Creative clutter

Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem' says it's time for spring already.
Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’ says it’s time for spring already.

I started preparing my garden for spring today. The urge to banish winter and get busy outside comes over me every year around this time — if not earlier — and feels just like all of the times I have suddenly become desperate for a haircut right-this-minute. I can’t stand to look at its mess any more. And just like the time, years ago, that I couldn’t schedule a hair appointment within the hour and begged an unskilled boyfriend to get the scissors out, it was a hack job. I made a mess of my mess. But it’s my mess and I’ve decided to think of it as creative clutter. (I had no such euphemism for the bizarro hairstyle that schooled me once and for all in the virtues of patience and hiring professionals.)

My aim today was to go through as much of the garden as I could, downing stems and seedheads and uncovering bulb foliage before chilly fingers and a forecasted rain sent me back inside. I made it most of the way through the front garden, snapping and cracking stems and seedheads and littering them all in my wake. Winter interest became a debris field. Intentionally. Last year, after watching this video of Chicago’s Lurie Garden being mowed in early spring, and because I hate making endless trips to an already overfull compost pile, I decided that mulching in place was the best idea ever.

The only downside is that it still looks a mess. But like I said, it’s my mess and the clutter is good — creative even — for the soil in the short and long run because it will help retain moisture at least until the plants grow to cover any otherwise bare earth, and will eventually work its way into the soil as organic matter. If I were at work where we endeavor to keep up appearances, or hadn’t been in a rush to get back inside to relax on the couch with a warm dog on my feet, I would at least rake the bits off the lawn and make the edges nice and neat again before calling it a day. But that’s what tomorrow is for, and with any luck spring’s gales might help with the tidying.

Are you getting your garden ready for spring? What do you do with winter’s debris?

Mulch: no waiting

I have heard of gardeners who compost in place – who chop up debris as they go and leave it in the garden beds rather than carting it all off to cook in the compost pile – but I’ve never tried it. Until today. I was desperate to get outside (more on that when my next column is published) and tidy winter’s mess out of the garden, but since I haven’t yet eradicated the bittersweet from my compost area (refresh your memory about my compost-fail here) it was either bag up crashed winter stems and twigs to take them to the dump or leave it where it lies in the garden.

a fistful of brittle catmint (Nepeta) twigsI am lazy by nature (don’t tell them at work), and thrifty, so the extra effort to shove everything into those stupid brown bags and trash perfectly good compostables didn’t appeal. So I tried the other. I thought that chopping everything up would be tedious but the old stems are so brittle I barely even unholstered my Felcos (they need sharpening and were fairly useless anyhow) and crushed most everything into bits with my new-gloved paws. It was so brilliantly easy (read, lazy) that I honestly can’t believe I’ve never used this method before.

My garden is maybe not quite as tidy-looking as it could be, with bare exposed soil around every still-dormant plant clump, but I don’t like the look of exposed soil anyway — even in spring. Mostly because I know that any vacancy will fill with chickweed by tomorrow. And the garden certainly doesn’t look any worse than it did when the stems were leaning and crashed. Actually, I think it looks a damn-sight better. And I’m willing to imagine that covering the soil with stuff now will cut down (slightly) on weed germination. Not to mention that any seeds I scatter from annual and perennial reseeders will stay put and not drop along the path to the compost. Come to think of it, I might miss the volunteers that pop up in those random places… As for the weeds I pulled, it will be interesting to see if they reroot where I left them. (At least none, not even the chickweed, were in flower yet.)

Do you ever compost “in place”? Why or why not?

Grounds for dismissal

I have to fire my compost. Today, during an unusual burst of energy, I decided to spread my finished compost on as much of the garden as I could and begin to transfer the enormous pile of fresh stuff to a newly emptied bin (I use the 3 pile method: one for adding, one for cooking, one for done). But as I started to scoop supposed black gold out of the done section, which had been covered all summer in a sheet of black plastic, I discovered an infestation of Chinese bittersweet roots. No sprouts because of the plastic, but more roots per square inch than Republicans. Or Democrats—put together—for that matter.

Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), if you’re not already acquainted, is one of those dastardly bastard invasive vines that sprout from the merest hint of the idea of a tell-tale orange root and then throttle entire neighborhoods. So I’ve come to the unhappy conclusion that my compost area as it is, is finished. Not usable. Done. Kaput. I have a hard enough job as it is managing bittersweet in the garden without introducing a fresh crop from root cuttings.

The only good news to come out of it is that Z has offered to help me make an impenetrable compost area. We’ll strip the contents out, bagging the otherwise usable compost in hope that the devil roots will die over the winter severed from their life support (no doubt a vine in the neighbor’s derelict woodlot), level the playing field to a root-free depth, and lay a concrete foundation with cinderblock walls at least to shin height. And rather than using airy old shipping pallets, there will be walls. It will be a compost fortress. No bittersweet, English ivy, or even pretty old pokeweed will be allowed inside.

Have you ever had weeds or invasives in your compost? How do you manage it to keep them out?

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

I am not a fan of power tools. I’d rather wreck my back using a push mower (only until I have no lawn left) and wish for many reasons that all leaf blowers on the planet would simultaneously self-destruct. So when Troy-Bilt offered me the power tool of my choice to review – sort of like winning a kind of bloglottery – I hesitated and even gnashed a little in frustration at my luck not running towards a shiny new spade or a truck full of perennials instead. But when I looked out at my enormous debris-cum-compost pile it occurred to me that Troy-Bilt probably makes chipper shredders…

A friendly correspondent at Troy-Bilt helped me choose the chipper shredder 4325 which is their hard-core model capable of chipping branches up to 3″ in diameter. By now I’ve used it (by which I mean Z has used it while I delivered debris and watched) twice to open the path back up to our compost bins.

Out of the box it rolled easily into position and started up like a shiny red champ – 2 hard tugs on the cord and away she went. After a couple months in the garage it was more reluctant to start and if it had been up to me to keep pulling the cord, I might have given up. But once going (6 or more tugs and some monkeying with knobs), cs 4325 hummed away. Loudly. It’s really loud. Offer ear protection to the neighbors and put all the kids down cellar because as power tools go, this has to be among the most damaging to the drums. (My neighbors use leaf blowers so I consider cs 4325 their comeuppance.)

The shredder chute – the largest opening – is at about chest height on me and even for Z who stands 6′ tall, it’s forearm barking high. I guess that’s for safety reasons because there’s no way, even for a super tall person with simian arms, to reach down the opening and touch the blades. The chute also necks down from a good 18″ or so to about 8″ and then turns a corner before the blade house. According to Z, a well sifted armful of leaves could be dropped and sucked around the corner easily. All of my chunky debris (4′ weed stalks, armfuls of dried lavender stems, etc) needed a little more encouragement to turn the corner. Z finally settled on using a 1×6″ plank to push everything through. (Since a one-by-six can’t turn corners, there seems to be no danger of it, along with its handler, being sucked into the blades.)

The chipper chute angles out in the opposite direction – on the engine side of the machine – from the shredder mouth necessitating a complete shift in operator orientation. If you try to stand where you can easily-ish reach both chutes, exhaust will burn your legs or dust will blow up your nose. The lazy multi-tasker in me might have been annoyed by that but Z organized my pile and did the dance with grace.

The largest branch he put through (the chipper chute) was about 2″ in diameter and according to Z, the greener the wood, the better for finding the blade without getting hung up. He did also say that anything that could be encouraged one way or another to reach the blade would be chipped, no problem. My enormous piles of chunky yard waste were literally reduced to shreds and I was amazed at the uniformity and tininess of the resulting stuff. It makes beautiful mulch or a sweet layer for the compost pile. And all of the shreds were shot right into a sack (provided with the machine) which made clean-up and distribution incredibly easy.

To sum up, I’d give cs 4325 5 stars for being able to shred so much of my unruly pile of yard debris; 3 stars for a reluctant start (and needing to have a strong arm to pull again and again); and 2 stars for wonky ergonomics and design.

For clarity and full disclosure, I’ll say it again: Some fellow bloggers might claim I’ve gone to the dark side, but Troy-Bilt sent this expensive tool to me free of charge in exchange for an honest review.