Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I know I'm not rocking anyone's horticulture world by recounting the universally documented virtues of mulching, Still, it might bear repeating:

* You absolutely will have fewer weeds
* Watch your water bill drop because your plants and soil are losing less precious water
* Less soil compaction  from driving rains and perhaps foot traffic (from two and four-legged family members)
* Insulating soils from extremes in temperature fluctuation. That works both ways to benefit plants. Soil temperatures drop more slowly in the fall under mulched soils. Roots continue to develop while soil temperatures are above 40 degrees F. Durng the heat of summer plant roots benefit from cooler soil temperatures, too
* Mulches provide organic matter that improves soil structure. Mulch also increases microbial activity that converts organic matter into nutrients
* Research indicates pine fines or pine bark mulch actually have innate fungal-inhibiting properties that make them a smart choice to use for rhododendrons and azaleas

May I just get this one pet peeve off my chest? Why do some landscapers insist on building beaver dams of mulch? You've seen what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, it's an all too frequent occurrence. The mulch is mounded around the trunk at least a foot deep. Guys (women would never do this), root systems need oxygen- just like your lungs. Beaver dam mulching not only reduces oxygen to roots, it keeps bark tissue wet. Wet bark is subject to all kinds of issues. When bark tissue isn't healthy, that's stress. Plant stress often leads to insect and disease problems. Enough said?


We know it isn't difficult to mulch properly. Leave a two to four inch diameter opening of naked soil from the trunks of trees, or the outer edge of multi-stemmed shrubs. Spread mulch there, away from stems. In dense clay soils a one to two inch depth is fine. For sandy soils applying a three to four inch layer of mulch is appropriate. Extend the mulch as far as feasible within the context of your garden beds or lawn.

I heard a presentation a few years ago that I thought was interesting. Yes, you would probably be surprised at what I find interesting. Whenever possible, try to replicate what the plant would receive at its feet in nature. So, for trees and shrubs, consider using wood-barked based products that are broken down by fungi. For soft-stemmed annuals, perennials and veggies use "green" mulches that are dominated by bacteria- compost, leaf mulch, cotton burr compost, for example.


Don't get hung up on trying to match different mulches throughout your landscape. The most important thing is to mulch, rather than NOT.  Don't forget one last benefit of mulch- appearance, appearance, appearance. In addition to all the documented physical benefits mulch acts as a unifying element. It ties your plants together visually in a way that is very pleasing.

You don't know how lucky you are I didn't get started on white marble chip "mulch".  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Speed Date Confessions

Before I begin blogging I must take a minute to thank and tip my hat to my predecessor, Karen Geisler, who has put her horticultural heart and soul into The Hortiholic from Day One. Job well done, Karen. Thank you for setting the bar so high.

Somehow, this first blog feels like a speed date. You’ve seen those structured date-athons where women get a seat at a small table, usually in a restaurant, with one empty seat on the opposite side. The starter calls time and the men take a seat. Everyone has three minutes to share their assets before time is called and the men move to the next seat and the next potential match. Ah, romance.

So, here goes. I’m an only child who started gardening when my family moved to Champaign, Ill. One summer day I was bored, and decided to talk to the neighbor lady as I saw her head out to her flower garden, shovel in hand. She promptly told 9-year-old me that I wasn’t going to sit and talk while she was working, so I’d darned well better pick up a hoe and get on those weeds. I didn’t know then how that 30-second conversation would change the course of my life, but did it ever. Maybe the Universe does send us what we need?

Within two weeks, I convinced Dad that sod wasn’t a virtue and commandeered a 7 by 12 foot parcel of lawn. By 16, I was working at a garden center every weekend and summers. During my second semester of freshman year at the University of Illinois, I came to my senses and transferred out of Pre-Vet. That’s when my future came into focus. I graduated seven semesters later with a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture. With the exception of a six month stint at Ball Seed Company as azalea buyer, my last 47 years have been spent learning from my garden center customers, first in central Illinois and now at Chalet, in the Chicago North Shore suburb of Wilmette,Ill.

 I’m fortunate to have six-tenths of an acre that has been mine for 24 years. When you collect “woodies”, you can only plant so much before you have to either remove and replant the newest, rarest cultivar, or live with what you have. My passion is anything beech, especially the cultivars of European Beech (Fagus sylvatica). I have 19 as of this minute. Perennials on the other hand are like jello -- there’s always room for more. Since I’d rather be in the garden than in the kitchen, I’ll readily admit to more interest and expertise in ornamentals than edibles.

What do you mean, the time’s up? I haven’t even shared my astrological sign yet.