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In the Garden

Getting ready for spring



[Illustration of Black Eyed Susan, thunbergia]I've let the mail pile up lately, so while things are slow in the garden, I thought I'd answer some questions from readers and offer some ideas for getting ready for spring.

A couple of people have written with questions about mulch -- what to use, when to use it, and how much to apply. The simple answer is: Whatever you can get, whenever you can get it, and as much as you can. In the winter, mulch will protect tender perennials, keep weeds down, and prevent soil erosion. In the summer it will keep on suppressing weeds and help keep the ground moist.

In general, "mulch" refers to any organic matter -- compost, manure, dried leaves, grass clippings, shredded bark -- that is spread around the garden to improve the soil. If you have access to horse or steer manure, let it age well before you apply it. Manure's a fairly high-nitrogen mulch, which means that it can burn plants if it's too fresh or too concentrated. For that reason, you might mix it with a lower-nitrogen mulch like shredded bark, composted wood product, dried leaves, or rice straw. Let it all age for at least four months, and you'll have a fairly well balanced mulch for the garden.

On the other hand, if you're going to use a carbon-based mulch like dried leaves or chipped bark, remember that dry, brown, woody mulches tend to actually use up nitrogen as they decompose. Adding roughly one part manure to four parts of carbon-based mulch will restore the balance. If you don't have a source of free manure, I like the new Gardner & Bloome Farmyard Blend, available at Miller Farms and elsewhere around town.

Finally, if you really want to smother weeds, or even create new beds for planting, there's a no-dig, mulch-intensive method you can try. Start with a base layer of newspaper or cardboard. Don't skimp: Three or four overlapping layers of cardboard or 20 to 40 sheets of newspaper make a good base layer. (In fact, the paper you're holding is about the perfect thickness.) Water the newspaper or cardboard to make it lie flat, pile on grass clippings or dried leaves if you've got `em, and top with at least 6 inches of mulch. Some gardeners make these piles over a foot high, give them about six months to settle, and then plant directly into them.

I also had a request for some information about vines, and I do have a few to recommend. Vines do a great deal for the garden: They add vertical interest, cover unsightly features of the landscape, and offer plenty of benefits to wildlife. Any garden can accommodate a vine -- a teepee of bamboo stakes tied together with twine will work just fine, and I've even stripped the branches off my Christmas tree, put the greenery through the shredder, and used the trunk as a sturdy support for a climber.

One of the first options you might consider is the native clematis C. ligusticifolia. It grows to 20 feet or more, puts out modest white flowers, tolerates a wide range of sun conditions and doesn't mind drought. The feathery white seed heads are a familiar sight to anyone who goes walking through coastal wilderness areas in the fall.

In the vegetable garden, try scarlet runner beans, which offer up red flowers in spring and summer for hummingbirds, and long broad beans for your kitchen table. Another cheery vine for a kitchen garden is black-eyed Susan vine, Thunbergia alata  [illustrated above], which produces gorgeous orange or yellow flowers with a nearly black center.

Think twice before you plant English ivy or morning glory (Ipomoea indica and others). Both are rampant climbers and incredibly invasive. They may cover a slope in no time at all, they're impossible to remove and ivy in particular has taken over in coastal forests and other wild areas.

Last but not least: I'll be signing copies of my new book, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, at the Garden Gate in Arcata on Friday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m. I hope you'll stop by and say hello.

 February Garden Checklist

  • If you haven't done so already, spray fruit trees and roses with horticultural oil (sometimes called dormant oil) to kill soft-bodied pests. Safers is one brand I've used; ask at the nursery for other non-toxic options.
  • Look for good deals at the nursery on bareroot fruit trees, berry vines and roses.
  • Shelter plants from frost, and don't cut frost damage off plants until you see new, healthy growth emerge.
  • Plant summer bulbs like dahlia, canna and gladiolus.
  • Sow seeds of lettuce, peas, and spinach, and plant garlic and onion sets for a late summer or fall harvest.
  • Feed organic bulb fertilizer to bulbs as the foliage starts to emerge.

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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