Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Buffalo Grass In Winter Hibernation Mode

"Prestige" buffalo grass in January 2013, approximately 5-months after planting in 2012. I scattered some mulch around the plugs closest to the camera to try to keep down weeds. The majority of the plugs, especially those furthest from the camera, just have bare ground between them.

So last August, as some of y'all may remember, I took the plunge and planted some buffalo grass.

I had three primary reasons for wanting to cultivate a buffalo grass patch:

1) Buffalo grass is supposed to be very tough and able to tolerate heat and drought. This is important because summers can be very hot (90-100+ Fahrenheit) in Tennessee for months at a time -- sometimes without any rain for weeks. I'd like to cut down on my supplemental irrigation, so finding plants that can survive a drought is key.

2) Buffalo grass is supposed to be low-growing. Especially the varieties that are sold for lawn use - like the Prestige variety I bought - are only supposed to get 4-6 inches tall over an entire season. That means you could theoretically not mow your lawn at all, or maybe just once or twice per year.

3) Buffalo grass is native to North America (although I think it is more native to Western parts of the continent).

4) Buffalo grass requires far less nitrogen fertilizer (1-2 lbs per 1000 square feet) versus conventional lawns (e.g. Bluegrass at 3-5 lbs per 1000 square feet). I'm always looking for ways to reduce external inputs such as fertilizer for more eco-friendly (and wallet-friendly) landscaping.

So, how did the buffalo grass planting turn out? I posted a 2nd day update, but this is my first time revisiting the buffalo grass patch since then on this blog.

To be honest, it's not particularly a pretty sight at the moment. As I'd expected, the buffalo grass went into hibernation mode ('dormancy' is the technical term, I believe) once nighttime temperatures started dipping below freezing in late October and early November.

One advantage of the buffalo grass plugs not growing together yet is that there was space for some self-sown lettuce seedlings to emerge. I believe this is Merveille de Quatre Saisons. The lettuce never got all that big, but I did pick and eat the baby lettuce one night when temperatures were forecast to drop into the teens, which I thought might damage the tender lettuce leaves.

The winter color is not unattractive - I like to think of it as 'tan' or 'golden'. I less charitable soul would probably call it 'brown'. Beauty continues to be in the eye of the beholder.

The main lesson I think I can pass on from my experiences thus far would be this: If you live in a climate where temperatures drop below freezing in winter, it doesn't really make sense to plant buffalo grass in late summer.

Because while I think all the plugs survived being transplanted into an August heatwave, I also think it took them a while to settle in and get rooted. Plus they required frequent watering around the transplant time.

It probably would have been smarter to plant the plugs around May. In a good year, we're still getting nice spring rains in May, so the buffalo grass plugs probably wouldn't need much supplemental irrigation. And then they would have all summer to knit together by growing into each other along stolons.

A dormant buffalo grass plug that started to send out a stolon to the left. I like the way that the dormant buffalo grass goes all curly or frizzled.

It's hard to tell from the picture, but some of the plugs did start to send out runners and interlace with one another, but they didn't have a chance to complete that process before the weather got cold and the new growth shut down for the winter.

And because they had not yet knit together, that left plenty of space for weeds to develop. (I picked most of those weeds out by hand, which wasn't too hard in most cases, although I had to be careful not to damage buffalo grass roots.

On the bright side, the stories about buffalo grass being a low-growing grass definitely seem to be true. When the grass did start growing, it focused its energies on lateral growth rather than vertical growth. So I can definitely see this being a grass that needs hardly any mowing to keep it at a reasonable height for a lawn.

So that's the story right now.

One more dormant buffalo grass plug. This one expanded a bit more than some of the others, but it has a lot more expanding to do in the spring and summer to connect with its neighboring plugs.

My hope is the buffalo grass will start greening up in late March or early April, once the temperatures start staying above freezing at night and daytime temps are reliably in the 60s or higher. (It's actually around 70 Fahrenheit today, but that's not going to last. We'll be going back to highs in the 30s-40s range and lows in the 20s by the end of the week.

Presuming the grass is still alive and in good shape, I will post another update when it starts greening and then hopefully be able to post additional updates in the summer if it does start forming a solid patch of grass.

Based on my experience thus far, I don't feel I know enough yet to say whether or not buffalo grass would make a good alternative to other lawngrasses in the Southeast. I can say that if I were to do it over again, I would try to get an earlier start planting the buffalo grass (by June at the latest) to give them a whole summer to try to grow together and form a solid patch of turf.

Do you have any questions on my buffalo grass trial experiment so far? Praise, criticism, suggestions and cheerful encouragement are all welcome in the comments section below!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Garlic and Pepper Versus Rabbits?

Callirhoe bushii - Bush's Poppy Mallow - before it got munched.

A couple of months ago I planted a native perennial called Bush's Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe bushii) ordered from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek.

I planted it in full sun in a mixed perennial border where it would have some space to grow to its projected size of 3-feet wide by 2-feet high.

Of course, I planted it in autumn, so I didn't expect it to do much rambling this winter, but it did provide a spot of cheerful evergreen foliage in an otherwise brown and sere landscape.

And then one day, perhaps a month ago, I came out and saw this:

Crime scene photo: Callirhoe bushii, victim of an unknown herbivore

I don't know if the plant can recover from such a severe chomping.

I also don't know for sure which critter is the culprit, but a quick search on the Web turned up the fact that rabbits - and deer - apparently prey on Callirhoe bushii.

So how to protect the plant? A small metal or plastic cage of some sort might help, I imagine, but I don't have anything like that on hand. (A homemade chicken-wire cage could work, but I'm not inclined to go through the trouble of buying a roll of chicken wire for this one perennial.)

And I don't fancy going out and spending a lot on some special critter repellant. I tried that last year to protect some crape myrtle and maple trees from deer that kept rubbing the bark off with their antlers and my deer apparently weren't at all bothered by the sprays. Who knows, maybe the deer here are olfactory-challenged.

A number of Internet sources suggest that sprinkling pepper on tender greens can deter marauding rabbits. Can I just dust some pepper on the leaves or should I make a pepper-and-garlic spray?

(Or is using pepper a cruel tactic? I read elsewhere on the 'Net that if a rabbit gets pepper in its eyes, the pain can be agonizing)

The final option of course is simply to let things take their course. I try to practice a very low-intervention garden. I could hope that the plant recovers and grows back. Perhaps when there is more greenery to be found in the springtime, the rabbits or deer will leave my Callirhoe off their menu?

There are plenty of plants that rabbit and deer don't eat (or at least have not eaten so far) and perhaps I would be better off in the long-run chalking this up to experience and learning that I should take better care in the future to make sure that new perennials I buy are not on a rabbit or deer's favorite-food list!

Y'all come back and visit or just subscribe by email to find out whether I try any of these rabbit repellent techniques and/or end up accidentally dousing myself in pepper-and-garlic spray. Stranger (but not smellier) things have happened.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Six Reasons Why Pine Straw Makes the Best Mulch

Close up on freshly scattered pine straw mulch - love the texture and the color!
If you're accessing this page from a Google search... You should know that my pine straw romance came to a harsh and sudden end within mere months. Click here to read a more recent post about what went wrong and why I've switched to pine bark nuggets.

Before I became a gardener, I never gave mulch much thought. It was just that stuff lying on the ground underneath bushes.

But once I started gardening, I realized what a crucial role mulch plays in the home landscape. If you don't have mulch, you've got bare ground. And unless you're putting down chemical herbicides (which I don't) bare ground is like giving weeds a big "SPACE AVAILABLE HERE" welcome sign.

Mulch plays a couple of other valuable roles too. Organic mulches - which in this neck of the woods typically means pine bark mulch or hardwood mulch - break down over time (some kinds faster than others) and add organic material to the soil. This is particularly important if you're working with heavy crap - I mean heavy clay - soil to begin with. The more organic matter you can add to condition the soil, the better.

And of course, mulch can play an important insulating role too - keeping the plant's roots warmer in winter (particularly important if you like to push zonal limits in your choice of perennials) and cooler in the summer. Where unmulched soil quickly bakes to concrete in the summer Tennessee sun, mulched soil has a decent chance of staying cooler and more workable.

Water from hard rains that hits unmulched clay soil is likely to cause erosion and soil compaction. Once the soil is compacted, water can run off and be lost. Mulch protects the soil and ideally lets the water filter in and get absorbed where it is needed.

So yeah, near as I can tell from personal experience and certainly in terms of conventional wisdom, mulch is good.

So, what kind of mulch is the best?

There's lots of different opinions on this topic. Many folks seem to make their choice based on aesthetic considerations. As I said above, most people in my region seem to prefer the pine bark or hardwood mulches. It's what you find in abundance at the big box hardware stores and in bulk at plant nurseries.

But I'm hear to draw a line in the ... clay ... and make the case that pine needles (a.k.a. pine straw) is a far superior mulch in nearly every way.

Part of the front foundation bed before I spread pine straw mulch. You probably can't tell, but I'd actually added quite a bit of shredded pine bark mulch to this area over the past couple of years (most recently around the newly planted camellia and fothergilla shrubs). But it's hard to tell. To me, it mostly looks messy and unfinished. Spreading a heavy, thick and uniform layer of shredded pine bark mulch over this whole bed would be expensive and difficult.

Here are six reasons why you should consider using pine straw mulch on your property:

1) Spreading pine straw mulch is easy - and fast. I've bought more bags of pine bark mulch than I care to remember. I've had it delivered in bulk. I've also used compost as a mulch. Bark and compost mulches are heavy. Typically you have to distribute them by dumping the bag into a wheelbarrow and then using a big spade or shovel to distribute the mulch throughout your bed. It's exhausting and it takes a long time. I once mulched all the beds around my house with 3 cubic yards of mushroom compost. It took maybe 6 hours to distribute. I probably worked 3-4 hours on my own and 2-3 hours with my wife helping. We were both exhausted by the time we finished. And the mulch really wasn't deep enough to be effective. (We should have probably spread twice as much mushroom compost to have gotten the recommended 2-3 inches of uniform coverage.)

By contrast, spreading pine straw mulch is a piece of cake. The mulch is relatively light and it comes in bales. You just carry the bale to the bed where you want to spread the mulch, cut the two cords binding it, then start grabbing handfuls of the pine straw and shaking it where you want to distribute it so that it falls naturally into place.

I didn't have enough pine straw mulch to cover all of my beds, but I probably did half of them (some on my own, some with my wife's help) in about 1 hour -- and at least 10 minutes of that time was removing some dead annuals (Tagetes patula) so that I they wouldn't get in the way of the mulch. I wasn't tired or dirty when I was finished. In fact, it was kind of fun. Extrapolating, I feel I could probably have mulched all the foundation beds with pine straw in less than 2 hours -- a small fraction of the time and effort that it took to spread the mushroom compost mulch.

2) Pine straw mulch seems more eco-friendly. 20 bags of hardwood or pine bark mulch = 20 plastic bags decades (centuries?) to decompose in a landfill. Not to mention all the petroleum used to make those plastic bags.

You can hardwood and pine bark mulches delivered by the cubic yard via dump truck, but there's certainly a fair amount of pollution involved in having dump trucks make those home deliveries.

Sometimes these wood mulches are reportedly made from trees that were clear cut. Apparently this is a big problem with cypress forests in Louisiana, according to an article from the Virginia Native Plant Society.

I think some other wood mulches are made from discarded shipping pallets. I guess that sort of recycling is eco-friendly in a way, but who knows where those shipping containers have been or what was stored on them.

It seems hard (at least through Googling) to get any authoritative information as to whether pallet mulches contain any harmful preservatives or pesticides, but it seems logical to me that they might contain such chemicals since I'm sure the pallet buyers want their pallets to last as long as possible.

As such, I would personally be leery of buying mulch made from discarded pallets. (There's also the issue of the chemical dyes used to color the pallet mulches.) You can read a lot more interesting debates around colored mulch and mulch made from treated lumber on forums like GardenWeb.

(Again, I'm not an expert on this topic. But it seems like the big risk here is inadvertently using a mulch that was made from wood that had been treated with a preservative called Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA), which the EPA seems to feel rather strongly should not be used around food crops.)

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late), pine straw mulch doesn't have any of those issues. It comes by its coloring naturally. The color will change over time and get a bit darker and redder after a rain, lighter with sunshine and age, but I think it looks beautiful in all its many shades.

From a packaging standpoint, pine straw mulch doesn't typically come in bags, so you don't have to worry about the environmental costs of manufacturing and disposing of those plastic bags.

The ties that bound the pine straw bales I bought were some sort of tough plastic, but I don't see any reason why the bales couldn't be bound with cord made from jute, hemp or some other natural fiber, and I presume that some pine straw bale packagers do bind their product that way.

And then there's the simple fact that you don't need to cut down a tree to make pine straw mulch. Pine trees naturally shed their needles. So all your have to do as I understand it is gather up the needles from underneath the pine trees, pack them into bales and cart them away as mulch.

(I'm not saying there are zero environmental impacts to using pine straw mulch. I've read that there are some concerns about erosion where the pine straw is removed from beneath the pine trees. But it is my understanding that such erosion issues can be minimized with careful management of the pine straw harvesting. There's lots more on the issue of managing stands of pine trees for pine straw harvesting in this About.com article.)

The fact that the bales are so light probably cuts down on the environmental costs of shipping since I believe that weight is a major factor in how much fuel it takes to transport a product. I can tell you that you definitely do not need a heavy duty dump truck to transport a lot of pine straw bales. In fact, where my former car (Honda Insight) was weighed down to the point that it became a Low Rider when I once tried to transport ~20 bags of mushroom compost, I didn't even notice any weight issues at all with 6 pine straw bales in the back of my Toyota Prius. In fact, the bales were so light that they were skittering around in the cargo area when I turned sharp corners.

Here is another section of the front foundation after I laid down some pine straw mulch. Which do you like better - this photo or the barely-mulched photo above? I like the uniform and softer look of the pine straw mulch. I'm confident it will suppress weeds. And even though a landscaper rightfully warned me that you have to be careful not to cover smaller perennials, with some careful scattering, I think you can actually make perennials really pop more prominently against the pine straw background.

3. Cost and coverage - According to the Lowe's website, a 2 cubic foot bag of mulch costs between $2 and $5. The Grit website notes that 2 cubic feet of mulch will cover 12 square feet of soil to a depth of about 2 inches. Prefer a 3-inch depth of mulch? That same bag would only cover 8 square feet.

Now by contrast, the pine straw mulch I bought at a local nursery cost me $6.50 per bale. (Lowe's sells bales for $3.99, but I don't know if they're the same size, and anyway I like supporting local nurseries when possible.) Bales vary widely by size - and I didn't measure the dimensions of mine before I spread them - but let's go back to Lowe's which estimates that a bale of pine straw can cover approximately 50 square feet when applied 2-3 inches thick.)

So let's say that you have 1000 square feet of soil to cover. And let's say you're willing to only spread your hardwood mulch 2 inches thick. You'd still need 83 bags (!) of mulch to get that much coverage, which would cost $166 to $415, depending on whether or not you bought the cheapest or most expensive mulch. If you wanted thicker mulch coverage, you'd be looking at 125 bags of mulch ($250 to $625).

By contrast, according to Lowe's estimate, you would only need 20 bales of pine straw, which would only cost $80 (or $130 at the higher nursery price).

Of course, if you're buying a lot of mulch, it probably makes sense financially (and from an eco perspective of not having scores of leftover plastic bags) to buy it by the scoop. Nurseries near me sell cubic yards of pine bark mulch and hardwood mulch for around $35. I saw several sources online saying that 1 cubic yard of mulch would cover about 100 square feet. Another source estimated more generously perhaps that the mulch would cover 160 square feet (perhaps spread more thinly). So you'd be looking at needing anywhere between 6 and 10 cubic yards of mulch for around $210 to $350, plus delivery fee (~$50), for a total cost of $260 to $400.

But don't forget the time and effort of spreading all that mulch. Like I said, spreading just 3 cubic yards wore me out. I'd need 2-3 days just to spread 6-10 cubic yards of mulch. That's with someone helping. On my own, it would probably take me 3-4 days. And I'd also need someplace to dump all that mulch. Even the 3 cubic yards took up a good chunk of the driveway. And it's a real mess trying to shovel the mulch off your driveway without damaging the driveway surface. Of course, you could have the dump truck unload it on your grass, but that would probably carry its own set of challenges and potential damage to the turf, especially if some of the mulch was sitting there for days.

And what if it rains after your mulch was delivered? The day our three cubic yards of mushroom compost was delivered, rain was forecast for the next day. You don't want to trying to shovel soggy mulch. And you don't want it washing away. So that means you're under time pressure to work like mad to get the mulch (or compost) distributed before the rains arrive. (Well, unless you have a really big tarp with which to cover the mulch. We had a tarp, but it wasn't big enough. And anyway, we were using it under the mushroom compost to try to protect the driveway from scratches or other damage as we shoveled up the mulch.)

So any way you look at it, I'd say the pine straw mulch is significantly less expensive (say from 50% to 85% less expensive). Much easier to spread on your beds. Much faster to spread on your beds. Incredibly easy  to store inside your garage (or shed, or car) if rains threaten. Really no contest for me on this point.

Here's another close-up on some pine straw mulch laid over creeping dianthus. This is the type of perennial that I would be worried about killing with a pine straw mulch. I'll have to be vigilant to make sure it doesn't get smothered and to uncover it completely come springtime. Alternatively, maybe I'll need to decide in certain beds either to have low-growing groundcovers or to have pine straw mulch. Not sure they'll play well together in all circumstances.

4) Pine straw looks better. I admit this is purely subjective, but I think the pine straw mulch looks much nicer than the bark and wood mulches. The big bark pieces look messy to me, can be painful to dig through and take forever to decompose. The pine fines (finely ground pine bark) disappears really quickly and soon looks (and acts) just like bare dirt. It gets dusty and dry in the summer. It doesn't seem to suppress weeds one bit.

By contrast, the pine straw looks soft and billowy, like a wave or a cloud. It looks natural. I always loved the way that the pine needles looked beneath a big pine tree on our property where I grew up in Pennsylvania. So maybe it's pure nostalgia, but it's just a joyful thing for me to look at the pine needle mulch. And I think the plants look better against the mulch - it provides a uniform background against which they really pop and seem brighter, greener and more vibrant.

5) Pine straw is easy to rearrange. This is important for me because I plan to plant more perennials in the beds and even sow some annual flower seeds. So I need to be able to push back mulch from certain parts of the bed, sow the seeds or add a new perennial, then move the mulch back into place later on. Just as the pine straw mulch is easy to initially distribute, it seems incredibly easy to rearrange as needed.

6) And yet, Pine straw stays in place when necessary. A couple of my mulched beds are near the driveway and a paved pathway. We get a lot of heavy rains here and often I'd find hardwood mulch scattered onto the driveway after a big rain. It's still only been a few days since I put down the pine strawn mulch, but we had some significant rain last night and the straw doesn't seem to have gone anywhere. In fact, the rain seems to help the pine straw sort of 'lock' into place.

I have to admit, this was probably the one major concern of mine. But it was alleviated when I saw that the professional landscaper we hired to redo our hilly front yard suggested using pine straw around the trees and perennials. We had some really strong winds and rains after he worked on the landscape and the mulch seemed to hold up like a champ. So I figured it would do even better on the flatter landscape beds near to the house and so far it has performed up to expectations.

Update - Well, unfortunately some of the new pine straw mulch I put down did blow around a little, especially on one of the beds that was most exposed. We had sustained winds last night of 25 mph with gusts of 35 and we're on a little hilltop, so... Other beds that are less exposed to the wind were less affected. Also, the pine straw needles moved most on the bed that had the least mulch. One commentator on GardenWeb says that spreading pine needle mulch thickly helps keep it in place. (I guess maybe all the needles interlock?) Anyway, most of the pine straw still seems to be there, just shifted a bit onto some of the grass. So I'll push/rake it back into place. According to this site, it seems like maybe I should have watered the pine straw after I spread it to settle it into place. The pine straw mulch put down professionally a month ago still seems to have stayed in place nicely. If anyone has any advice or experience with preventing pine straw mulch from going airborne, I'd appreciate your insights.

There's some more good advice here from a professional landscaper on the best way to install pine straw mulch.

Some fluffy pine straw mulch after I first laid it in one of rear foundation beds. It's probably a little too fluffy in this photo. I found out later that I should have watered it down to prevent some of it from blowing away and shifting when we had some windy weather come through. Then again, I do live on a rather exposed hilltop. In a more sheltered location, watering down newly laid pine straw might not be as crucial, but I'll certainly plan on doing it next time time I scatter pine straw mulch.


Despite appearances to the contrary, I'm not saying pine straw mulch is perfect. Obviously, I have not had it long enough to know how it will perform over time. Will it do a good job of suppressing weeds? The bar is pretty low here since the (admittedly somewhat thin levels of) bark mulches did not seem to suppress weeds at all.

Will the pine straw decompose so quickly that it becomes cost prohibitive to keep the beds properly mulched? One nursery worker who unfortunately convinced me not to buy pine straw mulch a year ago (probably because his nursery didn't carry it) told me that pine straw mulch decomposed too quickly to be useful. But then he told me the mulch would blow and wash away, which it clearly has not. And one of our neighbors (from the Carolinas, where pine straw mulch is apparently very common) has had pine straw mulch installed for a year now and seem to have excellent weed suppression and the mulch seems to have persisted just fine.

I anticipate that I'll need to add some additional pine straw mulch - perhaps another six bales - to get good coverage over the rest of my beds and deepen the mulch a little on the beds I've already mulched. After that, I'm thinking I really won't mind freshening up and adding to the mulch ever year or two with another six or so bales. Really doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

The one concern I have - which sounded sensible to me when my landscaper mentioned it - is that small perennials and groundcovers can get lost in a pine straw mulch. I can see how that could be an issue, but it doesn't seem like much of a hardship to just keep the pine straw pulled back from those smaller plants. And if the pine straw covers up some of the really low groundcovers - like Blue Star Creeper - well that means that theoretically it's also smothering a lot of low-growing weeds. And that's a trade-off I'm willing to make, considering I mainly grew the Blue Star Creeper to outcompete the weeds. Anyway, I don't think that the larger perennials - and by large, I mean even those that are 4-6 inches high like Sweet Woodruff or Rozanne Perennial Geranium - will have any trouble holding their own against the pine straw mulch. Time will tell.

Other issues? I'm a little concerned that pine straw mulch could be a welcoming environment for the pygmy rattlesnake. One commentator on GardenWeb suggested stomping or hitting the ground with a rake to warn off snakes and give them time to slither off. I suppose I should also invest in some gardening boots that cover my lower legs.

I'm also still interested in using a variety of ground covers instead of or in addition to mulch, but ground covers take time to fill in, so I think the mulch will be very welcome at least in the short-term.

Oh and some people are either concerned or excited about the supposed ability of pine needles to add a bit of acidity to the soil. Not sure whether this idea really holds water. In any case, I do have some acid-loving plants like camellias, azaleas and a gardenia in the front bed who will probably be very happy if the pine straw mulch acidifies the soil even a little bit.

There are many other mulch options that I did not touch on above, most of which I've investigated and then discarded for one reason or another. I'll run through them very briefly here:

- Stone and gravel mulches -- Many people who have gone this route express dismay and regret in online message boards. Apparently, dust and dirt blows on top of the stone and gravel, creating a growing medium in which weeds can sprout. People also seem to think it's hard to add plants (bushes, perennials, etc.) into the stone mulches. Plus of course, the stones don't add any organic matter to the soil.

- Leaf mulch - Well, I don't have nearly enough leaves to do this, for one thing. I did try to rake leaves from my crape myrtles and maple into my garden beds, but those will decompose so quickly that they won't provide weed suppression benefits. Plus leaves have a tendency to blow away. And then there are leaves like oak leaves that take forever to decompose. I've got some sitting in a small bed by the mailbox that are still there from last autumn, so maybe 15 months now. And they don't look like they're about to decompose anytime soon. Don't look that attractive either, to my eyes. So I'm all for leaf mulch on occasion and in the right place or added to a compost pile perhaps, but I don't think it's a realistic long-term mulch solution for many people.

- Wheat straw mulch - Worried about the straw itself sprouting, which would sort of go against the whole weed suppression thing. Plus I'm not sure how I would feel about this aesthetically, although I could see it working in a veggie garden.

- Cocoa shell mulch - Interesting. Exotic. Might smell like chocolate, which I think sounds intriguing. But the smell apparently fades quickly - which happened with some cedar mulch I spread a while ago - and the mulch is supposedly so light and fluffy that it blows and washes away easily. (Although they said that about pine needles too.) And then there's the fact that cocoa mulch could be hazardous to canines. Oh yeah, and the fact that I've never seen cocoa shell mulch ever in any local nursery or garden supply store. And wouldn't the shells need to be shipped in from a tropical climate where cocoa beans are grown. That doesn't sound very eco. Unless the beans were shipped to the local area anyway for processing in which case I guess using the shells for mulch would just be creative reuse of something that would otherwise be treated as a waste product.

- Rubber mulch - Does not improve the soil and um, I think it's mainly made from used tires. Ugh. Don't want that anywhere near my veggies and certainly wouldn't want children playing on it.

- Cover crop mulch - One idea that I'd like to try in the long term would be growing a cover crop like Buckwheat or Alfalfa in the garden and then taking the chopped or winterkilled tops and trying to use them as a mulch. But I'm guessing they would decompose too fast to use as a real mulch and that they would function better as a so-called green manure. Incidentally, buckwheat hulls are an interesting mulch option, but as Cornell notes, they're typically very expensive compared to other mulches and prone to blowing. So I guess probably only a good option for millionaires with good windbreaks! ;-)  But I like the idea of growing your own mulch rather than relying on store-bought mulch. Even pine straw after all has to be gathered, baled and shipped. Homegrown mulch certainly sounds more eco-friendly. Here's one guy who took this path-less-traveled and tried to grow his own mulch using oats.

Of course, planting pine trees on my own property - or finding a neighbor looking with pine trees looking to get rid of excess needles - might also be a good sustainable, local and cost-effective approach to mulching...

What do you think about pine straw mulch? Has this post convinced you to give it a try? Or are you already a pine straw mulcher? Or do you prefer to use groundcovers vs. mulch?

PS - If you'd like to stay abreast of the latest developments at Garden of Aaron, you can now subscribe via email! Totally convenient, totally free - what could be nicer?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The January Garden - Sweet Woodruff

I have fallen in love with Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum, a.k.a. Asperula odorata). Here in the heart of winter, Sweet Woodruff is looking greener, healthier and more beautiful than ever. The winter coloration (purpling) of some leaves just adds to the beauty for me.

UPDATE - As time goes by and I see how a plant performs in the garden from year to year, my views may change and I'll update old posts accordingly. That's what happened with sweet woodruff. I started experiencing dieback on patches of this plant in both winter and summer. One of the readers from South Carolina who left a comment also reported problems with this plant. I suspect it's a bit difficult to grow in the hot and humid Southeast and especially the Deep South. At the same time, when I started to try to dig up patches, I found a disturbingly elaborate web of roots that seemed to occupy the entire top layer of soil. I could literally lift the plant and the soil would come with it like a piece of carpet. So I ended up evicting sweet woodruff entirely from my garden. Fortunately, unlike Ajuga or Geranium sanguineum at least it had the decency to leave politely and not try to make too many repeated comebacks. I've since shifted my gardening more toward natives, especially vis-a-vis spreading groundcovers. If you do grow this plant in the U.S., please check to make sure it's not invasive in your region, as might be the case particularly in the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest and parts of New York State.

I guess normal gardeners love roses, daylilies, viburnums, azaleas and rhododendrons.

Me? I fell in love with a groundcover - Sweet Woodruff, Galium odoratum, also known as Asperula odorata.

The Internet is full of interesting information about this plant:

Living in Season notes that in Germany (where the plant is called Waldmeister or "Master of the Woods"), fragrant dried sprigs are used to flavor May Wine. But that killjoy FDA has nixed consumption of Sweet Woodruff due to the fact that the plant contains a chemical called coumarin.

Now I'm neither a lawyer, nor a chemist nor a doctor. (I don't even play any of those roles on TV.) So I'm not going to even attempt to tell you whether or not it's safe, legal or smart to use Sweet Woodruff to flavor your wine. Do your own research. Consult with experts. Make your conclusions.

But it does seem to be perfectly safe (near as I can tell) to dry Sweet Woodruff sprigs and use them for potpourri or air freshener. I haven't tried that yet, but perhaps I will do so this year.

Just another shot of beautiful Sweet Woodruff foliage, which is supposedly fragrant when dried. I like the greens and the purples. I like it all. There is something here that reminds of me of both snowflakes and fractals.

Some folks say that Sweet Woodruff can be aggressive. That has not been my experience (yet) but I can see how eventually it might overtake particularly small or retiring competitors. But Sustainable Gardening (which has a beautiful photo of a whole bed of Sweet Woodruff) notes that the plant is rather delicate and can be easily uprooted, kept in bounds and otherwise controlled. Sustainable Gardening also points out that the low-growing Sweet Woodruff (mine can't be taller than 4-6 inches at most, though some sources insist it can grow up to 12-inches tall) is no threat to bushes, shrubs or tall perennials.

See the little sprout of Sweet Woodruff poking through the soil on the left-hand side of the photo. Sweet Woodruff will spread, but the new plants pop up near the mother plant and I've found the plant easy to control / uproot if necessary. In fact, I wish it would spread faster! (As always, YMMV depending on climate, soil, rainfall, etc.)

Now Mother Earth Living warns that Sweet Woodruff will struggle in the hot and humid South. That hasn't been my experience at all. I planted Sweet Woodruff last spring, just before a long, hot and dry summer. And when I say "hot", I'm talking record heat (110+ degrees Fahrenheit). It's true, I did give this plant partial shade (its natural environment is woodlands after all), but my Sweet Woodruff still got fairly intense sun all morning during the summer in its east-facing foundation bed. That's maybe 6 hours of sun, which would be considered 'full sun' in some books.

And yet, the plant performed like a champ. It didn't grow much, but it didn't wither or croak either. It just kind of hunkered down and stayed green and pretty. A couple of stems might have browned and died, but the overall effect was undiminished. This is a tough cookie. But if I were to do it again, I'd suggest Southern gardeners plant Sweet Woodruff in the fall, since a new plant that I added to the landscape in autumn seems to be getting off to a much better start than the one I threw into the deep end of a long hot Tennessee summer.

Anyway, cooler weather came eventually. Lows in the low-20s recently. Highs sometimes only in the 30s. But Sweet Woodruff is hardy to zone 4. That means it should be able to handle lows in the negative-30 Fahrenheit range. 20 above freezing is just a walk in the park. Which might be why my Sweet Woodruff, which looked fine in July, now looks positively cheerful.

(I should say it looks mostly cheerful. Certain stems do appear dead or damaged, especially on the smaller plants that I divided or planted this autumn. But even those have very healthy-looking new foliage emerging from underground, so I'm fairly confident that they'll be fine come springtime and may even benefit from a haircut.)

Where Sweet Woodruff waited out the summer, it is now growing and expanding in the middle of winter. When I redid the front foundation this summer, I transplanted the Sweet Woodruff a bit closer to the front of the bed, where it would be more visible. At that time, I divided the plant and replanted the offset nearby. And I also planted a new Sweet Woodruff plant that I'd ordered through the mail from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek.

The Sweet Woodruff I bought and planted just a couple of months ago from Gardens in the Wood of Grassy Creek. The 'mama' plant is still pretty small, but look how much she's already spreading to the right with shallow stolons and pretty little rosettes popping up - and this is in heavy clay with a light scattering of mulch on top!

All three plants are doing great now. The one from Gardens in the Wood in particular is expanding and scouting out new territory even though the central clump is still pretty small. And I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing a show of white blossoms that Paghat says should make an appearance in April and May.

So to recap, it's not flashy or showy, but I think Sweet Woodruff deserves to be planted in far more gardens. Here's why:

1. Evergreen (so far, in zone 6/7, during a winter with temps close to average, lows in the 20s, highs in the 30s and 40s)

2. Nicely spreading - clearly desirable in a groundcover - but not overly aggressive.

3. Interesting and beautifully whorled foliage, which can supposedly be cut back to stimulate regrowth. Haven't tried that yet, but will report back when/if I do make that experiment.

4. Flowers (reportedly) in spring that are supposed to attract butterflies and bees, according to Agweek (which agrees with me that Sweet Woodruff is "one of the best groundcovers")

5. Fragrance (reportedly, of dried branches). Also haven't tried this yet, but will report back when/if I do.

6. Suppresses / controls weeds, which makes a gardener's life more carefree and lighthearted!

Do you grow Sweet Woodruff in your garden? If so, please post your experiences in the Comments section below!

Curious to see if my love affair with Sweet Woodruff will last? Want to know whether Sweet Woodruff will flower and if the scent of the dried sprigs really is as good as everyone says? Stay tuned with email updates.

Friday, January 11, 2013

New Growth in the Sedum Patch!

Autumn Joy sedum in January. From a distance, it seems dead and dormant. But look closely at the base of the plant. Do you see a hint of greenery?

Yes, even in the dark and cold days of January, when the Christmas lights have come down and the days are still too short for my tastes, it is possible to find hopeful signs of spring lurking in the undergrowth.

When it's not too cold, I like to walk around my garden, checking to see how leaves and dead plant matter are decomposing and adding organic material to the soil.

The Autumn Joy sedum that I left standing for "winter interest" has pretty much toppled. It's my first year growing this sedum, and I was wondering if/when I should cut it back and perhaps toss the cut parts somewhere less conspicuous to decompose.

As I leaned into look closer, I spied it - fresh new green rosettes, tightly curled, just starting to poke through the soil.

Beautiful fresh new sedum growth poking through the cold soil. Is there a more hopeful sight in January? :)

What a hopeful sign of Spring to come! The sight filled me with joy and wonder.

At first I only saw a couple new rosettes among the collapsed and decaying leaves of last year's growth. But then I shifted my angle and saw many more new rosettes forming at the soil line. And it looks like some new growth on the lower part of one of the older stems? Should I cut above the new growth when I trim back the plant?

I like the way that gardening encourages us to look more closely. Is there anything you noticed recently in your garden that caused you to take a second look?

Two more proud little sedum shoots peeking up through the soil. I have to admit I wasn't overly impressed with the sedums I planted last year, but they're off to a great start this spring and maybe will do better in 2013 now that they have settled in and have a chance to engage in a full year of growth?

I feel like the perennial garden will be waking up shortly and soon it will be time to sow annuals. You can follow the action with email updates.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Have You Seen These Bushes?

Foliage on one of the mystery bushes living next to our house.

These bushes have been minding their own business ever since we moved into our home nearly two years ago.

Here's more of a 'big picture' shot. The two bushes closest to the camera are (I believe) the same. The one further away is different, I think. The one farthest from the camera gets blue berries, fyi.
They do not do anything spectacular, but they seems tough, reliable and very happy living next to the house with Western exposure - yet in the shade of a large crape myrtle.

New winter growth emerges red-tinged, later changes to green.

I have no idea what the bush might be, but I'd like to know, because it seems kind of bulletproof so far.

As you can see, the new (winter) growth is kind of reddish. I'd estimate its size as 1-2 feet tall and maybe 4-feet wide. Any ideas what these might be?  Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What's Growing On #1 - Stones, Pollinator Condo, Christmas Camellias, Utah Sunset, Desert Edibles, Dried Hydrangeas, Indiana Persimmons, Monarch Hatching

Happy New Year! Hope that all your wishes - and resolutions - come true this year.

I've decided to experiment with a new type of post in 2013. My goal is to provide a monthly digest with links to some of my favorite gardening blog posts that I've read over the preceding month.

So without further adieu, here are some of the best garden blog posts that I came across in December 2012. I cherish the wisdom, insights and character of each of these great garden bloggers:

- Lee May's ode to the power of stone in his garden

- Clay and Limestone's how-to guide to building a pollinator condo

- Do camellias make the best Christmas gifts? Roses and Other Gardening joys thinks so!

- The Utah-sky-on-fire sunset over at High Altitude Gardening

- The cornucopia of vegetables and flowers brimming in the Ramblings From a Desert Garden. Wish I could get my nasturtiums to grow like that...

- Hydrangeas make lovely dried flower arrangements for Patina Moon

- Dave at Our Happy Acres did a great recap post on some of the star performers in his 2012 vegetable garden. Color me impressed (and just a little jealous). Persimmons in Indiana? Wow!

- I only recently discovered the Biodiverse Gardens blog, but based on the Best of Nature 2012 recap post, I'm planning to visit regularly in 2013

- The magical metamorphosis of a hatching Monarch butterfly at A Thinking Stomach

You can get this digest delivered right your inbox with an email subscription to Garden of Aaron.