Q: I’ve been using peat moss in my garden for years but now I’ve heard that it’s bad for the environment. Is that true?
A: That depends who you talk to. Conservationists and peat producers have been debating this issue for years and years. Peat moss is the partially decomposed remains of sphagnum moss that comes from peat bogs, which can literally take hundreds to thousands of years to develop. When peat moss is harvested or “mined,” as some describe the process, parts of the bogs are destroyed by all the digging and stripping away of layers.
This, conservationists and scientists assert, is not only destroying habitat for everything from bog rosemary to wildlife and insects found only in these bogs. It is destroying wetlands that help purify our water and our air (moss absorbs carbon dioxide just like rain forests do). Manufacturers of peat moss products claim these bogs are renewable resources that quickly reestablish. To help protect peat bogs, boycotts have been started in many countries and parts of Ireland (where bogs are plentiful) have banned the harvesting of peat moss completely. As gardeners, it’s up to us to decide what to do. I have decided to stop buying it and I’m currently looking for good alternatives to try.
I just finished reading Amy Stewart’s book “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms,” and I thought it was fascinating. You know how you always hear that soil is healthy and in good shape when you dig into it and find a lot of earthworms?
Well, that’s true! They may be deaf, blind and spineless, Stewart writes, but earthworms have a tremendous impact on the soil. As they move about consuming soil and decomposing matter like bits of leaves and pooping it back out as “castings,” earthworms literally change the composition of dirt so it can do things like absorb nutrients and hold water better. Research has shown that the most beneficial fungi that boost plant growth often increases dramatically when earthworms are around.Read More»
It will soon be tree-planting time in many parts of the country, which brings up the inevitable question of staking. It used to be common practice to stake trees at planting time. Over the years, though, experts who study trees have started recommending staking only in certain cases.
The reason? Staking keeps young trees from moving freely in the wind. This is a problem because that movement helps trees develop strong, tapered trunks. (And did you know that trunk movement also helps promote root growth?) When done incorrectly, staking can also cause damage to a tree’s trunk. You see this most often when the ties or bands are too tight and actually dig into the bark.
But staking isn’t all bad. If you’re planting a new tree in a very windy or exposed location, staking is a good idea. Usually one year is all that’s needed, unless a tree is quite large, in which case you’d stake for two. You should also stake young trees that are tall in proportion to the size of their root balls. For example, a tree in a 5-gallon container that’s over 4½ feet tall should be staked.
If you do stake a tree, wooden stakes are sufficient. Use as few stakes as possible, most often just one for a small tree with a trunk smaller than 2 inches around. The stake should be upwind from the direction of the prevailing spring and summer winds in your area.
Use flexible material, such as a strip of burlap, old cloth, or carpet, to attach the stake to the tree. Don’t use wire or cable, which can cut into the bark. Check the straps occasionally to make sure they’re not too tight or so loose they’re rubbing against the bark.
Q: Last year, mint went completely insane in my garden and spread everywhere. I’m planning to rip some of it out. How can I grow this herb without having it take over everything?
A: It’s true. A little bit of mint goes a long way. If you don’t want to have to do the back-breaking chore of yanking a bunch out each year, plant it inside a deep container in your garden bed, leaving the pot’s rim just above the soil line. Use this trick with other invasive plants, too, such as milkweed, which butterflies love.
Q: Is it true that I should cut the roots of plants before I plant them, especially if they’re rootbound?
A: Good question. This one gets debated a lot. You know you’ve got a rootbound plant when you tip it out of its container and matted roots are more prevalent than soil. Wrapped in a tight ball, the roots usually circle the bottom of the plant because they’ve had no place else to go and the soil around them has broken down. It is best to separate the roots as best you can before planting, and that probably means cutting out some of the most matted parts.
Being rootbound puts a lot of stress on growing plants because they lack the nutrients they need to thrive. If you don’t try to correct the situation at planting time, those plants are likely to be stunted. They may even fail to grow much at all or even die. The debate comes in over whether to slice the roots on the sides of container-grown plants whether they are rootbound or not. Studies have indicated that the practice doesn’t help but many gardeners think it does. So you might want to try experimenting with that yourself.