Tuesday, February 8, 2011


            February means speaking gigs for me and Tim. This time of year, local Garden and Service and Women’s Clubs want us to tell their members how to get their gardens ready for spring, or how to fix problem areas. Up until this year, that meant many days of designing and creating posters to prop on Tim’s portable easel as visual aids to our presentations. We’ve never forgotten the stern injunction issued by one program chairman: “You have to have a handout,” she told us. “If you don’t have a handout, they get bored.”
            “!” we replied. “Okaaaay.”

            That was ’way before the days of Power Point. Which, neo-Luddite that I am, I resisted in my usual passive-aggressive manner… until now. Tim pulled up an online video how-to: we watched it. Twice. The perky female voice made slide production sound easy. She was, in fact, right about that. I spent four happy hours playing with pictures and polishing text-bites instead of working on the three pieces due to publishers in the near future. (No worries—except for today, it’s supposed to rain the rest of the week.)

            Tomorrow we take the show on the road. I’m anticipating disaster.

                  Be that as it may, I’m steeped in garden preparedness, and you shall benefit therefrom.

Fitzes' winter garden
            The winter garden presents opportunities unavailable the rest of the year. It is neutral, a study in dull greens, greys and browns, empty of distracting blooms and foliage. It makes the underlying structure of the space—what garden-design types dub “the bones”—apparent. In winter, we can see the garden. Now’s the time to think about what we really want from the space. Now’s the time to assess what’s working and, more importantly, what’s not.

            Drawing a map, more or less to scale, helps with visualization. First sketch in the features you’re absolutely stuck with—buildings, patios, other people’s walls and fences, massive boulders, mature trees. Add or delete (it’s only on paper at this point) slightly more negotiable aspects: lawn areas, hedges, your own fences, walkways, recently transplanted trees and shrubs. Embellish with other, readily moved, hardscapes—small boulders, decorative elements—keeping in mind too much extraneous stuff makes a space feel chaotic. Figure out where you most often see the space from inside the house, and arrange elements to optimize that view. Or perhaps you want to lure the viewer outside, to be in the garden, by enhancing a sense of mystery, of something hidden.

             Here are some sample sketches (remember you can click on the pictures to make them larger). Please note that the drawings don’t have to be pretty. You most likely won’t be publishing yours for all the world to see. I certainly would have taken more care if I’d known mine were going to be beamed across cyber-space.

Front-yard island
Fitzes' back garden

            Bare-bones maps provide an erasable foundation upon which to design the plantings. But that’s a topic for another day. We’re focusing on preparation here.

            In mild-winter climes, February is a great time to get the garden ready for whatever’s going to happen to it as spring plays out. The cool weather makes doing the work more pleasurable than if you put it off until later.

Here’s the plan:

1.   Tidy up the site: prune back ornamental grasses and out-of-control or unsightly woody elements, and take down dead herbaceous vegetation; remove disease-ridden foliage, stems and mulch to the curb, and trim the rest to readily compostable sizes and put it in your bin to cook. (Don’t have a bin? See “Compost Happens I & II” posts of January 16 and 20.)
2.  Feed the soil with a generous topdressing of composted organic material (home-grown or commercially obtained) and kelp meal or seaweed emulsion (for trace elements); and
3.      Refresh the mulch.

Collecting prep tools

            Assemble your tools in a convenient staging area. At my house, that would be the back deck for backyard campaigns and the head of the driveway for forays out front. You’ll need the following:

·    a leaf rake;
·  a hard rake (sometimes called a clam rake or landscape rake);
·    pruners and/or your Joyce Chens,  lops and a pruning saw;
·    a large receptacle for collecting debris;
·    large quantities of composted material;
·   sufficient kelp meal or seaweed emulsion for your square footage, per package directions;
·    a wheelbarrow for mixing and moving the topdressing stuff;
·    a trowel for stirring the kelp meal into the topdressing stuff;
·    a shovel to distribute the topdressing stuff; and
·  a garden claw to ruffle the topdressing stuff down through the mulch and to de-compact packed-down shredded mulches.

Composting cuttings

I also require an eight-foot-high ladder to reach some pruning spots. You may want to think about that, depending on your situation. It is just such a total drag to get into the swing of clean-up and have to stop to cadge a never-conveniently-located ladder.

            The worst part is buying and transporting bags of Black Kow (or wheelbarrow-loads of your own compost) around the site. My little yard requires about 25 50-pounders each spring. Much spousal grumbling traditionally accompanies this endeavor.

Soil-feeding materials

          Once pruning and trimming and disposal are done, it’s time to feed the soil. In the wheelbarrow, stir four cups of kelp meal into each 50 pounds of composted whatever. (February is too early to add fertilizer to the mix; but if you put this chore off until mid-March or later, it's okay to add 12 cups of Holly-Tone or other mostly non-synthetic formulation to each 50-pound batch.) Toss the mixture around by the shovelful, right on top of the mulch, aiming for 100% coverage.

           After attending to all beds, whip out your garden claw for another round. Ruffle the topdressing in to get it closer to the soil. The (horrible) alternative is to move the mulch to a tarp before spreading the compost mixture and then replace it. Another possibility is to work in sections, raking back the mulch from one area, tossing on the Kow mix, and putting the mulch back.

Personally, I’ll take ruffling over raking any day.

The evocatively named vomit fungus
 on shredded hardwood mulch
If your mulch of choice is shredded hardwood, you may have noticed that it tends to compact over time. Take advantage of already being on your knees with a claw to break up the surface, allowing air and water to flow through it more easily. An added bonus is the reduction of the likelihood of certain evil-looking and –smelling fungi erupting. And that, as Martha Stewart used to say before she was shipped off to prison for insider trading, is a really good thing.

            Once the ruffling and fluffing are done, move on to
refreshing the mulch. Here are renewal guidelines for the four types of mulches most prevalent in my neighborhood.

1.  Pine straw: a standard bale covers 40 square feet to three or four inches, which quickly mats down. Pine straw decomposes faster than other mulch choices, and should be refreshed at least twice a year.

2.  Pine bark nuggets: one two-cubic-foot bag will refresh a 15-square-foot area. Nuggets look good far longer than pine straw, weathering from a rich brown to silvery grey. And no, in case you were wondering, they do NOT attract termites.

3.  Shredded hardwoods: a two-cubic-foot bag refreshes 15 to 20 square feet. Although longer-lasting than pine straw, there is the little matter of compaction mentioned above. Please avoid using shredded cypress, as the trees are being over-harvested.

4.   Shredded leaves: the biggest advantage to mulching with leaves is that they are renewed on site constantly—for free! And there’s absolutely no packaging waste.

Don’t try to accomplish all this in one day, or even in a weekend, unless you’ve got a crew. Working alone, I usually take four or five two- to three-hour sessions to finish. Spring prep is just another example of why gardening doesn’t make a good avocation for people addicted to instant gratification.

Thanks for dropping by. Will let you know how the first two speaking engagements pan out next time.


No comments:

Post a Comment