Thursday, November 21, 2013

Eco-Machismo Mulching

         A lot of men are reluctant to try organic gardening – thinking that it’s too touchy-feely, earthy-crunchy.  Real men just want to “grow ‘um and mow ‘um.”
         In Chinese Taoist philosophy, the concept of "yin and yang” is used to describe how seemingly diametrical opposites can be thought of as complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the parts.
         Likewise, the nurturing and destructive aspects of horticulture can be successfully synergized.         

Gardening for Guys Presents “Eco-Machismo Mulching”

Flakes of lifeless leaves
flung from slashing Toro blades –
return to their roots.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Putting In, Pulling Out, Cutting Down, and Raking Up

This time of year it is hard not to feel like one of those rapidly crisping oak leaves clinging tenaciously to their sixth-story penthouses along the border of my front yard.  Especially if you are a gardener.

Autumn and spring are actually my favorite horticultural seasons.   

Summer, aka the growing season, not quite so much – toiling in the hot sun just isn’t fun.  Winter is something that we New Englanders say we enjoy because – like not wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day - it is one of the rules for living here. 

Autumn and spring however are the times when I get to do the things that I believe allows me to call my self a plantsman – putting in, pulling out, cutting down, and raking up.               

There is not much “putting in” this time of year except for bulbs, which I don’t do much of – preferring to give food directly to the squirrels rather than burying it underground and forcing them to dig it out.  (This is my same approach to Casino gambling.  Instead of wasting all that time at some noisy gaming table with a bunch of blurry-eyed strangers, I would rather march directly to the cashier’s window, just hand over my money, and go do something more meaningful with my time – such as putting, pulling, cutting and raking.) 

Like many of those who have gardened for lots of years, pretty much of all my available growing space is dedicated to perennials – many of them, in spite of my previous writings, not invasive.  This can present a problem to someone who considers the major role of a gardener to be putting new plants in the ground.   

So every spring, as soon as the first sprig of green-anything appears in any of my plots, I go on my annual deathwatch walk – looking for (and secretly hoping for) shrubs that might not have made it through the cold weather and (joy of joy) need to be replaced.  Fortunately for the lives of all the later bloomers Marsha has the final vote – thus preventing me from uprooting everything and putting in another round of what would be correctly labeled “annual perennials”. 

To substitute for my frustrated “pulling out” and “putting in” yearnings Marsha now has me cut down all the perennials in the spring rather than the fall when I used to do it.  Nonetheless every November I approach her with Golden Retriever eagerness fondling my pruning shears and seeking permission to ravage the low-growing foliage.   

And every year she patiently explains to me that fall shearing (a) removes hiding and resting places for the birds that provide so much cold weather entertainment to us, (b) makes our property look less inviting than the Russian Tundra by removing all the “winter interest” and attendant shadows from the land and (c) really confuses the plants who, after being pinched back, get hit by one of those freakishly hot October/November days that seem to be becoming more common nowadays, and decide to start blooming – only to have their growth spurt crushed by three months of really inhospitable cold.

So I go get my big red oversized plastic rake and gather up the fallen high-altitude foliage instead.   And, like one of the aphorisms on my daily Dove dark chocolate candy wrapper counsels me “Take time to notice the leaves changing.” 

And it’s not just the ones I am herding to the curb.  I also see such works of art as the jarringly red Burning Bush cross the street, the maroon fronds of my backyard blueberry bushes, the orange Chinese lanterns amidst the soft, auburn Coreopsis feathers, and most of all this year,

Prostrate gold hostas

bowing obsequiously -

autumn supplicants.


All that plus the warm sun on my back.  It’s definitely something worth hanging on to – at least in our memories.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Zen and the Art of Meta-Mulchin

My earlier posting - "Staying Together by Being Apart" - prompted conversation from two members of my Mens Garden Club ("S" and "J") and in turn my response below.

On a similar note, considering that in my backyard I have a 60 year old Maple, 7 fruit trees, along needle pine that is 40' tall, and my neighbor has a 50 year old Oak not to mention about 25 of my deciduous shrubs, I had someone asked why Idon't have a large pile of leaves at the curb.

The truth of the matter is that I can take a full yard of ankle deep leaves and mulch them right into the lawn.  If it builds up too much, I can blow the fragments into the beds as mulch.  I  have not added any chemicals to the lawn for over 8years now and it remains the greenest on the block.  I now realize the return of crickets,  Katydids, frogs, and things that go click in the night.

True, my front lawn Dogwood leaves do get swept along the street and down the hill somewhere.  Ihave often wondered who is the recipient.  They probably get all the leaves from up here..


Quite coincidentally, this last month, based on a fortuitous misunderstanding of a neighbor's stray comment, I too have been mulching my leaves right back into the lawn. The mulched leaf debris basically disappears in a day or so. I don't know that I'll have the guts to mulch ankle-deep, but I'll certainly consider it. Also, a quick check on-line shows mulching leaves is not only OK, but is in fact recommended. Among many other references, here's one describing a pretty exhaustive study done 1991 to 1996 by Michigan State University:

The Michigan study's bottom line is that yearly mulching ankle deep (100 lbs of leaves per 1000 square feet) oak and maple leaves is not only very beneficial (as to lawn health, soil nutrients, and pH). Mulched maple leaves in particular seem to have an fantastic weed anti-germination capability. The one caveat is you have to put down a pound or so of nitrogen per 1000 feet each fall to help feed the microbials that devour the leaves.

Coincidentally (yet again...), on a lark yesterday afternoon, in my 'green belt' out back I spent a half-hour driving my lawn tractor over the still two-foot deep pile of dried leaves from last year to see if I could mulch them down in anticipation of this year's coming pile (I was also thinking I'd maybe speed up the decomposition process for spring compost). The dang pile just disappeared into utter dust!! True, the tractor had a tendency to plow the leaves into a pile deeper than the tractor could ascend, so I had to manually rake the pile(s) back down to drivable height. Put out a lot of dust also I'll allow. But when all was said and done what had been a two-foot deep pile of leaves was just naked dirt at the end with a fine powder of former leaf biomass.

Food for thought here!


For many years I too mulched all of my fallen leaves – using a variety of powered push mowers, each with its own version of a mulching device.  At the height of the leaf-dropping season I was chopping up the foliage at least once a week – anything less frequent than that resulted in a layer of leaves too thick to be diced at all. 

Unfortunately the rate of decomposition frequently was slower than the pace of production – with the net result being that by week number three I was placing a third tier of newly chopped fronds atop two other oh-so slowly-rotting layers – aka mulching mulch or meta-mulching.  Then winter set in and decomp would go into a state of suspended animation.  When the spring thaw finally arrived my lawn was still covered with a coating of freeze-dried compost.

Then there was the moral issue.  In my Al Gore moments, I wondered whether the ecological benefit I was providing to my lawn was outweighed by the ecological damage I was doing to the atmosphere with my CO2-belching mulch-master.

Plus raking is so much more of a Zen activity.

So I compromised. 

We will probably give the lawn one more good raking just before the first round of leaf pickup during the week of November 11.  Then, with luck, I’ll make one or maybe two passes over the lawn with my Toro and chop up the final set of fallen leaves.

Unless of course the stubborn oak leaves hang on until the town leaf collections have ceased and my mower has gone into winter storage.  Then maybe I’ll just go retro and bring out the torches.

Full disclosure: In early April Mario the landscaper comes and does the spring cleanup of all the leaves that I miss in the fall.  He wields an industrial strength leaf blower with one hand, a cell phone with the other while smoking a cigarette.  Now that’s real Zen.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

After the Frost

Prostrate gold hostas
bowing obsequiously -
autumn supplicants.