Thursday, April 2, 2015

Weed Cloth and Red Death Kill Soil

Two things kill the soil on most of our public and commercial landscapes and many residences in Grants Pass: weed cloth and fine bark mulch, also called Red Death, often used in combination.  Under the influence of water and gravity, dead soil compacts nearly as hard as rock.  Roots won’t grow in it; they grow on top of it, just under the cloth, under the bark or gravel covering the cloth, or in the Red Death.  Storm water, instead of percolating into such soil, runs off into streets, down storm drains, and pollutes our river.
Weed cloth (and its cheap relative, black plastic) kills soil by stopping the movement of worms and other soil life.  Worms under the cloth, unable to get to food on the surface, eventually run out of food under the cloth and starve.   Ants, the other great soil aerators, are not able to live under weed cloth either; nor are any other insects.  With no life to lighten the soil beneath the cloth, it compacts and loses oxygen, which roots need to breathe.  Any further root growth is on top of or just under the cloth, on top of the dead soil.
One might think it’s a good idea to put landscape cloth on paths under gravel or mulch, to make the soil compact and keep it that way.  But roots will grow on top of or just under the cloth; this gardener recently dug and cut out a cottonwood root that had grown 8 inches high across a path of cloth covered with gravel over a mere 7 years.
Another problem with weed cloth and plastic is that mulch will not stick to it, and it soon shows along the edges and anywhere the soil is humped, by the growth of roots for instance, and where it shows, it’s ugly.
Fine bark, or Red Death, kills soil by leaching bark’s toxic natural preservatives into the soil.  Trees make chemicals in their bark to protect themselves from insects, fungi, and bacteria.  Grind it up, break the plant cells, and those preservatives are released to leach into soil, where they quickly kill insects, fungi, and bacteria.  Dead as a doornail, the soil compacts under the influence of water, and roots begin to grow on top of the soil, in the bark.
Neither weed cloth nor Red Death kills plants directly, but some plants cannot stand compacted soil, sicken, and die.  That’s why businesses have pansies and petunias planted in blocks of potting soil, surrounded by Red Death.  Most common landscape shrubs in our town can take compacted soil, or they don’t last long and aren’t used by landscapers.  But they grow slowly and are not healthy in dead soil.
Weeds grow regardless; gravel or fine bark are dandy seedbeds for them, even on top of weed cloth.  They don’t have to be big to be ugly weeds; ugly little weeds spread just as readily and look just as ugly.  Seeds are tracked in and fly in.  Roots under the cloth find their way out along the edges.  So it doesn’t even work to stop weeds.

Larger screened bark, shredded wood-bark mixes like Walk-on fir, and chipped wood or trimmings do not kill soil, as the preservatives are kept in the bark.  It is the bark dust and small particles that leach enough preservatives to kill soil.  Since larger barks keep their preservatives, they last a lot longer.  The larger the bark, the longer it lasts, but walking is easiest on Walk-on and ¾” nugget, and Walk-on fir sticks well to slopes.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Completing a Blueberry Bed at the Parks Office

January 29th, 2014

I started working out front of the Josephine County Parks office back in mid-summer, when I was appointed to the Parks Advisory Board.  I went down to the Parks office to ask for permission to put up signs at the dog park for my weeding classes and filled out a volunteer application to make the classes official, and found out that I get a Jo Co Parks pass for being on the Board, and thus volunteering more than 8 hours per year. 

The first thing I saw was the railroad-tie bed in front of the office, with an ivy column at the far end, and roses, irises, blackberries and grass in the rest.  Having seen it, I had to do something with it, and requested permission to weed and mulch it.  I also asked if I could crown their roses when they were done blooming.  I scheduled a day to weed it and came back a week or so later to mulch the bed with heavy walk-on fir bark and crowned just one rose plant, as the other one was just coming into bloom.

All this time, I had been looking at the space on the other side of the rail of the entry walkway, an unusable space full of moss and false dandelion because no one walked there, an area about 12’ X 20’ between the front fence, walkway railing, and the fuel tanks next to the big gate.  I talked to our Parks Director about building a blueberry bed there in the fall, demonstrating using leaves as base mulch and pine needles as top mulch, as well as how to grow blueberries in Southern Oregon.  She thought it was a great idea. 

I started spraying the weeds with glyphosate in preparation for fall mulching, and repeated it once or twice through the summer.  Glyphosate (aka Roundup) is a heavy fertilizer of broadleaf plants, which are going to dominate this bed.  I also continuing to fight the grass and blackberries in the rose bed.

Fall is a very busy time for me, moving and spreading leaves, and I didn’t get to move leaves from Schroeder Park to the Parks office until November.  I brought silver maple, cottonwood, and sweet gum leaves, about 3 yards in two pickup loads, and piled them generally in an oval shape in the center of the area, but also spread them on what would be the path around it, and in the 8” space between the fuel tanks container and the front fence, to keep the weeds down.  
I wasn’t sure yet what kind of path mulch I wanted, and the director wasn’t there that day to consult.  4 x 8 sand (1/4”-1/8” river sand) would look sharp, but would need regular working with hula hoe and rake to keep it that way.  The other option was to cover the leaves that I spread around the bed with walk-on-fir bark, which would need only yearly renewal.  For the time being, I decided to go with the leaves and bark for lower maintenance.

Our early December snow storm hit before I could return with compost and Rubel blueberry plants that I had been growing from #1 to #2 containers all summer.  At the Parks board meeting in early January, our Director told me that the leaves behind and around the tanks had to move.  That decided me on the 4 X 8 sand with regular maintenance option for the path around the bed and behind the tanks.  One inch is all one needs; more than that and it feels like walking on a beach.

The second Wednesday in January, I brought a yard of compost and three blueberry plants and commenced to raking and forking soggy leaves from the path area and behind the tanks; piling and stomping them in the center oval nice and flat; and making cone-shaped holes in the leaves to set the blueberry plants in.  I followed that with compost around the plants up to the level of the pot soil and all over the leaves, thick enough to hide them pretty well.  I then went to get a load of 6-12 cobble rock (aka Dog Creek Boulders) from Copeland, of a generally flat-bottomed shape and middle size, to hold in the compost.  I wound up 7 feet short of surrounding the oval.

I heard at the Parks Board meeting that people were loving the look of the bed.  People really do love the look of compost and rock borders.  But I wasn’t finished yet.

Two weeks later, I brought a ½ yard load of 4 x 8 sand and enough rocks to finish rocking in the oval.  I brought just enough sand to cover the area around the bed, making a clean walking path.  But there was not enough to cover the area between the fence and the tanks.  That will wait for another couple weeks, when I also crown both the roses. 

It is difficult to see naked blueberry plants, but there are three of them.

I then went to rake up a small load of pine needles along Pinecrest/Plum Tree Lane, where the gravel shoulders catch and hold pine needles, while letting oak leaves blow into the ditch.  I spread about half of what I raked onto the blueberry bed, shaking the needles onto the bed as naturally as possible, and picking out the occasional cigarette butt.  I tried to put on enough to keep it covered the whole year, as top mulches tend to thin out over the summer. 

I took the remainder home and spread them over about half my front yard beds, to cover the maple leaves I had spread earlier to protect my pots and plants before December’s snow and deep freeze.  Pine needles look a lot nicer than big leaf maple leaves, and keep them from blowing around.

I’m not sure yet what ground covers I want to plant to keep the blueberries roots covered and cool.  I’m thinking about small sedum and winter cyclamen.  They are slow growing, but easy maintenance and very pretty and low.  Pine needle mulch will have to be kept fairly thick until they grow in solid.

Monday, October 13, 2014

How to Save Coffee and Tea Grounds and other kitchen waste for plant food

Coffee and tea grounds are great plant food, quickly eaten by worms in the garden.  They are available year-round. They are particularly useful for keeping blueberry plants happy by keeping their worms continually fed.  Scattered on living soil with a lot of worms, they disappear quickly; they do not keep the ground covered.  Other mulch or ground cover is needed to keep blueberry roots happily covered as well.
Saving and using them can be a problem; they are very wet, and readily mold.  Therefore, the key to using them is to dry them and not enclose them.

Making my beverages; I use a hand-drip; the bowl on top has a hole in it.

 Coffee and tea grounds in the first drying stage, in their filter baskets.  Note the tea basket is on top of previous batches with a paper towel between to wick the moisture away.

While making the next pot, the previous filter and grounds go in the bowl on top of the paper towel to continue drying.  Normally, I would do this on top of the paper towel and grounds, as in the previous photo.  A separate bowl is a good in-between step for multiple batches in the same day.

 Grounds ready to spread in the garden.

First, after making your beverage, place the coffee filter in a cereal bowl on a paper towel to begin drying until you need to make the next batch.  It will dry faster with the grounds facing up.  When you make the next batch, dump the first grounds in a second bowl, and put a paper towel on top.  Put the next batch in the first drying bowl to dry.  Do not put either bowl in an enclosed space like a cabinet.
As you make more batches of coffee or tea, keep moving the older grounds from the first drying bowl on top of the paper towel into the storage bowl under the paper towel.  When it is full, scatter it in the garden.  You should not try to keep them for more than three or four days or they will tend to mold and lump together.
Another readily plant food that you can use in pots and on your blueberries is egg and milk.  Both have sticky proteins that grab hold of the soil to feed it and your plants.  If you make custard or French toast, for instance, you can rinse the bowl and measuring cups into another bowl and water your potted plants or blueberries with them.
The best mulch, bar none, for preventing weeds germination is leaves.  Every other mulch will eventually become a seed bed for weeds; many start right out growing whatever lands on the surface.  Leaves dry out quickly in the top few layers where the seeds land, so they can’t germinate.  Large seeds can grow through them, but smaller seeds are either smothered beneath them or dry out on top.  The next year’s supply comes along before the previous year’s leaves become a seed bed.  A couple inches guards against most weeds; a foot deep will grow huge veges.  Just plant large seeds or small starts into the damp leaves beneath the top layers.

A bowl of kitchen waste.  Note that the bowl is small; it doesn't pay to let them pile up and rot.
If you use leaf mulch in the garden to keep weeds down, you can scatter kitchen waste in the leaves.  Bananas are particularly useful for their potassium, important for root growth.  They turn brown and disappear into the general mulch quickly.  Fruit seeds will grow, a bonus.  Be sure to remove labels; they stay bright.  Don’t scatter onion or citrus peels in the garden; they take a long time to blend in and rot, and they stink when they do.  They belong in the trash.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kill Heron’s Bill and Cheat Grass

Mass Heron's Bill
May 13, 2013
Heron's Bill has been blooming for months, and is ripening its seed, poking its heron bills at the sky. It has small pink-purple flowers, filigree leaves, and seed pods up to 3 inches long.

It can grow up to 18 inches high and twice as wide, creating a fire hazard as it dries out. But its seeds are its worst problem. As they dry out, they pop off the plant, twisting up into a corkscrew shape except for the sticker seed at one end, and a straight tail at the other. When it gets wet, it unwinds, and the tail holds it still while the seed screws itself into the ground-or into your pet's skin, ear, or eye.

Even in poor ground, heron's bill makes big seed pods.
It has a tap root, but it can easily be pulled from damp soil by grabbing the entire plant at the crown. In dry or wet soil, it can be cut off its tap root below the crown with pruning scissors when seeded and the root will die, being an annual gone to seed.

Single cheat in dry bitter cress
Cheat grass has just begun to bloom, showing itself as it stretches out 2-3 feet high. It also has sticker seeds when ripe, merely sharp enough to penetrate clothing, particularly socks, and your pet's fur, of course. It is a major source of fire danger in this area, along with other dry, annual weeds.

Mass cheat looks like a lot, but is remarkably easy to pull.
Fortunately, this annual grass, like most other annual weeds, is easy to pull in bloom, even in dry soil; the roots shrink greatly as the seed stalk grows.
But few grasses are easy to pull if one cuts them as or before they bloom, but before they ripen seed. Annuals grow more root and seed stalks every time they are cut, until they ripen seed below cutting height. The same goes for heron's bill and most other annual broadleaf weeds. Weed control is seed control. Cutting is not seed control unless one scalps the ground, cutting at or below the crown.
This especially applies to foxtails; they grab the ground hard when cut, and are very hard to pull afterwards. Many plants, like foxtails, are harder to pull when they are dry. They pull easiest while they are flowering and still green.
Dock is also flowering and can be pulled. It is a broadleaf weed that puts up a stalk of green incomplete flowers 3-5 feet tall; its leaves are lanceolate with wavy edges. Before it flowers, it is impossible to pull it without sinking a shovel beside it; the leaves just break off the crown, and they keep growing back every time you tear them off the large root. But once its flowers are showing, the stalk is strongly attached to the root, and it pulls out.

Bitter Cress and Groundsel Are Blooming

Groundsel and Bitter cress, blooming.
Bitter Cress is blooming right now (late March) all over the county. You won't get a better chance to eliminate it from your yard than the next few weeks -- though a few plants can sprout and bloom all summer, right up to late fall. While it is blooming, they are relatively easy to see by their tiny white four-petal flowers, though the smallest plants are not obvious; some are as tiny as a half-inch wide and 1.5 inches tall, fully seeded out. The largest are 6 inches wide across the basal leaves with numerous stalks up to 18 inches tall seeded out. They are easiest to pull when they have started to develop seed pods.
Seeded bitter cress, bright and ugly, and actually harder to pull than when green.
They become a nearly invisible green mist when all the flowers are finished, but as they turn yellow and dry, they become an eyesore, as well as popping their seeds up to three feet in all directions at the slightest disturbance of the pods. By this time, seed control is impossible; all one can do is pull the dry stalks and resolve to do better next year.
Young bitter cress.
Other mustard family plants, most of them with yellow flowers, are also starting to bloom. The flowers are pretty, but you want to pull them before they seed out if you don't want more of them next year. Mustards don't spread by wind, and if you don't use unfiltered irrigation water, you can eliminate them over a few years by pulling them in flower.
Young groundsel
Another weed that is blooming right now, and quickly blowing out and spreading to your neighbors' yards or from them is groundsel. It is a composite flower of the same family as dandelion and wild lettuce and not pretty, much like a miniature wild lettuce, up to a foot tall, with squared-off leaves; the flowers are yellow, do not open fully, and bend over while they are in bloom, straightening as they form seed. It is the first blowing weed of the season, blooming in empty lots all over town. It's easy to pull when in bloom.
Groundsel seeding in a ditch
Dandelions are also starting to bloom. A famous gardener once said that if dandelions were rare and hard to grow, they would be a prized flower. Their dead-heads don't even look bad, and they can be tasty greens before they bloom-but once buds start to form in the base, they turn quite bitter.
Dandelions are equally easy to pull before and after blooming: not easy at all unless your soil is loose from generous mulching with compost or leaves. With big tap roots like these in tight soil, it's best to stick a shovel in next to the root, loosen, and then pull. Wild lettuce (not blooming yet) is easier to pull when in bloom, as it puts up a handy flower stalk and has shallower roots, but it is not a strong stalk, and you have to grab the base.
Gardening is growing plants where you want them to grow, not where they want to grow. Many a pretty flower shows itself to be a weed unless kept under tight control, and that goes double for flowers that cast their seeds to the wind.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Roundup® doesn’t help maintain gravel

It took a few years to figure it out, but I’m ready to pronounce Roundup® and all other glyphosate herbicides useless, even counter-productive, in maintaining clean gravel.  Pulling weeds in flower is my most efficient way to control weeds in gravel.  
Gravel has to be maintained clean, or it disappears under plants and the soil that forms from organic matter and dust.  Plants add to the organic matter if they are allowed to die in place; they obviously detract from the gravel’s appearance.  Organic matter and dust can be regularly blown off, but plants are not so easy to move.
The key to controlling plants in gravel is reducing fertility, surface soil, and seeds.  Glyphosate adds to the first, as it’s a powerful crude organic fertilizer that preferentially grows broadleaf flowering plants because it’s high in nitrogen and phosphate.  But it also does not reduce seed load from the worst of the annual weeds, and makes them harder to weed out.  On the less-packed margins, it feeds worms that bring soil to the surface.
Annuals live to make seed, their only means of reproduction.  They grow a lot of root to support leaf growth when they are young; as they flower, they turn most of the mass of that root into stalks, flowers, and seeds.  Some can live off the water and proteins in their roots and leaves as the soil dries out, if you pull them and leave them lying on the ground, or if you kill their root tips with glyphosate. 
Some annuals, like bitter cress, miners’ lettuce, annual rye, and crawling knotweed, don’t die when hit with glyphosate; they immediately stop growing leaves and go to flower and seed, no matter how young they are, and they ripen those seeds.  When their root tips die because the glyphosate amino acid doesn’t fit in their new proteins, they use the good proteins in their remaining root and leaves to grow flowers and ripen seeds, which are therefore quite viable.
Plants crowd each other out with the help of bugs that eat smaller, stressed plants.  If hit with glyphosate, they don’t grow large and don’t crowd each other out, so one ends up with many very small weeds, hard to see and tedious to pull.  While the plants may not grow large, their aggregate mass still adds to the organic load and the seed load nearly as much as unsprayed plants. 
Unsprayed plants are a lot easier to pull, as they are larger and there are far fewer of them.  It is far easier to pull them in maturity than earlier, as the stalks are strong and easy to grab and the root is shrunken.  Nor does one have to pull the reduced root.  Most annuals in full bloom will not return if the top breaks off the root.

If your gravel is showing a lot of soil or is buried under plants and organic matter, it is best to cover it with fresh gravel, either crushed clean or small river gravel.  Avoid any “minus” crushed gravel, as it is full of fine mineral soil.  It’s a lot easier to blow leaves off of clean gravel than soil, as leaves really stick to soil.  Clean gravel grows a lot fewer weeds, as most need soil and a touch of sun to germinate.  It’s much easier to see the weeds and pull them as they flower.  And it looks really nice.  It’s far easier and much more gratifying to keep clean gravel clean than to clean up buried gravel.

How to grow big tomatoes, peppers, melons, and other heat-loving plants

There are three elements to growing productive tomato plants: a young plant; good soil; and warm soil.  The first is key; if you buy a plant that is blooming in its pot, it won’t grow for you, even if it is in good, warm soil.  Annuals like tomatoes stop growing and start blooming and making seed when their roots wrap around inside the pot and touch each other.  A root-bound plant that is blooming probably won’t grow much even if you bury the stem in soil; you’ll end up with a few fruit on a stunted plant. 
It’s nearly impossible to find a gallon plant in the stores that is not already blooming, and if you find one, a 4 inch plant will usually at least catch up with it.  Even 6-pack plants will beat gallon plants, which are grown for people who don’t know any better than to buy a big plant.  If you want to grow a big tomato plant, buy a small one.
Good nutrition is important; if your flowering weeds are not bountifully large, you should put down about 6 inches of compost on top of the soil and plant into it.  Do not mix it into the soil; worms will do it for you.  It will suppress weeds, and nutrients from the compost leach downward to the roots as they become soluble and available to the plant.  6 inches of good compost at least 3 feet wide will grow a big tomato plant even on bare rock or concrete. 
Warming the soil can be important if the summer is cool, and always helps the plant grow early in the season.  Covering the soil with mid-sized, relative flat river rock, of a size to easily move with one hand, will prevent evaporation from the compost, keeping it moist and preventing cooling; prevent weeds everywhere the soil is covered; and soak up and conduct heat during the day and release heat at night when it helps root growth.  I used to use 3 larger rocks around each plant, but now I’ve moved to a circle of the smaller rock at least 2 feet wide, after great results with watermelon last year.  Covering a whole bed with such rock will prevent cats from digging as well.

The rules for tomatoes also apply to peppers, particularly not using plants that are already blooming in the pots.  These are harder to find with peppers; this week, I was having a hard time finding 4 inch plants that weren’t at least budding, but the large 6-packs were good.
When it comes to the squash and melon family, as well as corn and beans, seed is the only way to go.  They really don’t like their roots messed with or any degree of root-binding.  If the soil is warm, they pop right up; if it is not, a started plant will just suffer in the cold.  If the bugs eat your plants, or the seed doesn’t sprout, the soil was too cold; replant.