Miniature daffodil, variety unknown.

Garden Restart: Mixing, Mulching, and Moving

Transitioning from the somnolence of winter to the sometimes frantic activities of spring in the garden can be painful. For a few weeks, I kept finding reasons to stay inside, hunched over my electronic devices. Too cold, too windy; oh hey, now it’s raining! I’m staying in.

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.

Compost, steer manure, and alfalfa pellets under soy meal and lime, waiting to be mixed up.

Two weeks ago, I shook off the excuses, made a Things To Do In The Garden list, and got going. I visited my local feed, seed, and garden supplies store and bought a bunch of stuff. I cut down old plant stalks, removed some plants entirely, and moved others to better spots. Having been somewhat negligent about soil improvement the last few years, I scattered 6-8-6 fertilizer around. Then I wheeled out the wheelbarrow, grabbed a spade, and mixed up some feeding mulch.

Feeding mulch and trowel.

Feeding mulch ready to use.

Feeding mulch, otherwise known as “top dressing,” is something I discovered in Further Along the Garden Path, a book by Pacific Northwest gardener and writer Ann Lovejoy. You mix up a bunch of mostly organic plant nutrient materials and apply them to your beds and borders. The basic ones are alfalfa pellets, aged manure, and compost. Extras include dolomite lime, bone meal, kelp meal, and soy meal.

The compost I made last year turned out exceptionally well — nicely rotted down, black and crumbly. To half a wheelbarrow of this, I added half a bag of steer manure, an ice cream pail of alfalfa pellets, another of soy meal, and half a small coffee can of lime. This year I didn’t have bone or kelp meal, but I’m hoping it won’t matter.

Feeding mulch in wheelbarrow with spade and trowel.Mixing up the stuff is sort of like combining the dry ingredients for muffins, on a grand scale. I use a spade, turning the mixture into the centre, rearranging and turning again until it looks uniform. Then I deposit about 2 cm (1 inch) uniformly over the soil of each bed. The idea is to sprinkle it evenly, avoiding damage to plants. Sometimes I have to flap a hand gently through foliage to shake the stuff down. Five wheelbarrow loads pretty much did the trick. I’m self-congratulating that I managed to get this task done early this year, before most plants have made much growth. There’s nothing like damaging delicate new growth by dumping mulch on it. Oh, the irony.

Another must-do-it-now thing is pruning, largely because of “Compost Day,” which is the one day per year when the municipality picks up fallen and pruned branches, twigs and other garden debris. This year it’s March 20th on my street, so any ambitious pruning has to be done before then. I already have the usual huge brush pile, but will add to it once I psych myself up, don a suit of armour (actually an old yellow rain jacket), and cut out the deadwood from a massive old climbing rose that’s grown into a maple tree and neighbouring hollies. Yes, rose thorns and holly prickles. Oh joy.

I’ve already pruned the magnolia, the photinia and another climbing rose, a plant of “New Dawn” that graces a rather shaky pergola in the back garden. And I’ve lived to write about it, despite racing up and down ladders and wrestling thorny rose canes. Not to mention dealing with the terrible finality of pruning — once you cut something, you can’t put it back. My rule: if in doubt, cut less rather than more.

Toadflax (Linaria purpurea) foliage turning colour in fall.

Linaria purpurea plant last fall, now dispatched (by me).

Speaking of terrible finalities, I actually made myself yank out three magnificent specimens of toadflax, Linaria purpurea, one of my favourite near-weeds. They looked great all last summer and into fall, when the foliage turned an interesting pinkish shade. They were all set to do it again this year, but alas, they had planted themselves in a spot I’d never intended for them, where they threatened to hulk over a couple of groundcovers. So, out they came. I hate killing healthy plants, even if there are way too many of them; part of me still regrets the deed.

Surviving purple crocus, dead fern foliage.

Crocuses protected by dead fern foliage.

On the plus side, quite a few crocuses have survived this winter’s massacre, although some of the survivors have been nibbled by deer. At least deer nibbling doesn’t kill the plant outright. Having their corms dug up and eaten by some pesky rodent does. Crocuses growing under other plants have been overlooked by both diggers and deer.

OK, I’ve checked off a whole bunch of items on my TTD list, and I’ve re-engaged with the garden. The weather is improving (but let’s hope the rain doesn’t stop altogether; we need those April showers). These days, I’m finding reasons to stay outside rather than in.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers

Corsican hellebore and variegated periwinkle with swollen alfalfa pellets visible in the feeding mulch.



Compost: Brute Labour of Love

Recently, I spent a weekend spreading an enhanced compost mulch over some of my perennial beds. While I filled the wheelbarrow, spadeful by spadeful, chopped and blended the rough compost, and then spaded it all out again onto the beds, it occurred to me that I was doing brute labour, the kind of thing one associates with medieval peasants.

But it’s worth it.

I can’t imagine gardening without compost. Making and using it is fundamental to the annual cycle of this garden, from gathering spent plant material throughout the summer and fall, to distributing the resulting compost the following spring.

It is true that making and using compost does involve episodes of vigorous work. But that can be said of gardening in general. Only the mildest types of gardening activities — buying pre-potted plants, plunking them on the patio and administering water occasionally (and it’s debatable whether this is really gardening) — are labour-free.

Composting is also burdened with the perception that it’s an esoteric, complicated process, involving strict proportions of materials, added chemicals, and right or wrong ways to put them all together.

I can say from my own experience that it’s really quite a simple process. The one critical element (aside from plant material) is the gardener’s labour.

So here’s how I make compost…

First, I must explain that I do cool, slow compost. It takes a full year to break down to a usable state. Fast, hot compost is a different process, involving (you guessed it) more work and possibly special equipment, such as a rotating compost drum.

I have two heaps, the working heap and the in-process or finished heap. Each one occupies a space about 5 feet (1.5 metres) square. The main inputs are perennial stalks and spent flowers, accumulated through the deadheading process in spring, summer and fall, weeds (of course!) and a huge raft of leaves at the end of the gardening season in October and November. Kitchen waste —  fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells — are a minute contribution throughout the year.

Collecting the stuff — cutting down, raking up and lugging — is just the beginning. I don’t put long, tough stalks into my heaps intact. They break down much better if I chop them up first, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to lay them on top of the pile and whack them with a machete. I have a nice one — nearly a yard long, handle wrapped with copper wire. It’s definitely one of the essential composting tools, along with digging fork and heavy pry bar (whose function I’ll get to shortly).

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

The current working heap, with essential composting tools

Because my compost piles don’t heat up sufficiently to kill seeds, I try to avoid adding material containing ripe seeds. Three plants that are stalwarts of my garden — lamb’s ears (Stachys betonicifolia), toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) — seed vastly, so I have to make sure I cut them down before the seeds ripen. (Needless to say, I don’t always manage this, which is why they are “stalwarts”).

It’s best to chop up plant material when it’s fresh. Once wilted, it’s harder to cut through. That doesn’t stop me from piling up stuff to be dealt with later — sometimes weeks later. (Perfection, though desirable, is not always achieved). Things get messy all the time in the compost area, as when I cut down all the lamb’s ears, toadflax and campion before they go to seed, creating a backlog of stuff that needs to be processed for the heap.

Once or twice a season I do a big compost heap cleanup, chopping, forking and stacking everything into an organized pile, making sure I incorporate some finished or at least half-baked compost in with the fresh stuff, along with water when needed. A compost pile should be damp, like a squeezed-out sponge, not wet.

One often sees instructions about the proportion of brown and green material, with admonishments to get it right, or a smelly mess will result. I suspect this applies only to those who put lawn clippings in their compost heaps. Large amounts of fresh green stuff (as opposed to material higher in cellulose such as perennial stalks) may result in anaerobic decomposition which does produce slimy, smelly results. Or so I hear, never having experienced this myself. My lawn clippings stay on the lawn, and because said lawn is never fertilized or overwatered, it’s not thick enough for thatch buildup to be a problem. (Sometimes the lazy way is the better way).

Things (aside from ripe seedheads) that I don’t put in my compost heaps: woody material such as twigs or branches, dandelions (which can ripen seeds even after being pulled up), and noxious weeds such as bindweed and creeping bellflower, which can sprout from the smallest root fragments. All this goes to the municipal compost program. There, composting is done on a grand scale, resulting in temperatures high enough to kill weeds and seeds. (Or so one hopes; I never buy any of the stuff myself). Something else I keep out of my heaps — those little plastic stickers on fruit. They never break down and are offensive to see in the garden beds. Not all members of the household bother to peel them off and put them in the garbage, however, so they creep in too. Most annoying.

The pile in the picture above includes all of last fall’s leaves, with a layer of freshly added stuff on top. By now the leaves have packed down solidly and are probably not yet rotted. Oxygen is needed to promote decomposition, so I use the giant pry bar to poke holes into the heap, working the bar right down to the bottom as well as sticking it horizontally and lifting the layers. It’s encouraging when this is fairly easy to do, indicating that breakdown is occurring. It’s even more encouraging when the end of the bar comes out warm or even hot, meaning that some heat is actually being generated. Most often, though, that is not the case.

After the spring mulching process, I like to keep some finished compost handy to add to planting holes or incorporate into soil mixes for pots. But by early fall, it’s pretty much used up. I make a point of moving the working heap into the resulting empty space, anticipating the deluge of leaves that will come in the next few months. The newest stuff ends up on the bottom of the pile, with the old leaves of the previous autumn on top. This gives me a chance to see how things are rotting, adding water to any dry layers and thoroughly aerating everything. Once done, that heap is “locked up,” becoming the in-process pile. Then I start accumulating new material for the next working heap on the other side.

By spring, the finished pile has rotted down, ready for use.

Finished compost

Finished compost

I can still recognize some of the elements — fern stems, the chicken-bony joints of the thickest campion stalks, skeletonized maple leaves — but mostly it’s blackish-brown, crumbly and perfect for mulching. I add alfalfa meal, kelp meal, lime, bone meal and other goodies to give it more nutritional value, blending it all into each wheelbarrow load. For use on potted plants, I screen the compost, throwing the coarse remnants into the current working heap. Screened compost is also perfect as a base for potting soil.

My compost is not perfect. It always contains seeds, despite my efforts to keep them out, so little surprises are always sprouting in my pots and beds — not always a bad thing. I’ve actually potted up some of the volunteers, such as hellebores, for use in the garden.

As for the brute labour aspect, it amounts to four or five days a year of moderately vigorous effort — mulching in spring, heap maintenance and turning in late summer and leaf management in the fall. Each of these is a milestone of the gardening year, the circle from life to death and back again.