By Kerry A. Mendez
Q: What is the difference between compost and mulch? I heard a speaker at a garden show say that compost was good to use as a mulch. I thought compost was what you turned into your soil. I’m confused.
A: Don’t feel alone. Many people have asked me the same question. Basically, when someone says they mulched their gardens, all this means is they shoveled some material on top of their soil and around their plants to reduce weeds, conserve moisture and to make the gardens look nice. There is quite a range of materials that you can use for mulching your beds, compost being one. Compost is typically a combination of decomposed leaves and grass. Additional compostable items include kitchen waste, such as vegetable and fruit peels, egg shells, coffee and tea grounds. Do not add meat and dairy products. These take a long time to break down and may attract your neighbor’s dogs and cats, in addition to foraging wildlife. Compost is a super mulch for perennial gardens as it breaks down more quickly than wood products, releasing valuable nutrients to your plants. Other materials that can be used for mulch include cocoa hulls, straw, finely shredded wood, aged grass clippings (only if they are not treated with chemicals), shredded newspaper and pine needles (these do not change pH as quickly as people think). A word of caution concerning cocoa hulls if you own a dog – many dogs find these chocolate-tasting morsels irresistible. Unfortunately, chocolate is toxic to them and ingestion may cause a very upset stomach, or worse, death.
Q: When I go to the garden center I get overwhelmed with all the different kinds of fertilizers. Is there any one that is better than others for my perennial garden?
A: I wish it was as easy as simply saying a fertilizer is a fertilizer. Allow me to give a very simple fertilizer 101 class. In general, there are three types of fertilizers: liquid (water-soluble), granular and time-released. Liquid fertilizers like Miracle-Gro, fish emulsion, and manure tea (manure that is steeped in cheesecloth in water) are quickly available to the plant and absorbed primarily through the leaves. These usually are effective for several weeks. Granular fertilizers such as 5-10-5 and 10-10-10 are applied to the soil with the nutrients released to the roots. If you get granules on the leaves, you may burn the plants. These fertilizers are usually effective for four to six weeks. Time-released fertilizers like Osmocote or Plant-Tone are also applied to the soil, but release nutrients over three to four months. The other factor to consider when buying fertilizers is the amount (by weight) of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer. Again, simply said, nitrogen (the first number) is for leaves and stems; potassium (the second number) is for roots, flowers and fruits; and potassium or potash (the third number) is for hardiness, disease resistance, root growth and overall health. If you are still confused about which fertilizer to buy, the safest route is to purchase a balanced fertilizer, one with all three numbers the same. Remember to always follow package directions for application rates. More is NOT better.
Q: Are there any rabbit-proof perennials? I am sick of fighting the battle with Peter Rabbit.
A:Bunnies are cute, but not when they are acting like mulching mowers in our gardens. There is good news though: there are some plants that rabbits wrinkle their noses at. Sun to part sun perennials include geraniums (‘Rozanne’ is an incredible blue geranium that blooms from June through October with no deadheading); catmint (nepeta); Siberian and bearded irises; black-eyed susans; alliums; globe flower (trollius); spiderwort; and blue-bladed grasses. Shade perennials include spotted dead nettle (lamiums); Bishop’s hat (epimedium); bergenia (this perennial works in sun or shade); Lenten rose (helleborus); astilbe; and lungwort (pulmonaria). Of course, poisonous perennials would be good choice (don’t fear, rabbits are too smart to eat these). Foxglove, monkshood and lily-of-the-valley fall into this group. Other strategies for keeping rabbits at bay include surrounding the garden with a 2’ to 4’ high chicken wire fence with a 1” mesh. To sabotage burrowing rabbits make sure the wire extends into the ground at least 6” or make the wire L-shaped at the bottom so it is flush with the ground. You can also use taste and smell repellants such as Bobbex-R, Ro-pel, and Liquid Fence, but these should be varied from time to time so rabbits don’t get used to them. Most need to be re-applied after heavy rains or at periodic intervals. Be especially diligent about this in the spring when tender new growth is most attractive to bunnies. Blood meal is another option – the smell of dried blood is not very comforting. Predator urines, such as fox and coyote, will also wave a warning flag, as does the scent of dogs. I’ve even had some women swear their husbands are just as effective. To each his own…….. l
Kerry Mendez is the owner of Perennially Yours and is a teacher,writer, speaker and consultant residing in Ballston Spa. To learn more about her work please visit www.pyours.com.