Publications (Paul's Blog)

October 3, 2010

WEEDEATERITIS

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 4:34 pm

Untold millions of woody plants have died of this disease. Weedeateritis normally affects only the upper portion of the plant. However, once the top dies, the concerned gardener usually overreacts by resorting to watering (or spraying some concoction on) the diseased plant too much or on the other hand, decide the plant is dead so the life support (water) is withheld or perhaps they just dig the plant out altogether. Whichever the case, most plants afflicted with weedeateritis will recover given a little patience and water during dry spells. Because the root system remains unaffected, plants suffering from weedeateritis can more often than not, grow back.

Convincing an irate homeowner of this is not so easy especially when they have paid good money for a specimen tree or shrub. Still, the telltale marks of the weed eater are easily seen and are irrefutable signs of human abuse. Our seemingly incurable addiction to manicured lawn culture compels us to use those weed eaters right up to the trunk of that tree. God forbid we transgress by leaving a bit of uncut grass!!?? As one who must consult with homeowners regarding this situation, I find myself longing for the old fashioned grass shears of my youth.

Like most folks, I was really impressed with my first use of the weed eater. Now here was a tool worthy of investment. I found I could dispatch an entire fence line in minutes when that same fence would have required hours of wrist debilitating labor with the old grass shears. No matter that this tool required hundreds of feet of extension cord or mixed gas and oil for power. No matter that it was constantly running out of the special nylon string or if the auto-feed device to play out more string never seemed to work just right. Heck, I was even willing to put up with the occasional piece of rock or sundry organic missiles that were flung out with the force of a very potent slingshot. I could wear heavy leather shoes and jeans for that…………No problem…..But later in life, I began to have second thoughts.

A weed eater in the hands of a skilled operator is truly a sight to behold. I have always admired the person who could hold a straight line down a driveway or curb, eliminating the need for an edging tool. Likewise, getting into those nooks and crannies the mower doesn’t reach without any noticeable difference is admirable.

However, the invention of more powerful machines with more aggressive blades the weed eater becomes very similar to a hand held mower or small chain saw. In the hands of a novice, even a lightweight string trimmer is dangerous, but with more horsepower plus metal blades the weed eater is absolutely scary. The slightest miscalculation can result in damage that may take years to heal. Constant weed eater use against trunks or exposed roots will create wounds that never do heal. These open wounds will tend to dry out any woody plant. Plants suffering from weedeateritis are constantly stressed so they generally look poor with sparse leaves in various hues of yellow to brown even during times of adequate rain.

Slight cases of weedeateritis can be cured quickly. Once the offending tool is removed and the operator severely admonished, the plant will repair the damage and return to active growth. In more severe cases or with repeated wounding the entire top of the plant may die. As mentioned, you should not assume the plant is dead at this point. Instead you should apply extra compost, mulch, water occasionally, and watch the base of the plant for fresh growth. Older trees with thick bark are generally able to shrug off light contact while younger trees are more prone to weedeateritis.

One of the worse case scenarios happens when weed eaters are used as a quick fix. I’ve seen it happen all too often when a situation is left to get overgrown and the weed eater is called upon to attempt to regain control. Likely as not, this job is carried out by hourly wage earners (day labor) or well meaning volunteers who usually don’t tackle such things on a daily basis. Weed eaters are good tools in the right hands but they really don’t kill weeds. If fact, if anything they stimulate more weed growth by exposing bare soil to sunlight. Perennial weeds grow right back from established roots almost as quickly as the sweat dries from a volunteer’s proud countenance. Like lawnmowers, weed eaters must be used on a regular basis to gain any measure of control. A one time shot maybe improves the looks of things for a short time but invariably the weeds return with a vengeance.

Weed eaters were not intended to maintain flower beds or vegetable gardens yet I have seen this done as an attempt to quick fix. Weed eaters were certainly not intended to prune trees and shrubs but once again I have seen folks try it. Weed eaters cut by brute force, as opposed to the sharp blades of proper pruning tools, therefore the cut they make is torn and jagged. In a word; ugly.

When training someone to use such equipment it is important to teach them to respect and use that equipment properly. When mistakes are made the person in charge should be held accountable. For example, our local Parks and Rec Department has a policy of three day suspension (without pay) for the first offense of wounding any city tree with a lawnmower or weed eater. None of us would even think of turning some youngster loose with a vehicle of any kind without some kind of prior training, yet we give them a weed eater and tell them to have at it.

This should apply double for those in the lawn care business. Whether it be a kid earning money during summer vacation or a big franchise with millions of dollars in assets, they can all be guilty of causing weedeateritis. Always look for those telltale scars paying particular attention to newly planted trees and shrubs. You probably know what those plants are worth but don’t forget to figure in your valuable time and other resources spent plus the extra care it will take to heal the victim. Now what is the setback from weedeateritis really worth?

Weedeateritis can be easily prevented by simply staying clear of the trunk area and going in with the old grass shears or hand pulling. There are a number of tree wraps on the market specifically designed for this purpose. Ideally, new trees and shrubs should be surrounded by mulch and kept grass free. We have one regular client that has a chronic problem with the hired help and weedeateritis. Our solution was to place rocks around the trunks of plants growing in the lawn area.  That wasn’t a perfect solution but it did help considerably. Rocks are tougher than weed eater string.

If you have ever used a weed eater then it is quite likely that you, like me, have been guilty of causing weedeateritis no matter how careful you may be. If you run a crew or volunteer for cleanup projects around town then hand those weed eaters out to the best operators you can muster. Don’t turn the new guy or a fledgling volunteer loose with one. You may be exceedingly sorry you did. If I had more space I could relate story after story………..but I think you’ve got the idea. Truly, in this case, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”………….Eh????

THE PROPER SHOPPER

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 4:21 pm

A common complaint among shoppers is that the folks working in garden centers these days don’t seem very knowledgeable. This is unfortunately true at the Megamart and other big retailers that have a high employee turnover rate. The nursery and landscape business is so diverse that even a very bright sales person cannot learn it in a few short weeks.  The best advice we can offer on this subject would be to steer clear of the Megamarts and seek out your smaller, family owned nurseries. Chances are very good that you can speak with the owners and (at the very least) they can offer sound advice.

Our nursery in Wichita Falls is the smallest in the area, yet we have earned the reputation as being the best when it comes to helping shoppers choose the right plants and products. On any given day we see folks that choose to drive right past their local Megamarts and perhaps as much as 100 miles to visit us. This proves that word of mouth from satisfied customers is still the best form of advertisement. Because we are small, Nila, Martha Davis, or yours truly can usually get around and talk to each and every person.

Our new employees are taught not to give advice. Certainly the new guys are encouraged to be friendly and helpful but until they have been with us long enough to have learned some they are discouraged from selecting plants or products.

This customer/client relationship is very important no matter where you shop. Over time, your local family owned retailers will become familiar with your particular wants and needs which will benefit both you and them. As in any relationship, it takes co-operation from both parties. The following are a few suggestions to help you become a better shopper.

1.     Size matters. Know the approximate square footage of the area you wish to plant. One of my all time favorite questions from customers concerns size. Question: “How much area will this bag of fertilizer cover?” Answer: “Bag says 4,000 square feet. How big is your lawn?” Reply: “I don’t really know……” Believe it or not, most people don’t know how big their lawn is.

If you want to know how much compost, mulch, fertilizer, etc. to buy or if you need to know how much sod, ground covers, shrubs, etc. then take the time to measure the length and width of the area. That really helps us help you at the nursery.

2.     Pictures help. Bear in mind that pictures do not show dimensions. They can help us gain some perspective but that is all. Also, even though our technology keeps improving, that tiny screen on your digital camera or cell phone doesn’t do justice. Go ahead and print large enough copies so they are easily seen. I have actually designed landscapes from emailed pictures that contain dimensions in text form. With this info I am able to print copies and draw plant suggestions right on the photo. On the other hand, I have never been able to draw anything on a cell phone screen.

3.     Drawings are better. Even crude drawings that show dimensions, adjacent structures, and existing plants are much better than photos. Scale drawings are the best. In the landscaping business we are all capable of making intelligent bids from scale drawings without having the luxury of visiting the site.

4.     Site visits are best. If you are not comfortable with any of the above then you can hire someone to visit your site. Landscape architects and design companies charge for their services. Please don’t assume that anyone that is really good at this can just drop by “when they are in the neighborhood.”  Unless they are a close friend or family member they just don’t have the time, especially during the spring. Set an appointment.

There is a big difference between a “free estimate” and a design. An estimate involves informing a customer what a specific job will cost. The design process involves figuring out what is desired or needed before an estimate can be made. There are some companies that will include a drawing with their “free estimates” or proposal but you can rest assured the cost involved in visiting the site and making a drawing will be included in the final cost.

A scale drawing is well worth the cost even if you don’t follow the plan exactly. At least you will have the dimensions, existing structures, and plants on paper for future reference.

5.     Do some research. We have all been victims of believing the claims made by advertising and professional sales people. The plants you see in catalog photos are always perfect specimens meant to show us their best attributes. The wise shopper has learned to do a bit of research before making any purchase. Best to drive around town and make note of just how many “beautiful Japanese Maples” you see. The best place to get ideas is by studying mature landscapes rather than looking at young transplants growing in pots or by reading the limited info on plant tags. Ask questions, seek opinions, and check reference books……..”Google it.”

Those of us in the nursery business are well aware that impulse buyers make up a good portion of our yearly sales. We do our best to bring in new plants and products for our customers to try. Here again is another good reason to patronize local family owned nurseries. Whoever owns that nursery understands the trust you have placed in them. It is not in their interest to misinform you for the sake of making one sale. If they sell you any new product or plant they will let you know if you are taking a risk.  They will welcome any feedback you can give (positive or negative). On the other hand, the sales person down at the local Megamart may be working on commission and most certainly is interested in keeping those monthly sales figures up for the stockholders.

Remember that all relationships are a two way street. Do your part by being a proper shopper. Your visits to the nursery will be more productive and enjoyable. The folks that work at the nursery will love to see your car pull into the parking lot. If you are an astute gardener you can probably do alright at the big self help store. Bargains are where you find them. If not, then be wary and be wise enough to shop the locals. Of course, if you are reading this magazine you already know that. Chances are real good that you did not find this free publication at the Megamart. Spread the word.

THE BARBER AND THE LAWN

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 4:10 pm

Those of you who have read some of my articles know I just love to compare plants and humans. This is one of those comparisons that seem perfect, so most of us in the landscape biz will use it sooner or later. Quite likely most of you have heard this as well. Mowing is like giving your lawn a haircut. So much so, that we use the term “scalping” in reference to mowing too short.

The frugal man will request his hair cut fairly short. This will reduce the number of visits to the barber. I am one of those who visit the barber shop no more than three times per year. Between visits, I become quite shaggy. Most men (and some women) will extrapolate this same wisdom and apply it to their lawn. While it is true that mowing short and waiting until “shaggy” forces us to mow again will save some time plus wear and tear on the lawnmower, this is really not the best thing for the health of your lawn.

The guy who gets a drastic haircut during the summer soon learns the origin of the term “redneck.” He may get a third degree burn on his ears and possibly scalp to boot. Exactly why rednecks wear hats…..Eh?? The very same thing happens to your grass. Those tender leaves that were shaded by the taller growth become suddenly exposed to full sun. Now you have a brown lawn (brownneck??). This problem is exacerbated by folks who notice the wilting grass and immediately water on a hot afternoon. The salts (chlorides from chlorine) in tap water actually burn the tender leaves as the sun quickly evaporates the moisture left on the leaves. It is better to water early the next morning.

On the other side of the coin you have your movie stars, salesmen, and some politicians who always seem to have perfect hair. These guys pay for a shave and a haircut fairly often. Chances are the barber knows these customers pretty well. They probably know their job, wife, kids, favorite sports, etc. as they regularly converse while the barber meticulously clips just a bit of hair from just the right places. Regular customers get the appropriate treatment. Again, the analogy holds true.

Good looking lawns are regularly maintained. They are mowed often to promote thick lush growth and to avoid the brown lawn syndrome. In fact, I think it would be a safe bet that the same guy who mows, waters, and fertilizes correctly practices good personal hygiene, keeps his oil and filters changed, and his tools in order. Regular maintenance regimes go hand in hand whether it be the morning shower, mowing, or a haircut. Good looking lawns are like good looking people. They are well maintained.

The pinnacle of lawn culture has always been the golf green. During the warm season, greens are watered and mowed every day. Just like the guy who gets a regular trim rather than the occasional full blown haircut, this constant mowing forces the grass to get thick and lush. Athletic fields are also cut often, and in certain seasons, daily.  Less injury occurs when our players fall onto a thick layer of grass. I have yet to meet a home owner who actually mows every day, but if you really want a lawn like a putting green, this is something worth consideration. If you want your grass cut short but also thick and lush, you must mow it frequently.

The term scalping refers to the practice of totally removing a portion of the scalp with the hair attached. This was (possibly still is) a trophy taken in hand to hand combat and not something a barber would ever think of. However, the barber can shave your head mighty close if that is what you desire. The scalping of your lawn is just as radical and dangerous as human scalping. Suffice to say that scalping will damage your grass considerably. However there is a time when scalping will work in your favor.

In the late winter and early spring, before your grass has started to green up would be the time to scalp. At this time the only green plants in your lawn will be those pesky weeds and winter grasses. Since scalping is damaging, the damage will occur to the plants you would rather be rid of anyway. This will also chop up the dead grass left from last year and allow the warming sun in to stimulate the new growth of your awakening lawn. This is absolutely the only time you will ever hear someone in the landscaping industry recommend scalping. This can be very effective if done in a timely fashion and is much cheaper (also safer) than resorting to weed killers.

During the warm season, the exact opposite is true. If you are observant you will notice that the folks who have the most weeds are the folks who mow too short. If you mow short in the warm season, you are stressing your grass plus sending sunlight in to germinate weeds. Conversely, the folks who mow tall tend to have fewer weeds because the taller grass shades the weeds which will reduce germination.

The last thing a good barber will do is apply tonic to soothe your skin and make you smell better. My favorite “tonic” for the lawn is molasses. Molasses is especially good in the hot months because it is low in nitrogen. Using high nitrogen fertilizers is counter-productive in summer because it forces top growth which requires more water (and more mowing). The sugars, proteins, and carbs in molasses (wet or dry) act as a biostimulant for your soil microbes. This in turn makes your grass healthy, just the thing to offset summer stress. The folks who use molasses usually have the thickest, darkest green grass in the neighborhood. Just try it……..Oh, and it smells good too.

The analogy of the lawn and the barber works pretty well with one exception. While a radical haircut will reduce trips to the barber, cutting your lawn too short will likely result in more weeds and more work. If you are going to mow infrequently, it is best to mow tall just to keep the weeds down and the grass from turning brown. I understand that tall grass, like long hair, may not be your preference but I am assuming you would rather mow less while still having a decent looking stand of grass. We don’t grow weeds on our heads, (although there are plenty of guys who wish they had SOMETHING resembling hair up there) so a short haircut is not a problem. Here’s a little ditty that might help you remember:

“If you would rather,

Not mow at all,

Then don’t mow short, mow it tall.”

LAWNS LIKE IT HOT

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:58 pm

June marks the official beginning of Summer and the time that is most stressful to plants in general. This stress is, of course, due to lack of rainfall, lower humidity, and those dry windy days that suck the moisture out of leaves. Thankfully there are some plants that do quite well in Summer regardless of the hot, dry conditions. Your lawn grass happens to be one of those plants.

Just think about the fact that over the years we have invented various edging tools to keep that grass from spilling over the curb or growing out onto the sidewalk. Now, as children, did we not melt our Crayolas or attempt to fry an egg on that same sidewalk? I remember doing both in our old neighborhood. This is irrefutable proof that our lawns love heat. Left unchecked, that lawn will crawl right over the curb and onto the even hotter asphalt street. The trick is to supply adequate moisture when needed.

Unlike trees and woody shrubs that respond best to occasional deep soakings, grass can benefit from shallow moisture. This is due to the extensive root systems and abundant leaves that can soak up moisture quickly. Those brief afternoon showers may not be enough to revive a wilting tree, but can sustain your lawn for several days, perhaps even a week depending on the grass you have planted. The most drought tolerant lawns are (in order) buffalograss (some folks are planting a mix of buffalo/blue grama), zoysia, bermuda, then St. Augustine. Fescue is no longer recommended in Texas due to high water needs. Buffalo and blue grama grasses can remain green for a month on as little as one inch of rain. Furthermore, all of these grasses are capable of turning completely brown during severe drought then will bounce back quickly once moisture is available.

My point here is that although most folks generally want to plant lawn grasses during the Spring, the better time to plant is actually Summer. For instance, bermuda seed planted in early April may fail to germinate if the soil is still too cool (below 65 degrees), in May bermuda may come up in a week to ten days, but I have seen it come up in only three days at temperatures of 105 degrees. The hotter it is the faster grass will grow, provided adequate moisture is available.

Unfortunately, most people think that Spring is the only time to plant. In truth, there are certain plants that are best suited to planting in Fall or Winter, and yes, even Summer.  Lawn grasses fit into that Summer category. Here in North Texas we say that grass season does not really start until May and we encourage planting through the Summer and into September. In spite of this, we get phone calls from folks wanting to plant grass seed and/or sod as early as February……….no kidding!! It seems that after a few warm days that Spring Fever hits and some folks think that the local nursery should have green grass for sale. Understandable given the fact we are all happy that Winter is almost over but certainly not practical from the standpoint of common sense. Landscaping is generally a seasonal business but there is work to be done in all seasons.

If your early attempts at growing grass were not successful, try again. As stated, June is that transition time from Spring into Summer. Most years we can count on adequate rainfall during June to help us get that grass established and perhaps save a bit on the water bill. June is certainly warm enough to count on fast growth and quick establishment. In fact my buddies in the lawn care biz really dread a rainy June because that means they will need to mow their customers twice a week to keep things looking good. By July the heat will turn up and most of us will consider ourselves lucky to catch the occasional pop-up thunderstorm. Still, our lawns will grow as long as we irrigate properly.

Bermuda still remains the first choice among new homeowners even though it is now ranked number three in terms of water use and general maintenance requirements. The main reason for this popularity is that bermuda seed is cheap and this grass grows very fast. In the hot months we can go from seed to a mowable stand of grass in three to four weeks. That is very appealing to a new homeowner facing weeds and/or bare dirt. In addition, because bermuda has been used for so many years in Texas, we are familiar with it. Unfortunately most people are hesitant to try new things.

If you are one of those who are not put off by the unfamiliar, buffalograss is the most tolerant of climate and soil conditions west of I-35. Buffalo has been around for a long time in our undisturbed rangeland. It is a superior grass for livestock and yes, the buffalo did seek it out for forage so Plains Indians and the buffalo hunters of the early pioneer days knew if they could find this grass the buffalo would come to them; hence the name.

Buffalo actually looks like a lighter colored, miniature version of bermuda. The only real drawback to using buffalograss in the suburban lawn is in fact bermuda. Existing bermuda is nearly impossible to totally eradicate. Buffalo, being the shorter grass, simply cannot compete with the aggressive bermuda, so, attempts at switching out your lawn grass will usually fail. In Nature, tall guys shade out short guys and fast growers overtake the slower ones. However, for those building new homes, and especially those of us who live in the country with no close neighbors, should consider buffalograss as the number one choice in low maintenance lawns.

A similar story exists with St. Augustine. This grass has been the popular choice for shady lawns for many years and still gets planted today even though it is not very cold hardy, needs lots of water, and seems to fall prey to every insect and/or disease in the book. Truthfully, St. Augustine should not be planted north of I-20 or west of I-35. Most people just are not aware that there are now better choices.

New varieties of wide bladed zoysia grasses are now being offered for those living in the colder, drier regions of Texas. We prefer the variety called Palisades which is being grown by North Texas sod farms. These guys never were willing to “bet the farm” on St. Augustine which has always been successfully grown in the wetter climate of Southeast Texas. Palisades zoysia is just as shade tolerant as St. Augustine and is very cold hardy plus resistant to most insects or disease common in North Texas. Zoysia is more drought tolerant than bermuda and loves sun as well.

Do some research, consider your options, and plant’em while it’s hot! See ya next month.

A LOAD OF COMPOST

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:30 pm

You can tell when we’ve had a good day at the nursery by looking at the parking lot. There will be many telltale smudges of compost. Compost has become one of our best selling items. When we opened Wichita Valley Nursery some eighteen years ago I had no idea how important compost would become to my bottom line. Now I smile when I head home for the day and see an empty parking lot full of black smudges of spilled compost. A load of compost, my tractor, and the dump trailer are among my favorite things.

We make our own bulk compost at the nursery. We employ three large compost bins made from old pallets and corrugated metal siding. We will have one bin to accept fresh material while the other two are in various stages of decomposition. When a pile is near finished we move it to the final location and mix it in the finished product that we sell and use in our growing operation. As we rotate the bins we’ll always have space for new material from the nursery and landscaping operations. We also encourage our friends in the lawn maintenance biz to bring us their leaves, shrub trimmings, and grass clippings. In spite of this, we are compelled to buy bulk compost from our city landfill to keep up with demand.

About fifteen years ago, Wichita Falls began making compost as part of our landfill operations. This not only made good use of organic waste materials but also saved on landfill space. Now the operation has saved untold thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars worth of landfill space and has also become a profitable commercial operation. Additionally, the city allows some free complimentary compost for the citizens who participate in the organics program. A true win/win situation. Although our city still does not recycle 100% of the organic materials that come into the landfill, they have made some 20 to 25 thousand tons (yearly) of what was once trash into a valuable commodity.

The start up costs to an operation of this size is not cheap so selling this idea to your local city council may be tough. However, if you do the numbers right you will find that the long term savings will offset the cost of labor and machinery in a few years. After that the operation will actually make enough money to pay for itself at which time the taxpayers will be happy and your council members get re-elected. Everybody benefits.

Our city operation has not hurt private enterprise either. Several local contractors (besides us) make their own compost. When they run short they can always go to the landfill and purchase what they need. In addition, because the citizens have begun using the compost from the free giveaway programs, they have learned what a valuable soil amendment and fertilizer it is. Therefore, our local folks buy more commercially available compost. Rather than hurting the local contractors through competition we have seen the exact opposite. The compost business is booming due to greater availability plus the success rates of those who use it.

Yet another positive side effect is the growing popularity of compost reduces fertilizer and chemical use. Healthy landscapes have fewer problems so they require less input. The result is less nitrate and/or toxic runoff that eventually pollutes our water resources. The living compost also helps to detoxify soils that have been polluted. In short, if there is a problem with any soil anywhere, compost can fix it.

“Compost feeds all plants and improves all soils.” That’s a “Dowlearnism” or something I say all the time. At the nursery, we can get any fertilizer, soil additives, or potting mixes at wholesale prices. Yet the mainstay of our operation and our preferred potting soil is compost mixed with local sandy loam soil. Cost effective and nutritious, compost provides all minerals, elements, and living microbes to boot. The day of “sterile” potting soils is over, at least in our nursery….for certain. Since we have switched to compost mixed with native soils, our insect and disease outbreaks have all but ceased, and our customers say that our plants have better livability than those grown in lightweight soil mixes and fertilized with high nitrogen products. We do not use any fertilizer other than compost and compost tea. Results and satisfied customers speak for themselves.

My friend Will Fleming once told me, “You can do 10,000 years of soil improvement in one day with a load of compost and a roto tiller.” I remember reading in an old science textbook that it takes 1,000 years to form one inch of topsoil in Nature. Therefore any planting project should start with an application of compost. All too often, people just buy plants and stick them in the ground then attempt to induce growth with some type of fertilizer or easily applied soil amendment. In my book, that’s doing it the hard way. I can show you landscape projects that are now decades old that have had nothing more than our initial application of compost and the natural recycling of spent leaves and/or hardwood mulch. A little prep work in the beginning will result in much less work in the long run. Wichita Valley simply does not plant any landscape unless we compost it first.

Compost is the miracle product that gardeners have always searched for. Sadly, you will likely never learn this from a TV commercial because the big companies make more money selling “miracle” products in pretty packages. Compost actually does improve drainage in heavy clay or compacted soils. Conversely, compost can also help sandy or gravelly soils retain moisture. Sharply acid or alkaline ph soils are pulled toward neutral by adding compost. Old fashioned NPK fertilizers are one thing…..Compost is everything. You can easily prove this by taking a small part of any lawn, garden, or ornamental planting and fertilize with compost while leaving the rest to whatever products you currently are using. By the end of one growing season, you will see the difference. No need to till the compost under, simply place it on top as a mulch and let Nature do the rest. Easy enough?

If you do not have access to bulk compost in your local area then you should help get an operation started. Your local landfill or Parks & Rec department would be a good place to start planting some ideas. Local sand and gravel companies should also be interested. Whoever hauls topsoil and fill dirt to local building sites can add considerably to their income with compost. All it takes to get started is to find local sources of organic waste, a dump truck, a front end loader, and enough land to accommodate.

The bagged material found at garden centers is great stuff. However that can get expensive for large projects due to all the extra packaging, handling, and shipping costs. Local bulk composting reduces waste, pollution, and creates jobs while adding to your local economy. What a great way to promote a more sustainable and healthier future for your local environment. Composting is recycling at its very best.

In closing I will remind you that the best compost is what you can make for yourself. Small bins and compost tumblers work fine for those with limited space. Composting with worms (vermiculture) is also pretty neat as a space saver. I do all this at the nursery and we are happy to help you get started. Or, if you have a project in the works, come see us or call and I will sell you a load of compost.

DISCONNECTED

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:10 pm

I generally don’t care much for “reality” TV shows, but I recently caught a small portion of one that really shook me up. This program was about a family that for whatever reason had been moved from their city home to a place in the country. Their teenage daughter claimed she could not get a good night’s sleep because she was afraid. At this point I changed the channel looking for better entertainment but I could not help but ponder the plight of this girl. Afraid of what, exactly? Seemed to me that she may be guilty of watching one too many haunted house movies, or possibly it was just the fear of the unknown.

The true reality of this is that the girl was much safer from harm than she realized. Statistics show that people are much more likely to fall victim to crime or injury in a crowded city rather than the relative peace and quiet of a rural setting. In fact, the local shopping mall would be one of the most likely places for a naïve young person to get into trouble. In spite of this fact I have yet to hear of any young person being afraid of hanging out in the mall. I am well aware of how disconnected from Nature my own generation has become but I fear the coming generation will take this to a new level.

We can easily get a grasp on our disassociation with Nature simply by listening to day to day conversations or topics of interest in the news media. How often do we hear folks complain about the weather? When it is hot and dry, we hope for rain but just as soon as a good rainy spell comes along we hear people say they wish it would stop. Most of us are almost never happy with the outdoor environment.

Seems nowadays nearly everyone has some chronic illness or allergy so healthcare is always a popular subject. Just take note of how many ads you see or hear each day that are directed at us from drug companies, doctors, and hospitals. Some people are downright fearful of any insect or wild animal. Others are afraid of a mere speck of dirt because it contains “germs.”

All these different phobias and illnesses are so common in our society that we give them names. But I ask you, who among us could not be diagnosed as being a bit paranoid, bi-polar, or obsessive-compulsive? Whose blood pressure doesn’t become elevated in the right circumstance? Which one of us can choose to eat too much of something and not have issues with digestion or some metabolic process? To be sure, I get a little ADD (or is it ADHD??) when someone goes on and on with their personal views on politics…..gimme a break!!

Those of us who can afford it have many creature comforts. We are air conditioned, entertained, and overfed. We have lost touch with the natural world and the daily struggle for survival. We owe this privilege mainly to oil, coal, and natural gas which are collectively called fossil fuels. While there are still those who argue that these ancient forms of organic matter exist in adequate quantities, others state that we have already surpassed peak oil production. Regardless of which view you may choose to believe there are two facts which are irrefutable.

Most important is the fact that burning fossil fuels has led to an overload of carbon based pollution in the atmosphere and related petrochemical pollutants in our soil and water. The effects of this can be seen and measured everywhere on the planet although the greatest concentrations are found in densely populated areas and in the runoff that comes from those areas. Most, if not all, ecosystems are presently in a state of decline. Eventually Nature will balance this out and Life will prevail. Will mankind choose to swing the scales back in the right direction or choose to continue down this dead end road? That choice will affect us all. It already has.

Second, and in spite of all this wealth and productivity that we have gained from fossil fuels, is that those of us who are not part of the privileged few are suffering. War, poverty, disease, and starvation are still on the rise in this world where mankind seeks to control Nature for his own benefit. Ironically, it is in the arena of politics and religion that we debate our moral goals and issues, yet it is exactly those same honorable institutions that wind up causing much of the injustice. We each seem to think the other folks should adopt our particular set of rules or moral conduct. In reality, as long as any of us are exploited, made to starve, or discriminated against for any reason, then we have failed collectively.

All world leaders claim to rule for the greater good. All religions teach tolerance and kindness toward others. All people share the same basic needs. The science of genetics has apparently proven that we all share common ancestry. So why can’t we acknowledge these facts and work together?  “Think globally, act locally,” is truly a great slogan for our time. “One planet, one chance” is another.

If you are one of those that cannot enjoy the great outdoors due to allergies or illness then you have my sympathy. But you must understand that all things have a place in Nature. Bees do not intend to sting people. This is only a defense mechanism albeit a fairly potent one. However, bees are so vitally important as a pollinator that without them the human race would surely diminish or perish altogether.

If you are one that has a phobia regarding insects in general, bats, snakes, or any other wild creature, then I would say that you, like the young girl on the TV, are in dire need of an education. Once we understand how things work then our fears will subside. Certainly our greatest concern should not be what Nature can do to us but rather what we in our selfish pursuits have done to Nature.

In defense of the current generation of young people, there is a common thread of wisdom you will hear from them. That is we all share this one planet and that this planet has limited resources. Although there are many in my generation and countless others from every previous generation who have realized this, we have so far only managed to slowly bring some attention to inevitable plunder of our most precious gifts. In our children’s eyes, we have fallen short. We could have or should have done more. I remember having said the same thing to my own parents.

If mankind ever manages once again to live sustainably and comfortably within the limits provided by Nature, it could or should begin with us but not fully realized for generations to come. I just hope there are enough young people out there that are not afraid to spend a night or two in the boondocks. Please get your kids and grandkids disconnected from their electronic gadgets long enough to make sure they are connected ……..with Nature!!

A MEASURE OF CONTROL

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:59 pm

Even though we call ourselves organic gardeners and we extol the virtues of following Nature’s plan, in truth we are seeking to control Nature in nearly every aspect of our gardening and landscaping endeavors. When we attempt to “naturalize” a stand of wildflowers or native grasses we are still choosing what we would like to see instead of what Mother Nature has already put in that particular place. As soon as we disrupt the existing plant communities the gauntlet is thrown and the battle begins. Nature will kick in with her recovery plan while we will insist that our chosen plants should dominate.

The act of digging or tilling the soil rarely if ever results in short term improvement as far as Nature is concerned. As soon as the disruption occurs it triggers an explosion of seed germination. These seeds may have been lying dormant in the existing soil for years just waiting for such an event to occur. Other seeds can be blown in by the wind or carried by runoff from rains. Where you and I have plans to sow a precious few seeds, Mother Nature will provide hundreds or thousands. Already the cards are stacked against us. In addition, most of these naturally existing “recovery” seeds are going to be fast growing broadleaf weeds and grasses.

One tactic that I have found advantageous in dealing with large projects is to go ahead and till the soil, wait for rain or apply irrigation to germinate weed seeds, then till shallow a second or third time to turn that first onslaught of vegetation under. This seems to help if you have the time and opportunity to do so.

Point is simply this; any time we make a change in the natural landscape we now must maintain that area until the new plants have become firmly established. In the case of ornamental perennials this could take only one or two growing seasons. In the case of woody shrubs or trees this could take three to five years. In the case of lawn grasses, vegetable gardens, or seasonal annual color, the task of maintaining never ends.

Pruning, fertilization, and irrigation are also forms of control. We improve soils to grow better quality plants for food, shade, and visual appeal. We irrigate to keep plants looking good during dry times and to maintain plants that require more moisture than our particular climate provides. We mow and prune constantly to keep the home landscape user friendly (to suit our particular needs) and also for what we feel is visually appealing. The amount of yearly maintenance you will be required to accomplish is directly related to the size of your lawn, vegetable garden, or annual flower beds, and etc., plus the variety of the plants you have chosen, and the level of control that you consider acceptable.

Because the level of control is linked to our sense of aesthetics we find that some folks will naturally be willing to do more mowing, pruning, watering, and fertilizing than others. For example, a landscape full of evergreen shrubs manicured into interesting geometric shapes may be highly appealing to some. A different person’s perspective might be huge drifts of flowering plants. A third person may find the tending of a large vegetable garden to be the best use of their outdoor space. Then there are those energetic gardeners who have the time, money, and inclination to do all this and more. To the average person and especially to the non-gardener, these represent a whole lot of work. Ironically, even though the average person is not motivated to do the work, they do generally admire the efforts of their more meticulous friends and neighbors. They would love to have a nice landscape without all that work. Hence the popularity of all those “miracle” fertilizers, sprays, and gadgets that promise a beautiful result with little or no effort.

In spite of all the myriad choices we find at the lawn and garden centers, the task of controlling Nature remains a tough battle. If you desire a nice lawn, garden, orchard, or whatever, you still have to do the work or be able to pay someone else to do it. Any new landscape will have weeds. Have faith that these will get fewer in number as your desirable plants begin to fill in. The key is to expect this to happen and be diligent in your control efforts. There is no chemical or fertilizer that can match wise gardening habits and routine maintenance.

There are a growing number of people who choose to use less control and allow Nature to be a partner in the landscape. In fact, I know of a few country homes where the builders used minimal disruption so the natural landscape could be left intact. I used this tactic when I bought my own property. After setting up a mobile home, I eventually cleared about ¾ acre out of 3 acres, leaving a few large mesquite for shade. Since then I have downsized the area I keep mowed to about 1/3 acre. I was quick to notice that the undisturbed areas of my lot cost me nothing to maintain. The native trees and existing vegetation have stayed pretty much the same all these years. Meanwhile the areas that I disturbed with my “improvements” are still very weedy even though I decided to let some parts of my property go back to Nature years ago. The lesson I learned was that if you remove the existing vegetation you must replace it. If you decide to quit mowing (or maintaining) then weeds and weedy grasses will take over. Furthermore, it may take decades for Nature to return that parcel to the pristine prairie or woodland it once was. Better to leave Nature do her thing until you have a definite use for the area.

Nearly all home owners today will vote for low maintenance landscapes given the choice. Yet many of these same people are not willing to let go of the look of traditional landscaping. You cannot have a manicured lawn or tightly pruned hedges without doing the work. You can switch to slower growing, less demanding lawn grass. You can also switch out those fast growing hedges for slower growing ones. Better yet, if you want shrubs to be only 3 or 4 feet tall then plant those that reach that average height at maturity. Replace water guzzling exotic plants with local native varieties. Improve soils with compost. Use all natural fertilizers and pest controls. Stop watering constantly and avoid over-fertilizing. This just causes faster growth and creates more work. Look to Nature for guidance. Don’t step in and change things unless it is absolutely necessary. Become proactive instead of reactive. Never assume something is wrong until you know for certain.

In the final analysis it is the amount of control you personally are willing to live with that either increases or decreases the work you must do. I suppose, in time, the high maintenance manicured look made popular by post WWII suburbanites will give way to a more relaxed home landscape. We are seeing alternative landscaping and even whole communities that are paving the way. Nature does have the upper hand. A measure of control is all we can hope for.

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