Roots and Shoots: Labor-Saving Tips for the Garden

By Pamela Doan

Sometimes the temptation to peg a news story to a theme is too much to resist. With Labor Day’s spirit of celebrating the American worker, I mean, a good day for an end of season barbecue, what better time to acknowledge that since we are working more hours than ever, making time for the garden can be a challenge?

mulch

A layer of shredded leaves surrounds foamflowers, keeping moisture in and weeds out. Photo by P. Doan

Gardening doesn’t have to be just another demand during a packed day; it can be accomplished in whatever time you’ve got available. Maybe after you start modestly and grow a few nice flowering plants or harvest your own tomatoes or lettuce, you’ll even discover that more time becomes available because you like the results, too.

Two of the biggest landscape time-drains are weeding and lawn care and neither task is all that satisfying. In my mind, mowing is like vacuuming. Although you see an immediate result and it’s necessary, both are boring and need to be done weekly. For your entire life.

Time spent weeding and mowing can be cut back and diverted to other more interesting and pleasant tasks by meeting the same basic fundamentals – paying attention to soil, mulch and water. Let’s start with weeding. Of course since you tested the soil pH before planting, and chose the best plants for the site or amended the soil to balance the pH for the proposed plants, the desirable plants can thrive. That healthy soil isn’t going to discriminate against interlopers, though.

The answer is mulch. Mulch creates a protective layer over the top of the soil to prevent weeds from popping up. Spread it in the spaces around plants, shrubs and trees, leaving room for the roots. (Don’t pile it thickly near stems or stalks, though.) Mulch is your best friend when it comes to weeds and also saves time because you don’t need to till or dig in the ground. Actually, tilling can contribute to weed growth by turning the weed seeds that are on top of the soil into the ground, giving them a better chance to grow.

For many garden issues, mulch is the answer and it’s a way to reuse the natural resources in your yard and kitchen. Compost grass clippings, shredded leaves, plant material, and vegetable and fruit scraps to create a rich organic matter to layer in beds. Or use shredded leaves and wood chips that have been aged at least a year and add it directly to the beds. Spend a couple of hours mulching and then less time weeding for the rest of the season.

When it comes to lawn care, healthy soil is again the best first line of defense. Aerated, well-balanced soil with a pH level between 6.0-7.0 makes for the best base for grass. Fill in bare areas with a mix of grass seed that is most compatible with your growing conditions, taking sunlight, shade, and use into consideration. Determine a level and type of weeds you can tolerate in your yard. Clover is soft and bees love the flowers. It doesn’t spread or take over like crabgrass does, for example.

Once you’ve established a healthy lawn, consider altering mowing practices that can suck up time. By mowing with sharp blades set at a cutting height of three inches, the grass will be torn off neatly, avoiding damage to roots and you won’t have to mow as frequently to keep it the same length. I watch my neighbor’s lawn service show up on the same day every week, whether the grass has grown much or not.

It’s a waste of energy and an unnecessary pollutant to set up a mindless schedule that doesn’t account for the actual needs of the lawn. Keep in mind that one hour of mowing contributes the same amount of exhaust as driving a car for 20 miles. Cutting back on mowing not only gives you more time during the week, but is also better for the planet. And those clippings? Leave them on the lawn. We’re back to mulch again. The clippings provide a nice layer of mulch to help feed the lawn as they decompose and hold in water.

Now with that extra time, you’ve got a few more minutes to spend reading The Paper!

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