Tips from an experienced gardener: Use more mulch

Scripps Howard News ServiceOctober 25, 2013 

I’ve been gardening nearly all my life. One of the things I find most interesting about it is that I learn something new almost every day. And yet there are a number of things we should all know to be better and smarter gardeners.

We’ve talked about these before, but they’re always worth another look.

Here are four to start with.

Use more mulch. If there were ever a workhorse for the garden, it’s mulch. A 3-inch (or so) layer over the soil surface does so many good things for the health of your plants and soil. The aesthetic value of mulch is enough of a reason to use it. It’s like the icing on a cake to provide a polished, finished look to any bed.

More importantly, it provides tremendous benefits overall. Mulch suppresses weed growth by blocking sunlight needed for many weed seeds to germinate. It holds vital moisture in the ground, reducing irrigation needs. Mulch helps cut down on certain soil-borne diseases from harming plants because it provides a protective barrier between certain diseases and foliage. It also insulates soil and regulates temperature by keeping the ground and roots cooler on hot days and warmer on cold days.

Any natural mulch will work. And consider free sources, too. Arborists’ wood chips or shredded leaves are two of my favorite sources.

Drainage in containers. How many times have you been told to add something to the bottom of a container to improve drainage? Examples include small stones, packing peanuts, crushed cans and marbles. But the fact is, adding anything to a container first doesn’t help at all. The reason is that water doesn’t move readily from one substrate to another of unequal pore sizes. It tends to stay or hold much of its original volume in the soil layer. By adding something to the bottom of the container, we are effectively raising the level where water remains. The consequence is damp or potentially saturated soil closer to the surface and surrounding your roots. That can lead to rotting roots and dead plants. Better to simply fill the container with all soil.

Improve pot-bound plants with a box cut. When it comes to pot-bound trees and shrubs, the typical treatment – if we did anything at all – was to slice through the tightly bound root mass. We assumed that by breaking the pattern, we’d enable all the roots to start growing out instead. It turns out that method is far less effective that previously thought. The best method for dealing with such conditions is called the box cut. It involves slicing or sawing off a narrow section of the bottom of the root mass, as well as slicing off vertical sections of the root mass all the way around as well. The result looks like a squared-off root ball. The benefit is a plant or tree that will establish a much healthier and fuller root system.

Plant at the right level. Even printed plant tags tell you to transfer a containerized plant or tree into the ground at the same level that it was growing in the container. That is not always correct, and a bad assumption to make. It’s one of the most common causes of premature plant death. The only correct way to plant something is to know where the tops of the roots are and plant it at that level. It is very common that, even in a container, the roots have been covered up over time at the nursery with several inches of additional soil. At planting time, pull back the top layer of soil until you get to the roots. Then plant at that level in the ground. It’s better to plant slightly high than too low.

Lamp'l, host and executive producer of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS.

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