With the change in temperatures and a smattering of fall-like weather, this is a very nice time to be outside gardening. Now is the ideal time to plant natives, other ornamental perennials and cool season vegetables. Fall days are generally cooler, shorter and kinder to natives and other perennials. Plants put into the landscape in the fall lose less moisture through the leaves than in summer, and some of the heat of summer is retained in the soil which gives plant roots a chance to become established as the rains of winter set in. Fall is a great time to plant flowering plants, perennials and cool-season vegetables.
It’s here! The Master Gardeners of Nevada County Fall Plant Sale will be live and in-person at the Demonstration Garden Sept. 25 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Bring your wagons, boxes and buggies – come early for the best selection! We are asking that all visitors to the workshops or plant sale please, wear a mask.
From aster to salvias, arugula to winter squash we will offer a variety of plants for sale. In addition to asters, some of the flowering plants to be sold include black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Green Eyes’), California native spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis), columbine, coreopsis, sedum and California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), to name a few. Cool weather veggies include “Garden Tangy” arugula, and varieties of kale, lettuce, and chard. For a complete list of plants check the website at http://ncmg.ucanr.org/. All plants are grown by UC Master Gardeners. Prices generally range from $3 to $7, depending on size of plant/pot. Payment is by cash or check only, please (no credit cards).
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener
Doreen Fogle: Do native plants pose a fire hazard?
You may think that using or keeping native plants in your landscape automatically poses a fire hazard. They don’t. They are not “made to burn” as some have said. Many are drought tolerant and better at holding moisture in their foliage, making them less prone to burning.
Since plants are what burn in a wildfire, when it comes to protecting our landscapes and homes, there are several factors to address to improve fire safety.
You may want to clear all your land to keep your property safe from fire. But that cleared space invites weedy plants that need more maintenance to keep up with — weeds like Scotch broom, annual non-native grasses, and star thistle — and are more flammable.
And we’re in a megadrought, there isn’t enough water to keep sprawling lawns and moist vegetation in the 30 foot defensible space zone.
California is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The plants that evolved here are naturally suited to periods of drought. Periodic fire is part of the natural landscape, too. Many plants resprout after being burned so they can establish quickly and to help keep hillsides protected and stabilized. Seeds of some plants need fire to germinate.
And native plants evolved with insects that feed on only native foliage which in turn feed birds and many other animals that are a part of our ecosystem. Without them our ecosystem weakens and can collapse — fewer insects, birds, fish, small and then large animals. And that means, to me, a lower quality of life forever.
So we must aim for greater fire resistance in our landscapes and including native plants preserves our ecosystem and the beauty that brought us all here in the first place.
Three elements that play a greater role than plant selection
These are plant and landscape maintenance, irrigation, and spacing plants and landscape elements for a more defensible landscape. Plant selection comes after these. The condition and environment the plants are in contribute much more to the flammability of any plant.
Pruning, thinning, and deadwood removal.
Dead plants, dead branches, and dead leaves should be removed. Leaves and pine needles on the ground should be removed and carried to green waste. Or better, chipped or shredded and added to compost piles to be used as mulch when they’re broken down. Or apply during the rainy season (should we have one again) so they can get packed down close to the soil. (See my previous article on mulch flammability).
Maintain a regular watering schedule to keep plants hydrated. For a drought tolerant landscape, especially with well-chosen native plants, this can be as little as two times per month. A deep watering session and mulched soil and you can keep an attractive landscape that benefits the birds, bees, and other wildlife of the region and uses little water.
See calscape.org/planting guide and read the Watering New Plants section for excellent information on how to establish new native plants and how they may deal with no supplemental water once they’re established.
Spacing plants for a more defensible landscape
Starting at the house, keep all flammable materials and all plants at least five feet away from it.
From five to 30 feet from the house, a rule-of-thumb is to space shrubs at least twice their height from each other. Further away you can plant clusters of trees and shrubs at least 10 feet from each other. The point is to break up continuity of vegetation while keeping a small plant community for better root growth and maintaining wildlife habitat. It’s prettier, too.
This is very basic. But here is one resource I’ve found informative: grassrootsecology.org/fire-resistant-habitat-at-home.
Some native plants that are more fire-resistant
No plant is fire-proof. And the fire resistance of any plant can vary with its environment and care. Looking through lists of fire resistant plants can be frustrating, many give conflicting answers. In fact, researchers say that very few plant lists are actually tested, mostly because the greatest factors are the condition and the environment the plants are in. They say that many lists are copied from each other and misinformation abounds.
With that said, here are a few native plants that are proven, somehow, to be fairly fire-resistant. The first is an example of one the confusing ones.
Manzanita is on many lists, both fire-hazard and fire-safe. It includes the large whiteleaf manzanita shrub as well as the low-growing ground cover types. This one comes from reputable sources and it dispels the commonly held idea that manzanita is a fire hazard. In a home landscape they can be maintained as mentioned above and be good. I accept valid differences of opinion on that.
Other natives that are good are Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), Coffeeberry (Frangula californica), the gooseberries and currants (Ribes species), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), and a nice ground cover is creeping sage (Salvia sonomensis).
Home-hardening is most important
It’s been shown that up to 60% of burned houses are ignited by embers from up to 100 yards away, and not so much from landscape plants. This means that protecting your house from ember starts may be most important. You can find more information on home-hardening from grassrootsecology.org/fire-resistant/habitat-at home, see the Home Hardening section.
There’s no guarantee that all efforts to protect your home and outdoor spaces can prevent you from loss, not with the ferocity of the fires we’ve been seeing lately. But all measures can stack the odds in your favor.
Do consider native plants for your landscape, they do fit in to a fire-safe landscape. Get them in and put them on a good water-wise irrigation regimen, do regular maintenance (it’s much less than hacking down Scotch broom and thistles), and enjoy the wildlife, the fragrances, and the beauty your little part of California has to offer.
Calscape.org is your detailed guide to help you select species. You can find that Mulch and Flammability article online with The Union or on my website mydelightfulgardens.com.
Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website mydelightfulgardens.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Melinda Myers: Fall landscape care to keep plants and pollinators healthy
As the weather and gardens transition from summer to fall, it is time to adjust your maintenance practices to ensure the health, longevity, and beauty of your landscape. Proper fall care will increase winter survival, support pollinators, and reduce your future workload.
Continue watering as needed. This is especially important for new plantings and moisture-loving plants. Don’t overlook established trees during extended dry periods. Drought conditions stress these key landscape plants, making them more susceptible to life threatening insects and disease.
Leave healthy perennials stand for winter. Many provide homes for pollinators and other beneficial insects and some seeds provide food for songbirds. You’ll enjoy the added texture and motion in your winter garden and the songbirds that stop by to dine.
Do remove diseased plant debris and those infested with plant-damaging insects. Removing these from the garden reduces the source of future infestations which means healthier plants with less pest management required. Contact your local municipality for guidance on disposing of pest infested plant debris.
This is also a good time to remove any small to medium sized dead or diseased branches from shrubs and small trees. A saw, like Corona’s 7-inch RazorTooth folding saw is perfect for this size job. The blade tucks into the handle for safe transport and the smaller size makes it easy to tuck into your tool belt or bucket. Disinfect the blade with rubbing alcohol or a disinfectant spray between cuts when pruning diseased plant material.
Don’t rake leaves to the curb this fall. Put them to use in the garden as mulch on the soil surface to help suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and improve the soil as they decompose. Leaves also provide insulation and winter protection for a variety of beneficial insects and toads.
Continue weeding the garden. Cooler temperatures and a shorter to-do list make it easier to squeeze in more time for this task. Removing unwanted plants from the garden reduces competition with desirable plants for water and nutrients. Eliminating weeds before they set seed means fewer weeds for you to pull next year.
Continue cutting the lawn as long as it continues to grow. Leave clippings on the lawn to add nutrients, moisture, and organic matter to the soil. A season’s worth of clippings is equal to one fertilizer application.
Don’t rake fall leaves off the lawn. Just mow over them as you cut the grass and accomplish two tasks in one. As long as the leaf pieces are the size of a quarter or smaller, they’ll break down, adding organic matter to the soil and not harm the grass. Make a second pass with the mower if needed to cut the leaves down in size.
After your last cut, clean and winterize your mower. Remove and sharpen the blades so you are ready for next season. Consider investing in an extra set of blades so you can change them throughout the mowing season. Sharp blades make a cleaner cut for a better-looking lawn that requires less water and a mower that uses less fuel.
Setting aside a bit of time this fall to prepare your garden for winter will result in less replacement and pruning of winter damaged plants.
Melinda Myers has written numerous books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Corona Tools for her expertise to write this article. Myers’ web site is www.MelindaMyers.com
Melinda Myers: Help for weather-stressed lawns
The extreme heat and drought of 2021 across much of the country has turned many lawns brown. Damaged lawns may be thin, contain dead patches or are overrun with weeds.
Fall is a good time to improve the health and appearance of a weather-worn lawn. Start the process by evaluating the damage. Then plan a course of action and be prepared to follow through as needed with proper care.
Fall fertilization can help improve thin lawns and those with numerous small dead patches the size of a baseball or smaller. Apply fertilizer in early September to help lawns recover from summer stress while encouraging denser growth and deeper, more drought tolerant roots. Those in warmer climates growing grasses like centipede, Bermuda and zoysia should make sure the last fall application is at least one month prior to the average first killing frost. Use a low nitrogen, slow-release fertilizer that won’t harm stressed lawns and young seedlings if repairing or overseeding the lawn.
Continue to mow high as long as the grass continues to grow. Taller grass produces deeper, more drought tolerant roots. Mow often, removing only a third of the total height. This is less stressful on the lawn and results in shorter clippings that can be left on the lawn. The clippings return moisture, nutrients, and organic matter to the soil.
Use a sharp blade for a cleaner cut that closes more quickly, reducing water consumption and risk of insects and disease while leaving the lawn looking its best. You’ll also save time as sharp blades cut more efficiently and reduce fuel consumption by as much as 22%.
Improving a lawn’s growing conditions will help it recover more quickly and equip it to better manage environmental stress. Core aerate lawns that have more than one half an inch of thatch, those growing in compacted soils, or before overseeding. By removing plugs of soil, you will break through the thatch and create channels for water and fertilizer to reach the grass roots. For best results, core aerate the lawn when it’s actively growing; fall for cool season grasses and spring or early summer for warm season grasses.
Hand removal of weeds is the most environmentally friendly option. Organic broadleaf weedkillers with the active ingredient Fehedta or Hedta is another option. Spot treat problem areas to minimize the use of chemicals and reduce the stress on already stressed lawns. As always, read and follow label directions carefully whether using traditional, natural or organic chemicals.
Repair dead and bare patches in cool season lawns that are the size of a soccer ball or larger as needed. Those growing warm season grasses will have the best results when seeding in spring through early summer. Rake away dead grass and debris roughening and exposing the soil below. Spread grass seed over the area and lightly rake to ensure seed-to-soil contact. Or mix a handful of grass seed in a bucket of compost or potting mix. The organic matter helps conserve moisture and promotes seed sprouting. Spread the mix over the soil surface. Water these areas often enough to keep the soil surface moist until the grass seed sprouts. As grass begins to grow, water more deeply and less often to encourage a robust drought tolerant root system.
Proper maintenance and a bit of cooperation from nature will help transform your lawn from a disappointment to an asset in your landscape.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com
Ann Wright: Welcome, September’s garden
As days begin to shorten, with a wee bit of cooling at night, September is here as we look forward to the autumnal equinox when hours of daylight are roughly equal to the night time hours — this year, Sept. 22. Right now, however, it is more difficult to be outside for very long in the unhealthy air. Concern for fires and drought is still a big part of our everyday life. But, as we look forward to clearer, cooler days ahead, planning for a fall garden provides some respite.
As summer harvests wind down, September is a good time to focus on fertilizing fruit trees and adding compost to existing garden beds. Pick up fallen, dry fruit and compost if not diseased; spent vegetable plants can also be added to the compost pile. Fertilize flowering annuals, perennials and roses. Renew mulch around roses and cut spent blossoms. Later in the month and into October are good times to divide crowded clumps of perennials such as daisy, penstemon and daylily.
Garden beds can be prepared now for cool-season vegetable planting, and for wildflowers. Since weeds restrict growth of wildflowers, soak the prospective wild flower bed and allow weed seeds to germinate. Once the weeds have sprouted, pull or hoe them down and repeat the process before sowing the wildflower seeds. For faster germination, alternately freeze and then thaw the seed.
For winter vegetables, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, radish and spinach can be planted now. Germination charts are available on our Master Gardener website, which offer more specifics for planning when to plant. The charts are for both warm-season and cool-season crops, and are based on optimal soil temperature for vegetable seed germination. The Master Gardener’s recorded workshop on growing cool season vegetables in the foothills is also available on the website under the link, “Workshop Recordings.”
Preparing soil is also critical in planning for future garden beds or areas. Understanding how to build healthy soil includes consideration of structural, chemical and biological components, and then how they work together for soil health. Structural components include the texture of the soil – or the size and portion of the particles that make up the soil. For example, clay, silt and sand are all descriptions of how soil is made up- or, the way the elements are bonded together to form aggregates. Many local gardeners may be all too familiar with clay soil while others may have sandy loam.
The second component contributing to soil health is chemical – as in soil fertility. This is where a soil test can be beneficial in predicting how to amend soil for maximum health. The soil test can tell a gardener what nutrients are readily available in the soil, in addition to pH. Nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) are the main, or macro nutrients of the soil – and each has a specific purpose in terms of soil chemistry. Some soil tests will also reveal the micronutrients within the soil sample.
The biological features of the soil are quite interesting – these include, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes among other living creatures within the soil. Without these biological benefactors living and thriving within the soil, the nutrients are less likely to be retained by the plants. Bacteria are primarily decomposers and feed on organic matter and plant exudates. Fungi are also considered decomposers and feed on more complex organic matter. Thread-like filaments within the soil layers are often evidence that the fungi are improving the texture of the soil which then helps with the absorption of nutrients and water.
To learn more about this complex, but fascinating aspect of the science of gardening, join the Master Gardeners at the “It’s Alive! Soil Building” workshop to be presented via Zoom on Sept. 11 at 9 a.m. Go to the website (http://ncmg.ucanr.org/) for access to the Zoom link. Other upcoming events for September include the workshop, “How to Become a Backyard Carbon Farmer” (location to be determined) on Sept. 18, and our fall plant sale, scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 25 at 9 a.m. at the Demonstration Garden (1036 W. Main Street in Grass Valley). The plant sale will feature Master Gardener-grown perennials, some native plants as well as cool-season veggie starts. Watch for further details on the website.
Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener
Melinda Myers: Keep gardening after the first fall frost
There is nothing worse than frost in the forecast and a garden full of vegetables not quite ready for picking. Use some simple strategies to extend the growing season and keep enjoying garden-fresh vegetables.
Fortunately, some vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts tolerate frost and even taste better after a slight chill. Most of these can tolerate temperatures as low as 24 to 28˚ F.
Leeks are another vegetable that thrive in cooler temperatures. Many tolerate temperatures as low as 20˚ F. Just mound some protective mulch around the plants and continue harvesting. Leave some of your carrots, turnips, and parsnips in the ground for winter. Just cover the soil with straw or evergreen boughs after it lightly freezes. Dig as needed or during a winter thaw. You will enjoy their wonderfully sweet flavor.
Protect frost-sensitive plants with old bed sheets and even mattress pads. Cover the plants in late afternoon and remove them as soon as the temperatures climb above freezing. Keep them handy and be ready to cover whenever frost is in the forecast.
Make it easier by using all-purpose garden fabric row covers. This spun material allows air, light, and water through while protecting the plants from frost. Loosely cover the plants and anchor the edges with stones, boards, or garden pins. You only need to remove the fabric to harvest ripe vegetables. Otherwise, it can stay in place until the vegetables stop producing or you decide it is time to end the season.
Create a high tunnel over garden beds filled with large plants. Use hoops and row covers to allow easy access for harvesting while protecting the plants. Systems like Maxi Garden Hoops stand seven feet tall and five feet wide when installed. Simply cover the set of three hoops with row cover fabric.
Cloches have long been used to jump start the season or extend it beyond the first fall frost. You will find a variety of shapes and sizes available. Select one large enough to cover your plants and protect them as needed. Look for those with vents to prevent plants from overheating and ones like the cool weather row cloches (gardeners.com) that allow water through while trapping in the heat.
Don’t let unripe tomatoes go to waste if you are unable or unwilling to protect them from frost. Harvest any that are starting to show color before the killing frost and finish ripening them indoors. The bottom of the tomato should be greenish white or starting to color up. Store your green tomatoes in a cool (60 to 65 degrees) location to extend their storage life.
Spread the tomatoes out on heavy paper or wrap them individually in newspaper so the fruit do not touch. They will ripen over the next few weeks. Speed up the process by moving a few tomatoes to a warm, bright location a few days before they are needed. Enjoy green tomatoes fried, in relish, salsa, pies or one of many more ways.
And when the season finally ends for you, start planning for next year. Many of these same strategies can be used to jump start the season for an earlier harvest.
Melinda Myers is the author of more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Gardener’s Supply for her expertise to write this article. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com
Melinda Myers: Designing gardens for year-round color, protecting your investment
Create a colorful year-round garden filled with flowers, greenery, colorful fruit, fall color, winter interest and a few surprises. Consider seasonal interest when planning a new garden or landscape. Adding a few key plants to existing gardens can help boost your landscape’s seasonal appeal.
Include a variety of plants with multiple seasons of interest as well as bird and pollinator appeal. You will look forward to the change of seasons as your landscape transforms throughout the year.
Use trees and shrubs to provide the framework and longevity in your landscape. Serviceberries, crabapples, dogwoods, and many others have flowers, fruit, pollinator, and bird appeal and add winter interest with their bark or form. Look for those with colorful exfoliating bark like paperbark maple, heptacodium, and river birch for a beautiful statement in the winter garden.
Include a few summer blooming shrubs like St John’s wort, buttonbush, panicle hydrangeas and Rose of Sharon. They add an unexpected fresh look to your summer landscape.
Perennials combine nicely with trees, shrubs, and annuals, adding seasons of color and texture. Include those that also attract songbirds, bees, and butterflies by creating a beautiful habitat. Blue star (Amsonia), Siberian iris, sedum, Rudbeckia, coneflower, and grasses are just a few that can brighten any garden with several seasons of color, provide homes for beneficial insects and food for the birds.
End the season with fall bloomers like goldenrod, asters, and hardy mums. These provide food for late season pollinators. Leave healthy plants stand, providing homes for many beneficial insects, winter interest in the garden, and food for the songbirds.
Use annuals to fill any voids, add season long color and yearly changes in the landscape. Containers on steps, decks and patios help bring the garden to your front and back door.
Include spring flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils and hyacinths planted in fall for a colorful welcome to spring. These and many of the earliest bloomers like winter aconites, grape hyacinths, and crocus provide needed nectar for early season pollinators.
Evergreens are always a welcome addition to any landscape. They provide shelter for the birds and year-round greenery. Find new and interesting ways to include them in your landscape.
Use taller evergreens for screening bad views, buffering traffic and other noises, or creating privacy. Use evergreens with interesting form and texture to create a focal point in a garden bed or landscape. Combine them with perennials and flowering shrubs for added seasonal interest.
Then keep your landscape looking its best by protecting key plants from hungry critters like deer, rabbits and voles. Skip the fencing and scare tactics by applying a rain resistant, organic repellent like Plantskydd (plantskydd.com) at planting. You will need fewer applications and the odor-based repellent sends animals dining elsewhere before taking a bite out of your plants. Apply repellent before animals start feeding and follow the label directions for best results.
Continue to gather ideas with visits to public gardens and partaking in garden tours. Be sure to take notes and pictures that you can reference later. Creating a year-round landscape is an ongoing process that is part of the fun and adventure of gardening.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine and was commissioned by Tree World Plant Care for her expertise to write this article. Myers’ website is www.MelindaMyers.com
Everything’s ‘coming up roses’ at Empire Mine State Historic Park
Visitors to Empire Mine State Historic Park will have a special opportunity to take home a living piece of history on Saturday, Aug. 21. Fledgling heritage rose bushes have been propagated and nurtured for two years by dedicated park volunteer docent Marsha Lewis. They are now ready to find their “forever home” and adorn the gardens of the first 49 fortunate park visitors to secure these enduring symbols of beauty and hope. Fifteen to twenty different varieties are in the lineup from Cecil Brunner to Baronne Prevost and Reine des Violettes.
A mature specimen of the exuberant Fortuniana bush (introduced in 1850) can be observed atop the New Rich Hill Shaft stone and iron structure as you enter the park grounds, and one can purchase its relative for just $20.
The roses for sale were selected from the formal gardens at Empire Mine. The plantings represent a virtual timeline of rose history from the oldest cultivars that predate 1300 to the nineteenth century. Ten groupings are represented on the estate garden grounds: Gallica, Damask, Alba, Centifolia, Moss, Bourbon, Hybrid Perpetual, Hybrid Musk, Hybrid Tea, and Hybrid Rufosa.
The roses will be on display at the park entrance area Saturday from 10 a.m. until all are sold, and the transactions will be performed with cash only, to facilitate smooth and efficient processing. Purchases will be limited to one rose plant per family, since the demand far exceeds the supply. Last year, would-be rose tenders lined up well before the opening of the sale, and unfortunately, many rose aficionados left empty handed.
The roses are ready to plant, and will need frequent watering to become established in their new location according to Marsha Lewis, Program Lead for the Garden Tours and Rose Propagation Program. Each rose bush purchased comes with an information sheet describing the formal Latin name, parentage, introduction date, environmental preferences, and recommendations for planting locations, and comments specific to the individual variety.
All proceeds from the sale will go to Sierra Gold Parks Foundation, the nonprofit park cooperative association supporting Empire Mine State Historic Park, South Yuba River State Park, and Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. https://www.sierragoldparksfoundation.org/
Source: Empire Mine State Historic Park
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Heritage Rose Sale from Estate Gardens, Empire Mine State Historic Park
WHERE: Empire Mine State Historic Park, 10791 East Empire Street, Grass Valley
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 21, from 10 a.m. until all sold
WHO: Sierra Gold Parks Foundation and park docent volunteers
COST: $20 per 1-gallon container
Melinda Myers: Put kitchen scraps, landscape trimmings to work in the garden
Convert landscape and garden trimmings into valuable compost. Incorporate this soil amendment into garden soil to improve drainage in clay soil and increase water-holding ability in fast draining sandy soils. It also promotes healthy plant growth more resistant to insect and disease problems and keeps plant-based kitchen scraps and garden waste out of landfills.
Composting is as simple as placing disease- and insect-free plant debris into a pile and letting it rot. Don’t add meat, dairy, or fat that attracts rodents or weeds that have gone to seed, invasive plants or perennial weeds that can survive the compost process and end up back in the garden.
You can enclose the pile in a bin to keep the process neat, tidy, and out of sight. Some gardeners prefer tumbler composters for added ease when it comes to loading, unloading, and turning the pile. Dual bin tumblers allow you to stockpile the raw materials in one bin while actively composting in the other.
Always check with your municipality first. Some have restrictions on the type of bins that are acceptable while others may offer them at a discount.
Start your pile in an accessible space hidden by nearby plantings, fences, or decorative bins. Turn the pile frequently, moving the more decomposed materials in the center to the outside and less decomposed to the center.
Speed things up by mixing nitrogen and carbon rich plant debris, topping with soil or compost, and adding a bit of fertilizer. Including equal parts of nitrogen rich (green) materials like herbicide-free grass clippings, fruit wastes, vegetable clippings and manure with carbon rich (brown) cornstalks, evergreen needles, straw and fall leaves will speed the process. But don’t let this recipe prevent you from composting. All plant waste will eventually decompose as weather, insects and micro-organisms digest the materials over time.
Start with an 8- to 10-inch layer of garden trimmings. Cover with an inch of soil or compost and sprinkle with fertilizer to help speed things along. Repeat until the pile is at least three feet tall and wide. Moisten the pile to a consistency of a damp sponge.
Turn the pile as time allows or frequently for faster results. Move the more decomposed materials from the center to the outside of the pile. It’s a great work out and speeds up the decomposition.
The more effort you put into composting the sooner you will have rich organic matter for your garden. But even casual composters end up with a wonderful amendment for the garden.
Compost is ready when it is brown and crumbly. Mix finished compost into potting mixes for containers, work it into garden beds or spread a one-inch layer over the soil surface of perennial gardens every other year.
Start putting your landscape trimmings in a heap and watch the magic happen.
Melinda Myers is the author of over 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com
Doreen Fogle: Mulch to save water, but what about flammability?
Landscapes and gardens are one of the biggest users of household water, up to 30% of it. We’re all trying to keep our plants alive in the heat while reducing water use, and mulching is a perfect way help. But which mulches are best, and where and how should we apply them? And what about flammability?
First, here are some of the benefits of mulching. First and foremost we mulch to reduce water use. This happens because the soil is covered so water is much less likely to evaporate out of the soil, keeping the soil moister for longer after each application of irrigation water or rain. This cuts water use by up to 25%, which is a lot.
Mulch keeps soil cooler in the hot summer and warmer in the winter. And that keeps those very important soil organisms happy and productive so they can do their work breaking down organic matter to feed your plants. Healthy soil organisms=healthy plants. And healthy plants means better drought resilience and less flammable deadwood.
Most mulches keep the soil pores open and allow water from either irrigation or rain to soak in better so the soil can hold it longer. Without mulch, soil surfaces become compacted and water runs off readily.
And mulches can do a good job at keeping the weeds at bay by blocking sunlight and smothering them.
With many mulch options, just a few are best for our wildfire-prone area.
While mulch materials can range from shredded rubber recycled tires to rocks to coconuts (true!) to sawdust, let’s look at the ones most available and most useful to our Nevada County landscapes.
Anything that covers the soil to keep it from losing its moisture can be used. But the material must allow water and air into the soil, or the soil will turn anaerobic and become toxic. So plastic sheeting is not an option.
In our area, we need to look for the options that pose the least fire risk, while conserving our limited water resources.
A study to test the flammability of mulch materials was done by a group of Cooperative Extensions and Conservation Districts from California and Nevada in Carson City, Nevada. They tested eight materials for average flame height, rate of fire spread, and maximum temp four inches above the mulched bed. They allowed the mulch to settle for 79 days and on a hot 100 degree, low humidity day, with an artificial wind applied to emulate extreme fire danger, they tested their mulches.
What they found is that composted wood chips, applied at two to three inches deep, was best by a long shot. These chips were specially composted for an eight-week period.
The close second best was what they call Tahoe chips applied in a “single layer” which gave a 80-90% soil coverage. Tahoe chips are wood chips with a variety parts of chipped tree pieces; what normally gets chipped in a utility tree trimming operation. I feel certain that this is what many of us have on or near our properties from fuel reduction efforts.
Shredded tires, pine needles, and shredded cedar fared the worst. Pine needles and shredded bark have a lot more air to volume which helps make them more flammable.
The only bark that was trialed was pine bark, not the cedar bark that’s commonly available commercially. That wasn’t tested.
I feel that the composted wood chips would be most like wood chips we have so much of, after applied on the soil and left to be rained on through a winter or two and not disturbed. I have seen wood chips on the soil become knit together with mycelium from all the mushrooms growing naturally within the soil. They end up lying flat against the soil. The soil below them stays cool and moist much longer and the pores of the soil are open and receptive to water. And it’s obvious that the soil microorganisms and worms are flourishing, doing their work of breaking down the wood to create organic matter for soil and plant vitality.
If you have a pile of wood chips, or access to one, and you haven’t spread them yet, plan to do it once the rains have started. Let them get wet on the soil so they kind of meld with it. This, I believe will emulate composted wood chips, the lowest fire combustible mulch material tested. Place these at two to three inches deep. Or, go cautiously, and place wood chips any time so that they give 80-90% coverage. Then add to that cover in the winter.
A warning about using mulches
Because all of the mulches tested were flammable, the study warns that organic mulches of any kind should not be used within five feet of a structure. Also keep a 10 foot adius around gas meters and propane tanks. In these spaces use rock, gravel, decomposed gravel, concrete or pavers.
Between five and 30 feet of the house, while composted wood chips are the safest choice for mulch — which we still do need — they advise not to use it in a continuous manner. But rather, mulched areas should be separated into smaller areas and separated by rock mulch, gravel or paved areas.
And while composted wood chips had lowest combustibility, it can slowly smolder undetected. Something to be aware of.
The best way to mulch
When applying mulch like wood chips in late fall in time for rain, be sure to keep it away from the base of plants. Not up against any trunks or stems. It’s because the mulch can rot the trunk allowing pathogens to enter the plant. Many people do this, but it’s wrong. Plants will suffer. Generally keep it three to six inches away from trunks and stems. Extend it out to beyond the dripline, the area at the edge of the canopy. Roots extend out farther from the base of a plant than you probably imagine.
Save the pine needles for a compost mulch
Pine needles proved to be a terrible choice for mulch in a fire-prone area. That’s not surprising, but sad because we have so much available to us. But, while it’s not good as a three inch mulch spread out over larger landscape plantings, it can be shredded and used as a carbon source in compost making. I make a nice coarse compost by shredding pine needles and mixing them with greens. The shredder I use is the Flowtron Leaf Eater. It shreds them right up for composting. And compost is the right sort of mulch to use on vegetable and flower beds. I shred oak leaves, too.
Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website mydelightfulgardens.com and she can be reached at email@example.com