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Garden Like A Vulcan
updated: Jun 05, 2010, 10:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Garden Like A Vulcan : Let Logic Guide You

After I've been declared Supreme Ruler of the Universe, I'm making Star Trek's Mr. Spock my Magistrate of Sustainable Gardening. He'll be in charge of a new mega-bureaucracy with far-reaching powers to bring clear, logical thinking to landscape maintenance, because so much of the work people do in gardens makes no sense.

Take raking, for example.

CRS (Compulsive Raking Syndrome)

I don't understand what's so bad about seeing fallen foliage under plants. With all the zero tolerance raking going on you'd think someone had dumped radioactive, Ebola-infested asbestos everywhere. As my buddy Owen Dell says, "Why do you think they call them leaves? You're supposed to leave them there."

Week after week you or your gardener are out there scraping away with one of those harmless looking flex rakes, rounding up every leaf that had the temerity to fall in your garden, and then having the pile hauled away.

That's quite silly, really. Not only are leaves a multifaceted resource for the garden, but excessive raking will eventually compact the soil's surface into an impenetrable, crispy, lifeless crust. After that, you try to water your plants, but instead of the soil soaking up the water, it flows away, sometimes carrying toxic garden products and pet wastes down the gutter and into waterways.

It's a lot more logical-not to mention thrifty and efficient-to let the leaves remain on the soil. Left in place, they provide free organic mulch, reducing evaporation, preventing weeds and adding diversity to the ecology of your garden. Over time, beneficial fungi (saprophytes), bacteria, earthworms and insects break the leaves down, producing nutrients that go back into the plants.

Here's a curbside planter in my neighborhood.

That tangle of scratch marks looks like crop furrows plowed by Mr. Toad jacked on crack. Not an ounce of living material left on the ground; a veritable scorched earth policy. (If you think raking doesn't exert enough pressure to compact the surface, lie down and have someone rake your back.)

The fix is logical: Trade the rake for a cultivator. By gradually working the fallen leaves into the soil, you not only return nutrients to the root zone, but also keep weeds from getting a foothold. You'll have less work, healthier soil and free fertilizer.

Sounds logical to me.

There They Stand, Hose in Hand

After Spock gets a handle on raking, I'll sic him on my other pet peeve-Hosers. I have nothing against watering with a hose. Studies have shown that people who hand water use about a third less water than those with a typical sprinkler system, while still providing enough soil moisture. (That might be because folks with automatic systems don't adjust them for changing weather conditions and apply more than the garden needs.)

My gripe is with nozzleless, unprotected hosing. It's a summer ritual we see played out everywhere. Dressed in shorts and a tank top, beer in one hand and gushing tube in the other, water jets across the yard in a high arc, landing on bare soil. I'm guessing that somewhere there's a contest to see who can shoot the water the farthest and make the biggest splash.

Now think about the impact of that water pounding on the soil. (This time, instead the rake on your back, imagine the stream of water smacking your face.) Try growing thriving plants in a barren environment like this…

Each drop pounds like a teeny hammer, softening, then compressing the soil particles tighter and tighter. (The more clay in your soil, the worse the damage.) Fat chance much moisture can make its way into the root zone.

The smart fix is to pick the right tool for the job. Overhead hand watering requires a soft spray nozzle capable of gently spreading small droplets over the soil. Better yet, before you water protect the soil from impact with a thick layer of mulch. Use either the leaves your garden produces or free mulch from local greenwaste program.

I don't know if I'll ever make it to Supreme Ruler-the campaign trail is really spread out and I don't want to be forced to prove I was born in this universe. Also, Lin-my spousal support unit and live-in copy editor-has just informed me that Spock is a fictional character. No way I'm adding his duties to mine.

I guess I'll just keep badgering you from here and hope that some of these extremely logical ideas soak in.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 80461 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-06-06 08:07 PM

Thank you Billy for being a voice of reason in gardening matters and to Edhat for giving him a pulpit.



 COMMENT 80587 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-06-07 10:27 AM

I have read that you should use your fallen leaves for mulch and I have also read NOT to use them because they harbor mold/mildew that then infects your plants???? And my daylillies do seem to now have some kind of rot on them now that I use my leaves as mulch......Oh what to do, what to do????


 COMMENT 80789 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-06-07 09:15 PM

to answer #80587 if I may:

Most molds and fungi (seen as fibrous white strings in the compost) associated with the composting process of organic materials are beneficial to plant life, if anything. The decomposing organic tissue of healthy tree leaves will eventually feed the plants they're mulching. About the only tree leaves not to use would be walnuts, they contain a growth inhibitor, and avocado, as they don't break down well.

Just don't smother the crown (the point at which the stems emerge from the soil) of the plant. Give the plant a few inches of breathing room all around .

The mulch will keep the soil cooler and more moist between waterings, and bonus: earthworms love leaves! Their manure is called earthworm castings and is highly prized by gardeneers for its rich content of humic acid. Plants love humic acid!

As far as your daylilies with marks on the leaves--it could be a symtpom of leaf disease brought on by our late spring rains. When the warmer air temps of late spring combine with extra moisture and humidity, it creates the perfect growing conditions for bacterial leaf spot diseases. Usually it's temporary; the warmer, dryer weather we're getting now should clear it up. Clean up your dayliles by removing the affected foliage and disposing of it. The new growth should come out disease-free. In any case, the leaf spot is tempory, cosmetic and not threatening the demise of your plants. Daylilies are drought tolerant; make sure you're not over-watering them and encouraging extra moisture to sit at the crown. Give them a bit of all -purpose fertilizer, organic preferred, and enjoy them.


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