as to obscure what is actually hiding beneath.

These ugly piles are 30-40 feet high and you wonder if they will ever melt and let us move on to spring.

The peak in the background is over 40 feet tall.  This part is so dark
 it looks like soil.  ©2014BDG

With Spring almost a month behind last year the interminable winter seems to not want to let go.

The garden looks so sad with little growth as the snow just receded
over the last weeks.  ©2014BDG

It has been a hard few months and with winter not ready to give way to spring we cannot enjoy much of what is happening outside.  However the are a few glimmers of hope that the renewal of spring is coming.

"Tommies" starting to break through and show their color. ©2014BDG

Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)  flowering over a month later than last year.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Throw Out The Color Wheel," When Designing Landscapes.

Sweeter words were never said during a seminar at the recent New England Grows show, and with spring coming soon (I hope), I felt this was a good topic to discuss.

David Culp
, a horticulturist, plantsman, designer and lover of all things garden-related lectured on his recent book, The Layered Garden, and put forth many of his theories and beliefs regarding garden design.  I was relieved to hear someone, who was obviously passionate about plants and gardens, not lay out one rule after another about how to build a garden.

My favorite line during his lecture was to "throw out the color wheel!"  Can I have an amen!

Simple analogous colors and white are a
soothing, cool combination.  ©2014BDG
Now before I get too far and some people get a little twisted, let me put this in perspective.  As a designer, I believe that gardens and landscapes should be built for the enjoyment of the owner, as well as friends and family that they bring to their homes, and not the designer or any publications.  All good designs are derived from a well developed process with rules for materials, construction techniques and plantings.  Many of these rules must be obeyed, but many can be bent or broken.  While this is not  definitive discussion of color theory, it is intended to get people to focus on what appeals to their own tastes.

Chartreuse and violet form a bright
complementary combination. ©2014BDG
While this topic can expand into all sorts of areas, lets just focus on color.  The most passive approach is to take color cues from nature, with native plants this can be very dynamic with regard to color and texture.  Often people think that native means boring but that does not have to be the case.

The color wheel is used by designers and it is the basis for combining colors in the house, garden, painting, clothing and any other field that uses color.

The most basic rules to the color wheel are that analogous colors work in combination and complementary colors work in combination.  Analogous colors are those close to each other on the wheel.  While colors in nature rarely match the wheel, orange/yellow and red/purple are examples of analogous colors that work together.  Complementary colors are those on opposite sides of the wheel such as red/green, blue/orange and yellow/purple. A mix of analogous colors will appear more gentle and subtle, while complementary will have significant contrast and make each color stand out.

Pink and yellow do not fit the 'rule' but I love it in this
Lantana and you also see it in a lot of roses. ©2014BDG
When I think of the many uses of complementary colors I think of wonderful yellow/purple plant combinations, or the Christmas red/green colors.  On the less attractive side I am reminded of the hideous New York Mets orange/blue uniforms or the worst combination ever to hit the home and clothing industry of brown/turquoise.

But here is the rub, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and others may like what I don't like.  Once people have an understanding of color they can make their own choices.  Take a look at this page on Cornell University's discussion of color for a very basic introduction.  The modern day mother of color in the garden is Gertrude Jekyll, and for more on her life and work you can check out the website of her estate at Gertrude Jekyll.

Those lovely NY Mets uniforms.  Technically right
and by the rules, but you have to be a Met fan to
love these. ©
There are so many more levels to using color and more complicated combinations on the color wheel, as well as discussion of hue, warm/cool and much more.  My point in this post is that no matter how many rules and constructions there are, at the end of the day it should come down to what appeals to your eye.  Go to a paint shop and 'borrow' a bunch of chips.  Find colors and hues that really appeal to you.  You can buy tester colors and put them on paper for a closer look.

Do you like hot oranges, yellows and reds but also like pastel pink and violet.  There are ways to lay out plants to make a crazy combination like this to work, but it involves breaking the rules, and I don't care.  

Pink, blue and yellow works in the stark, early
season garden with no other plants.  ©2014BDG
I like color in my garden and my home and that is my tendency while designing, to incorporate as much color throughout the season into gardens.  I don't have a beige or white wall in my house, but I know that many people like simple color schemes or white gardens.  Knowing what you like and sometimes kicking rules to the curb is the best solution.  

The color wheel is an important place to start in any form of design, but it is important not to be tied down because you can always throw out the color wheel!

White will often make other colors stand out and
be more prominent.  ©2014BDG

Friday, February 7, 2014

Who wants to make their own honey? It couldn't BEE easier!

Booth at New England Grows with a few hives
 and some frames.  ©2013BDG
Each year at New England Grows, our regional horticulture and landscaping trade show, I try to find a few inspirational ideas amongst the trucks, gas-powered equipment, organic sprays and artificially-dyed mulch.  Unfortunately, there was little that was new, interesting or particularly inspirational this year.

However, all was redeemed when I found the booth of Best Bees.  A local company based in Boston's South End that works with its clients to provide hives, bees, supplies and beekeeping services.  With people gardening more and home vegetable gardens on a dramatic rise, I can't think of a more valuable or cooler business to be involved with.  With the recent declines in native bee populations, vegetable gardens and native plants will benefit from homeowners bringing bee populations back into the neighborhood.

A deluxe painted hive with copper top.
Best Bees was started by a behavioral ecologist and beekeeper, Noah Wilson-Rich PhD, who has studied and written extensively on bees and beekeeping.  His staff is filled with doctoral students and experienced beekeepers, with all the profits going back into bee research.  Currently they manage about 200 hives in rural, suburban and urban environments from Cape Cod to north or Boston.  To meet Noah and experience his passion for bees, check out this Ted Talk.

Now, anyone who has worked in the garden and horticultural business has heard clients express great fear and reservation at having bees in their gardens, in fact I have had people tell me that they want only flowers that don't attract bees.  This is hard to do unless you want to live in a bubble and the bigger question is why wouldn't you want to be around honey bees.

This often irrational fear comes from a misunderstanding of honey bees.  Often they get clumped in with more aggressive wasps, hornets and the ever-present yellow jacket.  Honey bees are docile and require great provocation to sting… they are just not interested in us.  Rather, they are interested in collecting pollen, and the by-product of their pollen gathering is that they transfer pollen from flower to flower thereby fertilizing them.  They are critical to the success of vegetable gardens and will certainly increase the yield of many crops if you keep a hive.  The pollen then goes to the hive where it is transformed into a critical food source, honey.

Partially formed honeycomb in
a frame.  ©2013BDG

Best Bees will work with people to set up a program that works best for them.  If you just want the benefits of a local bee population and pounds of honey every season, their beekeepers will make regular visits to ensure the health of your hive and extract your honey.  If you want to be more involved in the process, they will just sell you the supplies and bees and consult with you.  If you use their services they will guarantee the health of your bees and replace them if they succumb to disease or other problems.

They have basic to very ornamental hives, and last year their largest seasonal haul from a client's  hive was 54 pounds of honey.  That can make for some wonderful gifts to friends or you can hog it all for yourself with tea and biscuits.

For those of you who enjoy spending time in your gardens and love learning about your plants, soil and environment, this is a natural progression to understanding the greater process for creating food and flowers, and the prize is liquid gold.

Active hive on a rooftop garden in Winchester that
I visited last spring.  ©2013BDG

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Preventing Plant Damage From Heavy Winter Snow.

Neighborhood snow monkeys clear off
branches on this mature Sugar Maple.
Of course a mature tree like this does
not need to be cleared, but these monkeys
sometimes need something to do. 2014©BDG
While it is true that our New England gardens go dormant in winter (mostly - see Witch Hazel), there are a few reasons to keep an eye out for problems as a result of our damaging weather.  Snow and ice can cause significant damage to trees and shrubs, and every winter I learn of broken branches and snapped trunks from clients.

The easiest and most successful way to minimize any winter issues to prized ornamental plants and shrubs is to have them pruned properly and with some regularity.  However, heavy snow can stress even well pruned plants and occasionally they need some relief from the heavy burden of the wet snow.    I use my pole pruner or a hockey stick to gently tap branches and trunks to lighten the snow load.

Now, I don't go out and remove snow from every plant.  Many winters, some shrubs and smaller plants will be bent over for months under the weight of snow and once the snow melts, they return to their normal shape.  Mostly I remove some of the snow from special ornamental trees of value and structural shrubs.

A 15 year old Dogwood lost a lower
horizontal branch that had too much
weight.  2014©BDG
It takes just a few minutes and can save hundreds to thousands of dollars to replace damaged plants.  Many damaged plants will rebound, but it can take years for their shape to return if at all.

Be very gentle, or you will cause the same problem you are trying to prevent.  I find that some gentle taps will knock off the excessive snow and leave some on the branches.  I am always out lightening the load on a large row of Arborvitae.  The wood is so soft and flexible that they would double over if not for a little care.

Just remember to take a quick look outside during and after a bad snow or ice storm, especially when the snow is heavy and wet.  As a warning remember to wear a hat as the deluge of snow from a larger tree will pile into your jacket at the collar.  That little gem comes from my personal experience.

Weeping Japanese Maples are always
losing branches that get weighed down
in heavy snow.  2014©BDG