The Magic Of Mulch & Patience

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Let nature work in peace and prepare to be amazed

Nature’s Healing Takes Time

Every Friday for over twenty years, I’ve worked with a band of vigorous volunteers to plant and maintain the extensive grounds at our local public library. Even during the pandemic lockdown a handful of us kept coming, wearing masks and keeping our distance as we worked, finding solace and satisfaction in planting and weeding and pruning. Sometimes pruning has been especially satisfying, notably when the news was particularly dire. In early January, two of us who love to prune decided to tackle a huge, overgrown variegated redtwig dogwood that had spread almost 30 feet in width, spilling into the sidewalk and smothering nearby neighbors. Fueled by fury and horror, we whacked the crap out of the poor shrub, which was a tangled mass of gnarled and twisted stems. Once we removed the dead and damaged stems, not much was left, but twiggy dogwoods are tough and hardy. If didn’t re-sprout, it would be removed altogether. Oh well.

As winter fades and spring approaches, there’s always plenty to do. Dormant bindweed pops up, lusty and vigorous. Crowded plants need dividing and new plants need just the right home. The whacked dogwood left a large gap of bare earth near a sidewalk, so we put our minds to choosing some attractive new plants to fill in the now-empty bay. However, several busy months passed before we returned to tuck in native mock orange and golden flowering currants. I was astonished to see masses of plump bulb shoots emerging from what we thought was bare earth. As weeks went by, it became clear that over a hundred large allium bulbs were getting ready to bloom.

Letting The Seeds Fall Freely

About 15 years ago, I tucked a group of five Allium christophii into the library garden. They’ve persisted but I had never found any seedlings. I always enjoy gathering the dried seedheads and using them to decorate bare twigs and branches each winter, then tossing the battered remains into the back of the borders each spring to give them a chance to self sow. Invisible under the spreading skirts of the twiggy dogwood, these highly ornamental onions had sown themselves into a flourishing colony. It take a few years for seed-grown alliums to reach blooming size and this undisturbed area was clearly a fine nursery for them.

Each winter, we weed and mulch all the borders, first with compost, then with coarse wood chips, which open the hard soil enough that weeding is much more successful than it used to be. As the soil heals under its comforting blanket, we start to find many seedlings, not just weeds, but also offspring of our border plants. This spring, those lovely alliums were joined by clouds of black chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing) and deep purple columbines, all self sown volunteers which look smashing together. Nearby, waves of California poppies and calendulas line the driveways and sidewalks. Lettuce leaf poppies appear here and there in luscious clusters, their huge, ruffled flowers nodding over silver-blue foliage. Moon plant (Lunaria annua) rises in tiered towers, some tinted purple, others jade green, all tipped with flat, round seedpods that strip to silver at summer’s end.

The Gardener’s Choice

Yes, many weeds are also ardent self sowers, and part of the gardener’s task is to choose which plants to let bloom for hungry pollinators and which to yank without mercy before they can go to seed. In my own gardens, I ruthlessly root out bindweed (aka morning glory vine), Scotch broom, Bishop’s weed and buttercups whenever I spot them. However, I also allow a few of the overly enthusiastic purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) to bloom for the bees but pull at least 90% of the hundreds of seedlings that pop up here. Even if I were to yank every last one, the seeds in the soil would keep on sprouting for years to come, so I might as well let the local pollinator community get some pleasure and nourishment from this prolific flower. Feverfew is also permitted to grow here, though I may give seedlings a new home; its cheerful sprays of starry little white and gold daisies look lovely with California poppies and calendulas and are endlessly useful in cut-flower arrangements.

Naturally enough, there’s a learning curve to this live-and-let-live policy. It takes a few years to discover which plants are lastingly mannerly and which are biding their time before beginning an invasion. It also takes time for starved bare soil to heal enough to support new life. This morning I met a friend who told me how well her once-barren garden is doing. When she first moved in, she was dismayed to find solid clay and hardpan throughout the yard. One small wooded area was weedy and overgrown, yet it was almost impossible to remove weeds because the ground was so hard. We brought in truckloads of hog fuel, the coarsest, cheapest form of wood chips, and raked it out to a depth of about 8-12 inches under and around the tall firs. Now, when my friend digs down, she finds actual soil, and what she plants no longer dwindles and dies. Victory!

Time & Patience & Wood Chips

She excitedly described making mounded beds, planting everything from annuals and vegetables to ornamentals, and watching them thrive. The satisfaction of bringing a static landscape back to life, turning a wasteland into a flourishing garden more than makes up for the work involved, which was surprisingly little. Despite daunting initial conditions, continuing remediation consists mainly of spreading more wood chips under the trees as the original layer breaks down. Weeding is much easier in mounded and mulched beds and takes very little time and effort. Instead of a still life, her property is now a vital garden, lovely with plants and lively with birds and pollinators.

At the library, we found that nothing heals clay and hardpan like annual layers of mulch and coarse wood chips (not bark). Year after patient year, we spread mulches; compost, aged dairy manure, flaked bedding straw, shredded leaves. That helped, but it was only when we added thick layers of coarse wood chips that we finally got the upper hand on long-existing perennial weeds that plagued the site. With patience and mulch, a barren clay parking lot has bloomed into a living garden. Amen! Oh, and Happy Summer! Here in the maritime Northwest, Real Summer is here at last, with warm, sunny days that make the vegetables burst into happy growth spurts. Onward, right?



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