Maintenance: Soil

One of the biggest thing to know about maintaining soil, is keep it covered. (Except for a tiny bit where ground nesting critters can move in.) Weed fabric does NOT count as a cover. I loathe the stuff. It is useful under pathways and rock, but it has no place under mulch. I have seen normally beautiful “old” gardens soils literally turned to grey powder because weed fabric locked out moisture and nutrient cycling. I have used thick unbleached butcher paper as weed fabric when establishing a new space. It is thick, pretty darn durable, and breaks down as a high-carbon fungal food.

The second big thing to know about soil is leave it be. There is no reason to disturb soil (unless you are planting veggies- and that is debatable as well). Tilling and working the soil destroys fungal hyphae and knocks back the balance of fungal and bacterial biology. It also kills invertibrates like worms, ground beetle grubs and beneficial nematodes.

If your soil is poor and needs improving you can deep core aerate and top dress with mycorrhizae and high quality compost. This will get microorganisms down into the soil without turning the soil to powder first. You’d be surprised how quickly these organisms are moved through the soil profile by invertebrates and water. If you want to push the improvements even faster you can apply compost extract once a month to add to the soil biology but be sure you have compost, mulch or other food sources for the microorganisms.

When my family finds worms in impractical spaces we put them in a designated bed for the year. Each year we change the designated area so that worm populations improve throughout the property. It seems like a silly ritual, but its benefits are irrefutable.


Maintenance: Weeds

I know I’ve said it before, but weeds LOVE, LOVE, LOVE poor soils. They are opportunists, bullies and pioneers. Their purpose in the ecosystem is to colonize and rebuild damaged soils. The problem this creates on the human scale is that we are notoriously good at trashing soil, and famously impatient when it comes to natural processes. Over time native plants will make their way back, but it will take a very, very long time. Not practical for humans. In the soil chapter I have outlined ways to improve soil quality to help in the battle against weeds. Here are a few ways to deal with weeds above ground.

Chop and Drop

It may make some people cringe, but chop and drop can be a successful way to deal with weeds. If you are in a sunny, warm climate, whatever you pull up and deposit on top of your mulch in the middle of the day will surely desiccate quickly. I use chop and drop very effectively for dandelions, bindweed, thistle and any other weed that has not gone to seed. However, I leave them on top of the mulch and not below. They usually blend in visually in a day or two on slightly aged mulch.

For weedy species that have aggressive runners (like quack grass) I fully dry them out then add them to my compost bin. I will collect them and lay them out on a sunny chunk of concrete for about a week or so. -I spread them thinly so that in that time even the roots dry out. It’s not the prettiest way to do it, but I don’t mind it for a short time. I have never had a problem arise from this treatment, but I am always POSITIVE that the roots are desiccated before I deposit them to my compost bin. When you know that weeds prospect for nutrients, it’s hard to throw all their nutrient packed goodness in the garbage.

Soil Cover

Those are the ‘easy’ weeding jobs. Serious weeding tasks are almost always made easier by moist (not soggy) soil and a thick layer of mulch. Weeds generally pop right out in those situations. If you have an area thick with weeds, it is sometimes easier to take a straight shovel and scrape where the soil and mulch meet. This cuts the weeds from their roots quickly. You can then leave the weeds there if they won’t reroot, or you can rake them up and take them elsewhere. I only use that technique in severe situations, but it makes quick work of a ‘bad’ area. The weeds WILL pop back up, but at a more manageable pace. Sometimes it’s just best to regain control over an area so that maintaining it doesn’t seem futile. This technique works really well with undesirable seedlings.

If any area is really bad with weeds and seeds you can try a few different things. You can either sheet mulch the area to regain control or plant the area with a fast growing annual crop meant to choke everything out. (Don’t let the annual crop go to seed or it will be the new weed.) Sheet mulching and seeding annual cover crops are covered in further detail in the soil section.

Patience, tenacity and diligence are a weeds worst enemies.

Maintenance: Closing The Nutrient Cycle

Maintenance is a great way to close the nutrient cycle and provide healthy habitat for soil microorganisms. There is really no reason that any yard debris should ever leave your property. If you are up to it, you could even rent a chipper to take care of any fallen branches. 

Chop and drop

Generally when I mention the term ‘chop and drop’, I get puzzled looks. It’s a perfect way to deal with the green waste produced on site. Once you prune an herbaceous plant, brush the surrounding mulch to the side, cut the debris into 2-3″ chunks, then cover over with the mulch that you brushed to the side. You can leave even larger chunks if you’d like; just know that it will take a bit longer to break down, and will be easier to see from far away. The smaller chunks visually blend in with the mulch a lot better.

A cool bonus to chop and drop is that it tells you how biologically active your soil is. After a few days peel your mulch back and see how your debris is doing. If it is breaking down quickly, you have healthy soil biology. If it is taking a long time, your soil may not be as biologically active as it could be. It might be a good time to do an application of compost extract.

Leaving or mowing leaves

Don’t forget about the great qualities of leaves. Instead of bagging and disposing of them, mow over them in your lawn area. If you go over them a couple of times they will turn into a powder that works its way down into your grass. (Most of their bulk is air, so they break down to nothing.) You could pile them on a bed as mulch, throw them into your compost as a great fungal food, or put them in composting bags where they will break down over the winter into a nice compost for spring. Load up the bags in fall, moisten them and forget about them.

Maintenance: Water

Water may not really seem like a maintenance component, but it is. While the goal may be to transition to natural irrigation or rainfall, some seasons are dryer than normal. Without supplemental irrigation, you may lose everything that you have worked for. It’s important that when you do water, it is deeply. Shallow watering encourages shallow roots, so make the plant’s roots follow the water to the depths. 

Winter watering is also important. Not only does it water the plants, but it protects their roots. Moist soil insulates against the cold far better than dry soil. It’s best to winter water on warm, sunny days when there has been a long break in precipitation. I generally winter water my yard 2-3 times between January 1st and mid-March, depending upon the winter. If you try to put a stake into the soil and it is frozen hard, no need to water.

You can also pile snow in sunny areas to help supplement winter watering. Just make sure that it’s not in a shady spot where plants will be suffocated by persistent snow and ice.

Mulch may need supplemented every few years. In my experience it needs replenished the next year after a landscape installation, then every 2-3 years thereafter. If you don’t like the look of fallen leaves in your garden beds, put mulch down after all the leaves have fallen. That way the leaves are working their magic, but you don’t have to see it. 

Maintenance: Intro

Maintenance is more important than the design of a space. When done correctly, everything grows in as planned. When maintenance is ignored the altered environment will run amok. I can’t emphasize it enough; maintenance is everything. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into planning and building your space. If it isn’t maintained properly, it’s all for not.

You won’t always be a servant to your landscape, but those first 2-3 years you must be attentive. The first few years of maintenance are where you get to observe it ‘becoming’. Below I share a success story and a failure to contrast what becomes of the spaces.

Success

When I first moved into my house the entire front yard consisted of weed fabric, crushed pink rock and a one-sided golden rain tree. It was pepto bismal at best, and utterly dismal at worst. I vowed to cut as many holes in the weed fabric as possible in order to green (and cool) the space. The first thing to go in was a dwarf sweet cherry. My kids and I planted it, the family ‘flag’ in the pink landscape. Over the next couple years the plant quantity grew until I finally had the time to pull up all the fabric and rock. Lying dormant under the weed fabric was an entangled mess of white roots just waiting for their opportunity to take off. Bindweed. Lots and lots of bindweed. It was coming from the yard next door, and there was no way that the neighbors were going to eradicate it.

I didn’t let the weedy setback break me. That first year I went out a few mornings a week, coffee in hand, and pulled all that I could find. Collectively I probably spent 30 minutes a week just pulling bindweed in an area about 20’ x 20’. The second year I spent about 15 minutes a week, and by the third year I reliably pulled from 3 different spots about once a week for a total of maybe 2 minutes a week. I never viewed that time as a chore. It was always a chance to go outside and ‘read’ my garden. There were two reasons that it worked so well. The first war that over time I exhausted the network of roots. They pulled nutrients from the roots to put into new growth, and I plucked up and discarded the fruits of their labor. The second reason was that all of the no-till amendments that I made to the soil were working to improve it. The weeds were being outperformed by more preferable plants.

Now I love looking for weeds in my garden because it is a great barometer of what’s going on. I’m almost sad that I don’t have to do it as often because I’m not forced to spend time in the space. That time revealed many things. A plant that ladybugs overwinter in, ground nesting bees, stem nesting bees, tiny mushrooms, weeds, dry spots, etc. I love weeding my garden. It tells me everything I need to know about the health of the space.

Failure

That was proper maintenance leading to success. Now for a horror story. The medium-sized front yard of a client had the standard 50’s style junipers up against the foundation, turf in the middle, and roses along the sidewalk. The goal was to build a low-water garden that harvested rainwater, attracted pollinators and housed perennial food crops. We set to work dividing the space into three zones. The upper zone was for xeric perennials and pollinator plants, the middle for an alternative lawn, and the lower for fruit trees and blackberries. The three tiers were graded so that water would collect, then overflow into the next area.

It worked like a charm. The first year plants put on some healthy growth. The second year it all exploded! Everything looked incredible! Throughout the first and second year my crew and I would weed here and there to knock the weeds back. The space had gotten pretty weedy a few times, so we volunteered to knock it back. We weren’t hired for maintenance, but I didn’t want to lose the all the headway that the space was making. The third summer proved to be a busy one. The homeowner was busy with work, and I was not in the area to drive by and monitor the space.

The weeds took over. By the time fall came, the space was overrun by thistles, bindweed and waist high prickly lettuce chock full of seeds. The once lush alternative lawn was practically a loss, and the rest of the areas were pretty close behind. The question in my mind became “Gain control or start over?” Without using a chemical control, the perennial thistle and bindweed would take constant diligence to exhaust the root networks, and the prickly lettuce built a solid seedbed throughout the entire space. Had the space been regularly weeded the first couple of seasons, things never would have gotten so out of control. This story would have ended much like the story above. They share the same timeline. The recovery of this space will take some serious diligence and effort. And a few years. It could be thriving and practically maintenance free by now. 

Feedback Loop

Maintenance is your feedback loop. That’s where you learn about accidental failures and/or successes. Watch where the weeds are coming up more, or plants are more stressed or water is puddling. Now you have the tools to fine-tune those fixes and make them work. And you know the skeleton of the whole system. Maybe there is an unintentional low spot that collects water. Your quick options are to level it out with soil so that the water keeps moving, add organic material to the soil so that it drains a bit better, or plant something that will love the extra water. Some of the other posts will offer suggestions and solutions to problems you may discover.

Observation: Usage and Wildlife

Usage

Think about how your garden is used. Are there some areas that clearly get more traffic? Are there other areas that get looked at but once a year? Be honest in your assessment. 

Break your space into zones. What zones are you in at least once a day? One or two times a week? One or two times a month? How about once or twice a season? You know the spots. You cut back the volunteer elms in the spring and fall as a courtesy to your neighbors. Are you surprised by what you see? Does distance correlate to frequency?

Wildlife

You certainly don’t have to map wildlife, but it is one of the best indicators of the health of your space. And by wildlife, squirrels don’t count. They don’t need much. What you really want to map are areas that you find a lot of wild birds, bees, native bees, butterflies, caterpillars, snakes, frogs or toads, etc. The more diverse and robust your ‘critter list’, the more complete and healthy your little ecosystem is. Keep this in mind while you are plotting any changes. Maybe it’s not worth cutting down that hedgerow if it keeps the birds safe during bad weather. The decision is yours, of course. Maybe you plan to bring in more wildlife. Take clues from the areas of your space that may already have a good variety of fauna.

Observation: Taking A Deep Look

Before you start plotting the changes you’d like to make, ask yourself what you want out of your space, but be realistic about it. Look back at the way your spaces have been cared for in the past. Did you let your landscape go feral, or did you keep everything in check? Did you meander through your garden checking things out, or was it just the scenery from the street to the house? Remember that beautiful patio that you built years ago? Did you use it all the time, or just blow the leaves off in the fall? Do you have or are you developing a physical condition that limits the work that you can do? What are those limitations? There is no wrong or right answer to these questions, so don’t feel guilty. Just make sure you give an honest answer. Just having a different style of landscape likely won’t change your behavior. You may create an amazing space that rivals the greatest gardens in England, but if your attention to it’s upkeep wanes, it’s all for not. Why waste the time and inputs to create something that you will not use, or worse yet, will begin to loathe. If you think that you may start to enjoy gardening, grow into your space. Add a few ‘needy’ things here and there and see how they fare under your care. If they thrive, keep adding. If they languish, change your course.

Now read on to figure out how to put all these puzzle pieces back together. The rest of the chapters will help you compose a new space.

Observation: Putting It All Together

Ok, this is the really fun part. The story of your space. Look at your maps all together and see where problems overlap and where successes overlap. You may make many discoveries about why your space acts the way it does. Maybe your sidewalk is always icy in the winter because an evergreen blocks the warm winter sun, maybe a downspout spills onto it, or maybe all of the above. Are the healthy plants in the same area that is full of worms? Maybe your unhealthy plants correlate with areas where the soil doesn’t drain well, and maybe that tree that doesn’t do well is suffering because the lawn guys always run their heavy mowers around it and compact the soil. Or maybe passersby let their dogs pee on that globe spruce of yours, and that’s why the needles on one side are burnt. This is the entire story of your space. Take it in and study before you move forward with planning.

Observation: Plants and Materials

  • Plants

The first thing to do when mapping your plants, is to know your plants. (If there is anything that you are unsure of, the USDA Extension Service is a great place to start. They may be able to id plants by photos, or by leaf samples. Garden centers are another great resource for plant id. If you find a reputable one, they will have experts on staff that can help you out.) Map them in the order of permanence. It’s unlikely that you are going to remove your trees, so map them first, followed by the shrubs, followed by the perennials, veggies and annuals.

Now make note of plants that are thriving and plants that are struggling. It could even be that the same plant is doing well in one area and poorly in another. Note that. Do some plants have pest problems? Do some spread by suckers or shoots and others spread easily by seed? What plants are well behaved? Do some plants offer pleasing (or displeasing) fragrance or texture? Are any too large for their space and require constant pruning? Are there some plants that are extremely useful to you? What pollinators visit what plants? Any that attract wildlife?

Aside from things you’ve planted, note areas where weeds are prevalent or where mosses thrive. 

  • Materials

I guess you could consider this a map of your hardscaping. Where is it? What is it made of? What do you use it for? Does it get used? Does water collect on it? Does ice collect on it? Sun warm it in the summer or winter? What kind of mulch do you have? Any steel edging or borders?

Do you want the hardscaping that you have? If not, can the materials be disassembled and reused either in the same way or a new way? Do you have other materials laying around that you could use in a creative way?  Are there any materials that you can get from friends, family or neighbors? Are you willing to put in the extra labor required for most recycled or repurposed items?

Observation: Soil

Soil can change from spot to spot in your yard. Your veggie garden certainly has more organic matter in the soil than other areas, and while you may take great care of your turf, chances are the topsoil under it is far shallower than you think. There are a few different things to identify about the soils in your space.

There are a couple of different ways to tell what kind of soil you have. One is the ribbon test and one is the jar test. The ribbon test is ‘quick and dirty’, and the jar test takes longer, but gives you more information about your soils. You can work with this information a few different ways. You can either take samples from individual areas to get a better read on each spot and label the patchwork on your map, or if you feel that your soil is fairly consistent throughout your space, you can take equally sized samples from a few areas, put them together and measure them for an average. The former would be better if you have areas that have been and will be treated differently, and the latter would be perfectly legit if your space is and will be fairly homogenous.

Now that you know how to tell what kind of soil you have, you can better look out for where there are distinct differences.

Where in your space does water sit for a long time? Where does it drain quickly? Are there areas of your soil that are compacted and hard, like paths or areas where equipment is used a lot? Where are a lot of weeds present? (Which actually tells you more about soil than you think.) Are there areas that are tilled regularly? Zones where nothing ever grows? Spots with weed fabric or rock mulch? Are there spots in your space where mushrooms pop up after a good rain? Any areas that are bare and exposed? Cracked? Do worms congregate in certain areas, or are they completely missing? Are there any areas where leaf debris seems to break down more quickly? Do you use salts on your sidewalks and driveway in the winter? If so, how does the soil next to those areas look? How well do the plants in the salt zones perform? Note all of things on your map because in the soil chapter you’ll learn how to repair or deal with these areas, and in the plant area you’ll learn about plants that are more tolerant to odd soil conditions.