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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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Frost-killed plants are ready for the compost

Question: I have a new compost bin for composting vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, eggshells, etc. I also have a lot of dead plants in pots that were killed by the frost. Can I use these in the compost bin?

compost

Dead plants, leaves and other garden debris can be tossed into the compost.

Unless they succumbed to some kind of disease, frost-killed potted plants, along with other end-of-the-season garden debris, are a good addition to compost, so toss them in and don’t worry about it. In fact, they add a much-needed source of “brown” to the nitrogen-rich “green” kitchen scraps, a mixture that’s necessary to produce good compost. Here’s a quick lesson to get your started, adapted from “The Dirt on Composting,” a booklet produced by the Metro Nashville, Tenn. Public Works Department: Continue reading

Fall leaves = free mulch

Question: We have several maple trees that blanket the lawn with leaves in the fall. Can we rake these off the lawn into the garden beds to use as mulch?

 

fall-leavesFall leaves are a good source of mulch for garden beds. As they decompose, they improve the soil structure and return nutrients to the soil, and as mulch, they help retain moisture in the garden beds and slow the growth of winter annual weeds that may pop up.

You could just rake them or blow them off the lawn directly into the beds, but it’s better to shred them before you pile them on top of the perennials and around trees and shrubs. Leaves that have been chopped up will decompose faster. A thick layer of unshredded leaves may also become matted and smother plants underneath, and may prevent water from reaching the soil. You can chop the leaves by mowing over them and collecting them in a bagging attachment, or by using a leaf shredder.

Here are guidelines for using leaves as mulch are from the UT/TSU Extension office:

*Use a 3- to 4-inch layer of shredded leaves around trees and shrubs in annual and perennial flower beds.

*Mix leaves into kitchen garden beds and in beds where you plant annual flowers. Most of the leaves will decompose before planting time next spring. A bonus: if you have heavy clay soil, a thick layer of leaves tilled into the soil will improve the soil structure.

*Be aware that oak leaves may change the pH of the soil over time, making it more acidic, so you may have to apply lime to maintain a favorable number. If your beds are mulched primarily with oak leaves, you should have the soil tested about every three years. Oak leaves are also tougher and decompose more slowly, so it’s especially important to chop them before you use them to cover your perennial beds.

Leaves can also be added to compost as one of the carbon-rich “brown” ingredients. If, after you’ve chopped and used as much of your bounty of leaves as possible on the garden beds, save the rest to use later in the compost, or for mulch again next spring. Bag the leaves and keep them dry so they don’t decompose by the time you need them again in a few months.

July garden tips & tasks

Things are heating up! Here’s a to-do list to keep the garden at its best this month.

Early in the month

It’s time for summer tomatoes! The fruits tend crack when watering is inconsistent, so keep the soil around tomatoes evenly moist.

 

ColeusColeus’ beauty is in the foliage, so when it begins to bloom, pinch off the flower spikes to encourage the plant to grow fuller and bushier. Wax begonias also benefit from periodic pinching to keep them from becoming leggy.

For the best flavor, pick squash and cucumbers while they are still small and tender. You can plant a second crop of bush beans, zucchini and cucumber, summer veggies that grow quickly.

Continue reading

Coffee grounds as mulch? Don’t do it!

I get coffee grounds from my local coffee shop. Can I use them directly on the soil as mulch (without mixing anything into it except to rake it into the soil)? The grounds are wet when I get them from the coffee shop. Should I let them dry out a little before putting it on the soil?

coffee groundsIn just about every listing of “ingredients” for a successful compost pile, you’ll find coffee grounds among the nitrogen-rich kitchen waste “green” ingredients that make up the mix. But it’s a mistake to use coffee grounds alone. They are very acidic, and over time will change the pH of the soil – the measure of its acidity or alkalinity – to the point that plants that prefer alkaline soil will suffer. Continue reading

November garden tips & tasks

Summer’s over, and the winter holidays are approaching. It’s time to begin thinking about spring. Naturalist Deb Beazley, who leads classes in organic gardening at Warner Parks Nature Center in Nashville, says it’s good to begin planning for next year, even while this year’s garden is still on your mind.

fall leaves

Rake fall leaves from the lawn and use them as mulch.

Fall is a good time to begin to prepare the space for next year’s garden, provided the ground isn’t wet. “At least begin to kill off the grass,” she says. You can accomplish that by covering the parts of the ground you want to turn into garden with clear plastic, newspapers or mulch. If you prefer to use raised beds, build them now. “Get the soil in and get it acclimated. Now is a good time to fill it up and let it settle,” Beazley suggests

Seasoned gardeners can think about bedding down the garden for wintertime. But rather than let the soil lie fallow, she recommends putting it to work by sowing a winter cover crop, such as buckwheat, winter rye or clover. Plan to work it back into the ground with shallow tilling early next spring, which puts nitrogen back into the soil.

It’s also leaf-gathering time, and those leaves you rake up can provide a deep layer of mulch on garden beds in the winter. While you’re leaf gathering, set some aside for later, too; the leaves you rake off the lawn this fall will come in handy next summer, when you can again use them for mulch.

“Cover them in bags so they don’t decompose by the time you need them in June,” Beazley suggests.

Other garden tips and tasks to enjoy this month:

∙ If your landscape is blessed with large trees, leaf removal may be your biggest garden task this month. Fall leaves are a great addition to the compost.

∙ If the weather is mild, you can still plant cool-weather ornamentals early this month – colorful kale, ornamental cabbage, or pansies if you enjoy having flowers in the landscape in winter. Place transplants close together for best color impact, and firm the soil around them to keep freezing and thawing soil from pushing them out of the ground (a process called “heaving”). Add mulch for more winter protection.

∙ Plant spring-flowering bulbs. As a general rule, plant bulbs – pointed end up – at a depth about three times the width of the bulb.

∙ Fall is a good time to plant shrubs. Dig a wide hole that is only as deep as the shrub’s root ball, place the shrub in the hole and fill in the soil. Be sure to firm the soil around the shrub’s root ball, water well, and add several inches of mulch.

 

For great new garden beds, start with the soil

Question: We are building a new house and would like to have flower gardens around it. How and when should we start a new garden?

soilTo start new flower beds, begin with the basics. The first step is to decide where, what shape and how large you want the beds to be, considering design elements, how you plan to use the garden and how the beds fit into your overall landscape plans. That may sound overwhelming, but if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you can start small and build and expand over time.
Start with the most basic element, the soil. Investing a little effort into it at the beginning ensures that the beds will get off to a good start and get better over the years.

The ground around new construction is often packed down and littered with nails, chunks of cement, wood chips and other building detritus, so start by cleaning up as much as possible. Then take the time to have a soil test done. This will let you know what nutrients the soil contains and what amendments may need to be added for what you are planning to plant. Your county’s extension office can provide the necessary materials and instructions and will test the soil for a small fee.
You may also need to improve the soil’s texture. The best soil for growing most plants is loamy, and holds together somewhat when you squeeze a handful of it, but crumbles easily. You can improve tight-clumped clay soil or loose, sandy soil by working in organic matter, such as compost or peat moss.

The soil improvement phase can be done soon, after the ground is no longer frozen. Later, when it’s time to select plants for the beds, consider the growing conditions (how much sun or shade, whether it’s a wet or dry area, etc.) along with what you like and what fits with your overall plan, your budget, and the time commitment you want to make in terms of watering, deadheading and grooming the beds.

Become familiar with the growth requirements, expected growing height and habits of the plants you plan to use. Consider that some perennials and flowers grown from bulbs may offer shorter bloom times but grow and develop over a period of time, while annuals can offer more quick-growing color, but are gone after one season. With a little planning, you can have flowers in bloom in your beds throughout spring, summer and fall.

Dead plants add life to the compost

I have pots of chrysanthemums and geraniums that were killed by the frost. If I put them in the compost are they likely to sprout seedlings when I put the compost in my garden later?

Dead plants, leaves and other garden debris can be tossed into the compost.

Dead plants, leaves and other garden debris can be tossed into the compost.

Unless they succumbed to some kind of disease, frost-killed plants such as the mums, along with other end-of-the-season garden debris, are a good addition to compost, so toss them in and don’t worry about it. If they are completely dead, they are not likely to re-sprout, say compost experts. If, however, the plants you toss in have mature seeds, the seeds may sprout if the compost doesn’t get hot enough.

Here’s a quick lesson on hot vs. cold compost: The best compost is made with a ratio of nitrogen-rich “green” material such as fruit and vegetable scraps, fresh grass clippings, green yard waste and so forth, and carbon-rich “brown” materials such as dry leaves, straw, soil, woody material and even newspaper and paper towel tubes. The ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is 30:1. A well-working pile will heat up to about 130 – 150 degrees F. (you can buy a compost thermometer that allows you to check the temperature). A pile that heats up to at least 130 degrees F will kill mature seeds of weeds and other plants that you put in there.

That may take more tending and precise calculation than an average gardener wants to do, though, so it’s more likely you’ll end up with a “cold” pile, which still makes compost, but more slowly – over the course of a few months instead of a few weeks. But again, if what you put in is completely dead, it will just rot and not sprout again.

Metro Nashville’s Public Works Department provides a booklet called “The Dirt on Composting” with simple guidelines to composting food and yard waste. Check it out here.