The case against commercial garden soil and mulch

I have learned over the years that commercial (sold in bags or delivered in loads) garden soil and mulch are not the most efficient products to improve the quality of soil in your garden beds.  Every time I have done so, I end up with more weeds in my gardens…

So, if you shouldn’t use the commercial garden soil and mulch in your gardens, what should you use?  Instead of the commercial garden soils and mulches that are available in bags from your local garden center or delivered in truckloads, I currently use the following plan.

In the fall I use shredded leaves as a mulch throughout my gardens, then in the spring, I spread composted manure around all my emerging plants.  Be sure to use well-composted compost or manure in this step to avoid stinking up your neighbourhood. The extreme heat levels in the composting process kills weed seeds too, so is very important.  You could use your own compost pile, but ensure it has matured to the weed-free level.  For large volumes, I use this variety (available at Home Depot) of composted cattle/steer manure, particularly because it does smell bad:

This process adds both nutrients and humus to my existing soil, improving its quality immensely.  The proof is in the beautifully healthy-looking plants and lack of weeds!

Burnt Lawns, How and When to Repair

If your lawn is burnt like mine is, late summer or early fall is the best time to repair it.  MARK CULLEN, a Canadian garden expert, has the following advice on the best way to make those repairs:

  • Spread Mark’s Choice Lawn Soil (found at Home Hardware stores) over the area you wish to re-seed, 2 cm. thick
  • Rake smooth
  • Broadcast Golfgreen lawn seed [Canadian for our lawns: 0% weed seeds] by hand
  • Rake smooth to incorporate into the soil.
  • Step on it or roll it with a roller 1/3 full of water. 
  • Water it every day that you do not receive any rain until established.
  •  Do NOT let the seedlings dry out!
  •  It is best to water first thing in the morning or in the evening.

I am willing to give his advice a try since my lawn looks terrible in its burnt condition.  I have tried overseeding (adding soil and seed to an existing lawn) before, but always end up with more weeds (left picture) than grass (right picture).

 I am not sure whether the weed seeds are in the soil or grass seed I choose, but I know they are in the MULCH  I have used recently.  Hopefully, I will be more impressed with Mark’s choice of products.

Mulch full of weeds

This is another rant, based on a pet peeve of mine.  I advise gardening clients to use mulch to keep their gardens from drying out and to help reduce weeds.  The problem is, some products out there are full of weed seeds, so when I go back to check out gardens two weeks after planting them I see more weeds than were there before I planted!  A dead giveaway is that each use of mulch seems to have its own species of weed, today’s was horsetail weed mixed with a coarse grass:

 

This is not the first time this has happened with this particular brand of mulch.  I will be contacting the manufacturer of Scotts Nature Scapes to complain and will avoid this brand from now on.

Scotts-Nature-Scapes-Color-Enhanced-Mulch-FamilyShot-88402440-Lrg

Too bad, because I do like their choice of colours, and the colour does not fade in the sun like some other brands.  My favourite is the dark brown as it looks like wet earth so I think the most natural looking.  I also like the size of their bags, big enough but not too heavy for me to load, unload and carry from my van to my gardens.

If anyone can recommend an alternative (weed free) brand (available here in Ottawa) for me to use and recommend to my clients, please let me know!  I do use a lot of mulch in a season!

Polymeric Sand Replaces Weeds

Gardens4u started a project recently in which the client wanted her yard restored to its full potential.  Landscapers were paid a hefty sum to make it beautiful years ago, but the interlocking walkways and patios had since been overtaken by weeds. The pictures below do not give the weeds justice for their size and number, unfortunately, I forgot to take a real “before” shot.  

Our job was to remove the weeds and fill the cracks between the interlocking bricks with polymeric sand.  There is a specific and somewhat finicky procedure to using this product, but it works well. Patience is the key.

The cracks were cavernous in some places, with nothing in them.  There were mud, moss, and weeds in every imaginable space.  

After many hours of power washing, my son had the interlock pathways and patios looking like this:

polymeric sand after powerwashing

Polymeric sand was added to make them look like this:

polymeric sand

We still have a few days of work left, but the progress is amazing! This process should keep the weeds at bay for a while.

Unfortunately, this yard always seems to be windy, so persistent weed seeds will settle in the cracks eventually and new weeds will emerge. Hopefully, new weeds will be kept under control though.

Cool wet weather great for weeding

The cool, wet weather we had last week was great for weeding gardens.    Without removing the whole root system of the weeds, they will quickly return to spoil your gardens. After a hard rain, it is much easier to remove the weed roots intact…

 

A well-mulched garden also makes it easier to remove weed roots intact.  Weed roots growing in soil seem to resist removal, often breaking off in the soil, leaving pieces of the root behind to continue growing.   When growing in mulch, the weed roots come out intact with much less effort.

 

Please be sure to visit my other blogs:

Laugh out loud (LOL) with me at YOUR DAILY CHUCKLE

and

be inspired and motivated by famous words of wisdom at WoW

My gardening website can be viewed at www.gardens4u.ca

 

Spring Cleaning your Gardens and Lawn

Just like the inside of your home, your gardens and lawn will benefit from a good spring cleaning too. As soon as the snow disappears from your lawn and garden you can start the spring cleaning.

Spring Lawn Care

When your lawn is dry (not spongy to walk on) give it a good rake to remove all the dead grass and leaves. Core aeration is recommended after raking to allow oxygen and nutrients to penetrate into the root system of your lawn, especially if your soil is heavily compacted.(as most lawns are in this area) Core aeration is also effective in the fall, one less thing to do in spring.

If your lawn has a lot of crabgrass and broad leaf weeds (dandelions) you can treat it to a weed and feed product.  The ones containing corn gluten are particularly effective if used before the weed seeds have a chance to germinate.  I sprinkle corn gluten right on the snow when there is only a small amount of snow left on my lawn, because as soon as the snow is gone, the weeds start to germinate and within a few days the crab grass growth is visible.  

You can also overseed your lawn now (but only if you have NOT applied something for weeds, otherwise wait 6 weeks to seed) by raking in topsoil and sprinkling grass seed on the soil.  This is best done before a rainy spell as the seeds should be kept wet until they germinate.

Clean Debris out your Gardens

Your gardens can also use a good raking early, but be sure to use a plastic rake and a gentler touch, so tender dormant perennials are not damaged.  Remove all the dead, but still intact leaves, last year’s annual (annuals are plants that you must replant each year) plantings and the twiggy pieces of last years growth on the perennials (perennials are plants that come back on their own each year).  Generally speaking, if the twiggy pieces break off easily with a gentle rake, it is safe to remove them.  

Woodier perennials (lavender, sage, hibiscus etc) need a bit more time to rebound from winter and should not be cut back until new growth is visible.

Prune Shrubs, Divide and Plant Perennials

Shrubs that bloom in summer or fall (weigela, pink spirea, burning bush etc) can be pruned in early spring, while those that bloom early in spring (forsythia, lilacs, magnolia etc) should not be pruned until after they bloom.

Dividing perennials is best done this time of year too; dig up the overgrown clumps, divide them with a sharp spade, and plant in their new locations.  Fill in bare spots with new perennials. These jobs can be done as soon as the ground thaws.

Annuals however, should not be planted until the danger of overnight frost is gone, usually late May in this area.

Amend Your Garden Soil and add Mulch

Once all of my perennials have re-emerged, the weeds and old annuals are removed, and the necessary pruning is done, I like to amend the soil around them with soil, compost and peat moss. This triple mix product can be purchased already combined.  

A layer of cedar mulch (I prefer the dark brown or black) is the final touch, but to prevent your plants from rotting, be sure not to apply the mulch too close to the base/stalks/stems of the plants.

Finishing Touches

The last step is to retrieve the outdoor furniture and whimsical touches from their winter storage. Then enjoy the most important part, take a few minutes out of your busy life to sit down, relax and admire your efforts…

Patio Restoration

For many hours this past month one of my large projects was to restore a patio and walkway in one of my favourite Kanata gardens.  The extensive patio and walkways were constructed approximately 7 years ago using an intricate and beautiful combination of flagstone as well as interlocking rectangular and square pavers, surrounding an exquisite custom-built home in one of Kanata’s most desirable neighbourhoods.

My job was to restore the patio and walkways to their former glory, as they had become weed, moss and ant infested over the years.  It was quite a massive undertaking for me, as I had no previous experience with this type of landscaping, work as a one woman team, and generally specialize in garden design and maintenance.

I consulted with a few friends that have built and maintained patios to find out the best way to get rid of the unwanted moss and weeds, then replace them with a polymer sand product to discourage their return.  Although I do realize that moss between flagstones can offer a desirable and natural look in some gardens, I agreed with the home owner that this was not suitable for this magnificent home as it appeared neglected and unappealing, rather than intentional yet natural.

This home is built in a natural woodland setting, so the first step was to sweep the walkways and patios clean of leaves, dirt, twigs, deer and rabbit poop etc.  I then enlisted the help of my 16 year old son to power wash the stones,  especially the cracks in between the stones, to remove the clumps of moss and weeds.  I am not sure what was originally used between these stones as a sealant, but whatever it was, there was not much of it left in the cracks,  so the weeds,  moss and ants had clearly taken over….

Image

Once the patio and walkways were completely cleaned, I had to wait for a few consecutive sunny days with no chance of rain.  Last summer, this would not have been a problem, but this summer it was much more challenging.  The instructions for the polymer sand indicate that the area to be sealed must be completely clean and dry before sweeping the polymer sand between the cracks.  Then the area must be gently wet with a hose several times to complete the sealing process.  It must then dry for at least 24 hours without rain, excessive heat or cold, nor foot traffic, to ensure a proper and successful seal.

The end result is beautiful though, hopefully long-lasting and well worth the effort.  The  greenish tinge on the patio beneath the swing in this picture is not moss, just a reflection of the lush greenery in the damp patio stones after completion of the project…

Image

Sunburned Lawns

Is your lawn golden brown and crispy?  Don’t despair, look around, you are not alone. On my street alone, most of the yards are sporting sunburned lawns. The extreme heat and lack of rain this summer have created havoc on eastern Ontario’s usual lush green landscape.  My heart goes out to the farmers in the area whose crops are so severely affected.

In comparison, the condition of my lawn seems trivial…my front yard usually gets toasty in late July/early August as it has a southern exposure getting full sun pretty well all day, but this year it is well beyond “dry”.  

Lawn Dormancy

On principle, I refuse to get out there every morning or evening to waste water on my lawn in these drought conditions, so every year my south-facing, front lawn looks pretty sad in July and August.  Unfortunately this year the parched, yellow, straw look started in mid-May!

Please remember, lawn grass is supposed to go dormant in these extreme conditions.   At this point there is nothing you can do to revitalize it as it will not respond to fertilizer and water is not enough.  Fortunately, our nice green lawns will return with cooler weather and some rainy days.  When this happens, and your grass starts to turn green again, you can apply fertilizer to strengthen the roots which will promote a faster recovery.

Remove Weeds on Sunburned Lawns and in Gardens

Why do the weeds in my gardens, sidewalks, and lawn continue to thrive in this hot weather, when the grass and flowers struggle?  On close inspection, the only part of my lawn that looks green is weeds.

sunburned lawns

The one positive thing about sunburned lawns is that it is easy to pick out the weeds!  If you have the energy in this heat, now would be a great time to remove those pesky weeds including the green “creeping” sort that line the driveways.  Be sure to pull out the entire root though so they won’t come back. Then when the cooler, wetter weather does arrive you can sprinkle some grass seed where those weeds were growing.

After the weeds are all pulled from your gardens, apply a thick layer of mulch to deter them from coming back too soon.  Weed seeds blowing around or carried around by birds will germinate in mulch too, but the mature weeds will be much easier to pull out when their roots are growing in mulch instead of soil.