When I got in my car to run to campus around noon today the temperature read 98 degrees F! It is hot! While we can go inside air conditioned buildings (and cars), our plants do not have that luxury and each night I come home to some pretty thirsty plants. I have 29 containers (hey, I’m down from the 32 that I had last year!) and they do require daily watering in this heat. Plus as I mentioned last time I am running behind the ideal planting schedule and I am still putting a few plants here or there (Hockanum Greenhouses, http://hockanumindustries.org, in Mansfield has a buy 1, get 1 free sale going on right now for annuals and herbs). These plants require daily attention and as they are scattered throughout the gardens, it isn’t possible to just turn the sprinkler on. 

There’s not too much I can do besides water the containers and the newbies, but for the rest of my beds, having them mulched really saves me a lot of watering time. I generally use several types of mulches each year depending on what effect I want plus what’s available to me. For general ornamental/perennial beds shredded bark is fine. I generally prefer hemlock or cedar because it lasts longer – 2 to 3 years and I like the natural color. Only 4 to 6 yards a year are ordered, at around $36 per yard, so it is not too huge of an investment. I like to think the bark mulch is a by-product of the lumber or paper industry but it is hard to find a supplier that knows where their bark mulch comes from. I have read articles that suggest cypress mulch is not sustainable as the cypress groves on the gulf coast are not able to reproduce with great success once the mature trees are harvested. Plus, I think that contamination from the BP oil well will be another challenge for many plant species in that area.

Shredded bark mulch around flowers and ornamentals

When my parents lived in Woodstock, CT they were able to go to their town waste recycling center and get all the shredded mulch they wanted for free. When the roadside crews removed and chipped the trees and shrubs along the side of the roads, they piled it high at the transfer station and it was free to all residents who wanted to haul some away. This option is not available in my town but I would definitely see if it was available in yours. Yes, the mixed hardwood mulches do not last as long as the phenol- and resin-laden softwood ones but it is reusing and recycling at the local level.

For my herb garden I admit to liking buckwheat hull mulch, which has become harder to come by, and have settled for cocoa hull mulch which has a similar texture. The finer texture of the mulch blends well with the finer textures of herb plants. Three bags serve me well for a year as it is not a terribly large garden. In the pathways of the herb garden I use crush stone. For paths in my White Garden and the Woodland Garden, I like the large bark chips. They take forever to break down and hold up well when trampled. These have become a little harder to obtain in recent years and right now I am searching for a source of replenishment.

Cocoa hull mulch in the herb garden

The vegetable garden gets whatever’s available. Generally I get free wood shavings from my neighbor who is a finished carpenter and grass clippings from a few lawn cuttings during the growing season. So in the paths of my raised bed gardens first I put down newspaper and then I cover it with a couple of inches of wood shavings. This keeps weeding the paths to a minimum. Around the vegetable plants I generally put the grass clippings which are a good source of nutrients including nitrogen (usually the grass clippings are left in place but I do collect them for mulch 2 or 3 cuttings per year). The following year I incorporate what is left in the paths into the raised beds, along with a nitrogen fertilizer, and put down new newspaper and wood shavings.

Just recently, I struck pay dirt or pay mulch, so to speak. Someone called the soil testing lab and offered 15 bales of straw mulch in the next town over. They were readily collected (not on salaried time) and distributed among fellow UConn gardeners, the student gardeners at Spring Hill Farm at UConn and one lucky soil test lab customer at the right place at the right time. I brought home the 3 bales that I could fit in my car and have been spreading it right after watering parts of the vegetable garden not covered by grass clippings. Hopefully I will finish this task this week and everything in the vegetable garden will be mulched!

Straw mulch around the cukes with wood shavings between raised beds

Why mulch? Mostly to keep the weeds and watering frequency down but also an organic mulch can reduce soil temperatures, increase the soil organic matter as it decomposes, provide food and energy for necessary soil microbes, decrease the incidence of plant diseases, supply plants with nutrients, improve soil structure, and the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil, among other benefits. So my question would be why not mulch? See our fact sheet at http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/factsheets/tp_05_mulchbasics.html

Another gardening task that I missed the deadline for was pruning the raspberries. After years of growing the summer-bearing, purple-fruiting ‘Royalty’, I tore them out and replaced the small row with 6 ever-bearing red raspberry ‘Heritage’ plants. “Caroline’ would have also been an excellent choice. The reason I picked an everbearer is because you can chop all canes to the ground in late fall and the new canes produced in the spring will fruit come September or so. Well after doing good for about a decade, I did not get to it last fall so right now I am harvesting dozens of plump, juicy, flavorful red raspberries each time I go out into the garden. Unfortunately between me and the robins and catbirds, few are making it into the house! I will cut down all canes this autumn as I like the larger, later harvest from which I can make jam or at least a raspberry pie. Also, this cuts down on disease problems.

For years, because of the typically unwanted and uninvited canine and feline visitors to our property, we were lucky, I suppose, to avoid any feuds with chipmunks, voles and rabbits. Now that this neighborhood strike force has died out and been replaced with indoor cats and invisible fences, the rodents seek revenge and have been devastating many of my gardens. For weeks I have been replanting and watering daily the annuals that the chipmunks have decided are an invasion of their turf. Voles dig up the sunflowers, eat their roots and leave the stems with the leaves attached at the site as if to signal their superiority. Rabbits leave me with topless plants and seem partial to zinnias, Swiss chard and snow-on-the-mountain. I suspect I would tolerate their nibbling except that snow-on-the-mountain is one of my favorite self-seeding annuals and zinnias are among my favorite cut flowers. Right now, I only have one snow-on-the-mountain seedling left and I have surrounded it with chicken wire.

So cute but boy they eat a lot!

What to do? For the present time I am using hot pepper dusts and sprays but I’ll keep you posted if this escalades. Another promising control is an increasing population of native snakes now that the cats that used to prey on them have gone to that giant catnip patch in the sky!

Stay cool! Stay vigilant in the garden.