April 29, 2011
You may not find the phrase "mulch volcanoes" in the dictionary, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, but the concept has been gaining ground and can create problems.
"To landscapers, arborists and gardeners, this is a phenomenon that wasn't so prevalent years ago," said Martha Smith. "In recent years, people have begun mounding mulch around the base of trees creating the 'mulch volcano.' New problems have emerged because of this practice," said Smith.
"Tree bark is meant to protect the trunk. It works best in the air and light. If you pile mulch onto the bark, it is now exposed to dark and moisture. Bark will begin to rot, and rotted bark cannot protect the tree from insects and diseases. In fact, diseases grow better in this type of environment."
Smith said mulch breakdown can produce heat—with a compost pile reaching temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Mulch piled high around the tree trunk can get hot. This heat may directly kill the inner bark/phloem layer of young trees, or may prevent the natural hardening-off period that plants must go through in the fall in preparation for the winter.
"Mulch piled around the trunk promotes the growth of secondary roots, which can encircle the trunk and choke off the trees main roots," she cautioned. "Some trees, such as maples, have shallow roots and deep mulch encourages these roots to grow into it.
"A mountain of mulch piled high against a tree trunk will not kill the tree immediately – it results in slow death. Homeowners don't associate their actions with tree decline several years after they overmulched a tree."
There are positive reasons to mulch, Smith added.
"Mulching helps maintain moisture. Evaporation is reduced, and the need for watering can be minimized," she said. "It also helps control weeds. A mulch layer will suppress weeds from germinating at the soil line. Remember, lawn mower clippings blown onto mulch and animals may bring in weed seeds that may germinate on top of the mulch."
Mulch serves as nature's insulating blanket. Many organic types of mulch can improve soil aeration, structure (aggregation of soil particles) and drainage over time as they decompose.
"Mulching also lowers maintenance needs and can reduce the likelihood of damage from lawn and weed trimmers when the equipment gets too close," she said. "Mulch can give planting beds a uniform, well-cared for look."
Mulch should be between 2 to 4 inches deep. Often, when applied, it appears deeper, but after settling you should end up with a 2-inch matted layer.
"Organic mulches include wood chips, pine needles, hardwood or softwood bark, cocoa hulls, leaves, compost mixes, and a variety of other products usually derived from plants," said Smith. "Organic mulches decompose in the landscape at different rates, depending on the material.
"Those that decompose faster must be replenished more often. Herein lies the problem. Some mulches, such as cypress mulch, remain intact for years, but they turn a gray-tan color. People prefer the "fresh" look of new mulch and top dress annually, not considering the existing mulch depth," Smith said.
Deep mulch, she added, can lead to excess moisture in the root zone, leading to root rot and insect and disease problems. If mulch is too heavy, you can deprive the roots of oxygen and greatly reduce the soil's ability to dry out. Thick layers of fine mulch can become matted and may prevent the penetration of water and air, whereas anaerobic "sour" mulch may give off odors.
Source: Martha A. Smith, Extension Educator, Horticulture (serving West Central Illinois and surrounding counties), firstname.lastname@example.org
April 29, 2011
I traveled to the north side of Chicago today. It is always an adventure for a southsider like me to travel to thenorth side with its densely populated neighborhoods, angled streets and resident parking areas. Finding a parking space can be like a quest for gold.
I went north to attend the Chicago International Charter School-Irving Park Elementary School's unveiling of their new Solar Energy and composting systems. I was invited to the event by Chicago Master Gardener intern Ann Kauth. She did a great job working to organize the event.
The star of the day was their new composting system made from plastic barrels. The 12+ barrels are meant to compost all the school's cafeteria and garden waste. The compost barrels have knobs on them to allow the students to turn them. Eventually they would like to sell their compost at the Independence Park Farmer's Market. The composting system was designed be students working with Architreasures.
There are also plans to expand their garden. The school is also raising chickens.
Cook County Extension Youth Gardening program organizer, Kate Weinans was at the event demonstrating how to do worm composting.
This school is setting an example for other schools in the integration of environmental education into the curriculum.
April 28, 2011
As gardening season begins, many homeowners are again faced with soil conditions that are difficult to work in and may cause problems for plant growth. Some of the most common garden soil problems in northern Illinois relate to compaction. Especially soils in newer subdivisions can often be more compacted and in a less desirable condition since many such areas have been mass graded with much of the topsoil being scraped away or realigned in the soil profile as well as being compacted by heavy machinery. "There are some options to help improve such soil conditions, but there are no miracle cures", says John Church, University of Illinois Extension Educator, Natural Resources.
The "tilth" of the soil, or it's workability in terms of ease of tillage, conditions for plant growth, etc. should ideally be somewhat like the consistency of used coffee grounds. That type of "crumbly or granular" soil structure makes it easier to work in and provides for better air, water and nutrient movement. Organic matter is a key element to providing such conditions. Unfortunately, in many cases the soil in many gardens and yards is hard and platy instead of crumbly. The organic matter may have been substantially removed when the topsoil is removed during construction. Organic matter can be identified by the darkness of the color of the soil with darker soils have more organic matter, such as much of Illinois' soils formed under native prairie vegetation.
There are several ways to improve the tilth of the soil, most of which are based on adding organic matter into the soil. That can be done by adding materials such as well-finished compost to the soil before tillage, growing cover crops and tilling them into the soil, or using raised beds with a newly created mix of soil and organic matter. All of these techniques can still take years to improve existing soil conditions. However, by creating raised beds the conditions may be able to be improved more quickly. Fall can be an ideal time to add organic matter before tilling the garden, but it can be done in the spring if the soil is allowed to dry out properly before tillage. Do not till garden soil when it is too wet or the problems may become worse.
Organic matter can be added also by mulching around existing plants in the garden during the growing season with organic material. It can be added to shrub planting beds by similar mulching or backfilling with a new soil mix when adding plants.
Once soil conditions have improved, it is best to try to keep foot traffic confined to areas of the garden that will not be planted to reduce compaction buildup. Create planting areas that can be reached for weeding and harvesting from given pathways. Some gardeners are also eliminating tillage to reduce compaction from the equipment.
Deep rooted, native plants can be planted to add organic matter to the soil, too, but such areas would not normally be returned to an area for an annual garden bed.
For further information on garden soils, compost and related topics gardeners can contact their local U. of I. Extension office.
Source: John Church, Extension Educator, Natural Resources Management, email@example.com
April 11, 2011
Gardening is an adventure, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist, but not one without challenges.
"I have been gardening for over 50 years," said Ron Wolford. "It all started with growing a bean plant in Mrs. Pratt's fourth grade class at Tyng School in Peoria, Illinois. Later I spent many hours with my four brothers growing vegetables on our family's two acre plot on my grandfather's farm near Hanna City. Even in my old age, I still marvel at the miracle of seeing a plant grow from seed.
"Gardening is an adventure complete with heat, rain, droughts, insects and diseases. The following are some of my thoughts on how to make that adventure a little less stressful and some resources for further information."
1. Improve Your Soil
"The foundation of your garden is your soil," he said. "Loose, fertile, well-drained soil will make your gardening experience a good one."
If you are a new gardener have your soil tested. A basic soil test will tell you if you need to improve the nutrient levels of your soil. Soil tests will run $15-$20. Test your soil every three to five years. If you live in an area with heavy, clay soils make a practice of adding a two to four inch layer of organic matter to your garden in the spring or fall and dig it in six to eight inches deep. Fall is probably the best time to do this because the organic matter will have time to start to breakdown before winter sets in.
Resources: Soil Testing Labs: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/soiltest/
2. Choose the best location
"Another essential gardening task is choosing the best location for your garden," said Wolford. "Most vegetables and flowers need at least six to eight hours of full sunlight for best growth."
Choose a site for your garden as far away as possible from trees and shrubs to avoid competition from their root systems for water and nutrients. Select a site close to a water source.
Resources: Make Good Use of Your Location: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/vegguide/step01.cfm
3. Water Properly
"Vegetables and flowers need at least one inch of water per week," he said. "Buy a rain gauge to check rainfall amounts in the garden. Water the soil to a depth of at least six to eight inches.
"Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day. You will lose 50% of moisture applied through evaporation when watering between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m."
Water at the base of the plant to avoid wetting the foliage. Wetting the foliage during each watering is just inviting disease. Use soaker hoses instead of overhead sprinklers for watering. If you use overhead sprinklers, try to water early enough in the day to allow plants to dry before nightfall. Use a two to four inch layer of mulch around plants to conserve moisture and to prevent fruit rot of vegetables.
Resources: Success with Watering: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/champaign/homeowners/050613.html
Different Watering Methods: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/champaign/homeowners/050628.html
4. Buy Disease Resistant Varieties
Wolford said the best way to control disease is to purchase disease resistant varieties. Verticillium and Fusarium Wilt are two major diseases that attack tomatoes. Tomato varieties like 'Celebrity' and "Better Boy" have a built in resistance to these diseases. Some annuals and perennials have a built in resistance to powdery mildew. Avoid working in the garden when plants are wet. Diseases thrive in wet conditions. Proper spacing of plants will allow good air circulation around plants allowing them to dry quickly after watering or rain. Keeping plants fertilized and growing vigorously plants will help them to withstand disease problems.
Resources: Perennial Plant Problems: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/focus/perennial.cfm
Common Problems for Vegetable Plants: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/vegproblems/
5. Use Integrated Pest Management Techniques for Insect Control
"Try to avoid using insecticides in the garden," he said. "If you must use them, use only as needed. Some insecticides will kill bees. Bees are needed for pollination in order for fruit production to occur. Identify the insect before you use insecticides or any alternative treatment."
Many local Extension offices will help you with insect identification. Monitor your garden on a daily basis for insects. Don't forget to check under the leaves. Insect populations can increase rapidly. Clean up your garden at the end of the growing season. Many insects will overwinter in debris left in the garden.
Resources: Pests and Disease: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/hort/4.html
Garden, Lawn, and Landscape Pests: Integrated Pest Management (IPM) - eXtension http://bit.ly/ffpCUj
6. Start a Compost Pile
"Composting is nature's way of recycling and is the key to healthy soil and a healthy environment," he noted. "It is a satisfying way to turn your fruit, vegetable and yard trimmings into a dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling soil conditioner.
"Composting saves you money by replacing store-bought soil conditioners, it helps garden and house plants grow by improving the fertility of your soil, it saves water by helping the soil hold moisture and reducing water runoff and it benefits the environment by recycling valuable organic resources, reducing air and water pollution from refuse trucks and runoff, and extending the life of our landfills."
Check with your local municipality about any regulations on composting before starting a composting project.
Resources: Composting Central http://web.extension.illinois.edu/compostingcentral/
7. Use Mulches
"Use mulches in your garden during the growing season and during the winter," he said. "Mulches conserve moisture, prevent weed growth and help to maintain even soil temperatures."
During the growing season put down a two to four inch layer of organic mulch around plants after the soil has warmed up in the spring. Be prepared to replenish the mulch during the growing season as it will gradually decompose. Organic mulches can be turned into the soil at the end of the growing season. Plastic mulch can be used for warm-loving plants like tomato, pepper, pumpkin, cucumber and sweet potato. Soil temperatures under black plastic mulch will be 10 degrees higher than bare soil. Organic mulches applied around perennials in late fall after the ground has frozen will help to prevent freezing and thawing which can expose roots to cold temperatures.
Resources: Mulch to Conserve Moisture: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/champaign/homeowners/000506.html
8. Do Some Research
Get to know your plants before you invest your hard earned dollars to purchase them. Checking out the growing requirements and potential insect and disease problems of plants before you purchase them can save you a lot of headaches down the line.
"Read your garden catalogs," Wolford recommended. "Most catalogs have a lot of good basic information on the seeds and plants they are selling. Check out your local library for gardening information. Do some research on the internet. You can't go wrong by checking on plant information provided by your local Extension Service."
Many Extension offices have Master Gardeners available during the growing season to answer gardening questions. Most state Extension websites provide a wealth of gardening information.
Resources: State Extension Offices: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/
Hort Corner: University of Illinois Extension: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/hort/
All-America Selections: http://www.all-americaselections.org/
9. Become a Master Gardener
Think about becoming an Illinois Master Gardener.
"Anyone can become a Master Gardener; you don't need a degree in horticulture," he said. "You do, however, need to have a sincere desire to learn and share home horticulture information, have practical experience or knowledge of gardening, be willing to follow U of I pest control recommendations and home horticulture information, be able to communicate effectively and to be able to devote time to training sessions and volunteering. The knowledge you learn in the training sessions and the practical experience you will receive from your volunteer efforts, plus what you will learn from fellow Master Gardeners will make you a better gardener."
Resources: Illinois Master Gardener program: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/mg/
10. Learn from Gardening Challenges
"As I mentioned before, gardening is an adventure. All gardens will have problems," he said. "Every growing season is different with challenges and successes.
"Challenges from my gardening past in Chicago include the summer of 1988 with a drought and 47 days with high temps in the 90's and in 1999 we had temperatures over 100 degrees, topping out at 106 degrees on July 13. On that day I was driving around the Southside of Chicago checking out some of our garden sites and stopped by our community garden for seniors at a Chicago Housing Authority development and noticed a 103 year old senior in the garden hoeing. I never complained about the heat again. That was also the year we started collecting water in rain barrels at some of our garden sites."
In 1991 Wolford started a 1,000 square foot garden at the Cook County Jail. In July of that year there was a nine-inch rainfall, flooding the garden.
"People were swimming in low spots on the Dan Ryan Expressway," he recalled. "Many people were skeptical that the garden would survive. We replanted and had a small harvest. Today we will be starting our 19th year at the Cook County Jail Garden which has recently added a greenhouse and now grows vegetables on 15,000 square feet of land.
"So get ready to enjoy another growing season with both its challenges and rewards."