Sunset Mag 'tend your plot' tips--ques.

rmkitchen(5)April 28, 2009

In this month's (May's, I mean) issue of Sunset on the "What to do in the Rockies" garden checklist, it says:

"Fertilize ornamentals Rake off existing organic mulch and add it to the compost bin. Then, following label instructions, broadcast organic fertilizer over beds of herbs, perennial flowers, roses, shrubs, and vines. Next, spread 2 to 3 inches of good-quality compost or well-rotted manure between the plants. Finally, lay 4 to 6 inches of fresh mulch over the soil. For beds mulched with rock or gravel, leave the mulch in place and top-dress with fertilizer and 1 to 2 inches of fine compost. Then add new rock mulch to bare patches."

So this high altitude gardening is still pretty new to me (this will be my second summer here -- near Boulder, CO) and has already been established I have a fair bit to learn. I did not do any of this last spring although I did regularly feed everything (water-based). When I read the Sunset blurb my stomach sank, like "oh crap -- that's a lot of work!" Our whole front yard is ornamentals with a few inches of mulch: the thought of taking all that mulch off, layering the fertilizer, compost and all brand new mulch is, well, a bit daunting. I could barely get it together to make dinner tonight ....

Clearly that kind of attention would be great for the plants, but I'm curious how far you all go. Can I get away with scraping back mulch, doing the fertilizer and compost / manure around the plants, and then spreading the old mulch with more to get it back up to 4 to 6 inches?

Thanks for the feedback!

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hlollar(5 CO)

That does seem like a lot of work!! I don't have enough money to buy all the bark that I would have to buy to replace all that is laid down! I'd rather spend the money on plants, thank you very much! lol.

I usually compost in spring and then fertilize in fall.
I use my organic fertilizer and pour it around the base of all of my plants. I then water them profusely after adding the fertilizer.

You can move the bark or mulch away from the base of the plants and between them and add some compost as a top coat... I wouldn't worry too much. Is it a new garden? If you had amended the soil when you first planted, there still should be nutrients in the soil...

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 8:55PM
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I say yes, you can. Removing the mulch and putting it in the compost bin makes no sense to me. Why not leave it there to feed your plants and help your soil as it breaks down?

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 9:14PM
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Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado

Oh, my! Would the retailers ever love it if you did all that! And the doctors too, probably! ;-) Ive seen the pictures of your yard!

What you did last year! That!!!

The only time I rake back ANY of the (bark) mulch is when I want to dig something up or plant something else! With the wood mulches, they gradually decompose on the bottom (very gradually out here with our dry climate) and the decomposed wood little by little works its way down into the soil as youÂre working here, there, and everywhere. Just donÂt ever mix a whole lot of the undecomposed wood into the soil all at once. That would bind the nitrogen and give you big problems till the wood completes the decomposition process. But when it gradually decomposes on the surface and works its way downÂno problem. So leaving the old mulch on actually helps improve the soil little by little. I do recommend adding more each year to keep it at least a couple inches thick. That helps with moisture conservation. From what I remember of your pictures, you really should add more, in some places at leastÂbut on top of the existing stuff. I have fairly small perennial beds, and it would have cost a fortune to put 2-4" on all at the same time when I first started planting perennials, but I add a little bit each year, and even with the decomposition, IÂm up to a good 3" by nowÂand it was easier on the budget.

Other than that I fertilize thingsÂsometimes. IÂm not really very good at that! And some things, especially some of the REALLY xeric kind of things do better if you DONÂT feed them. I donÂt ever feed the Russian sage or Agastache, and I donÂt have any, but I wouldnÂt feed yarrow/Achillea either. Others may have more to add to thatÂand may dispute the ones IÂve listed. I donÂt feed any of the sedums or ice plants or semps either.

If you have timeÂand feel like doing itÂyou could gradually mix in more organic matter around the existing plants, but I donÂt even do that. This year IÂm finally gonna get around to digging up some of the original perennials I put in here that were put into almost pure, heavy clay, and then IÂm digging a bigger hole, improving the soil with a bunch of homegrown compost (now that I finally have it), and replanting (most of them) in the same place.

More important than all that stuff in Sunset is the really deep, SLOW, thorough watering I talked about in an earlier thread. Leave the beds go relatively dry, then water deeply. That will help the perennials (and bushes) establish good, deep root systems, which will give you better plants, and allow you to gradually stretch out the time between waterings more as they get established. Remember, watering the top inch or two is good for the humans, but doesnÂt do much at all for the plants. To water them well you need to be watering deeply enough to wet the soil BELOW where the current roots are.

Now, having said all thatÂI know IÂm lazy! What does everybody else do? (And donÂt tell me you replace all your mulch every year, Âcause I wonÂt believe it! ;-) )


P.S. While I was typing this it looks like a couple other people were weighing in here---and it looks like so far we have 3 votes for, save your money and your back!

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 9:26PM
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Thank you for the permission!

hlollar -- your comment about preferring to spend the money on plants made me laugh aloud, laugh in recognition! I'm with you on wanting to get more plants.

Thank you, greenbean, for the validation that part of the purpose is for the mulch to break down and go back into the earth. I was confused by Sunset's instructions.

Phew -- now I have a realistic and attainable plan of action. Thank you!

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 9:38PM
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skybird -- oops! As I was typing my response yours came through, so I didn't see it until too late. Thanks for sharing your experience(s) and insight.

This garden was created in the summer of 2007 and last year we applied more mulch and are planning on doing so again shortly -- for whatever reason this past year was particularly hard in terms of mulch disappearing. Wind and the slopes, I guess.

I remember your comment about the importance of the slow, deep watering -- hear hear! It only took us one week to figure that out (the clay concomitant to the slope of our yard). Ours is set up for between five - ten minutes every hour, all day, every day. What a difference! Everybody's happy when the irrigation is on; when it's off (winter) is when the plants get hurt. Shoot. I'm still sad about that. I need to post some pictures (well, first take some pictures) of our boxwoods -- they look horrible. Blond and horrible! (Now I'm a blonde and that's super, but for an evergreen turning blond is not so delicious ....) Next winter will be different courtesy of the gurus here!

And thank you about the Russian sage information -- I'd fertilized them because I fertilized everything. Thank you so much for telling me about them. I love Russian sage and am excited to live here where we can have them. I wondered why some people who seem to ignore their gardens have these gorgeous, big Russian sages while mine have been looking kinda puny. I wonder if it was the feeding ....

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 9:56PM
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hlollar(5 CO)

There are some things that really would rather have yucky soil then nutrient filled. I agree with the russian sage. Leave it alone and it'll love you. I water my russian sage once a month during the growing season, too. Easiest plant in the world!

Glad I could provide you with a laugh. Oh, how I miss Boulder, CO...

    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 10:09PM
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Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado

Im gonna add one more thing, Kitchen. Dont keep watering the plants every day! When you do that the soil where the roots are stays wet all the time, so the roots dont need to grow deeper looking for moisture. Set your timer to do the 5-10 minutes every hour just one day a week. As the soil near the surface dries out, the roots will grow deeper looking for the moisture thats below them. Thats how you establish a really good root system. I think I remember your saying that a couple of your plants had literally blown out of the ground. When they establish that good, deep root system, you wont have to worry about that happening anymore. If the water is really soaking in deeply, you may be able to go even longer than a week between waterings, but start with that and see how theyre doing. I suspect they dont have a good enough root system yet to go more than a week right now.

And your truly xeric plants, like the Russian sage, WANT to go dry between waterings. If you keep them wet all the time theyre gonna keep looking puny. Hlollars recommendation to only water them (deeply) once a month is really good. If you can turn off the emitters around your more xeric plants, and just turn them on for one good watering a month, I think youll be a lot happier with them.

Are your boxwoods showing any signs at all of life? If they are, I recommend cutting them back pretty severely so you can get rid of any dead wood and allow them to reestablish. When you can post pictures we can probably get a better idea of what to do with them. Maybe they just need lipstick and nail polish!


    Bookmark   April 28, 2009 at 11:01PM
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dan_staley(5b/SS 2b AHS 6-7)

Let me just say that for one of the target demographics for that magazine, they would just have their yard help do this.

Surely you should have a mulch in your yard. And taking it off and composting it is dumb, anywhere. Put more chips down and call it good. There is no need to broadcast organic fertilizer either, if you did a decent job if preparing your soil (the same anywhere).

I haven't looked at the new one yet, but maybe I will and fire off a letter to the Editor telling them their tip is hooey.

And don't fert the Russian sage.



    Bookmark   April 29, 2009 at 5:37PM
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Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado

Hooey! Love it!

A few years ago I got a "free" subscription to Sunset for 6 months. When it ran out, they begged me, for a year, to renew it! I didn't!


    Bookmark   April 29, 2009 at 5:49PM
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dan_staley(5b/SS 2b AHS 6-7)

The MIL gets it and I don't care too much for that magazine, altho Sunset Western Garden Book is a bible. I can pull a recipe 9 of 12 months and some decent ideas, but the mag is barely greenwashing the consumer culture IMO. There are far, far, far better references for gardening calendars.


    Bookmark   April 29, 2009 at 10:12PM
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Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado

I agree, Dan! The Western Garden Book is wonderful! I dont even think of it as "Sunset!" I used it a LOT at the garden center where I worked before Paulinos, where, besides perennials, I was also selling trees and bushes and small fruit and............ Good, reliable information! But the magazine I pretty much put in the same category as P. Allen Smith! When it comes to gardening info, dont waste your time!

And, speaking of the devil, in the mail today I got a Senior Citizen Offer for the magazine for only $10 a year! I guess you get what you pay for! I guess Im gonna miss out on their Free Senior Citizen Gift - 3-part Series Sunset Secrets, and their Special Mountain Edition with localized information on gardening in my areabut Ill pass! I think I can find better "localized information on gardening in my area" right here on RMG!

Maybe we should all publish our own magazine!

    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 12:39AM
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You all crack me up! I love that SWGB for reference but have never read the magazine. Well, there was that one with the picture of the turkey on it, yum!

I have two small beds that are the only place I mulch and I don't remove then re-do. I leave it in.

But, hey, they got something right. Today, I went out and fed my roses.

I like the info I get here the most. I returned all the library books I rented back in early '07 and haven't bought a one. This is the best place for real, live tips!



    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 4:42PM
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tunnymowg(z6b Salt Lake)

I've had a subscription for a few years, since shortly after we moved out to UT from Virginia (and I happened to find the WGB on clearance at a Borders books in DC before we left!). I don't usually pay much attention to the gardening advice in the magazine. There are some neat landscaping, remodeling and decorating ideas occasionally though, and we did get the design for our raised beds from there, which was a good find. I also enjoy the travel/vacation articles. But mostly I like the recipes - a few are in our "regular rotation."

I don't ever remove mulch once it goes down...that seems a bit crazy! I have been wondering though since this topic came up, whether I can incorporate year-old mulch into the dirt below when I plant new stuff. I mulch with something called (I think) Gardner & Bloome "Farmyard Blend" - lots of compost and organic matter and a much smaller amount of really small wood chips, so it's not like a chunky bark mulch at all. The stuff I put down last spring needs added to anyway, and only the top inch or so has any loose woody stuff - underneath that is nice dark, rich stuff and then and inch or two below that is dirt. Can I just dig it into my new planting holes and cover with fresh on top afterward? Would be easier than moving it all aside first and then putting it back, since I have a LOT of stuff to plant.


    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 10:11PM
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Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado

Its hard to know without seeing it, Diane, but if there are more than a few chunks of wood that are still identifiable as "wood," Id rake it off first. If most of it is completely decomposed and there are very few pieces of wood left, dig it in. When I was digging in the garden yesterday a bunch of stuff got mixed into the soil, but I had raked most of it back first and, for the most part, the stuff that got mixed into the soil was the soft and mostly decomposed pieces that had been in direct contact with the soil. I dont think its gonna cause a problem.

What youve described sounds to me like it would be ok to mix it in.


    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 10:34PM
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tunnymowg(z6b Salt Lake)

OK great - thanks Skybird! =)

    Bookmark   April 30, 2009 at 10:58PM
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