Archive for April, 2008

Water in the Care of Gardens

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Hand watering, though very gratifying in the sense that one is directly nurturing the plants, is most likely the least efficient and reliable way to water plants. People love to water in full sun during the day, which leads to high evaporation rates. Also, in splashing what appears to be a large volume on top of the soil, folks often think they have really watered the plant, when in fact, soil can only absorb limited amounts of water at a time. In fact, if you come back to a hand watered area after the water has been absorbed, generally you will find there is water in the top inch or two of soil only.

    Irrigation is much more efficient than hand watering for a number of reasons. First, irrigation systems sprinkle or drip water over the soil emulating rain, and allowing the soil to absorb water a little bit at a time. Irrigation systems can be programmed to run at dawn or dusk, when there is far less evaporation. As a general rule, lawn irrigation spray heads for example, are eighty percent more efficient than hand watering.   The problem with spray heads of course, is they were developed for lawns, and not for perennial and flower beds.

    As mentioned earlier, many of the perennials, shrubs, and ornamentals commonly available, evolved in different environments, so why would you deliver the same amount of water to them? With the exception of water plants, all plants need varied levels of moisture for stronger roots. Trees for example, generally appreciate deep heavy watering with a week r so to absorb moisture allowing roots to grow and reach for more. Shrubs similarly will want water twice a week, and smaller perennials perhaps three times a week. These generalities regarding timing will not apply to drought loving plants of course, or soils that are more saturated with moisture because they are located near a body of water, but they illustrate that watering a bed of mixed trees, shrubs, and perennials with a broadcast spray head is unlikely to deliver the needs of all the plants in the bed.  Instead, look for ways to deliver plant specific watering.

    Drip irrigation is the simplest means to deliver plant specific watering. Drip irrigation is also sixty to eighty percent more efficient than spray head watering. Drip systems were invented by the Israelies for growing fruits in the desert with minimal water. Israely farmers found that if they slowly dripped water directly to the roots zone of the plants, the plants absorbed a higher ratio of the water, reducing evaporation and creating the most efficient watering system on the planet.

   Drip systems come in several forms; the original form is a thin spaghetti like tube with an emitter on the end that literally drips water into the root zone of the plant. Emitters come at different drip ratios so that when watering trees, you can deliver much more water per an hour than lets say a flower pot whose roots are closer to the surface and requires less volume of water to saturate the roots. The next step up is drip pipe, plastic pipe with the emitters built in. These come with different spacing and can be used when watering a bed of plants that have similar water needs. Drip pipe can also be used to circle larger trees, and for subsoil irrigation of lawns.

  Finally there are micro spray heads, and low volume spray heads. These are spray heads that need less pressure and volume than lawn sprinklers and can be calibrated to be area and/or plant specific. We like to use these on greenroofs where water is only needed for the first year, or in other beds of groundcover.

Dog Waste Composting

Monday, April 21st, 2008

The war of the dog poop has been going on for more than a decade in our home. No one wants to walk the dogs so they tend to go in the yard. Though easy on the walker, we all know the problem with dogs in the yard, someone has to clean it up and indeed, whole businesses have sprung up around this need.

We won a strategic victory four years ago when we refused to let them go on the lawn and instead released them in the rear yard. However, this was a short lived victory as  they then proceeded to kill our shrubs and pachysandra (I didn’t think anything could kill pachysandra). After four years of watching the rear “garden” die, we finally had it. Either the kids were going to walk the dogs (and clean up after them) or something  would have to be done.

Anyone with children knows how well the “kid solution” works. Generally this solution has very limited applications….maybe once a day if you are lucky. If we were ever to regain our rear yard, something had to be done. A Google  search of .33 seconds turned up  “Pet Waste Composting”  at This site,  sponsored by the Canadian office of Urban Agriculture, had step by step, photo illustrated instructions on how to install a dog septic system. Basically, you dig a hole, take an old garbage can and drill holes in the bottom and sides, and bury it in the hole with the top exposed. Then you just scoop your dog waste, throw it in, add a handful of leaves, and add Septo-Bac, an enzyme-active biological compound formulated to increase the digestion rate of sewage. The dog waste decomposes and escapes through the holes where trees and shrubs feed on the processed waste. The site claims that the composter takes about six years to fill up and when it does, you can bury  the composted remains in ornamental beds. It also stresses to never use composted dog waste in  food crops.

We Googled Septo bac and ordered up a couple of months worth, and with the help of our five year old, we built two composters in our back yard and will fence off this area and mulch it  so that we have a dedicated dog run that will be scooped regularly. The dog run will limit how much yard the dogs get and having it be plant free will make it easier to spot and scoop. There are smaller commercially distributed dog septic systems available. One is the “Doggie Dooley” which you can find at and also at


An Argument For Composting

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I grew up in New York City, the heart land of waste removal and disposal. You put your garbage outside your back door and it goes away. Your home is as cluttered or uncluttered as your ability to put things out the door. The other side of this was that if there was a garbage strike, which inevitably occurred in the heat of the summer, garbage would pile up on the sidewalk stinking to high heaven. All associations with “waste” on this level are as something not to be handled and to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. It is no wonder that there is so little composting in American society.

With the exception of human waste (urine and Feces) composting was the pre-industrial way to handle waste in many cultures,. Human waste is generally too toxic to compost like most carnivorous animal waste, and generally was run back into bodies of water to the chagrin of downstream neighbors, or was buried. Any non carnivorous animal organic waste (vegetables, leaves, cow manure, horse manure) was put into a compost pile. I first learned this visiting a farm as an adolescent and my first reaction was “ewwww”. The farmer chuckled and showed myself and my class the whole process from beginning to end, leftover food and cow poop goes in, it is digested and “cooked” by microbes, composted humus comes out. The most shocking thing was, it smelled right, you intuitively knew this was a good and natural process.

Waste disposal is hugely expensive for any municipality. Environmental News Network reports that in 2003, nearly a quarter of all municipal trash in the United States crossed state lines for disposal, according to the Congressional Research Service. Ten states imported at least 1 million tons of trash that year, up from only two states in 2001. At issue for many importing states is the smell and the threat to the environment if the garbage is handled improperly — reasons that more urban trash is winding up in rural communities where political resistance is likely to be minimal.
For instance, my home city of New York now transports more than 1,300 tons of garbage each day to Fox Township, Pa., located in hilly hunting country 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Not only is the cost of transporting waste huge financially, but it is also tremendous environmentally.

Composting is the way to give back to the land. It builds soil culture by adding organics and active microbes to the soil. It helps plants digest organics through maintaining a vital and alive soil culture, and it eliminates chemically produced nitrogen which is an oil product and as such has a large carbon footprint. A return to home composting of organic waste will not only help cut costs for municipalities, but reduce oil usage, your carbon footprint, and be beneficial to the landscape.

Converting To Organics From Chemicals:

Monday, April 7th, 2008

      I converted my lawn from chemicals to organics by making it go “cold turkey”. I stopped applying pesticides and fertilizers  and  kept my fingers crossed. Anyone who has tried this knows exactly what happened, the lawn deteriorated steadily over a year and by the following spring I had a terrific lawn of crab and onion grass. It took me another full year to get it looking better and two years to have something my wife was proud of.

    The lawn, like any garden space, has to be fed, and weeds dealt with. Presumably if the root system is strong in any plant from tree to sod, than insect infestations will be minimal and manageable without pesticides, but going cold turkey simply weakens the plants and invites disease , weeds and insects. Whether it be a lawn or a perennial bed, the conversion from chemical care to organic means there will be a decline of some kind, but you can limit and shorten this decline by taking action.

    Chemical fertilizers  aside from having a huge carbon footprint, kill topsoil and the microbes that help topsoil, or humus, convert organic material into a form that plant root systems can absorb. Therefore the first action to take (besides stopping chemical feeding) is to restore organic content and begin to establish microbial activity. The most effective way to do this is with active compost of course, but let’s face it, if you have been chemically feeding your garden, you probably don’t have any compost.

There are a number of active products on the market that can help jump start your soil culture. Many folks recommend compost tea, this is tea made form live compost. It is also used for controlling some diseases in the garden, though there is much debate on the effectiveness of compost teas for this purpose.   Though some may question compost tea as a means of controlling disease, there is no doubt that saturating your soil with compost tea will help re-introduce active microbes into your soil.

 Another good product is plant healthcares bio-pack which also re-introduces live organisms into the soil. Basically, you will want to work with products that contain active Mycorrhizae

What are Mychorizae? 
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic associations that form between the roots of most plant species and fungi. This symbiotic relationship is characterized by the equitable movement of sugars to the fungus and inorganic nutrients fixed by the fungi move into the plant, thereby providing a critical linkage between the plant root and soil. The fungal hyphae take up nutrients from soil solution and transport them to the root. By this mechanism, mycorrhizae increase the effective absorptive surface area of the plant. In nutrient-poor or moisture-deficient soils, nutrients taken up by the extramatrical hyphae (hyphea existing within soil matrix) can lead to improved plant growth and reproduction. As a result, mycorrhizal plants are often more competitive and better able to tolerate environmental stresses than nonmycorrhizal plants.

Remember also to incorporate organic material into your soil. Orgnisms like mycorrhizae need organic material. Bagged compost, though sterilized, is rich in organic content. Products like peat moss however, tend to be acid based and should be used in limited quantities. Many environmentalists argue that peat moss is harvested much faster than it can produce and therefore is not a sustainable source for organic material. Also look for organic fertilizers. The kind of fertilizer you should use really depends so much on what type of soil you have. A great site for working out additives is the  extremely green gardening company site: