The lone voice of horticultural reason

The Aliens Are Laughing At Me

6-18-1998 — Weaving to and from every corner of my little half-acre this weekend I amused myself imagining what higher-intelligence, alien beings might think if observing my absolutely nonsensical approach to the duties at hand … planting a Rugosa rose (that I’ve been trying to get in since May) over here; moving a hosta that’s been bleaching to a shadier spot over there; finally popping in the last six impatiens to complete the annual bed by my house; running the wheelbarrow to the back yard for a load of compost; attempting to locate my white bucket of pea gravel; taking a break to mow enough of the side lawn to make it shut up; completing two more feet of stonework ringing the raised bed up near the street … the way we look at an anthill. That’s all I could think of. From high in the sky, the supreme aliens would look at me, and all the scurrying flower gardeners in the yards surrounding me, about the same way we look at an anthill: interesting for a few moments, then less and less so.

Except for vegetable gardeners. Observing vegetable gardeners, the aliens would probably perceive some merit to the whole exercise.

I’m writing this column on June 15, the average date for adding a two-inch layer of mulch-dried grass, shredded leaves, finished compost, cocoa bean husks-to our flower and vegetable gardens. We do this for three important reasons. First, this layer keeps the summer sun and heat from evaporating moisture from the soil, allowing us to water less often. Second, it acts as a weed barrier. Third, it improves the soil as it breaks down over the course of the summer and fall; you’re adding an organic layer that eventually becomes the soil.

Many gardeners still do this important task way too early in the growing season. It’s easy to see why. In April and May, right after planting or as our perennial flowers and vegetables begin to show themselves, it sure is an easy time to get it done. Even the most authoritative gardening book I own, The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening, states that mulches should be applied “in early spring.”

So why do some of the best gardeners in the state recommend waiting until mid-June, thus going against the advice of such a distinguished tome? They understand that most of the garden books written in this country don’t bother addressing the peculiarities of Minnesota’s climate. Even monthly, national gardening magazines do not waste valuable editorial space by adding, “and for you poor slobs up in Minnesota, attempting to practice something akin to gardening, remember that, in addition to all the other handicaps you face, you must hold off on mulching your pitiful little frozen garden patches until mid-June, because you need to wait until the sun gets high enough in the sky to heat up and sterilize your soil, if you should live that long.” It’s easier to simply ignore us.

Unlike 90% of the country, our soil chills down in the fall, freezes in the winter, then sits damp in the spring. Many funguses flourish in damp conditions, viruses and the eggs of numerous pests are not killed by our winters, and if left unchecked any of these can cause major damage to vegetable and flower gardens. If you’ve never had these problems and always mulch early, or worse yet, lay down mulch for the next year after cleaning out your beds in the fall, consider yourself lucky. Your soil may slowly be getting sick, and one of these summers all sorts of nasty things could pounce.

Let that happen and you’ll be the most frantic ant the aliens have ever seen.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener