What is a mulch, and what can it do for my plants?
Mulches are a gardener’s salvation. They save plants, and they save time, money and a lot of hard work. Plus, they make the place look good. A mulch is any layer of covering over the top of the soil. It can be organic, such as compost, shredded tree leaves or ground pine bark, or it can be inorganic, such as the roll-type mulches you cut and fit around your plants, stones, river rock or chopped rubber tires. Mulches minimize the rate of temperature change in the soil. They reduce or eliminate weed growth. Mulches protect produce from splashing rains, and they also keep vegetables lifted off the soil surface, so they lessen the risk of insect and disease invasion. Mulches slow the movement of water across the soil surface so that more of it will penetrate into the root zone, and they also reduce the loss of topsoil in sandy, windy areas.
What types of plants will give the most color for the least work?
Strange as it seems, annuals are usually best. They’re colorful for 3 to 6 months, while even the best perennials usually flower for only a few weeks. Flowering shrubs and trees are the worst, blooming only for one to two weeks.
I read and hear about “groups” or “clusters” of plants, but what does that mean?
Nature often grows her plants in clumps and groves. As we’re trying to achieve that natural look in modern landscapes we, too, should avoid repeating the straight lines of our houses. By planting in curved lines, or checkerboard-style in little communities of the same species, we can get that natural look.
What is the best time to plant new trees and shrubs?
Most woody plants do especially well when they are set out in the fall. Serious horticulturists prefer fall plantings since it allows the plants the balance of the fall, all winter and all spring to establish their new roots before the summer’s hot, dry weather. Spring and summer plantings can also work well so long as you hand-water the new plants for the first season. Their roots will all be in the original soil ball from the nursery initially, and that soil will dry out much more quickly than the native soil in your landscape. Winter plantings work well, but avoid plants known to be winter-tender in your area.
Which side of the house will have the most damage to plants when it’s cold?
Surprisingly, the east and south sides. Plants on those sides will keep growing longer into the fall, so they’ll be less prepared for the winter. Plus, most extremely low temperatures happen when it is clear. Sunlight hits the leaves of plants on those two sides before it hits plants on the north and west. The rapid thawing causes a great deal of damage. look. For the record, odd numbers of plants are the most restful visually, especially when you’re dealing with comparatively small numbers of plants, for example, up to nine plants of a particular species.
I’d like to cut my water bills and conserve water. What tricks can you give?
Not too many tricks, just lots of common sense. First, choose plants that don’t require excessive amounts of water to stay healthy. Be sure your watering system is functioning properly, whether you use an automatic system or a hose with a sprinkler. Invest in a “smart” controller that will monitor weather conditions, soils, sun/shade, slopes and plants being grown before determining when sprinklers are to run. Mulch your plants liberally, preferably with compost or shredded bark and likely in combination with a roll-type mulch. Water early in the morning, when evaporation will be at its lowest. Learn to recognize drought symptoms in your plants, then water deeply and wait until they begin to dry out before watering again. Usually you’ll have one or two plants that will be the first to wilt. Drip irrigation is a very good plan wherever it’s practical.
How often should I water my plants?
There is no one good answer to this question because there are simply too many variables (species of plant, soil type, temperature, wind, level of growth activity, etc.). Remember that you don’t take a drink on a regular basis, nor will your plants need to be watered on any specific interval. Learn to recognize signs of drying plants, then water deeply. Wait until the plants begin to dry out before watering again. Whenever possible, leave your sprinkler system in the “Manual” mode. Turn it on only when the plants need water.
Is it better to water frequently and not to use as much at a watering, or less often and more heavily?
Definitely the latter. If you “sprinkle” the soil lightly, you’ll be encouraging shallow roots that will stay near the soil surface where the water is hitting. Water more deeply, then let the soil dry out somewhat before you water again. That will encourage your plants to develop much deeper roots, better able to withstand periods of drought.
What advice do you have about drought/water curtailments.
We probably water our plants too much. Automatic sprinkler settings undoubtedly contribute more to that than any one other feature. Here are miscellaneous tips to get the most from available water:
- Avoid plants known to need excessive water. However, this is not meant to imply only desert-type plants.
- Do not fertilize during periods of mid-summer curtailments. Rampant growth requires more water.
- Mulch plants with roll-type or organic mulch, or both.
- Water in evenings or early morning hours.
- When possible, use soaker hoses turned upside-down, rather than spraying water into the air.
- Water thoroughly and infrequently, to promote deeper root growth that is better able to withstand dry periods.
- Leave the sprinkler system in the “Manual” mode, then turn it on yourself when your plants show need.
- Use a hose-end sprinkler to spot-water dry areas between automatic irrigations.
What if my area experiences prolonged cloudiness, wet conditions?
If you get a good bit of cloudy, rainy weather in late spring or fall, expect fungal diseases to show up. Watch closely, then treat with an appropriate fungicide at first signs of an outbreak. Expect, too, for your healthy, vigorous plants to wilt temporarily when they’re exposed to full sun for the first time in several days. If you continue to have troubles with plants in one particular part of your garden because of excessively wet soils, consider installing guttering and downspouts, also in-ground grates and drains, and perhaps even a French drain to carry the excess water away to a storm sewer or to the curb.
I have a row of redtip photinias that are up to the eaves. Can I prune them back, or should I just move them?
Redtip photinias grow to 15 to 20 feet when they’re left unpruned. That means they should be kept no shorter than 8 or 10 feet. At those heights you’ll have to prune them 5 or 6 times each summer. It’s not a pretty picture. On the other hand, if you were to try digging those plants and moving them, you’d probably need chiropractic help before the day was over. If you really wanted big photinias somewhere else in your garden, you could probably get them more easily and quicker if you just started with new plants. (Although we no longer recommend redtip photinias due to the horrific effects of Entomosporium fungal leaf spot.)
How much can I cut my shade tree back? It’s too tall for where it’s growing.
That sounds dangerously like “topping” a shade tree. If any plant is too big for its available space, you need to consider either moving it or removing it entirely. That’s doubly true with shade trees, because cutting them back repeatedly to keep them in bounds will result in distorted growth and ruined shape. The tree will never achieve its genetic potential. Fortunately, topping trees like mimosas and fruitless mulberries is almost unheard of today compared to a generation ago. Of course, if you needed to remove one errant limb that had grown out of the tree’s basic canopy toward the roof of your house, you could certainly do that.
What can I add to my soil to improve it?
Whether you’re dealing with a sandy soil or a clay, the answer is the same. Organic matter will help sandy soils hold moisture and nutrients when they might otherwise leach out of the root zone. That same organic matter will help loosen tight clay soils so water and fertilizer can penetrate more readily. Best sources of organic matter include brown Canadian peat moss, rotted manure, compost and shredded bark mulch.
What is the difference between irrigation and Xeriscaping?
Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation. It is promoted in regions that do not have easily accessible, plentiful, or reliable supplies of fresh water, and is gaining acceptance in other areas as access to water becomes more limited. Xeriscaping may be an alternative to various types of traditional gardening.
How does landscaping help me save on my utilities?
Bushes and shrubbery help insulate the outside of your home, keeping bricks and siding cooler during the summer. Trees placed near the home provide shade from direct sunlight, placing them near windows will help keep the sun off the glass keeping the heat out during the summer. And techniques like xeriscaping can reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental landscape watering, and even weekly maintenance such as mowing and weed eating.