Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Compost Community

When I think of composting (usually while I'm adding materials to our pile) I often think of the title of the classic compost book - "Let it Rot," by Stu Campbell - first printed in 1975. This was the same year the movie Jaws was released, which became the established summer block buster model for all future, heavily advertised and mostly over rated movies. I'll also admit that when I channel surf and see Jaws on it's hard not to watch for a few minutes. My favorite scene is when Brody's young son mimics him at the dinner table. 

Let it Rot (such a great title) is close at hand on a nearby bookshelf in my office. It covers the soup to nuts from browns to greens - code for types of plant materials used in the pile. Browns are the carbon materials used which should be 2/3s in volume to the greens or nitrogen materials, which make up the remaining 1/3.

I compost for one reason - it doesn't make sense not to compost. Gardeners and anyone with a patch of grass or leaves from trees can join in the compost fun. It's free and only takes as much time as emptying the weekly garbage. The stats say it reduces yard waste anywhere between 50 and 75 percent, I like that too.

We don't have the right space to dig a compost hole or put in a 3-slot bin system. So we have the green, low fee-based bin from the City of Denver and an old bio-stack from Smith and Hawken, which still remains my favorite plastic variety. I wish someone would reintroduce this model. 

Our small indoor compost container holds food scraps (coffee grounds, eggshells, etc.) that end up in the outside green compost bin. A friend of mine does indoor vermicomposting and I keep thinking about starting one too, looks easier than caring for gold fish.

My Mom's Alley Compost Hole - Emptied
Here's the breakdown of building your pile - it should be at least 3'x3'x3'. Keep it simple, all that is needed is time, browns, greens, water and air. Place it where it will get some sun and easily accessible for tossing in materials. Fence the area if digging a hole. 

Browns: newspaper and cardboard (not shiny), toilet and paper towel rolls, coffee filters, dried or dead (disease-free) foliage, dry leaves, non-shiny egg cartons, woody branches and twigs less than 1/4" in diameter, mowed straw.

Greens: chemical-free grass clippings (or leave on the lawn when mowing), vegetable fruit peels and cores (okay with seeds), and all non-meat food scraps, coffee grounds, human or pet hair, manure from herbivore eating animals only (chickens, cow, sheep and rabbits), fresh cut foliage from plants or vegetation.

Avoid: plants treated with pesticides/herbicides, resinous cuttings from junipers, spruce, pine, bones, meat, dairy or fat of any kind. Only use high tannin leaves (oak, cottonwood) in small amounts.

Mix: layer or mix the materials until it is at least three feet high. Water as you mix, to moisten all the materials. Keep the pile as wet as a wrung out sponge and turn often. It will compress quickly (smaller than 3' high), so if adding more materials, only do this for so long, then stop and let it finish composting. Kitchen scraps can be added to the middle of the pile since they break down quickly.

If left mostly unattended, once built it will eventually break down (months - year or more). Remember..."compost happens," another great phrase.

Tips: if it smells it might be too wet or have too many greens (nitrogen), add some browns. If the pile isn't working/composting add water, turn, toss in a handful of soil. Keep animals away by burying any food scraps. If using a hole or above ground pile, be sure to cover with a plastic tarp to avoid drying out. Materials cut or chopped in to smaller pieces compost better than large chunky items.

Time Frame: if turned regularly and kept wrung out moist it will be between two-three months during warm months. It slows way down fall to winter. Temperatures between 120-130 are ideal, over 160 may kill beneficial microbes.

All Done: you've successfully made the best compost known to man. Think homemade quality of an apple pie versus store bought. The soil should be dark brown, no visible bits or pieces and about half the size you started with. Use it to top dress actively growing plants, or sell handfuls for $100 each... kidding. But you can share with people you really like!

Compost Classes - Denver Urban Gardens partnering with City of Denver 

Boulder County - Compost Workshops 

City of Denver Mulch Giveaway and Compost Sale May 5, 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How's Your Mulch

What is mulch, why use it or why not use it in your landscape - these are the pressing questions on every gardener's mind, right? For some yes, other gardeners are thinking about the darn rabbits that have already spied their spring lettuce. Others are thinking about chocolate, any kind of chocolate - that includes me. Okay, back to mulch.

Simply put, mulch is anything you put on top of the soil in a landscape. It can be organic which means it will break down over time. These types include bark mulch of all sizes, shredded wood in various sizes, plus assorted wood types and colors (more on that later), arborist wood chips, straw, pine needles, chopped leaves and grass clippings. Inorganic or inert mulches generally don't break down (in our lifetime) and include rock, gravel and most weed fabric (more on that too).

New Mulch in our Landscape (almost done)
There are some lesser used mulches including newspaper, cardboard (organic since they break down) and biodegradable rolls or sheets made from plant starches. Some people use old carpet remnants or strips or chunked up rubber tire bits for mulch (read more here). Perhaps they break down in the next century.

There is one more mulch type - synthetic or plastic. Only one use in my book - for temporarily warming up vegetable beds or over tunnels as a cold frame. 

What's the mulch point? The obvious is that organic mulches replicate what's going on out there in nature land. You know the whole cool web of life in the forest where trees drop their needles and leaves which then blend together and form a nice, natural protective layer for the soil. Underneath the layer the soil is kept moist while lots of nature's organisms and critters use the fallen organic manna for life, liberty and their happiness - that may be a stretch but you know where this is going. 

It's a glorious circle - what drops to the ground is used to feed the tiny soil dwellers which is then used by the plant from whence the materials were dropped to nourish it until a freak lightening storm or time saps its life (pun intended). Is this happening in your own backyard? Sure, unless you're using carpet for mulch, the soil critters might not be too happy with circa 1960 lime green shag carpet.

Here's a list of more good outcomes from using mulch.
  • Erosion control - keeps soil on slopes or flats from moving and blowing away.
  • Conserves soil moisture and reduces surface evaporation.
  • Acts as a plant root insulator for weather and temperature shifts, something we're very aware of here in Colorado. 
  • As an insulator it reduces plants with shallow roots from possible frost heaving. 
  • Reduces soil temperatures, a very good thing during hot, dry summers.
  • As organic mulches break down it adds organic matter which improves soil quality.
  • Keeps weeds down and much easier to pull from mulch...NOT mulch over weed fabric which only acts as a weed gripper.  I'll just write it more LOUDLY - "weed fabric does not work long term." Soil (or dirt) eventually blows in over the mulch, then weed seeds blow in and find any spot suitable (which is everywhere) to put down roots. Years ago, soil fabric left the soil in our shrub border gray, lifeless and mostly on life support until I painstakingly removed it and started over. Read more on landscape fabric here.
  • Keeps soil splash back from hitting lower foliage - soil may harbor disease, especially in vegetable beds. I use light layers of herbicide-free grass clippings all summer.
  • Lastly, but certainly not the end of the list of positives, it gives the landscape a finished appearance, ties it all in and says "hey, I'm looking good and polished, got good flow and cohesion."
Clearly you know by reading this far that I'm a landscape mulch fan. What if you can't stand mulch, can we still be garden friends? Absolutely! My dear Mother never used mulch in all the years she gardened - 92. I doubt she gardened at the age of one, but she had tough parents who needed help growing food so I bet she picked up her first trowel by two. Over the years I suggested mulch so she could cut down on watering (she always hand watered her corner, tiered perennial beds). She always said no, said she didn't like it and then she would change the subject to Roy Orbison. 

I often hear gardeners say that if enough plants are in the bed or border they shade the ground and each other's plant roots. That makes sense, but our newish landscape doesn't have scores of perennials anymore. Six years ago we chose to go with more shrubs, trees, patio rooms and open areas in the side-yard where we hang out with guests plus our four-legged friend Ferris, and his friends who come by to play. They need mulch for play, we need it for all the reasons bulleted above. 

When I replace a plant or redo an area, I find the soil to be very cooperative and easy to dig. I believe the mulch in our yard is copying nature - works for our family! 

Dyed Mulch - Black
Just as in life, we gardeners should keep our opinions to ourselves when it comes to garden taste. That's difficult for me when I see brown, black, gold, or red dyed mulch. It just doesn't look or seem natural to me. Some of the bags of dyed mulch clearly state it is made from recycled hardwoods. I like the recycling part, but what are they recycling - discarded dirty building materials or pallets? 

Dyed mulch appears shiny and gritty when it is new out of the package, I wonder if it helps hold in soil moisture or actually repels water? I don't have the answers and have not queried or investigated bagged mulch, so these are just my opinions. 

I plan on asking reputable landscapers and garden center owners the next few months what they know of dyed mulch. I'll do a follow up blog later in the summer. Our expert, experienced landscape contractor who just re-mulched our entire landscape said this about dyed mulch - "doesn't look right."

Not a good red look
For additional mulch information - types of mulch further explained, how deep to apply and more -

Mulches for the Home Grounds

Mulching with Wood/Bark Chips, Grass Clippings and Rock 

Mulches for the Vegetable Garden

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Plant Shopping Love

Be honest - how many times have you been in a garden center since the first of the year? There's no wrong answer. If it's more than twenty times and you're not employed there then you most likely have much of what you need to start the new gardening season. The seeds are purchased, some are started indoors, new tools ready for their digging or sharpening debut and then there are the plants. Ah, the plants. Pansies, snaps and osteos are ready for transport in your garden buggy to the check out counter and back home to open containers, boxes or beds. Don't forget the mulch (the topic of my next blog, coming soon). 

Ain't garden life grand!

This blog posting won't discourage any of your spring shopping pleasure (wherever you shop), but please be sure to save a few dollars and time for the delightful special plant sales hosted by various non-profit organizations, groups or plant societies along the Front Range this spring. Some of the sales are part of their shows or special seminars. 

Click on each link below for times and directions. Also check the Denver Post garden garden calendar each week in the Friday pull out section GROW - you'll also find my garden to do list - Punch List. That's a shameless plug if I ever saw one. I mean it, thank you for reading Punch and my blog scribbles.
DRS Members selling Roses at the DBG Plant Sale

Colorado Native Plant Society - online order until April 15 for pick up May 5

Earth Day Yard Tree Sale - Denver Digs, April 21, Denver

Rocky Mountain Chapter North American Rock Garden Plant Society Sale, April 21, Denver

Heirloom Tomato Farms, May 4, Denver 

Pickens Technical College plant sale May 4, 5, Aurora

Denver Botanic Gardens Plant Sale May 11 and 12, Denver

The Gardens on Spring Creek, May 11-13, Ft. Collins

Denver Urban Gardens, May 11, 12, Denver 

Growing Gardens Community Plant Sale, First three weekends in May, Boulder

Loveland Youth Gardeners, May 17, Loveland 

Horticulture Arts Society of Colorado Springs plant sale, May 18, 19, 20 Colorado Springs.

Plant-A-Palooza Denver CSU Extension, May 19, 20, Denver

Herb Society of America Rocky Mountain Unit and Front Range Organic Gardeners May 19 in Denver

Bloomapalooza Butterfly Pavilion Event May 19, Westminster

Memorial Day Weekend Plant Sale at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, May 26, 27, 28, Colorado Springs
Fairmount Heritage Rose Sale June 2, Denver

Feel free to email me your plant sale information - 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Welcome Spring, I Think...

It says so right there on the 2018 calendar - March 20 FIRST DAY OF SPRING. We haven't had a winter yet so the next several weeks will be very interesting.

Hold on, I am going to say it. Even though many people may be happy they didn't have to shovel much snow or worry about driving on icy, slippery roads this past winter, I'm hoping for a rainy, drizzling, cat pouring deluge, torrent and outpouring of moisture - just short of a flood this spring season.  

In the meantime, Happy Spring!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Drought in Spring

So far March weather has been like a lamb. Even though cold temperatures and snow may return any minute, give your landscape some watering attention and get your engines ready for the outdoor gardening season. Continue reading in the Denver Post Life & Culture section.