Bark that doesn’t Bite: Plant profiles of trees that offer spectacular winter interest for small yards
Evergreens aren’t the only star performers in the winter garden. Many deciduous trees have four seasons of interest, offering a big impact in limited space. Their spring and fall leaf color are attractive and the bonus: their bark is their best attribute. As you plan for fall planting and save your money for spring purchases, consider adding trees that offer winter interest with their bark, branches and shape. Here are a few of the brightest and the best:
Coral Bark Maple
If you want to prevent mice, spiders and other pests from getting into your home, inspect pest entryways into your home and seal them. Entrances may include areas below your siding, door/window seals, dryer vents, and soffit gaps. For more information on fall pest control, visit Family Handy Man for useful tips and videos.
- Remove the leaves of irises to prevent borers from eating the rhizomes in the spring. All diseased leaves must be removed from the yard to prevent spreading diseases to plants or surrounding soil.
- Keep grass mowed until it stops growing. Remove leaves to prevent winter injury and damage from fungal snow mold diseases.
- Prune trees and shrubs to remove all dead and seriously cankered wood.
- Provide winter protection for roses, evergreens, young trees, and sensitive plants to prevent injury from wind and rock salt. Broken limbs are more susceptible to infections through their open wounds.
- Take a spin around the garden centers and capture some final sales. If it is too late to plant, just overwinter the plants in a cold garage. Proven Winners has informative tips on overwintering pots. https://www.provenwinners.com/overwintering-perennials-shrubs
- Visit an arboretum and note the beautiful fall colors. Consider adding one to your garden next year.
- Enjoy the harvest and collect seeds. Check out Fine Gardening for seed collecting details. https://www.finegardening.com/article/collecting-and-storing-seeds
- Shop local: Grab a friend. Go apple picking and visit your farmer’s market for final vegetable treasures.
- Many types of trees & shrubs
- Cold season Annuals
For good reason, most people think of spring as the preferred planting season. Landscape plants installed in March, April, and May benefit from generous rains and the long growing season that stretches ahead. But more often than not, many regions receive too much precipitation that makes planting difficult, especially on poorly drained sites. Furthermore, the sudden onset of hot, dry weather that typically displaces an often too-short spring can injure tender new plantings. Because of these difficulties, plant trees and shrubs during the period from mid-August to mid-October (zone 5 & 6). During this time, moderate and relatively stable air temperatures prevail, and soil temperatures and moisture levels are usually in a range that promote rapid root development.
If you wait too long into the fall season (November - December) to plant, you run the risk of poor root growth and increased failure rate. Conifers, in fact, need a slightly earlier start than hardwoods, preferring the warmer soil temperatures of the summer to early fall.
Some other slow- to-establish species are best planted in spring. These include:
Black Gum Tulepo
Nootka False Cypress
Stone Fruits (peach, cherry)
Lindens (other than silver)
Maples (other than red)
Kentucky coffee tree
Nurseries sell trees and shrubs in many forms—bare root, container-grown, balled and burlapped, or dug by tree spade. Transplanting can be successful with all forms. Always put extra effort into the planting process to ensure a good start for your plant. The faster the root system is re-established, the better the chances for survival, and the more rapidly your new tree or shrub will grow.
Before planting anything this fall, do some soul searching and ask yourself these questions: What do I want from this tree? (fall color, flowers, shade, fast growth, etc.)
- How much maintenance am I willing to provide? (No tree is maintenance free.)
- Where am I going to plant this tree and what kind of site do I have? For example, is the site wet, dry, sunny or shady? Is the soil loose or is it heavy clay?
- How much room do I have, and how big is this tree going to get?
- Are there any underground or overhead utilities that could interfere with the tree or that the tree will threaten?
September and October are the best months for planting bulbs. This will allow ample time for the bulbs to become well rooted before the ground freezes. Bulbs planted after October may not have time to root adequately and therefore may not flower uniformly in the spring. Freezing and thawing during the winter may also push an unrooted bulb out of the ground.
Plant the bulbs at a depth consistent with the level indicated on the bulb’s directions. As a general rule, this depth is four times the height of the bulb between the soil surface and the tip of the bulb. Make sure to plant the bulbs with the growing tip up. After the ground freezes, cover the bed with a 3-inch mulch to prevent alternate freezing and thawing that breaks roots and damages bulbs. When purchasing bulbs, be attentive to size. There is a direct correlation between the size of a bulb and the size of the flower grown from that bulb.
For more details on planting bulbs visit Colorado State University Extension website.
Most of the turf grass grown in Zone 5/6 lawns is “cool season,” including Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), perennial ryegrass (Loliam perenne), and fine fescues (Festucaspp.) Because these grasses grow best in cool weather, late summer to early fall is an ideal time to plant a new lawn, patch bare areas, or overseed an existing lawn. Grass seed must receive regular irrigation, especially until it begins to germinate. This is more likely to happen naturally in fall rather than in spring, when the new grass must withstand hot summer days.
When purchasing, you may find grass seed embedded in what looks like dryer lint. The premise is that this will hold water when the seed is planted and watered. Though this may seem like a good idea, the best practice for getting grass seed to sprout is by making sure it has good contact with the soil. Loosening the top of soil before planting or raking the seed in will achieve this. Newly planted seed may be mulched with a light layer of straw.
Why should spring get all the glory? While you might not think of fall as a time to get outside and plant new perennials, it actually presents a golden opportunity to do just that. Not only is it bargain time for many perennials at the garden store, the growing conditions are perfect for establishing roots. In autumn, the garden’s peak is fresh in your mind, so it’s easy to remember where you need to add some pizzazz. Remember that dead spot you noticed in midsummer? How about the garden bed that needs a splash of yellow or blue? Now is the time to address those areas.
In Zones 6 and 7, the cool-down period starts around the end of September, about six weeks before the first fall frost. This is the ideal time to start your fall planting. In Zones 3 to 5, you’ll want to plant earlier if you can. And of course, Zones 8 to 11 can pretty much plant year-round without a problem. (Lucky!) Still, you want to get an early start to give roots time to get established. Wait until the soil freezes hard, then spread a few inches of mulch around your perennials—not to prevent soil from freezing, but to keep it from thawing. Roots that aren’t solidly anchored can “frost heave” out of the soil when the ground freezes and thaws, putting the plant in danger of getting killed by cold. Once mulch is on, you’re all set. Even if a few of your new perennials don’t make it, you’re probably still coming out ahead. Fall planting gives you a big jump on spring gardening, so you have more time in the busy season. Below are some perennials that do well when planted in the fall.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes a 3.5-fold increase in vector-borne diseases in the U.S. from 2004-2016, with more than 76 percent of cases caused by tick-borne pathogens. Most of those cases are Lyme disease. The state with the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S since 2000 is Pennsylvania.
The consensus among researchers indicates that the increase in the tick population is due to:
- Shifts in land use which result in loss and fragmentation of the tick’s natural habitat.
- Changes in human or animal behavior that may bring ticks and hosts into closer proximity.
- Researchers believe the black-legged tick population might have exploded in recent years because timber that was cut down around 1900 is growing back and providing ticks with an expanded habitat, increasing their contact with people.
No. And that’s the tough reality. Landscape modifications can create an environment unattractive to primary tick hosts, such as deer and rodents, which may decrease the abundance of ticks that are present in parts of the yard. Fewer ticks have been found on well-maintained lawns. But ticks will always gravitate to woodlands, stone walls, heavy groundcover and ornamental vegetation. If your home garden contains plants which deer favor, or if your yard contains invasive, understory vegetation, ticks are more likely to be found. Landscape management alone may not reduce disease incidence, as the undetected bite of only one infected tick is required for transmission of B. burgdorferi type Lyme disease. This blog provides ideas on how to incorporate tick management into the landscape.
There are landscape design tactics to keep your family, friends and pets safe. Knowing just a little about tick behavior will assist in understanding what solutions will work to minimize your family’s and pet’s exposure.
Most (about 98%) Lyme disease cases are associated with the nymphal blacklegged tick, of which 10-36% may be infected with Lyme disease. Nymphal blacklegged ticks are about the size of a pinhead, difficult to spot, and are active during the late spring and summer months when human outdoor activity is greatest. About 75% of Lyme disease cases are associated with activities (hiking, fishing, horseback riding, farming, play, yard or garden work) around the home. Ticks do not jump, fly or drop from trees, but grasp passing hosts from the leaf litter, tips of grass, etc. Most ticks are probably picked up on the lower legs and then crawl up the body seeking a place to feed. Adult ticks will, however, seek a host (i.e., deer) in the shrub layer several feet above the ground, about or above the height of children.
Until a human vaccine for Lyme disease becomes available, people need to proactively avoid tick bites; regularly check for them after exposure in high-risk zones; and remove ticks properly and expediently. While ticks are unlikely to be encountered in open fields, children chasing balls off the field or cutting through woods to school may be entering a high-risk tick area.
Residential landscapes are designed for a variety of aesthetic or environmental reasons and “tickscape” practices should be integrated where Lyme disease is prevalent. In most cases, alterations will be made to an existing landscape, although landscape architects and designers should also incorporate tick- safe landscaping concepts into major renovations or new construction. Follow these simple landscaping techniques to reduce blacklegged tick population
- Deer, raccoons, cats and stray dogs bring ticks into the landscape. Prevent them from entering your yard by constructing fences.
- Remove old furniture, mattresses, or trash from the yard that may give ticks and their carriers (rodents) a place to hide.
Woodland edge and leaf litter are high risk areas for nymphal ticks. Altering the landscape to increase sunlight and lower humidity may render an area less hospitable to ticks. Open up your property to direct solar exposure. Management of the habitat should focus on the areas frequently used by the family, not necessarily the entire property. To reduce ticks adjacent to homes:
- Stack wood neatly and in a dry area (discourages rodents).
- Mow the lawn. Mowing and removing cover vegetation around the house also will discourage rodent hosts.
- Remove leaf litter accumulations around the house and lawn perimeter. Leaf litter and other plant debris can be raked or blown out from under shrubs and bushes. Composting or removal by appropriate bagging is an acceptable method of disposing leaf litter. Leaves should not be simply moved to another part of the property. The removal of leaf litter has been shown to reduce the number of young ticks on some properties. Some communities will compost collected leaves and provide the compost to residents for free or a nominal charge.
- Cut grass, weeds, and brush along edges of the lawn, masonry walls, and driveways.
- Prune plants to provide open space between the ground and base of the plant. Individual shade trees, with the exception of fruit trees like crab apple that are attractive to deer, and small ornamental stands in the open lawn will probably not contribute to the tick numbers unless surrounded by ground cover.
- Isolate areas used by the family or public (i.e., lawns, play areas, recreational or ball fields) from tick habitat or tick hot spots (i.e., woods, dense vegetation, groundcover, stone walls).
- Keep playground equipment, decks, and patios away from yard edges and trees.
- Use hardscape and xeriscape landscaping (i.e., brick, paving, decking, gravel, container plantings, low water requirement plantings) in areas immediately around the house that are frequently used.
- Place a 3-ft wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to restrict tick migration into recreational areas.
- Avoid invasive plant species and plantings that are inappropriate for your location. Several guides and listings of invasive plants and native alternatives are available. Some nurseries are helping to assess invasiveness and introducing alternative cultivars.
- Ticks also may be found in groundcover such as Pachysandra. Restrict the use of groundcovers to less frequently used areas of the yard. Clean up the vegetation around or even seal stone walls near the house.
- Move swing sets and playground areas out or away from the woodland edge!
The use of hardscapes, mulches, and xeriscape landscaping techniques can help reduce tick habitat and isolate parts of the yard from tick hot spots. Hardscapes refer to non-living features of the landscape like patios, decks, and paths. Mulches are used to suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture, but also can help reduce tick movement. In the laboratory, landscape materials have been shown to deter tick movement and around homes. A three-foot wide or broader woodchip barrier may help reduce tick abundance on the lawn, although results vary widely from home to home and from year to year depending upon other factors (i.e. density of woods, amount of shade, initial tick densities.) Mulches can help reduce the number of ticks on the lawn and delineate the tick zone. Quality of the landscape material may also influence results as wood chips from chipped trees, especially if it contains leaves, quickly degrade and may soon become no different than leaf litter. The application of a barrier or buffer will be easiest where there is a sharp delineation between the woods and lawn. A pesticide application can be focused on the landscape barrier or buffer zone to increase the effectiveness of the barrier. Move swing sets and sandboxes away from the woodland edges and place on a covering of smooth bark, mulch or other suitable material.
Xeriscaping is the application of water-conserving landscape practices. This approach reduces habitat cover; helps isolate frequently used areas, can provide an attractive focal area in the yard or garden, and reduce maintenance and water, fertilizer, and chemical use. Many drought-resistant plants are also deer-resistant. Landscapes can incorporate formal or informal designs around play, eating, or pool areas. Landscape materials such as laid brick, wood decking, stone paving, raked gravel or pea gravel (set down slightly from bordering bricks, stone, or paved areas), and concrete (exposed aggregate can provide varying attractive colors and textures and edged with brick or tile) can be used to create a patio and paths. Some plantings can be in raised beds or containers.
Possible Landscape Design Options
Butterfly gardens in large, open, sunlit areas is an attractive alternative to an open expanse of manicured lawn. Clumps of nectar flowers can be separated from tick habitat by gravel or mulch paths or strips of lawn to reduce its potential for harboring ticks. A much larger separation also would minimize any impact from targeted use of pesticides for tick control.. Some nectar plants are deer- browse resistant.
Keep Biodiversity. Elimination of woodland and all wildlife habitats is not necessary or environmentally desirable. In cases where environmentally acceptable, consider alternatives to large tract of open lawn or only small lawn areas: butterfly gardens, vegetable gardens, formal herb gardens, colonial style gardens, wildflower meadows and hardscapes. Some evidence suggests a lack of biodiversity and a landscape that specifically favors deer and mice increases tick abundance and transmission of Lyme’s disease. The key factor appears to be the presence and abundance of deer. The objective of a tick management program is to discourage activity of several key tick hosts, and create a barrier between woodland habitat and areas the family uses most frequently.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Limit time in tick-infested areas.
- Use proper protection like clothing sprays
- Check for their presence after leaving area.
- Have another family member examine parts of your body you cannot see, such as scalp and back.
Tickscaping: download the PDF from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
Lyme disease symptoms visit your doctor and read the information on the CDC website.
In PA contact the PA Tick Research Lab for a free tick test.
Keep tabs on rainfall and water as needed. Most plants need at least an inch of water per week, more if the weather is very hot and dry. Remember to water deeply. Install a soaker hose to a timer to keep any new plantings watered during busy work and family weeks as well as while you are on vacation. During dry spells, be sure to water the base of the plant. Wet leaves from overhead watering, combined with hot humid air, creates optimal conditions for disease. Sometimes there is too much rain. Waterlogged plants literally drown, because roots need air in the soil. Over-watered soil will cause slug populations to bloom; even worse is the ensuing fungal issues. While you can’t predict mother nature, you can control how much you manually water. Use a hand shovel and take an occasional inventory of soil moisture. Push away soil and observe how deep moisture is. If you’re planning a new garden, take into account wet areas and select plants that like ‘wet feet’. Another alternative is to make raised beds or mound beds. If you have a short- term problem, a simple trench funneling excess rain away from your garden may be enough. For more on too much water, check out this article. “Too Much Rain in the Garden--Managing Wet Dirt and Waterlogged Plants."
Deadhead your flowers for more blooms the next day. Roses and coneflowers respond well to this. Removing faded perennial flowers encourages the plant to send energy to its roots so it will bloom longer this season and better next year. Prune back any diseased or pest- eaten foliage and be sure to keep the soil clean of plant leaves. Pest- damaged debris on the ground may contain bug eggs that will hatch and re-attack your plants.
There are some plants that you may not want to deadhead because they serve as food for wildlife. For example, finches snack on coneflowers and Black-Eyed Susan seeds. Other plants, like foxglove and columbine, propagate by self- seeding and do not benefit from deadheading.
| || |
All fertilizers are labeled with three numbers. These numbers represent the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potassium (K). In basic terms, nitrogen promotes foliage growth, phosphate encourages healthy root growth and flower production and potassium promotes the overall health of the plant by building disease resistance. For annuals apply a fertilizer that has high amounts of nitrogen and low amounts of phosphate: 10-6-4, 24:12:17 or 20:10:20 or compost tea.
Problems in Summer:
Your landscape and soil are living and require maintenance. Have you heard of the saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” This motto applies to the time we invest in the summer garden. Did you know that proper watering and timely feeding will prevent disease? Planting the right plant in the right spot remains one of the most important steps to ensuring its success. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is part of an overall, healthy approach to managing pests. The goal isn’t to eliminate every bug, rather prevent major damage. Let’s face it, the bugs we dislike, are food for the birds we enjoy. And pesky, hungry caterpillars transform into butterflies. Resolve to allow for some pest damage, but not enough to totally destroy your garden and landscape.
Pests to Watch For: If you would like more information on identifying and managing specific pests, your local University’s extension office is a good place to start. Or use the links here.
The peak bloom time of midsummer is a smart time to assess your landscape and formulate a work plan. This is because your trees and shrubs have undergone their annual growth spurt. Based on your goals, your plan might focus on the maintenance of your existing trees, shrubs, and plants. Or maybe you plan to tackle larger projects such as planning a new garden room, the removal of overgrown shrubs or an unhealthy tree, or the addition of french drains or a new walkway.
- For inspiration, visit local arboretums and conservatories. Summer is a great time to harvest new ideas from other gardens in your area or while on vacation. Take advantage of local garden tours, public gardens, or parks to discover tips and tricks you can use in your own gardens. And be sure to bring a camera along to document what you see. Take note of interesting garden bed ideas, plant combinations, new introductions, or techniques you see as you tour.
- Design for year-round color and interest. It is tempting to go to the garden centers as soon as they open in April and purchase plants that are blooming. The natural consequence is having a garden filled with only spring interest. Do you have any gaps in your blooming cycle for summer, fall, and winter? Now is the time to eliminate the plants that you don’t like, and replace or add ones to fill in the seasonal gaps in your landscape.
- Edit your landscape. Many clients resist removing plants, but you shouldn’t hesitate to make changes which will make you happy. If you have a small yard keep high standards when it comes to performance. If a plant is not growing as expected, remove it, replant it somewhere else, or severely prune it. Save your replanting for a cool and cloudy day. And water the transplant religiously. Or, if you decide not to keep the plant which didn’t work in your space, offer it to a neighbor or friend.
- Start a Garden Journal. Take photos, from across the street or yard, and also close-ups of your favorite blooms. Note the name of each plant, bloom time, where you purchased it, when it was planted. Add this to your garden journal; if you don’t have one, start one.
- Plant a row of vegetables for the hungry. Dedicate this area for donation.
Gardens don’t have to be all work! Take advantage of the season by sitting outdoors to fully experience the scents, sounds, and beauty of your yard.
- Greet the mail carrier and people walking by. Watch the birds, butterflies and little critters. Sip a cool beverage.
- Reap a Harvest. Dry blooms of hydrangeas Or cut and arrange your flowers for a container on your porch, patio, or inside your home. Short on blooms? Supplement those stems with a bouquet from your farmer’s market or grocery store. Enjoy the unmatched flavor of fresh-picked vegetables.
- Sketch or paint a scene from your garden. If you weren’t blessed with an artist’s hand, invite someone who has the talent and might appreciate the inspiration.
- Share your garden with others, especially young children. Kids are such fun! Plus, they’re better at living “in the moment” and help us to see things in the garden which we’d overlook. Strolling through a garden with a child, be it your garden or a public one, is our opportunity to inspire future generations of gardeners!
An ideal mulch product mimics nature by covering plants with organic matter that provides nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to the soil. You probably use mulch to suppress weeds, but mulch does much more: it retains moisture, controls erosion, and moderates fluctuating soil temperatures in our plant’s root zones. When properly applied, at the right time and depth, it naturally enhances the soil and plants with the gradual decomposition of organic matter. A thin layer of about 2 inches is all you need to achieve these benefits, plus add uniform color to your garden.
To save you time and money, avoid these ten common mistakes:
This looks exactly like it sounds—a deep pile around the base of a tree trunk. This type of mulching causes the lower trunk to become waterlogged and eventually compacts and interferes with oxygen reaching tree root cells. Volcano mulching decays the tree’s bark and harbors rodents that chew on the base of the tree.
Better choice: Keep mulch away from the base of trees. (PSU Mulch Fact Sheet)
2. Using Fabric and Plastic Weed Barriers: These don’t work to keep weeds away and have negative side effects. These materials strangle plants, which require space to grow. These barriers also negate aeration and prevent the absorption of decomposed organic material.
Better choice: Don’t use weed barrier at all. Or remove the existing one. Use natural mulch.
3. Poor quality mulch: Cheap or free mulch, especially from landfills, can be very tempting, but it can be full of pesticides, dangerous tree diseases, pests, and weeds.
Better choice: Use a trustworthy supplier who offers a mulch that contains shredded bark, wood from trees, decomposed matter, and aged manure.
4. No Mulch: Gardens that have no mulch will dry out more quickly, get compacted, fail to adequately nourish plants, promote the germination and spread of weeds, and erode more quickly.
Better choice: Mulch or use ground cover plants. Once established, dense ground cover smothers weeds, casts shade to keep the ground cool, draws rainwater into the soil (particularly beneficial on a slope,) and is low maintenance. When ground cover fills in, no mulch is necessary.
For a list of excellent ground covers check out Blue Stone Perennials. This is unsponsored. I order from them every year, and if you live close to Cleveland check out the amazing annual June sale.
5. Using the same mulch depth for all plants. Too thick a layer of mulch inhibits the movement of air and moisture into and out of the soil.
Better choice: Follow the appropriate mulching depths for your plants.
3-4” for woody plants, keeping it away from trunks.
2-3” around herbaceous plants and keeping mulch away from crowns.
NEVER exceed 4” of mulch.
6. Do not use uncomposted wood chips as a mulch near houses or along driveways where vehicles will be parked. This kind of mulch provides ideal growing conditions for a troublesome fungus called "artillery fungus." The artillery fungus shoots spore masses that stick to vinyl siding, automobiles, and other objects. The dark spore masses, each up to 1/16-inch in diameter, are extremely difficult to remove and can be very unsightly.
Better Choice: Blend mushroom manure and mulch. Penn State researchers have discovered that blending 40 percent used mushroom compost with landscape mulch greatly suppresses the artillery fungus. Mushroom compost, or mushroom soil, is the pasteurized material on which mushrooms are grown.
7. Cocoa bean mulch smells good and is organic, but is toxic to dogs.
Better choice: Use another type of mulch.
8. Dyed Mulch, which unfortunately has become highly popular, may contain demolition debris and also be contaminated with lead paint, pressure treated wood, or other toxic substances. (More information further into this blog)
Better choice: Use organic mulch.
Better choice: Lay down newspaper under soil and mulch to kill grass and weeds.
10. Inorganic mulch (plastic, rubber, etc) does not contribute to soil or plant health and is usually more ecologically harmful to produce and transport. Products such as shredded tires are intended to provide a soft surface under playground equipment. It should never be applied to garden beds. As with landscaping fabric, leaf debris and other organic material cannot decompose into the soil. Plastic pieces and rubber also increase the heat of the soil, which may damage plants or affect the time plants go dormant in the fall.
Better choice: Use local natural mulch.
Did you ever think that your organic garden just might be topped off with a nice, thick layer of arsenic or chromate copper arsenate (CCA for short) or any one of many not-so-organic chemicals? The potential health risks are sobering and beyond the scope of this mention.
In 2004, the mulch and soil industry adopted standards prohibiting the use of CCA-treated wood in all consumer mulch and soil products. The Mulch and Soil Council (MSC) also developed a Product Certification program to help consumers identify mulches and soils that comply with industry standards and contain no CCA-treated wood. Certified mulches and soils can be found at major retailers and garden centers across the country. They are identified by the MSC Certification Logo on the package and are listed on the MSC Web site.
Colored Mulch can be toxic, bad for plants and harmful to children.
Most colored mulches are treated with harmless dyes, like iron oxide-based dyes for red, or carbon-based dyes for black and dark brown. Some cheap dyes, however, can be treated with harmful or toxic chemicals. This is pretty rare though, and most often, it is not the dye itself that is of concern, but rather the wood in mulches. Generally, if the price of dyed mulch seems too good to be true, it probably is not good at all. Spend the extra money for better quality and safer mulch. While most natural mulches, like double or triple shredded mulch, cedar mulch or pine bark, are made directly from trees, many colored mulches are made from recycled wood – like old pallets, decks, crates, etc. These recycled bits of treated wood can contain chromates copper arsenate (CCA). Using CCA to treat wood was banned in 2003, but many times this wood is still taken from demolition sites and recycled into dyed mulches. CCA treated wood can kill beneficial soil bacteria, beneficial insects, earthworms and young plants. It can also be harmful to the people spreading this mulch as well as animals who dig in it.
Safety of Dyed Mulch in the Garden
Besides the potential dangers of colored mulch for pets, people and young plants, dyed mulches are not beneficial for the soil. They will help retain soil moisture and help protect plants during winter, but they do not enrich the soil or add beneficial bacteria and nitrogen as natural mulches do. Dyed mulches break down much slower than natural mulches. When wood breaks down, it requires nitrogen to do so. Colored mulch in gardens can actually rob the plants of the nitrogen they need to survive.
Any organic material can be mulch, including ground-up leaves, compost, buckwheat hulls, ground-up bark, lawn clippings, wood chips, bark nuggets, or even stone. Bark mulch is the most common, but lighter mulches like buckwheat hulls and compost are better for perennial beds. Shallow-rooted perennials do better when they don't have to compete with heavy mulch for micronutrients in the soil.
Whatever material you buy, make sure it contains no weed seeds. Or later in the summer, you'll be in for a big surprise. If you're buying compost or horse manure, be sure it's aged (about 4-6 weeks,) or it can burn your plants. If you're worried about termites, use a mulch that has little or no actual wood in it. (Bark doesn't attract termites — it's the wood they feed on.)
How much should I purchase?
A yard of mulch will cover 100 square feet when spread 3 inches thick. Measure carefully, and buy only what you need. There's nothing more frustrating than paying for something and having a large pile of it left over. To calculate the amount you need, use Lowe's calculator.
Some like to mix compost into the mulch and a 1:4 ratio is good. However, it may be better to mix the compost into the top layer of soil, then mulch. This way, you are amending the soil, not the mulch. Often weed seeds develop in the mulch and the mulch breaks down faster when there is manure mixed in. By applying compost or manure under the mulch, you may be able to delay mulching to every two years.
(Unsponsored Information from Davey)
- Low Maintenance: You almost never need to replace them.
- Lower Cost: Because they’re longer lasting, it is generally less expensive to mulch with rocks.
- Fire-Proof: If you live in an area with wildfires, rocks could be better since they’re non-flammable.
- Weeds Be Gone: Rocks can keep weeds away longer.
- Wind-Resistant: Heavy rocks are great at preventing soil erosion in windy areas.
- Perfect for Rock and Cacti Gardens: Rocks are just right for these garden spaces!
- Too Hot: Rocks, especially lighter ones, raise the soil temperature, leading to stressed and thirsty plants.
- No Benefit to Plants: Rocks don’t aid plant growth or soil health.
- Messy pH: Most trees prefer acidic soil, but rocks create alkaline soil, which can hurt trees.
- Return of the Weeds: Wind will eventually blow soil between rocks, creating a spot for weeds to grow. Navigating through rocks to pull weeds is very challenging.
- No Good for Pruning: Rocks can prohibit rejuvenation pruning, creating unwieldy shrubs.
- Remove by Hand: If you want to remove stones, you must do it manually, which can be tedious!
Plant a 10 cent plant in a 10 dollar hole.
Feed the soil, not the plants.
Fertilizers, whether organic or chemical, may be a waste of effort and money if the plant cannot absorb them. Adequate nutrients may be physically present in the soil, but not available. In order for plant roots to obtain nutrients, there must be appropriate hydration and pH. The hydration and pH ranges differ for each plant, and most plant’s requirements can be found online or on their plant tag.
Hydration: Soil must be sufficiently moist to allow the roots to take up and transport the nutrients. Some synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides actually restrict water and air movement in the soil.
pH: The acidity of the soil must be within a certain range for nutrients to be releasable from the soil particles.
For example pH for grass is between 6.3-7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral), but the ideal pH for a rhododendron is between 4.5 and 6.0 (acidic).
When planning your garden or landscape you’ll want to include plant combinations that have similar hydration and pH needs. For example, you don’t want to plant acid loving Rhododendrons (4.5) with more neutral loving plants like lilacs (6.5-7.) Roses, however, prefer a similar pH to lilacs and would be a better complimentary plant.
You’re probably not a chemist, or a soil science major. So you might want to know: How do I feed the soil? What nutrients does my soil need? If your plants and grass are growing well, you don’t need to do anything. However, if you see plants that are suffering or a lawn that is bare or with a lot of weeds, do a soil test. It is like your doctor doing a blood test before prescribing a medicine. Fertilizers are expensive and you may not even need them because your pH or water factors may prevent your grass and plants from absorbing the nutrients.
Look into your state’s agricultural extension or cooperative office and obtain a soil test. It’s a simple test done for a small fee. The state university (Ex: Penn State, Rutgers, Cornell, Vermont, Va Tech) sends you a kit (some zip lock bags, directions, etc.) You mail in your soil and wait for the results. On the form, you indicate what you want to grow, such as grass, shrubs, vegetables, perennials. Then the test results will include recommendations for amending your soils for your growing requirements. Local Master Gardeners and extension offices are also informative and free resources for seeking answers to plant and soil problems.
Note about lawns and soil: pH, water, soil compaction and fertility impact weeds in your lawn. Adjusting your pH can reduce your weeds without ever using a chemical. You can reduce Clover, Dandelion, and Knotweed by adjusting your soil’s pH. Check out How to “read” the weeds in your yard. Applying high nitrogen fertilizers on lawns can disrupt the nutrient balance, accelerate turf growth, increase the need for mowing, and contribute to thatch buildup. The application of pesticides harms what is naturally essential for maintaining healthy soil and turf, microorganisms, beneficial insects and earthworms. Learn more about organic lawn care.
Still have weeds?
Plants look weak and are dying?
- Feed the soil, not the plant.
- Stop or reduce chemical use. Chemicals don’t feed the soil, and they harm the environment.
- Administer a soil test before putting nutrients into your lawn or planting beds.
- Know your plants and where they like to live. Make them feel at home with proper light, soil, water, and pH.
- Evaluate the compaction of your soil.
beat or rhythm that you can tap your foot to throughout the seasons.
Why are the bones of the garden important? They provide structure, dimension, and foundation for the rest of the plantings on your property. Bones offer winter interest and can be living like a hedge or inanimate like an arbor, fence or gate. Bones are the first design element to consider when updating or starting from scratch.
Rhythm and Beat
The beat is the steady pulse that you tap your feet to. Rhythm is the actual sound of the notes, which in a song would be the same as the words. The consistent beat in landscape provide unity and structure so that the garden looks cohesive and attractive not only in the winter, but throughout every season. A misconception about bones is that they must be evergreen and formal. Let’s begin by putting that assumption aside. Of course, evergreens like boxwood, holly, arborvitae, and cypress add structure, and repeated placement offers a ‘beat’. Rhythm is the choice of the individual plants and elements that form your landscape. .Let’s take a moment to consider other creative ways to achieve beat and rhythm. By repeating plant shapes and colors, or using containers of like shape and color family, we achieve a similar effect.
Let’s start with the obvious. Loose or sheared boxwood, holly, rhododendron, yews, and other evergreens are wonderful ways to add winter structure to the garden. They are easy to shape and many cultivars are available for any size landscape. Beyond boxwood and arborvitae, look into other forms of evergreens: Japanese plum yews, magnolias, and some perennials. The key here is to read labels and make sure the plant fits your growing conditions (light, soil, zone). For example, if you want your shrub to only grow 2-3’ tall, don’t purchase one that wants to grow 6’. It requires more work and pruning to keep large plants within bounds. Too often after 10 years, homeowners are back to square one, ripping out plants that either were the wrong choice, or weren’t maintained properly. Mistakes like this will cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. By repeating the same evergreen in strategic locations throughout your beds, you’ve created the chorus line for the spring, summer and fall seasons. Then in the winter, they step into the spotlight.
Repeating the same color with varied plant material and possibly urns or artwork gives the garden rhythm too. Think beyond the color of leaves. Evaluate the color and texture of bark, as well as urns, statuary, and flowers. Let’s say your color theme is red/burgundy. For the spring, use red azalea/rhododendron; early summer, use astilbe, roses, and plants with burgundy foliage. To support the color theme between bloom times, try planting Japanese Bloodgood Maple and Wine Rose Weigelia. In the winter, you might choose Sangu Kaku Maple Maple, or Red Twig Dogwood for its seasonal red bark.
If yellow is your preference: Brass Buckle Japanese Holly, Golden globe arborvitae and junipers offer a yellow shrub layer, while Peabody or Golden Ribbon arborvitae provide veritable structure. The Tiger’s Eye Sumac and Chamaecypirais 'Soft Serve' are beautiful focal points. Lower level perennials with yellow are Japanese forest grass and carex.
Texture is another way to create rhythm and bones. For example, if you are a collector of daylilies, ornamental grasses, hydrangeas, or camellia, you can provide rhythm by repeating your collection throughout the landscape. Then mix in contrasting foliage to make your favorite plants pop. For example, for grasses or daylilies, add oakleaf hydrangea or other large-leaved plants, or strongly structured evergreens.
Urns, rocks, sculptures
Certain inanimate objects support the rhythm and structure of the garden. If you have a lake or ocean home, using a variety of nautical elements adds consistent structure and interest as the seasons change. If you live in a rural area or in the mountains, local rock formations, barrel planters, and rustic fences add structure. If your color scheme is red, choose a red urn, bird bath, or sculpture to support your theme. More formal gardens may have metal orbs, obelisks, and benches to serve as the bones.
Path and hardscape
Paths, brick, pavers, and stone all provide structure and beauty while plants lay dormant for the winter. Arbors, gates, garden furniture, water features and fountains, and stone pillars also contribute to offering structure and rhythm. Strong geometric lines and cleanly-edged beds are soothing to the eye and serve as part of the garden structure. Truth be told, this is the time that the art of the stone craftsman shines —when the plants aren’t jumping in the spotlight. Ways to create rhythm with stone: if you have a small stone waterfall or pond, repeat larger varieties or colors of the same rock within the landscape by making arbor pillars and benches out of similar stone, or choosing pavers or garden boulder groupings in the same color/shape. If you have a wood arbor, use the same stain on fencing or gate posts.
While all landscapes benefit from having a strong foundation, it is even more critical for perennial, English or cottage gardens. Without structure or rhythm, these areas may look weedy and hodgepodge. There are a couple of ways to create rhythm. First, you can use evergreens or structural elements like trellises or obelisks and repeat them within the bed. Second, plant larger structural herbaceous perennials like ornamental grasses, baptisia, peony, or cohosh or large hostas and repeat like you would a shrub. Then add your favorite perennials in between. Another option is to create groupings. Each grouping would include 4-6 plants, one for each season: early spring, late spring, early summer, late summer, fall, and winter. Repeat these groupings throughout the planting beds. Perennials tend to only bloom for 2-3 weeks, so varying seasonal bloom time ensures color and visual interest throughout the year.
When creating or evaluating your existing landscape, the first step is to evaluate its bones. Do you have too many star performers stealing the stage? Is there one season when your garden appears flat and one-dimensional and could benefit by adding the height of a flowering tree or tall evergreens? What does your landscape look like in the winter? What is creating a beat? Is it color? Evergreens? Hardscape? Keep views in mind as you evaluate the landscape. In a front yard where traffic may travel quickly, use bold statements of rhythm with strong color or structural evergreens. For informal gardens, or gardens experienced while strolling or meandering along a path, you have the opportunity to use more subtle forms of structure, like groupings of perennials. Remember that creating the bones of your landscape doesn’t have to be the repetition of a tightly sheared, round boxwood. There are infinite ways to achieve good bones in your own garden. Each method is a chance to infuse the landscape with your personal style and creativity.
1. Start with a purpose: What do you want to do in this room? Just like a house, you eat in the dining room, fix food in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom -- you get the point. Think about how you'd like to use your outdoor space. Now that you have your evaluation done, get specific with realistic uses based on your property, time, energy and budget. Your garden room can have more than one use. Your purpose influences the next steps.
2. Define the boundaries: What will make up the floor, walls, & ceiling? Think of your outdoor room like the interior of your home. On paper, the layout may seem one dimensional. But the space is three dimensional. Select flooring which best meets your intended use. For example, you might want to consider an even, solid floor like concrete or pavers for safety while entertaining. For a private, reflective space, crushed limestone, grass or ground cover are suitable choices. Similar to a home renovation, you may want to consider the vertical element in the landscape: Are there walls you want to take down or rebuild? Vertical elements in the garden can create openings or close them.. Lastly the ceiling of your garden can enclose, shade, or open the view of the sky or a neighbor’s window above you.. Read below for guidance on creating your own outdoor room:
Floor: pea rock, stone
Entrance: How will you welcome guests and pull their eyes into the space? Garden gates, arbors, selectively placed focal points, and specimen plants greet your guest, create a mood, and draw the eye and your guest through the landscape. Your “halls” or paths also direct views and movement of the eyes and feet. Place fragrant plants at entrances and seating areas. If you or family members are allergic to bee stings, place the plants the bees favor away from gathering areas. Bumble bees sting, honey bees do not. Both are considered beneficial insects. Bees only sting when harassed, become entangled in folds of clothing, or when something steps on their nests. However, bee allergies are life-threatening, and should be considered in your design. For more information about bees, inviting them to your property, or reducing sting risk, visit www.pollinator.org.
Floor: Your goals for the space dictate the material for your floor. If you have children, you may want a grassy area. If you want a stable and sturdy foundation for dining, pavers may be your best bet. For casual seating areas and fire pits, gravel or natural stone set into slag or sand may be appropriate. Today the myriad of choices for pavers can be overwhelming. Visit paver supply centers and look at their displays and consider how the colors and style will blend with your home’s exterior.
Halls “Paths”: Whether grass, stone, gravel, or pavers, they all convey a pace and theme. More formal paths (like your front walk—main entrance in a house) may be wider so two people can approach at once. Main or primary paths are typically wider and accessible. Secondary paths are informal like the halls in your home. They cause people to slow, walk singularly, and guide the movement and eye through your garden space.
Rooms: Are there areas where you will perform an action (such as potting plants or snipping kitchen herbs?) Enjoy a view? Listen to a bubbling fountain or birds? Watch wildlife? Relax, eat, or entertain? The floor in your garden room is decided based on your style (formal/informal) and use. For example, a private seating area can be gravel; a dining area for family can be cut bluestone; and a play area can be mulch or grass.
Wall: Are vertical elements in your landscape. They can be permanent or moveable, evergreen or deciduous, living or manmade. These vertical elements define seating or dining areas, and manage views from within and outside your home. For example, looking through an arbor frames a view like a picture frame. Just make sure you’re not “framing” your neighbor’s garbage cans.
Ideas for vertical elements include the obvious -- like a hedge of trees or shrubs or a fence. Other ideas include:
Ceiling: Consider the function of your ceiling. Is it to borrow a view in the horizon like a city line, mountain or lake? Screen a neighbor? Or to shield against the elements? The ceiling can be natural or created. The sky is a nature’s “ceiling”. Or the canopy of a mature tree offers shade in the summer and sun in early spring and fall. Some more obvious ceilings include roofs, awnings, pergolas and umbrellas. The key to deciding the most suitable roof for you is to consider the sun’s location and its effect on the use of your space. Kids’ play areas may need to be out of direct blistering sun. You may want the sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon. Moveable umbrellas make your space flexible.
Focal Points: Are great for distracting from eye sores and keeping a view within the confines of a space. NEVER decorate an eye sore. Instead, use a focal point to direct the eye away from it. Like art work, focal points greet guests, provide visual pleasure, and allow the eye to pause. Any inanimate object in the landscape causes the eye to pause — a rock, statue, planter, bench etc. On the other hand, some inanimate objects are just unattractive: gas meters, air conditioner units, garbage areas.
Finishing Touches: Once the major work is done, (once the “carpet is in, walls are painted and furniture placed”) make the space your own. Customize by adding the last layer: your unique style. Try adding a whimsical statue, formal urn or a paver made by your grandchild. Remember that these finishing touches often serve as memorable focal points for your garden guest.
Gwen Wisniewski: Landscape and Garden Designer. Contact me. Let me help you integrate these garden inspirations. Choose the links below to find out more about my landscape design service or to make an appointment.
Holly Schultz: Blog & magazine writer and editor. Contact me for writing. I look forward to working with you.