True story: I was shopping in a garden products aisle when I overheard a customer asking the college-age check-out clerk if corn gluten really kills crabgrass. She paused for a moment, smiled, and nodded in the affirmative. Based on that simple interaction, the gentleman added two bags to his cart, along with four bags of synthetic, high-nitrogen fertilizer.
Welcome to the junior chemistry project called spring lawn care.
A little knowledge could have saved the buyer a few dollars and a lot of crabgrass disappointment down the line. His impulse to try an organic approach to crabgrass suppression is a positive one, but a quick Internet search shows that corn gluten is very difficult to use effectively.
Furthermore, if he applied the fertilizer on that late March weekend, when soil is cold or even frozen, he might as well have tossed his money down the storm drain. Fertilizer shouldn’t be applied until forsythia is in full bloom, when soil temperatures are reliably above 50 degrees, usually around the second to third week of April. Before then, it isn’t well absorbed by soil and plants. During heavy rain, it runs off.
This brief encounter illustrates a larger problem. The particulars of lawn and plant care were never simple, but the parade of modern products makes it more complicated. Given its potential impact, land care should perhaps be part of high school education, like driver’s ed or cooking class. As far as I’m aware, though, it isn’t.
Instead, much of our land care education—for homeowners and landscape pros alike—comes from the companies whose products change the soil and push grass to new heights. The news can be as confusing as the latest university press release on weight loss. The confusion exists not only around synthetic chemical products, but for products with an organic cachet as well.
Unfortunately, confusion can lead to misuse.
Habits Hard To Change
Some land care professionals try to offer best practices, but the ideas can be hard to get across and habits, hard to change.
Take, for instance, the practice of building mulch “volcanoes” around the trunks of newly planted trees.
“It’s hard to believe we still see trees and shrubs encompassed in mulch volcanoes,” says Nancy DuBrule-Clemente, owner of Natureworks Garden Center and Landscape Services in Northford. “Mulch should never touch the trunk,” she says. “But people are still surprised when we offer that advice with their plant purchases.”
“Mulch rots the bark, which destroys the cambium layer,” says DuBrule-Clemente.
That’s not all. Because mulch creates moist conditions, finely netted roots develop on the trunk, where they should not be. Furthermore, voles (field mice) sometimes burrow into the mulch and strip the bark. Given all the forces that harm trees these days, it seems a shame that we should inflict a few more for the sake of appearances.
She adds, “The right information has been available for many years. But for some reason many landscape crews continue the volcano practice. It confuses the public. People think that if professionals are doing it, it must be correct.”
There are other practices that should be largely banished. Rototilling, for instance, pulls up weed seeds and helps them germinate. It also disturbs soil structure, which is very important for plant health as well as prevention of erosion.
With rare exceptions, grass clippings should be allowed to decay in place. A bag of grass clippings is as valuable as a bag of fertilizer on the lawn.
Leaf removal is another unproductive, energy-intensive practice. Shredded leaves are a great source of plant-nurturing compost and mulch.
If we want to celebrate Earth Day, one way is to make a commitment to better land care—and in many cases, that requires some learning.
Some Good News
Here’s the good news: The local and online learning opportunities are many.
• Start with our state’s sources of free call-in and email assistance. The scientists at Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station advise on weeds, plant diseases, wildlife, pollinators, ticks, and other insects from offices in New Haven and Windsor. They offer free soil tests that include basic fertility recommendations and, if requested, soil organic matter and textural analysis. On Wednesday, Aug. 2, they will hold a Plant Science Day at Lockwood Farm in Hamden, a day of exhibits and talks. See www.ct.gov/caes for contact information, research reports, and fact sheets.
• Next, the extension specialists at UConn Home and Garden Center provide multiple sources of public education and individual assistance. Call 877-486-6271 any weekday, or visit ladybug.uconn.edu with questions about land care, plant care, insects, pests, and food safety. It also has offices in Norwich, Haddam, and North Haven. UConn Extension offers the Master Gardener, Advanced Master Gardener, Master Composter, and Coastal Landscaping for Clean Water certificates. (You don’t necessarily have to be part of the certificate program to take classes.) Find its calendar at events.uconn.edu/2017/month/05/408.
• Connecticut College Arboretum (www.conncoll.edu/the-arboretum) in New London offers public tours and hands-on workshops. Associate Director Maggie Redfern says they’ll hold a new wildflower identification workshop on Sunday, May 14, followed by a tour of New London’s common and uncommon trees on Saturday, May 20. Better yet, take a self-guided walk on the grounds during late April and early May to see and learn about the ephemeral spring flowers in bloom. The walk starts from the main entrance on Williams Street.
• If you’re looking for the right landscape plants, use the UConn Plant Database to narrow your search plants.uconn.edu). For native wildflowers, try the lists offered on the home page of the Connecticut Botanical Society (www.ct-botanical-society.org).
• If you want an organic lawn, try the online Organic Lawn Care Certificate from the Northeast Organic Farming Association: organiclandcare.net/lawncertificatecourse. See NOFA’s farming events and classes at http://ctnofa.org.
• For local reporting by local experts, and all the local events, see Connecticut Gardener magazine. (conngardener.com.)
In other words, keep learning. It may be a good time to contemplate something Thomas Jefferson said towards the end of his life, “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
We can’t all be great statesmen and women, but we can be youthfully open-minded when it comes to earth care.
Happy Earth Day, 2017.
Kathy Connolly is a landscape designer, writer, and speaker from Old Saybrook. See her speaking schedule or contact her at www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.