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Once a perennial bed is planted, how
does one go about supplementing the soil without disturbing plants
and bulbs that are planted there? What else besides top soil and
peat moss can be used? - E.G. -
Perennials wear out the soil, just as any crop does. They're
billed as "low maintenance" by some promoters, in part because soil
renewal and replanting isn't an annual affair as for soybean fields
or annual flower beds. Yet it still has to happen. You have two
options: Do a major periodic renovation every 6-7 years, or
maintain the bed so the soil constantly
Fall and early spring are both good times for major renovation.
"Early spring" is as soon as frost and excess water leave the soil.
That may be in March or April in some years in sunny, best-drained
beds but as late as May in some shadier, damper spots.
To renovate, dig up all the plants and bulbs, and set them
aside. They'll be fine above ground for a few days or even a few
weeks, so long as they're in the shade and have enough soil or
mulch on their roots to keep them from drying out. Weed the bed
well and loosen it to a depth of 18 inches. Spread a four-inch
layer of compost or peat and mix it in. Water it to let it all
settle, then replant.
The critical element in this renewal is organic matter, the
soil's water and nutrient reservoir. It's constantly breaking down,
being incorporated in its component parts into living plants and
then carried off when we weed, deadhead, divide and cut back. As
organic content drops, so does a garden's beauty and
the back: Natural renewal
The complete overhaul is a good way to replenish organic matter
in one session, but we prefer the low-tech, low-sweat way of
This constant renewal starts with organic mulch applied on a
regular basis. A two-inch layer of mulch in direct contact with the
soil breaks down slowly into humus and then into soluble raw
materials plants can absorb. The soil animals - worms, bacteria and
the like - that decompose the mulch also drag it into the soil,
mixing it in even deeper than 18". The best mulches are shredded
leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, cocoa hulls, and finely
shredded bark. These break down within one season, so you have to
top them up as they decompose to less than two inches in depth.
In addition to mulch, add organic matter at every other
opportunity. If you're like most perennial gardeners, you divide
and move plants a lot. Every time you do, mix in compost or
peat to bring the disturbed area back up to level. Top soil
is not a sufficient replacement, since it supplies only a very
dilute form of organic matter.
You can start renewing your beds this spring by applying compost
or peat and weeding thoroughly with a garden fork. This loosens the
soil to the full depth of the fork, and creates cracks in the soil
so the organic matter can filter in more quickly.
Can't beat it: A soil nutrient test
One final, essential step in both renovation and constant
renewal is a complete soil nutrient test. It will tell you if the
soil needs fertilizer, and what type.
Contact your Extension office for a soil test kit. It probably
costs less than twenty dollars but nets you information that
private testing services sell for one hundred. Most Extension test
kits consist of a pre-addressed cardboard box and directions for
filling it with a soil sample. You mail it to your land grant
university (such as MSU in Michigan) to be analyzed in their soil
Test results will show your soil's texture, ability to hold
nutrients, amount of available nutrients, and pH (relative
acidity). They're routed back to you via your horticultural
Extension agent, who translates them into an exact fertilizer and
soil treatment "prescription."
Box elder is a maple by
any other name
I'd like you to help settle an argument about box elder
trees. My friend sells firewood and considers this type of wood to
be garbage, undesirable, not "premium" firewood. I've been carving
whistles out of the fresh summer shoots since I was a child. So
we're far from being "tree illiterate!" But neither of us has any
scientific basis for our opinions in this case.
Here's the issue. I have noticed great similarities
between these trees and the silver maples also prevalent in the
area. I told my friend I believe box elders are a type of maple. He
says "No way." - J.B. -
Box elder, also known as ash-leaf maple, is definitely a maple.
It's Acer negundo, grouped with red maple (Acer
rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), silver maple
(Acer saccharinum) and others based on its flower and seed
structure. Look at the seeds, which form in fall and persist
through winter, and you'll see the resemblance to the "helicopters"
of spring-fruiting maples.
We have no experience with burning or making whistles of the
wood, but have logged lots of hours pulling its seedlings out of
flower gardens. It produces a prolific seed crop, and grows like
lightning, as much as five feet per year. But though we cuss it for
its incursions into our gardens, we don't wish it gone.
It's a native, important in our local ecosystem. It will grow
almost anywhere, and is especially good on wet soils where, a
mature tree can pump a thousand gallons of water per day up into
its canopy. This lowers the water table so that other species can
inhabit otherwise swampy ground. Also, the seeds and young shoots
are an irreplaceable winter food source for dozens of bird and
'Snow' apple update
Lutz Orchards, 11030 Macon Road in Saline, Michigan
(734-429-5145) reports that they have these and other antique
varieties for sale.
for the bloom calendar
You asked to hear what's blooming -- snow crocus
(Crocus minimus) and dwarf iris (Iris reticulata)
are blooming in my yard this week. Did you want to hear about trees
and shrubs, too? Though my pussy willow isn't blooming it's at that
pre-bloom stage when the furry, grey buds are at their prettiest. -
Thanks! In addition, we have noted the tiny gold cups of winter
aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and snowdrops (Galanthus
Yes, we included trees and shrubs in our bloom calendar. Based
on our own observations and notes like yours, we published a
comprehensive chart of what blooms during each of the 36 weeks of
our flowering season.
To see the bloom calendar, Quest for Color
As of this update, we have not yet formatted the bloom calendar
for posting on the site. It is in the queue to be posted. There's
the chance that when we do post it we'll have forgotten that this
paragraph should then be updated. So do a Search of the site for
quest bloom calendar to see if it's "up." Meanwhile, it is
available on our CD Asking About
First published 3/18/95; updated 4/24/13
Sponsored by Maeve C.
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