Weed, Mulch, Conserve

Weed, mulch, conserve

Sunday, June, 10, 2007

I’ve done my best to be an environmentally sensitive gardener, choosing organic methods over chemicals as much as possible, and plants that like, or at least tolerate, dry spells.  But anything that grows needs water.

The lack of rain just as the days of spring were giving way to summer was very discouraging.  I water only when it is absolutely necessary, and ignore the lawn, but I hate watching things wilt and suffer; I cringe when I hear yellowed grass blades crunch underfoot.  I want to be surrounded by flourishing plants.

As I labor at the computer, I need to glance up and see a healthy garden just beyond the window.  I also need to feel the raindrops falling on my head from time to time.  My spirit flourishes with frequent rain.  A few years ago (during one of the truly awful droughts of the past decade) I realized that I suffer from a rare disorder: RSAD or Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Unlike the majority of the human population, too much sunshine has a depressive effect on me.  Consequently, I’ve been extremely grumpy and despondent beneath the recent relentless sunshine and heat – conditions that belong in July and August.  My gloom lifted only when forecasts offered hope of relief as the remnants of tropical storm Barry spread over us.

But as a very dear friend and fellow gardener said to me years ago, “Anyone who gardens learns to be patient.  Some years are like this and there is only so much you can do to control the outcome – and we have to remember that next year is another year.”  I know my friend is right, but patience has never been one of my virtues.  Gardening has, over the years, required me to change and learn to adapt.

Like it or not, our weather patterns have changed.  We simply do not get the regular rain that we used to, and there is only one way to cope with it:

Weed, Mulch, Conserve, Weed, Mulch, Conserve – and consider investing in some sort of irrigation/watering system.

Weeds are voracious water hogs and rob the soil of moisture that could be helping your flowers and vegetables.  So get them out and then cover as much of the bare soil as possible with a good layer of mulch.  Two inches of mulch will significantly slow down the evaporation of moisture from the soil and discourage weed growth.  This pays off in two ways: we use less water and we spend less time weeding, wrestling with hoses and lugging heavy watering cans.

Good mulching materials are salt hay, wood chips or rich compost, the best of all.  Grass clippings are certainly a good organic material, when there is enough rain to make the grass grow, but it tends to form and impenetrable mat, preventing rain or water from getting to the soil underneath.  So if you use grass, stir it up every week, keeping it loose and airy.  It takes a little extra work, but one of the most effective ways to mulch is to place a layer of old newspapers on the soil first, then the grass clippings or hay to hide the paper.  Black plastic can be used for this, but it’s expensive and doesn’t decompose like newspaper will.  Be sure that you water only when necessary.  Using a wooden pencil, chopstick or small dowel, a simple test can be used to check garden soil or pots to see if it’s time for watering.  Slide the pencil, chopstick or dowel deep into the soil, as far away from plants as possible so as not to injure roots.  If it comes out clean, the soil is dry; if it comes out with bits of soil clinging to it, it’s moist.

When nature doesn’t provide and we have to drag out the hoses and watering cans, use the “pencil test” to make sure the water has soaked down to root levels before watering.

An inch of water per week is essential for roses and fruiting plants like tomatoes and cucumbers.

Water will not absorb readily into soil that has dried out completely; it must be watered slowly over an extended period, maybe 20 minutes or more at a slow trickle.  Soaker hoses get the water directly onto the soil and allow for very little evaporation compared to sprinklers.

Try this experiment: for one day, place a dish pan or bucket in the kitchen and laundry sinks to collect water that is wasted every time you rinse your hands, a juice glass, or anything else non-toxic.  You’ll be amazed how many gallons of water you’ll collect for the garden.

Place clean 50-gallon drums or large garbage cans under rain gutter down spouts to collect the rainwater that does fall.  Using garbage cans with wheels, you can remove a full one and replace it with another, creating your own garden reservoir.

Keep the barrels covered with a fine screen to help prevent mosquitoes from using them as a breeding ground; or better yet, toss in a mosquito control ring or “bits,” (they contain Bt Israelenis, a naturally occurring bacterium that kills mosquito larvae) which you can find at local nurseries and hardware stores.

Finally, soil that is rich in living organic matter will retain moisture longer.  Adding compost to the garden (digging it in every fall and spring or using a thick layer as mulch)  is the best thing you can do for your garden.

As I explained in my last column, I cannot produce enough compost on my own.  That’s why I was very pleased to learn about a local company, Ag Choice, that is creating “black gold” we can buy in bags or have delivered in bulk.  After talking with owner Jay Fischer, I am eager to get their compost into my garden.  I suggest you visit Fischer’s Andover facility to learn about his product and decide if his compost is the boost your garden needs.