Friday, October 26, 2012

Do you know where your storm water is going?

     As we face the very real possibility of a weekend dominated by remnants of a hurricane merging with a winter storm, I would like to ask you the following.  Do you know where your storm water is going?  If you know that it vaguely goes downhill but know very little else about it, you are not alone.  Very few people know or really even care where it goes as long as it goes away from them.  Most people want enough rain to keep their grass and trees green and healthy in due season but not so much as to pond and flood.  Unfortunately, rain is not always that controlled and refined.  It frequently comes in great amounts or stops coming at all for long periods of time.
     Rain is sometimes better classified as 'feast or famine'.  That is where storm water management becomes important.
     Rain hits all kinds of surfaces when in comes down.  In a natural environment, it hits mostly plant canopies and soil.  The exception to this is in places where rock covers the surface.  Even in the rocky natural setting, rain hits the ground and has the opportunity to infiltrate down through the soil and eventually into the water table.  During a light rain, most or all of the water hitting the ground will soak in.  During a heavy rain, some will soak in and the rest will run off downhill until it reaches a concentrated area such as an intermittent stream or a creek.  Even the water that runs off is slowed and as it flows downhill allowed additional opportunities to infiltrate due to the plants and humus layer that covers the surface of the soil.
     People don't tend to live on pristine sites.  They construct houses, pave driveways and walks and alter the plants covering the soil.  Roofs and paving create areas where water in incapable of even reaching the soil.  These areas are impervious meaning that no water can infiltrate into the soil.   People cut down trees that otherwise would have helped to direct the water down their trunks and into the soil and plant areas of grass which does allow for infiltration but at a different rate.  In addition water traveling over the soil flows at a different rate, usually much faster, after the site has been altered.
     The end result of all this activity is an increase in water leaving sites and filling creeks, stream bed and bank degradation and downstream flooding.  To many people this is the inevitable by-product of human habitation and this is worsened by a thriving economy that fosters building.   
     This excess water doesn't have to leave your site.  Consider adding measures to collect it and allow it to stay on your site where it was intended to remain.  A couple of easy and obvious do-it-yourself choices are great possibilities.  The easiest and most obvious measure is to add a rainwater collection barrel to the end of your downspouts.  This collects water from your roof and makes it available for future garden watering needs.  You can also consider adding a rain garden.  This is a garden designed to collect and store water in the soil and release it through the evapotranspiration of the plants in the garden.  Finally, you can use permeable paving in place of the impermeable paving choices (such as concrete, asphalt and gravel) most frequently used for drives and walks.
    Every drop of rain collected and retained on your site is a step toward helping return the streams of your area to a healthy state.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beautiful Color Now - Beautiful Color Later

     Fall is a beautiful time of intense color.  That color permeates your impressions of every aspect of your life during this season.  First is the intense blue of the sky on a clear day and the amazing shades of gray as storms roll through.  Dawn and sunset colors somehow seem to become more intense during this season as well.  The greatest amount of color is obviously from the color change happening in the leaves of trees and shrubs.  This is a daily change and creates a sense of excitement because the landscape changes daily during this season.
     Not only do the colors change, but the quantities change as well.  Leaf drop begins in late summer with a small percentage of leaves, especially those from trees with larger sized leaves like poplar, dropping in response to decreased levels of available water.  The heat from the summer causes trees to utilize more water from the soil with increased metabolism and to lose more of it to transpiration and thus there is a water table level drop in the soil regardless of the amount of rainfall.  This leaf drop is further enhanced when the days begin to become noticeably shorter.  Thus by mid October, regardless of the temperature, there are a good 10-20 percent fewer leaves on the trees than there were in mid summer.  As October progresses, there is a noticeable daily loss which is further enhanced with the first and then subsequent frosts.  As a result, the forest canopy changes daily by mid October adding to the daily interest of the season.
     Coincidentally, this leaf drop just happens to occur at just the right time for fall mulching.  It also just happens that for a good many of your mulching needs this is just the right material to use.  Mother nature provides just what you need when you need it if you let her!  This is the perfect stuff for mulching most of your tree, shrub and flower beds.  I recommend raking your first flush of leaves - which also happen to be the ones from trees whose leaves break down the most easily right into your beds.  Don't hesitate to place a nice two inch layer evenly around  your shrubs and trees.  For those people who do not like the look of leaves, you can place an inch and a half of leaves and cover it with a half inch of mulch of the type that has the look that you prefer.  Remember to check in a week or after the first heavy rain to see what your actual mulch depth might be.  It will compact as the leaves flatten and begin to break down.  You might actually need to add more and it is easier when it is readily available.
     For roses and other flowers and vegetables that are highly susceptible to fungal issues, do not try this method.  Leaves raked straight from the lawn into the bed will only act to increase your mold and fungi issues.  For these plants, you can still mulch with your own leaves, but you will need to let them go through the processes of composting first.  In many cases it is just easier to use sterilized mulch instead.
     The second wave of leaves, the ones that are predominated by oak leaves, are still important and useful.  I recommend that you not use them right away.  Place them aside to compost over the winter months.  They will make the perfect black mulch for your bedded areas next spring when you will be wanting and needing to replenish the mulch.  They will also provide a wonderful black compost for your lawn areas.  Use the most broken down of the compost on your lawn as a spring additive and the least broken down in your beds to enhance the mulch layer.
     Nothing that your land produces needs to be hauled away as it is all useful in its own good time!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Compost Makes It Better

     What makes a great soil?  Soil is a combination of broken down earth's crust in the form of minerals, organic matter and living organisms.  In fact a good undisturbed soil typically has a layer of organic material on top of a layer of topsoil - which is mineral soil and organic material mixed.  These two layers cover the subsoil which is basically just the mineral soil without the organic matter.
     Topsoil occurs when living creatures such as worms and ants carry organic material from the soil surface down into the layer where they live.  They work to break down that material during their normal activities.  As the particles get broken down, fungi and bacteria that exist in the soil kick in to further break down the material.
     When we endeavor to plant an area we do a couple of things.  First, we disturb the soil structure because we dig into it.  We also alter the way that organic matter is left on the soil surface and the kind of material that make up that layer.  Quite often we remove the organic material that would normally fall on the soil completely.  We haul off grass clippings, rake away leaves and throw away things weeded out of the soil.  This often alters the number and health of the creatures that live in that soil.
     You can help to re-create the soil process by adding organic matter to the top of your planted soil.  The best way to do this is to place a thin layer of compost onto the surface of your soil.  Consider adding compost over all of your soil.  You can easily do this at the two turns of season - spring and fall. 
     For lawn areas, toss or use a spreader for this endeavor.  Let the compost fall onto the grass surface.  It will tend to fall through the leaves of the grass and end up on the soil surface at the base of the grass blades.  From here the soil organisms will take over and carry it down into the topsoil layer.
     You can also do this in your bedded areas.  The timing is basically the same.  You are basically adding compost at the time of the year when you are going to mulch.  The compost can be placed instead of mulch if desired.  In this case place a two inch layer over the bed.  The other option is to place a half to one inch layer of compost on the ground and then cover it with an inch to an inch and a half of mulch.  The key is to reach a cover of two inches.  Do not exceed this amount as you will cause a situation that could lead to overly wet and moldy conditions.
     Where to get the compost?  You can buy it either in bulk or from home improvement stores in bags.  You can also make it and use your own.  Either way, compost on the soil will greatly enhance the soil and your plants will be healthier for it.  If you do add compost, remember that you are adding nutrients to your soil.  That means that you need to use considerably less fertilizer or if you are using a good high organic content compost you should not fertilize at all.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Old Friends for Indoor Winter Color

     We are now in that in between season.  It is not summer any more but not quite fall yet.  A few leaves are turning color, but it is not because of frost.  This color change and the beginnings of leaf drop has to do with shorter days.  Now, before the first frost, is the time to dig up those plants that you count on for indoor color during the winter.  You remember, the ones that came out of their pot last spring to spend the summer in the sun.  For me, it's the big four - amaryllis, ornamental peppers, paperwhites and poinsettias.  If you haven't saved them through the summer, maybe this is the year that you make these favorites permanent friends rather than just winter visitors.
     I have plants that will in the next day or two be back in pots that are at least twenty years old.  I get a jolt of nostalgia when I dig them out of the ground and bring them back into the house - remembering who gave them to me or why I bought them and when.
     For those who have used these plants as annuals in the past, here is a run-down of how to keep them as permanent friends.
     Amaryllis is a lovely bulb that if you got it as a Christmas present most likely came from South African or other tropical origins.  That is why it does not survive in you garden over winter.  This year, when you get new bulbs, enjoy the flowers, but after they are finished, save the bulbs.  When the bulbs have finished flowering, cut the flower stalk near the base - take care that you don't damage the leaves.  In the spring after the chance of frost has ended, put your bulbs outside in a sunny location.  You will find that they do best if left in the pot.  Water them regularly and fertilize them as needed.  Four months before you want them to bloom, you will need to force your bulbs to go dormant.  You do this by bringing them into a cool (around 55 degrees) dark place and stop watering them.  I just stick them under the house.  Timing depends entirely on when you want blooms, but never let your bulbs go through a frost.  Check the bulbs weekly, but after an eight to ten week period, you should see the beginnings of a green sprout.  You can now bring your bulb back out into a warm sunny spot.  Water them, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings so that you do not cause your bulbs to rot.  If you re-pot your bulbs, make sure that the pot is no more than two times the diameter of the bulb and that when you plant the bulb a third of the bulbs is above the soil surface.  I like to bring my bulbs in this time of the year.  That way, they bloom during the dead of winter when I need the lift of spirits.
     Ornamental peppers are actually a hot miniature variety of regular hot peppers.  As such they are edible although fiery.  You can grow them year round easily by simply keeping them in their pot.  I move the pots out to a sunny location during the summer and back into a sunny location indoors for the winter.  They are a tropical plant, so just make sure that they are not allowed to go through a frost.  If you want to encourage more blooming, pick off the peppers; otherwise, the peppers are lovely if allowed to remain on the plant to dry out.  To renew the plants as they age, I simply open a dried out pepper and sprinkle the seeds around the old plant in the pot.  As the new seedlings grow you can cut the old plant to the soil line and enjoy the new ones.
     Paperwhites are actually a narcissus bulb just like your other daffodils.  As such, they can easily be planted in the ground and left there to bloom in early spring every year.  They are used as forced bulbs at Christmas time because they do extremely well in pots.  If you choose to bring them in to force, dig them up after the leaves have gone dormant and keep them in a cool dry place.  Three to four weeks before you want them to flower, plant them in a pot, bring them out into a sunny location and begin watering them.  They need only about three inches of pot space and virtually no care.  When they are done blooming, like all daffodils, let the leaves die back on their own so that the bulb rejuvenates itself.
     Poinsettias are the queen of the holiday season, but with hybridization have become the winter-long choice for color.  I leave them in their pot and let them spend the summer out in the sun.  Bring them in before the first frost (it is better not to let them experience temperatures below 50 degrees) but to similar light conditions, and keep them out of cold and drafty places.  A sunny window is the perfect place for them.  To get them to turn color, ensure that they get an ever increasing time of no light at night.  In other words cover them if they are going to be in a sunny window in a room that will have lights on at night.  You can use your normal sundown time as your guide, but they will basically need about 14 hours of darkness to set their flowers and for the bracts to turn color. 
     Keep your winter color plants year-round, just be sure to take care of them as the season changes.