Posts by Category : Gardening Tips

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How to Install and Maintain a Fescue Lawn in Memphis

Our fescue seed has arrived!

There are 3 primary choices for turf grass in Memphis, bermuda, zoysia and fescue. Bermuda, usually a hybrid known as Tifway 419 in Memphis, generally requires a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight and Zoysia requires a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight, depending upon the cultivar (we recommend Meyers Zoysia almost exclusively). Bermuda and zoysia are warm season turf grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis during the spring and summer months, going dormant in fall.

In contrast, fescue is a cool season grass, meaning that it engages in photosynthesis during the fall and spring, only slowing during the coldest months in Memphis, January and February, and the hottest months in Memphis, July and August. Many people wrongly say that fescue is a shade grass. That statement is misleading. Fescue does well as an under-canopy grass because it wakes up as deciduous trees are losing their leaves and going dormant. This distinction is important because if you plant fescue under evergreen trees, trees that do not lose their leaves in the fall, it likely will not get enough sunlight to survive. Fescue, like zoysia, requires at least 4 hours of sunlight but it can get it during the fall and spring during the period that zoysia is  dormant and not engaging in photosynthesis.

Another important fact about fescue lawns in Memphis is that Memphis’s heat and humidity is very hard on it in July and August. You will lose a percentage of it each year during this time period and you will need to over-seed every fall.

A final distinction between fescue and the warm season grasses, like zoysia and bermuda, is that fescue is usually installed by seed, while zoysia and bermuda are usually installed by sod in Memphis. This is because the best types of zoysia and bermuda are hybrids and/or sterile cultivars, propagated vegetatively, some still in patent, and are only available from sod farms. Though it is possible to get common bermuda and common zoysia seed, the seed produces turf that is unattractive, leggy, and without the self-repairing quality and other improved qualities possessed by the types available at sod farms.

In contrast, though some sod farms offer fescue sod, the resulting plants are no better than that you could grow yourself from seed. You will still have to over-seed it every year. Thus, when smart Memphians choose a fescue lawn, they usually install it by seed rather than by sod.

So, what are the steps to creating a fescue lawn?

 

Choose the Location

It is important to remember that, contrary to what is commonly said, fescue is not a “shade turf grass.” In truth, there is no such thing as a true shade turf grass that would succeed in Memphis. Your fescue will still require at least 4 hours of sunlight after leaf drop. So, if you try to use it in areas that are deeply shaded by evergreen trees, the results will not be great. Fescue can be used in open areas or areas under deciduous trees.

 

Get Rid of Whatever Is There Now

Invariably, the area you are looking to turn into a fescue lawn will have a combination of mostly failed turf grass and weeds. You should kill all of it before you apply the seed. There are a few options for doing this.

The first option, the one I like best, is to spray all the plants with a glyphosate based herbicide. It was originally sold under the brand name, Roundup, but is now off-patent and sold under many different brand names, including one that we carry, a glyphosate concentrate called, “Eraser.” Glyphosate is a good way to get rid of the unwanted plants because it is a systemic that is absorbed through the foliage, killing the entire plant, rather than just the canopy. It is not absorbed through the roots and does not “sterilize the soil” or in any way make the area unplantable. You can, in theory, plant or seed the next day.

It is important to remember that, because you have to over-seed fescue at least once annually to keep it looking full and green, you won’t be able to make use of pre-emergent herbicides to the extent that you would with a turf grass that did not require annual over-seeding. You might be able to do one application of pre-emergent in the spring but that’s it for the year. Any more than that and you risk the failure of your fall over-seeding efforts. So, making sure that all weeds and existing grass in the area are dead before seeding will give you a much better start.

One big drawback to using glyphosate as a weed killer is that, if you are attempting to kill existing warm season turf grass, like bermuda or zoysia, it will only work when the grass is green. Once the grass has gone dormant, i.e. turned tan, glyphosate will not kill it.

But, some people are ideologically opposed to using Roundup. We believe it is a safe chemical when used correctly and it is kept off of your skin and is not ingested. However, reasonable minds may disagree. Accordingly, if you are one of those people, you must use an alternative approach.

First, you can use some herbicide as an alternative to glyphosate that you find more acceptable. The trouble is that the only ones I know about tend to be only a contact herbicide, rather than a systemic, meaning that it takes repeated applications to truly kill the plant. The most common alternative is usually homemade, using cleaning vinegar as its base. If this approach interests you, there are numerous recipes online. Just keep in mind, whereas glyphosate does not “poison the soil,” you’ll want to research the half-life and toxicity of any ingredient you use in a homemade herbicide to determine whether it will make growing other plants in that area more difficult in the future. Since I’ve never used this approach, I’m not qualified to provide further advice.

Second, you can till the ground up completely, an effort that would help with soil preparation any way, and then use a garden rake to rake out all the weeds and undesired plants. The advantage of this approach is that you will aerate the soil in the process, improve seed-soil contact, a critical factor in seed germination, and you can level the surface in the process if it has hills and valleys you want to eliminate. Depending upon the size of the area and level of compaction, even if you use an herbicide, you might still want to till, rake out, and level the area anyway.

The disadvantages to tilling are twofold. First, even a small part of the root system of a perennial weed left behind will very likely grow back into a new plant, meaning you have not really gotten rid of existing weeds. Second, every square foot of land on the surface of the planet is a seed bank. Seeds germinate when they are at or near the surface. If stored below the surface, they can remain dormant for many year, even thousands of years in some places, reawakening when brought to the surface by tilling. So, though your fescue may germinate very well when applied to freshly tilled ground, so will the weed turned up from the seed bank just below the surface.

Now, to be sure, you can kill the broad leaf weeds that emerge with a selective herbicide after a couple of months but just know that it is something you will have to contend with if you till heavily. Besides, if the soil is severely compacted, you may have to till anyway.

Third, you can cover the ground in plastic tarps for a few weeks, a technique called “soil solarization” to heat up the soil and kill not only weeds but even sterilize some of the seeds. My reading suggests this would take 6-8 weeks when hot or 8-12 weeks when cool or in shade. Since I’ve never actually used this technique, I am not in a position to give much advice but there is a tremendous amount of information about it on the internet.

The advantages to this method are that it allows you to avoid chemicals you may not be comfortable using and, if internet logic holds true, it kills turf grass even if it is dormant and sterilizes seed near the surface. The disadvantages are that it takes a lot of plastic, which in and of itself is not environmentally friendly, is costly, , and takes a really long time, a process you should have started weeks ago if you were going to install a fescue lawn this fall. It also might damage the root systems of desirable ornamental trees that would normally share that area with your turf grass. If you are interested in learning more about using this approach to preparing the soil, I found the article at this link to be informative and it is from a reliable academic source.

 

Prepare the Soil

Every gardener should have a good garden fork in their shed like our commercial grade Hisco model.

The best way to prepare large areas of soil for turf grass seed is to till it at a depth of at least 3-4 inches, tilling in compost or soil conditioner (a mix of finely ground pine bark called ‘pine fines’, sand, and leaf compost), at the rate of about 1 cubic yard per 500-1000 square feet. Roots need oxygen and moisture to grow and this is the best way to give it to them, relieving compaction, exposing the soil to oxygen, and improving the moisture infiltration potential of the soil.

But, tilling the soil is not always practical or necessary. Sometimes, if the area is small and not excessively compacted, after killing off weeds and competing grasses, simply adding a half an inch to an inch of soil to the surface is adequate preparation for good seed soil contact and germination. For example, a 10×10 feet area, 100 square feet, would typically only need about 8 cubic feet of some sort of a loose growing medium added to it. One could use “soil conditioner,” some sort of “top soil” or our 4-8 bags of our Fox Farms “Original Planting Mix” as a loose medium for the seed to germinate in.

But, even for this method, I like taking a garden fork, which has stiffer and stronger tines than a pitch fork, dropping it in the ground every six inches or so, and rocking it back and forth to loosen the soil, before putting the additional soil down. The key is that if the soil is not loose enough and there is not enough oxygen in the soil, the seed will germinate but the grass will not perform as well when it heats up in July and August because it was not able to develop deep enough roots.

 

Put Down the Grass Seed

Most tall fescue seed is sold in blends with improved varieties/cultivars that send out rhizomes, that have a more pleasing color, etc. included. The fescue seed blend that I like best, for now, and what we sell the most of, is “Five Star Fescue.” It is a blend of 5 of the best varieties/cultivars of turf type fescue. Apply it at the rate of 6-8 pounds per 1,000 square feet for a new lawn or 3-5 pounds per 1,000 square feet for over-seeding.

As a cautionary note, many brands of fescue seed, including Five Star, also offer a “deep shade mix” alternative that will purportedly perform well in heavily shaded areas, i.e. under evergreen trees. I recommend that you do not use this. The supposed shade tolerance is achieved by adding in some variety of creeping red fescue and the tradeoff for using it is too great, namely a loss of tread tolerance. The weight of a squirrel running across it is likely to kill it!

Fescue seed germinates best when soil temperatures are between 50 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, corresponding to daytime temperatures of 60 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, I like to wait until I see a 10 day forecast with no day higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and most days no higher than 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In my experience, in Memphis, that is usually around October 1. Putting down the seed much sooner than that risks subjecting it to heat stress that will cause it to stall and die before it develops a deep enough root system. Doing it after November 1 risks not giving it enough time to develop a deep enough root system before the following Memphis summer, decreasing the percentage of your fescue turf that makes it through July and August.

Generally, I also like to hold back about ten percent of the seed I put down so that I can fill in the inevitable gaps 2-3 weeks after the initial dispersal of seed.

Note that “damping off disease” is often a problem when growing anything from seed. Damping off disease is when a seed is subjected to excess moisture after it has passed the initial germination stage, causing fungal problems. (For more information about damping off disease, try the article at this link.) The two factors for damping off disease seem to only occur in fescue it is put down too early in the fall or if it is seeded in the spring, something I advise against doing anyway.

Recently a customer asked if Five Star Fescue is coated in an anti-fungal chemical to prevent damping off disease. This is a common approach to preventing damping off disease and many product labels, usually those with flashy labels sold in big box stores, indicate their product has such a coating. Five Star Fescue says nothing about such a coating so I asked my supplier representative. He said he felt sure it did but has yet to get back to me with evidence that it does. Regardless, the strains of fescue in Five Star are known to be especially resistant to disease of all kinds and I have never had a problem with damping off disease when using Five Star Fescue. In contrast, I have seen much lower success rates when using big box store brands that clearly state on the front their seed has an anti-fungal coating.

 

Cover the Seed in Pine Needles

One bale of our Pennington Pine Needles will cover 100-150 square feet of fescue seed.

The seed needs to be kept moist and shaded in the first 5-15 days. Earlier in my career, I took the advice of others and used wheat straw to accomplish this objective. But, I found that it contains too much weed seed and holds moisture a little too well, leading to an unsightly rotting mess down the road. So, I switched to pine needles and I have gotten much better results. You will too.

It doesn’t take a lot, maybe 1 or 2 inches. Most of it will get sucked up into the mower when you give the grass its first cut. Just don’t put it down as heavily as you would if you were using it as mulch in a planting bed.

 

Keep It Constantly Moist for 5-15 Days

Ideally, you would have flooded the area you are seeding a few days prior to seeding so it develops a deep reservoir while allowing it to dry out enough so the surface is not muddy when you are putting down the seed. Then, after installing it, keep it constantly moist until the grass seed has come up at least an inch and appears mostly germinated, gradually tapering the water over the next few weeks. Subjecting it to torrential downpours of water will cause pooling of the seed so that the turf does not grow evenly. Though it is not always practical to do so, when I can, I like to lightly mist it 3-5 times per day during the first few days. Otherwise, a morning and evening irrigation can be sufficient for the first 5 days, dropping to once daily after that, then tapering off even more after it begins to develop. Because new turf has a very shallow root system, in the first 3 weeks, at least, it is entirely dependent on the moisture level in the top ½ to 1 inch of soil.

 

Fertilize

Many people recommend fertilizing at the same time as or before you put down the grass seed. I don’t and I eschew soil testing too unless there has been some kind of historic problem with not being able to grow things in your soil. I can get a good read on soil by feel and texture.

However, others swear by soil testing and say it should always be done before planting anything. To get your soil tested professionally, in Memphis, call or email the University of Tennessee extension office for Shelby County or reach out to Waypoint Analytical in Bartlett, Tennessee for private testing. I tend to prefer the latter but many people swear by the former. I like the format of the test results that I get from Waypoint Analytical and have a friend who works there.

 

When the grass gets to be about 2 inches, I like to fertilize with a ½ pound per 100 square feet 12-6-6 time release fertilizer called “Grower’s Special,” made by Hi-Yield. You could probably fertilize before then but I tend to think the grass won’t benefit from fertilization before then. The following late February or early March I will increase that to 1 ½ pounds per 100 square feet for the spring fertilization and do the same every year around that time and again in early October.

There are more aggressive fertilizing regimen, if one is striving for perfection, that will produce marginally better results, but require much more effort. This simpler method has always served me well.

 

Cut the Grass

Cool season turf installed by author after first cut in midtown Memphis, Tennessee

I like to wait until the grass gets to about 5 inches and then cut it back to 3 or 4 inches. Many say cut it back to 2 or 2.5 but I prefer keeping it longer. Fescue doesn’t send out lateral runners as aggressively as warm season turf grasses and seems to benefit from

having longer blades. Cut it high and cut it frequently.

 

Maintenance

Fescue turf thins and experience some dieback in Memphis every year in late Summer. Therefore, unlike in areas farther north, we have to over-seed our fescue lawns every fall, usually at the rate of 3-5 pounds of fescue per 1,000 square feet. Many say that you should also over-seed in early spring, when soil temperatures are briefly in the correct temperature range again for seed germination. But, my reading and experience suggests that spring seeding of fescue is wasteful in that the grass that emerges from spring seed does not have enough time to develop a deep enough root system to withstand our heat and humidity in July and August. Of course, if you do over-seed in early spring, you’ll likely enjoy a thicker lawn in late spring, at least.

As previously mentioned, I like to apply 1.5 pounds of 12-6-6 time release fertilizer each spring and fall.

Also as previously described, getting a weed free lawn is a little more challenging with a fescue lawn in our part of the country. The primary weapon for weed elimination in turf grass is granular pre-emergent but you really can’t use that weapon with fescue turf in Memphis. You might be able to use it in early spring but I tend not to do so because I worry that, even though the labels say it only lasts for 3 months or less, it might interfere with seed germination when I over-seed in the fall. I am also generally more tolerant of weeds in turf than others too.

Daffodils naturalized in a cool season turf lawn of Five Star Fescue installed by the author in a yard near Overton Park in midtown Memphis, Tennessee

In fact, I like to add drifts of Durana White Clover seed in the fall to my fescue turfs I install. Durana White Clover is a patented variety of white clover owned by Pennington. Like all leguminous plants (those in the pea family), it has the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the ambient air and fix it in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with beneficial bacteria in the soil. I like the look of occasional drifts of white flowering plants and the Durana White Clover is a dwarf that never gets too tall.

Of course, any selective post-emergent herbicide is going to kill it but I find I only have to use that stuff every 2-3 years when the weeds get really bad and I want a fresh start. Then, I just buy another quarter pound of Durana White Clover and toss it out, like I’m feeding chickens, as Greg Touliatos is fond of saying, the randomness of the application method contributing to the beauty of how it interacts aesthetically with the fescue turf.

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. 

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FALL GARDEN MAINTENANCE TASKS

No plant is more synonymous with the fall season than mums! We have them in white, red, pink, orange, yellow, and we might even get other colors in later this season.

 

Plants become aware that fall is approaching well before humans. For those of us who work with plants, we think of fall as beginning well before coffee shops start offering pumpkin spice lattes. Best to get started on your fall gardening tasks immediately!

 

 

Get leaves up as soon as they start falling

The process of leaves falling from trees is called abscission and it begins before the leaf actually falls from the tree, happening in three steps: remobilization, protective layer formation, and detachment. During remobilization, the tree extracts nutrients from chlorophyll, degrading it, and causing the leaf to change color by leaving carotenoids (orange, red, and yellow plant pigments) in place but destroying the chlorophyll. Nitrogen in particular is often bound up in chlorophyll and the tree needs that nitrogen to get through the winter.

 

This year we are carrying two leaf rakes, a professional grade, by Hisco, just like the rakes our landscape crews use, and a vintage style but durable rake with a stained wood handle that is sure to become a family heirloom.

 

There are two common misconceptions among gardeners: 1. Plants don’t need nitrogen in winter and any nitrogen they get will cause them to put on new growth and become vulnerable to winter cold; 2. Leaves allowed to decompose in winter will become a good source of nitrogen in the spring.

 

Bright Lights Swiss Chard, a nice addition to any fall container arrangement or seasonal bed planting configuration

First, though high nitrogen inorganic fertilizer with no time release component in late summer or early fall may cause a burst of new growth in some circumstances, the concern is usually overblown. Winters in Memphis tend to be mild and approach gradually, and plants need nitrogen in varying amounts year round. Second, as we learned when looking at the process of abscission, much of the nitrogen is sucked out of leaves by the plant before leaf drop.

 

Accordingly, allowing leaves to sit under trees and around shrubs all winter, year after year, as they do in forests, is not good for the plants. To see what happens in the “natural state,” walk through The Old Forest in Overton Park and notice how a large percentage of plants in an actual forest are in various states of deterioration and decay. Forests survive, often, more by their prolific seed drop rather than because conditions are ideal for individual plants. New plants are ever replacing old plants, giving the illusion of consistency.

 

So, start getting up leaves as soon as they start falling! Blow or rake leaves out of beds regularly, maybe onto your turf grass, and then run over them with a lawn mower, before the leaf volume gets so great that it will choke your mower. Then bag the shredded leaves and place them curbside for municipal pickup (shredding them first will reduce the number of bags needed tremendously and speed their decomposition in a landfill) or put them in your compost bin.  Remember, though leaves alone are poor sources of nitrogen, composted leaf mulch, mixed with other compost, can be good spring fertilizer or a component for a custom soil mix.

A small moss planter and a package of napkins from Urban Earth, with a few small spoon gourds grown from our Baker Creek Seedsline makes for a perfect host or hostess gift!

 

Allowing leaves to accumulate excessively on top of the lawn will create the perfect breeding ground for fungal problems. Raise the mower blades to 3-4 inches in late summer and let the mower suck up some leaves and leave a small amount of shredded leaves in the turf.

 

Plant fall annuals for color

It would be unwise to plant an entire yard in annuals, given the expense. But, every yard should have designated spots for seasonal color.  Some of the best annuals for planting in the fall include pansies, violas, mums, snapdragons, swiss chard, and kale. Urban Earth Garden Center has a full selection in stock right now.  To see more of what’s in stock, check out our slideshows on our facebook page, Urban Earth by Greg Touliatos.

 

To really learn about fall color, join us for a free class on the subject (“Fall Annuals and Fall Bulbs for Your Garden”) by David Levy, Greg Touliatos, and John Jennings on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 1pm.

 

Pro-tip: white blooms show up better outdoors at night than any other color, perfect for evening entertaining.

Put down a granular pre-emergent

Put down a granular pre-emergent in both the spring and fall to stop weed seed from germinating. We like Hi-Yield Turf & Ornamental Weed & Grass Stopper Containing Dimension. One bag will cover up to 3,500 square feet of planting beds or up to 5,000 square feet of turf. Though it is not a cure-all, it will form a chemical barrier that will prevent a large percentage of weed seed from germinating and becoming fall annual weeds.  Preen is the most widely known pre-emergent among consumers but we like this product better.

 

Put down seed for cool season plants

Apply fescue seed, winter rye seed, or “fall cover crop” mixes to your turf in September and October for best results.

 

Fescue is often described as a shade grass but a more accurate description is a cool season grass that does well under the canopies of deciduous trees. Zoysia and Bermuda are warm season grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis in the spring and summer and go dormant when temperatures drop. In contrast, cool season grasses, like fescue, engage in photosynthesis, coming alive, after leaf drop. The fact that fescue is not a “shade grass” is important because it would not do well under the canopies of evergreen trees. (Note: Creeping red fescue is a genuine shade grass but is not recommended because it has zero tread tolerance; even a squirrel walking across it will kill it, the reason we don’t carry the “deep shade” fescue mixes some other garden centers carry.)

 

This year we are carrying a variety of cool season seed offerings, including Five Star Fescue in various sized bags, a fall cover crop mix of annual clover and rye, fall and winter forage crops for hunting plots, and duranna white clover, just to name a few.

Also, remember that fescue is only barely tolerant of our heat.  Hence, it thins in late summer and needs to be over-seeded at least once per year, every fall, and preferably again in late winter, around the time crocuses start coming up or shortly thereafter, to create a lush look.  How to install fescue is beyond the scope of this article but come see us and we will be happy to explain it!

 

Fall cover crops are plants that do well in cooler temperatures and are special because of their nitrogen fixing qualities. They are generally, with some exceptions, annuals, meaning they won’t come back again after their season completes.

 

By nitrogen fixing qualities, we mean that they have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria in the soil that allows the plants to pull nitrogen directly from the ambient air for their benefit and the benefit of plants around them, releasing the nutrients into the soil when they die at the end of their season. These plants include legumes  like red clover (annual) or durana white clover (perennial), both of which we carry as stand-alone products and in mixes.  For a better understanding of how to use fall cover crops to improve the look and health of your turf, please visit our store.

 

Plant bulbs

Fall is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, crocus, and tulips for winter to spring beauty. This year, we will be receiving our bulb order from Devroomen, one of the best suppliers of bulbs in the world, in the first or second week of October. Although you can install bulbs well into January or even, in some cases, February, if you wait too long after they arrive at our store to buy them, you will have fewer choices. They go quickly!

 

This author likes to install bulbs the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after Thanksgiving as a family activity. Installing bulbs too early can mean that they start coming up too early, making the new growth vulnerable to the destructive effects of a hard freeze. After Thanksgiving, the chances of a false spring are much less.

Notice how the yellow daffodils against the green fescue and rye mix break up an otherwise bleak winter landscape along this driveway in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Generally, in Memphis, daffodils and crocuses are perennials, meaning that they will come back every year, while tulips are annuals.  Though daffodils and crocuses are technically perennials here, they have an ephemeral nature in that they don’t seem to come back every year.  In my experience, in any given year, 80% of my daffodils will pop up and bloom, but it won’t be the same 80% each year. Crocuses are similar in that regard.

 

Crocuses, my favorite bulbs, are often overlooked as options by gardeners.  But, they do well under the canopies of trees, whereas daffodils really need more sunlight to come back up again in future years. Further, crocuses come up earlier than most everything else, often seen pushing up through ice and snow as a beautiful harbinger of spring.  Though the metaphor may be nearly cliche, gardeners are like wine drinkers.  New wine drinkers like sweet and fruity wines, like a pinot grigiot, sauvignon blanc, or even an after dinner sweet port.  But, as they mature in their appreciation of wine, they move onto the cabernets and the merlots.

Though garden trowels or soil knives can work fine for planting bulbs, many gardeners find specialty bulb planters like this Dewitt Bulb Planter
that we carry, made in Holland, with a lifetime warranty, very helpful.

Bulbs are like that in that new gardeners tend to gravitate towards the tulips, mere annuals in our climate, but bright and showy, while crocuses are generally something appreciated by more experienced gardeners for their subtlety.

 

One thing to keep in mind about bulbs is that the photosynthates absorbed by the plants coming up from the bulbs this year determine their success in the following year. So, if you plant them in too little sunlight, they will likely come up fine the first year but will perform poorly, if at all, the following year. For the same reason, it is important not to cut your plants back after the blooms are spent until the plants themselves begin to deteriorate to give the leaves as much time as possible to create and store photosynthates (a nutrient that can only be made when light is being absorbed) to ensure a good outcome for the next year.

 

The trick to adding color to a winter landscape is not to try too hard. Learn to appreciate the branch structure and texture of naked trees, Natchez Crepe Myrtles in this case, a tree known for its “cinamon” (exfoliating bark), but add little splashes of color to complement and balance it. You cannot create summer in January in Memphis!

Remember, all bulbs require a certain number of hours of chill time in order to be successful. All of our bulbs come pre-chilled. It is for this reason, perhaps, that after mild winters in Memphis, fewer daffodils and crocuses come up but come back in subsequent cooler years.

 

Between the time that you buy bulbs and the time you plant them, keep them in a paper sack in a cool dark place, ideally at a temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Plant trees and shrubs

Nothing beats a Ginkgo tree for consistent fall leaf color.

Although good gardeners can plant trees and woody shrubs any time of the year, there is no question that the best time to do so in Memphis is the fall. Temperatures are moderating, slowing soil evaporation, and the rainy season is beginning, giving new plants, which always begin with shallow root systems, a much better chance of survival and allowing them to develop a wide and deep root system before Memphis’s drought period in July and August. Further, many plants go into dormancy, a self-protective mode where the focus of their growth shifts from their canopies above ground to their root systems below ground, meaning that they develop root systems faster in the fall than they would any other time of the year.

 

But beware, a well-managed nursery should not be too soft with its plants in winter.  All plant nurseries wrap their greenhouses in plastic in winter, but good nursery managers are also careful to properly harden their plants off. Tender new canopy growth in plants is a point of vulnerability when a freeze hits. So, if you buy plants from a garden center that has kept its greenhouses too warm, causing them to put on lots of pretty new growth, you may have a dead plant a few weeks after you put it in the ground. Hardening off plants and keeping them hardened off until winter has ended is an art, a process

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ blooms around Thanksgiving in Memphis.

Greg Touliatos personally supervises and monitors at Urban Earth Garden Center, entrusting it to no one else.

 

For ideas on trees to plant in your yard, see the article, “Best Trees for Memphis,” or, better yet, come talk to us in the store and we can look at the options together.  For best results, email the street address and photos of the area where you want to plant ahead of time to john@urbanearthmemphis.com.  If you there is a plant you want but think we might not have in stock, email us to request it.  Be sure to put “Plant Request” in the subject line and we will confirm receipt of your email and let you know if and when we are able to find it, by email.

 

Transplant trees and woody shrubs

For the same reason fall is the best time to install woody plants in Memphis, it is really the only time to transplant woody plants in Memphis. The very act of transplanting causes significant damage to a plant’s root system, reducing its ability to take up moisture and nutrients from the soil. Transplanting is too complicated in scope to address this article, but please visit us for advice on transplanting.

 

In particular, this author recommends that you use Fertilome Root Stimulator. Fertilome Root Stimulator contains auxins, plant hormones that help stimulate new root development, and other nutrients needed for plants with damaged root systems. Be careful using other fertilizers when transplanting, because recently transplanted specimen are particularly vulnerable to burn from excessive fertilization.

 

Fertilize

Apply time release 12-6-6 fertilizer in spring and fall, like the Hi-Yield Growers Special that we carry, or an organic alternative like Happy Frog by Fox Farm.  Apply soil sulfur to all of your woody plants, except boxwoods, especially azaleas, hydrangeas, and hollies. (Note: If you are regularly using Happy Frog Fertilizer for Acid Loving Plants there is no need to apply soil sulfur, in my view.) Apply lime to boxwoods every other year or so to raise the ph, a measure of soil alkalinity or acidity, since boxwoods are about the only plant commonly used in ornamental beds in Memphis that likes a more alkaline soil, preferring a slightly higher ph than other woody plants. Let us guide you in the specifics of applying these products when you visit.

Urban Earth Garden Center is proud to carry Fox Farm Products, including their Happy Frog line of organic fertilizers.

Prune

Many gardeners are shy about pruning or trimming plants too late in the year. Pruning and trimming can stimulate new growth, and as already explained above, new growth makes the entire plant more vulnerable to cold damage. But, if you’re in the garden already, in Memphis, it won’t hurt and may very likely help to do a little careful pruning. At least prune any deadwood out of your woody plants, selectively thin plants with dense growth by removing branches, and prune a third of the canopies of your roses back in the fall (You will prune another third of the canopy of your roses back right after Christmas, before the winter winds get especially strong). Do not do any wholesale shearing with a power trimmer to shape as this will definitely stimulate new growth!

 

Urban Earth has an excellent selection of the best tools, including the famous Felco F2.

When you prune, always use high quality bypass pruners and be sure to disinfect your pruners between plants with a 10% solution of bleach to prevent disease spread.  We carry the industry gold standard for bypass pruners, Felco, but we also carry less expensive but still excellent models by Corona and Tierra Pro. Anvil pruners, which we do not sell at Urban Earth, tend to mash the branches rather than cleanly cutting through them, whereas bypass pruners make healthy cuts with fewer entrance points for plant disease. (I have yet to come across a single good reason for a gardener to own a pair of anvil pruners.) Make sure your pruners are sharp too for the cleanest cuts. If you’re not sure about the pruners you currently own, come see us for guidance and advice in learning to maintain them.

 

Decorate

Fall is a great time to go full on Martha Stewart!  It’s easy to cut flowers in the spring and summer and stick them in water. But, fall both requires and allows for more creativity. For more information, google “creating fall centerpieces for tables” and a wealth of information will come up. One of our employees, Martha “Martha Stewart” Garriott, is particularly talented and will be happy to help you pick out the perfect vessel and find seasonally appropriate cuttings and elements to complete the centerpiece.

This fall centerpiece was a joint effort by the author and Martha Garriott, a sales associate at Urban Earth and a Master Gardener. It is simply a combination of cuttings from plants on the premises, and the earliest leaf droppings from trees like Sarah’s Favorite Crepe Myrtle, a Wildfire Black Gum, a Regal Prince Oak, an Autumn Glory Ginkgo, and a Kousa Dogwood.  Notice, also, the small spoon gourds, grown by the author’s son, Henry.

 

Learn

Fall is a great time to read, study, and sharpen your knowledge as a gardener. And, there is no better

If a Memphis home owner owns only one garden book, it should be The Midsouth Garden Guide.

place than Urban Earth Garden Center to help you along this journey. We have a clever selection of books, knowledgeable employees who give good advice, a regular schedule of free classes in our education annex, outside speakers, and hands on assistance and guidance. Follow us on Facebook to find our seminar schedule or look for it in our blog section, updated a few times each year; read our blog; subscribe to and read our emailed newsletter by emailing info@urbanearthmemphis.com and requesting that you be added or messaging us on our fb page; and email me with questions and photos (john@urbanearthmemphis.com).

 

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in ChattanoogaTennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.  If you read this blog entry, please email the author at john@urbanearthmemphis.com and let him know what you think.  

 

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BEST TREES FOR MEMPHIS

THE BEST TREES FOR MEMPHIS

(AN ODE TO COLUMNAR DECIDUOUS TREES)

 

Though a good horticulturalist can be successful planting any time of the year, the best time to plant trees and other woody plants in the Memphis area is in the fall.  So, it’s time to start contemplating what you’re going to plant this fall! (This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be doing on fall gardening activities over the next few months.)

Columnar European Hornbeam in a bed designed by Jesse Howley and installed by the author at the home of Tom and Janet Wyatt on Angelus Street in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Trees are categorized in many ways. Aesthetically, trees are most often categorized by size, shape, and whether they are deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves in winter) or evergreen (meaning they keep leaves year round). The size categories are usually small, medium, or large, defined best here, https://www.arborday.org/trees/righttreeandplace/size.cfm, while canopy shape is defined best here: https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP531.pdf.  The tree sizes and shape I advocate most for in urban environments, which usually have smaller yards, are small to medium sized trees with columnar shaped (also called fastigiated) canopies.

This row of arborvitae was planted at a private residence by Greg Touliatos & Associates, Inc. as part of a comprehensive landscape design and installation project.

 

Columnar trees have a strong vertical form and are often six feet or less in width.  The most well-known columnar tree forms are probably arborvitae and Italian cypress, both commonly associated with Mediterranean landscapes but widely used in Memphis.  For example, Presbyterian Day School has a row of small arborvitae, about 8 feet tall, on the south end of one of its playing fields bordering Central Avenue.  Then, there is a row of 3 very tall Italian cypresses, over 30 feet, in midtown on Evergreen, a couple of blocks north of India Palace Restaurant.  These two examples are both evergreen.

These 3 Italian Cypresses have been in midtown for years and have done well, though likely more were planted in the beginning.

 

But, lesser known, and I think under-utilized until the last few years in Memphis are columnar deciduous trees.  We often think only of deciduous trees as large shade trees, except perhaps for Japanese and other maples or the widely over-planted crepe myrtles.  Customers rarely specifically request a columnar deciduous tree at our nursery.  In fact, just as new wine drinkers often prefer sweet white wines before maturing into cabernets and merlots, inexperienced gardeners gravitate towards things that are covered in blooms part of the year or evergreen, preferably both, fearing the bareness of deciduous plants in winter and not appreciating the texture of mere leaves without flowers.

 

One big advantage of deciduous columnar trees over evergreens like arborvitae and Italian cypress is that they tend to have fewer problems.  The evergreens prefer the subtly different Mediterranean climate rather than ours, are sensitive to both under-watering and over-watering, and too often get bag worms and other pests, particularly in early summer.  In contrast, well-planted deciduous columnars are relatively maintenance and pest free, needing only the occasional pruning of dead branches.  Without leaves in winter, a sudden ice storm is less likely to damage them too.  Most importantly, as a gardener matures in her appreciation of the life cycle of plants, she comes to appreciate the changing shape and color of leaves over the course of spring, summer, and fall, and the architecture of bare branches in winter.

Group of Slender Silhouette Sweetgum and Emerald Arborvitae trees right after delivery to Urban Earth in Winter.

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity. ~John Burroughs

 

So, increasingly, the landscape industry and home owners are realizing that medium and small deciduous trees in general, including columnar cultivars, are better alternatives than columnar evergreens.  Moreover, they are realizing that smaller trees are better for the close confines of modern urban environments than the old standard unimproved shade trees like oaks, elms, gingkoes, and tulip poplars that were widely planted in Memphis during the twentieth century.  Indeed, if you have ever had to contend with a large old specimen of a deciduous shade tree too close to your home, you know how challenging they can be.  The roots can rip apart foundations and sewer pipes.  Leaf removal under the canopies of large old deciduous trees in the fall can be an enormous undertaking.  And, worst of all, falling limbs or entire falling trees, weighing tens of thousands of pounds, can destroy property and cause human injury or death.  To make matters worse, tree removal of a large deciduous tree that has been diagnosed as too unsafe to keep in place, can cost $15,000 or more.

Fallen tree in midtown after a recent wind storm in 2017.

 

Consider, for example, a mature oak tree, inexplicably planted 15 feet from the rear of an east-facing home.  The tree has been diagnosed with an incurable fungal problem, its roots have largely rotted, and its leaves are only green because of stored photosynthates.  It remains erect only because it weighs 70,000 pounds and is like a nail whose point has been tapped into the ground.  Eventually, because this is Memphis, a straight-line wind will come along from the west, push the tree over, and flatten the home, destroying it and everything in it.  A wise homeowner, faced with this information may feel they have no choice but to pay to remove it at a cost of as much as 10% or more of the home’s value, enough money to buy a new car or increase the size of the home.  Likely, this tree was not “planted” but rather was a volunteer, allowed, maybe even encouraged by a new homeowner decades before, a homeowner who likely felt very proud that he had not had to pay for it, regarding others who had designed intentional landscapes as spendthrifts.

 

But then, there are those who over-react to this problem, removing all trees from their property, leaving only foundation shrubbery and turf grass, with no shade, like the homes in new mid to low grade subdivisions.  This approach has its problems too.  There is no shade without trees so more energy is needed to cool the home in the summer and the benefit of deciduous trees that mitigate carbon emissions is entirely lost.  Further, for whatever reason, humans find the close proximity of trees comforting.  They have an inherent attraction for us and we do not find a landscape wholly devoid of them attractive or as appealing as a yard with one or more well-placed trees on it.

 

Hence, the arbor market is now producing more manageable small and medium-sized columnar cultivars of old standbys.  They tuck nicely into courtyards, make for beautiful allees, and form inspiring focal points in corner beds.  For greater impact they can even be clustered in trios! Here are some of my favorites from our growers:

 

Allés of European Hornbeams designed by Dale Skaggs at The Dixon Gallery and Garden in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

 

Columnar European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus fastigiata) has been around for a while, the Frans Fontaine cultivar of columnar European hornbeam being my favorite of the various cultivars (a cultivar is a variety of tree discovered by a grower deliberately looking for variations within a population of trees and then propagating, usually by cuttings, that tree because of its atypical but desired qualities.)  The ‘Frans Fontaine’ cultivar tends to get about 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide, tucking into the corner of a foundation bed nicely or making a nice focal point in a larger bed.  They also look great in a formal row.  I first became aware of this tree when the Dixon Garden, under the direction of Dale Skaggs, planted an allee (a walkway or avenue lined on both sides with trees) of them a few years ago.  With alternate oblong-ovate leaves with rounded base and acute tip, pale green in spring, dark green in summer, and pale yellow in the fall, the canopy forms a dense oval of overlapping leaves that flutter in breezes and come across like an impressionist painting from even short distances.

 

Row of small columnar European hornbeams, likely ‘Frans Fontaine,’ planted at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee by landscape architect, Dale Skaggs.

Though ‘Frans Fontaine’ gets larger in other climates, in our climate it tends to be more restrained, seldom getting much larger than 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  Unusually, the tree is tolerant of extreme pruning, some horticulturalists pruning the limbs all the way back to the trunk once each year to keep it even narrower than it already is.  It is not infrequently used as a screen or hedge, similar to how english hornbeams are used at one of Martha Stewart’s homes, as described here:

http://www.themarthablog.com/2013/09/sculpting-an-english-hornbeam-hedge.html

 

Goldspire Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Blagon’) is a new cultivar of an old favorite.  Ginkgos have long been regarded as the oldest species in continuous existence on the planet, in either kingdom, with some fossils of ginkgo leaves as much as 270 million years old.  They have unique fan shaped leaves leafing out pale green in the spring, darkening, and then turning a striking fluorescent yellow in the fall just before leaf drop.  With a large genome of over 10 billion DNA nucleobase letters and over 41,000 predicted genes (the human genome has around 3 billion) the plant has excellent disease resistance and general all-around toughness, having lived through more existential threats than any other plant alive.  Though the species can get over 100 feet tall, the Goldspire cultivar (‘Blagon’) tends to be much smaller, 15-20 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide.

 

Because the cultivar was only introduced in 2010, coming from France, the tree is hard to find.  I have sold a handful to customers in Memphis but I don’t know where they are planted.  So, just like any new cultivar, it is a risk, since there is not much history to go on.  But, given the success of other ginkgo varieties and cultivars, and the benefits of an unusually small cultivar, perfectly sized for tight urban confines, it seems worth the risk.  If it proves itself over the next couple of years, it may replace ‘Frans Fontaine’ as my favorite columnar tree.  If you want this tree, be sure to email us right away to get on the waiting list for it, as we are only expecting to be able to get a few this fall.

 

Persian Spire Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘JL Columnar’) is an even newer cultivar than Goldspire Ginkgo!  Discovered by John Lewis of JLPN Nursery in Salem, Oregon in 2013, it is an unusually slow growing ironwood, upright and columnar in shape, topping out at under 15 feet.  But, the most unique thing about this tree is its foliage, especially in fall, when it takes on purple, orange, and red hues, sometimes all on the same leaf, and holding onto the tree for quite awhile after the color changes, before fall abscission (leaf drop).  Read more about this great new cultivar on the the Pacific Northwest International Society of Arboriculture site: http://pnwisa.org/2017/06/persian-spire-upright-ironwood-parrotia-persica-jl-columnar-p-a-f/

Persian Spire Ironwood trees have an unusual colored edge when they first leaf out but become solid green as the summer progresses, finally evolving into beautiful multi-hued fall color.

As of this writing, Urban Earth has sold a total of 3 of this plant and has one in stock, all in 15 gallon containers, about 6 feet tall.  2 have been planted at an apartment complex across from Ardent Studios on Madison and one has been planted at a private residence.  We hope to get a few more this fall but don’t expect this cultivar to be easy to get for a few years.  There is no question that anyone who planted one of these trees this year would have one of the rarest trees planted in Memphis, for at least a few years.

Slender Silhouette Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’) is the tallest of all of the trees referenced in this article.  Growing as tall as 60 feet and as wide as four feet, it more commonly tops out at 50 feet with a width of 3 feet.  It is also the quickest growing.  Though it is used in landscapes in Memphis in a variety of ways, one of the best ways I have seen it used is as a corner piece to soften the edge of a two story home in Germantown.  Read more about this tree here: http://www.hortmag.com/plants/plants-we-love/slender-silhouette-sweetgum

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Lindsey’s Skyward’) has been around long enough, at least 16 years, to prove itself to be a great success in the Memphis area.  Though it is a conifer, it is, in fact, deciduous, but tolerating wet feet better than most.  A dwarf, it gets up to 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  A truly lovely tree, though this author does not have much experience with it, it is one of Greg Touliatos’s favorites.

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress Trees available for sale at Urban Earth Garden Center in Memphis, Tennessee August 9, 2017.

 

Mushashino Zelkova (Zelkova seratta ‘Musashino’) was named the “2016 Urban Tree of the Year” by the Society of Municipal Arborists.  Meant primarily to be a tough street tree, it can also be used, like all columnar trees, as focal points in the landscape, as allees, and as screens.  Though too new of a tree to know for sure, it is said that it “has the genetic potential to reach 45 feet in height and 15 feet in width at maturity,” with orange/red leaves in fall, with leaves in an oval shape and serrated at the edges, reminiscent of a hornbeam’s leaves.  Read more about this new tree of great promise here: https://www.amerinursery.com/plants/sma-announces-its-2016-urban-tree-of-the-year-zelkova-serrata-musashino/

 

Regal Prince Oak (Quercus x warei ‘Long’ REGAL PRINCE) is perhaps the fattest of the trees described in this article, though not the tallest, getting up to around 45 feet and 20 feet wide near maturity.  The older leaves turn a beautiful red in the fall after the tree has matured for a few years in the landscape.  Look here to find a good concise history of this tree, well proven in the Memphis area: https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/quercus-xwarei-oak-regal-prince-01-22-2016.aspx

Arnold Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipefera ‘Arnold’) is an excellent cultivar of our state tree.  It is a compact solution for anyone who wants to show their loyalty to Tennessee but has too small of a yard for a full size tulip poplar.  Most commonly, you can expect this tree to mature at around 25 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide in the Memphis area, though it might get taller in other parts of the world.  Its blooms are yellow-green, tulip shaped, beginning in late spring through the summer.

 

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.

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Mulch Ado About Nothing

When I first started as a landscape contractor, I loved hardwood mulch. The market rate for it, delivered and installed, was anywhere between $55 and $75 per cubic yard, with a 3-yard minimum. With landscaper discounts, I was able to get it for anywhere between $5 and $20 per cubic yard and the skill required to install it was not great, meaning that any properly motivated friend or recently unemployed person or teen, with 30 minutes training, could do it at a rate of about 3 cubic yards per hour. Properly shaken with a pitchfork, mulch provided a uniform appearance, covered up imperfections in the surface, blocked sunlight from penetrating to the dirt and promoting the germination of weed seed, and slowed the evaporation of moisture from the surface.

And, you should have heard my arguments for how beneficial it is for the environment! They were, of course, arguments I had heard elsewhere and believed. Mulch manufacturers take debris from cut-down trees, construction, and pruned limbs, etc., and grind it up until it has a uniform appearance. They sell it in bulk as a gardening product, rather than dumping it in a landfall, where it would degrade much more slowly.

Memphians love and like to pay for a fresh mulched yard. And, it creates jobs! How could one not love such a product?

I remembered growing up in my native South Carolina low country, where my stepfather and others would have me raking up “pine straw” (called pine needles by Memphians) to put in beds. After moving to Memphis, I found double-stamped “hardwood” mulch and could only pray that one day South Carolinians would discover it.

Pine straw mulch lays beautifully and is good for all plants!

Pine straw mulch lays beautifully and is good for all plants!

But, as they say, that was then and this is now. A decade later, after a few visits back to South Carolina and some careful reflection and listening to people like Caroline and Arthur Nave and Greg Touliatos, I now know why the azaleas, hydrangeas, camellias, and other plants are so much more beautiful along the Carolina and Georgia coast. It is likely, at least in part, because of pine straw.

But, what’s wrong with wood mulch? Well, a lot.

1. Wood mulch works best as a weed deterrent when it is in large chunks, but Memphians don’t like their wood mulch in big chunks any more than they like shredded pork sandwiches without slaw.They like their mulch at least double-stamped or even triple-stamped (referring to the number of times mulch is passed through a wood grinder). Though this mulch does prevent seeds below it from germinating, it is a perfect host for weed seeds dropped by birds. By having the wood more finely ground, they reduce its efficacy as a weed deterrent. (Memphians are right about barbecue, however. Theirs is much better than South Carolina’s.)

2. Wood mulch promotes termites. Every termite inspector I have met in Tennessee says that wood mulch should be kept at least 12 inches away from the foundation of a home, and some say it should be kept further away than that. Having recently taken a Tennessee chemical applicators licensing exam, I can tell you that official Tennessee guidelines for keeping termites at bay comport with this commonly held opinion. Listen to the experts. Termite damage is incredibly expensive and Memphis has the perfect climate for them.

But, I’ll just keep it 12 inches away from my house! Will you? With a tape measure? Won’t that look odd? Will you put down gravel in the 12 inch zone? Will the gravel mix with the dirt and the mulch? Do you expect the hourly summer employees of landscape companies to keep it exactly 12 inches from your house? Do you trust your spouse to get this right? Your teens? What happens if you pay to have your home treated for termites and your termite company points to a clause in their indemnity contract about wood mulch being too close to the home, and it turns out you missed a spot where a little was up against the foundation? Will they still honor the indemnity agreement.

But, I’ll just use cypress, or cedar, or redwood mulch and it will keep the termites away! Hardly. Mulches are rarely as pure as they are labeled. It is expensive and difficult to keep the types of wood used for mulch entirely separate. Most suppliers can, at best, warrant that it is mostly one type of wood. Second, opinions (the legitimate ones that count) vary about the degree to which these woods really repel termites. We know, for example, that only old-growth cypress heartwood has the resins in it that repel bugs, and there isn’t much old-growth cypress left in the United States. And, if we keep cutting down young-growth cypress, there won’t be any old-growth cypress, eventually. Remember the vague, pro-environmental, recycling argument I used above? If you use one of these kinds of mulches, you can pretty much forget that argument.

3. Wood mulch competes with your plants for nitrogen. This is because all organic matter, in its early stages of decomposition, is nitrogen robbing, only releasing the nitrogen back into the environment late in the process of decomposition. So, either you have to put down more fertilizer or you will see a slowing of new canopy growth, and a reduction in the plant’s ability to shake disease. One might rightly point out that pine straw is also organic matter and is also nitrogen-robbing in its early stages of decomposition, but, pine straw is far less dense. The nitrogen-robbing effect of hardwood mulch is exponentially greater than with pine straw.

4. The wood used in wood mulch didn’t end up in the mulch pile because someone made a great sacrifice. It ended up there because someone wanted it gone. And, very often, though not always, they wanted it gone because it was infected with a pathogen of some kind.

Hardwood mulch is a product of whatever landscapers unload into the mulch pile, all types of wood, all types of pathogens.

Hardwood mulch is a product of whatever landscapers unload into the mulch pile, all types of wood, all types of pathogens.

I used to tell my customers, “Oh, don’t worry. Because it’s in big piles and gets so hot, all the bad stuff gets cooked out.” Maybe, sort of, sometimes. (In my defense, I honestly believed that to be true for many years.) Consider, for example, the recent widespread spread of crepe/crape myrtle bark scale in the Mid-south. As Greg Touliatos has rightly pointed out, since the female of the species only moves a short distance in her entire life, a distance measured in inches, at most, we have to ask, how is it spreading? Could it be wind? Birds? Maybe, but it is still spreading awfully fast for that to be the only source of transport. The more likely explanation is landscapers and the wood mulch from mulch yards, bought in bulk. Can Greg prove that assertion? Not without a lot of time and money, but I regard it as probable, and you would be wise to do so, as well, until more data and a good competing explanation is presented.

I maintained this home for years as a landscape contractor, regularly using wood mulch.  It looked great but there were some problems.  The green mountain boxwood replaced two diseased American boxwood and the snow white Indian hawthorns in the background had frequent fungal infections.  In retrospect , these problems might have been prevented by using pinestraw mulch instead.

I maintained this home for years as a landscape contractor, regularly using wood mulch. It looked great but there were some problems. The green mountain boxwood replaced two diseased American boxwood and the snow white Indian hawthorns in the background had frequent fungal infections. In retrospect , these problems might have been prevented by using pinestraw mulch instead.

I suppose landscapers could change clothes and sanitize all of their equipment between yards, and pre-treat your wood mulch, but what consumer is willing to pay for that?

5. Wood mulch is heavy; unless you buy it in bags, you must transport it with a pickup or dump truck or pay someone else to deliver it. And, if you buy it in bags, you have to pay a lot more. In contrast, my source (read: the google) says the average bale of pine straw weighs less than 12 pounds. No wheel barrow or pitchfork required. Gloves are advised, but not strictly necessary.

6. If wood mulch is piled against the trunks of woody plants it promotes damage to the outer cambium layer, the thin outer ring of recent growth. It is the main, in some cases, the only highway for nutrients to move up and down the trunk of a plant. If this layer is damaged and/or rendered non-working, the plant dies, every time.

Wood mulch holds water, like a sponge, and, though the roots of plants absorb and utilize moisture very well, the trunk wood does not. Although good landscapers and gardeners know to keep the wood mulch off of trunks, this is not done as often as it should be. And, heavy rains can move mulch, leaving it in drifts piled up against trunks, even if the person who originally installed the mulch did so with great attention to this detail.

7. Bulk mulch can have a ph problem. Ph is the measure of alkalinity/acidity, the middle of the scale being 7 and most plants thriving at various points along the ph scale between 5.5 and 7.5. Anything below 7 is regarded as acidic and anything above that number is considered alkaline. Once, early in my career, I bought 20 cubic yards of wood mulch and had it delivered by dump truck from a mulch yard to a property owned by two scientists in Cordova. They were new clients, with willingness and ability to pay, so, I was not only pleased to be making the profit from the mulch install but also hoping for more business from them in years to come. The next day, all of the perennials they’d recently planted, several hundred dollars worth — perennials that were in perfectly good shape when I arrived on the scene — were all in a wilted and browned-out state. Saying they were annoyed was an understatement.
How could this be my fault? My assistant promised he had heavily watered it in to counter any moisture robbing effects. And, we had done a nice underlayment of composted leaf mulch to counter any nitrogen-robbing effect. I denied any wrong-doing on my part. But they, being scientists, tested the mulch’s ph and said that it was under 4 in nearly every spot — highly acidic — and, smelled like rotten eggs.

So, I began to research. Turns out that mulch not turned regularly at the mulch yard, though it cooks out many pathogens, promotes anaerobic organisms. Anaerobic organisms excrete compounds that are highly acidic and toxic to plants. Further, the excretions give off a rotten egg smell.

It cost hundreds of dollars to replace their perennials and I never again received any business or referrals from them.

Now, the supplier of mulch Urban Earth uses is very conscientious about this issue and, even if they weren’t, our mulch sits for some time in a smaller pile after transport to our garden center before being sold, allowing it to air out and get access to oxygen.

Even after I have explained all of this to my customers at Urban Earth, I still sometimes hear two arguments: 1) I’m sure pinestraw carries diseases too. 2) Your pine straw costs $9 per bale and I can get hardwood mulch for less than $5 per bag, and even cheaper by the truckload.

Let’s address these in reverse order. Depending on density of plant matter in your beds and how thick you put it on, the pine straw covers anywhere from 20 square feet to 50 square feet, with 30 square feet being about the median coverage factor, in my experience. Wood mulch covers about 10 square feet per bag. That means customers end up paying between 18 cents and 45 cents per square foot for pine straw and 25 cents to 50 cents for bagged wood mulch. So, if anything, pine straw is cheaper.

As for the disease argument, it is possible for anything to carry disease, but it is far less likely that pine straw will and, even if it does, it is less likely that the particular disease will effect your plants. Pine needles are shed by trees naturally and regularly. Even if the source pine tree is diseased, most diseases are pretty specific to a plant. So, unless you’re using it to mulch around other pines or closely related species, you’re in the clear.

So, there are a few things to learn from this. First, hardwood mulch is for chumps and you should stop using it. Second, the advice I give you may later turn out to be terrible and it does not offend me in the least if you double check it with other sources, including soliciting competing opinions from other staff at Urban Earth. Third, I am willing to admit I was wrong and I owe all of my old clients from my days as a landscape contractor an apology (but don’t try to get any money out of me). Fourth, Urban Earth carries bales of pine straw and you should buy from us when you need it. Fifth, Urban Earth also carries double-stamped wood mulch in bulk, sold by the cubic yard, but will likely discontinue carrying wood mulch in bags once our current supply runs out.

Unless our customers decide I don’t know what I’m talking about and continue to demand it.

— John Jennings, Manager