Mulch has bugs and you should be glad
(jump to Clematis)
This article is Sponsored by:
Last year a tree trimming company gave me chipped wood
from my maple tree and also from pine trees which they had cut in
I want to use this chipped wood as mulch to help cut
down the invasion of weeds which I have each summer in a large
green belt at the rear of my yard. I have now been told that the
chips will promote insects, etc.
I would appreciate any information as to how I can
utilize this wood to help cut down the weed growth and what I can
do to it if, indeed, the wood will promote insects. - G.T. -
A mulch layer is alive with insects, as well as fungi and
bacteria. However, this shouldn't concern you. In fact, it's
downright thrilling if you're interested in improving the growing
conditions for roots of trees and other desirable plants that grow
in that soil.
The organisms that proliferate in mulch are decomposers -
critters both microscopic and larger that break down organic
matter to its component parts. They are generally not able to
attack living plants and have no interest in biting or bothering
people. However, they do enrich the soil with their excrement. They
also improve the soil's ability to absorb and hold two ingredients
essential to healthy plant growth - water and air. This happens as
billions of decomposers churn through the organic debris and top
layer of soil, mixing and joining humus and minerals into loose,
Two inches of mulch will reduce or eliminate crabgrass and other
weeds that grow each year from seed, by burying those seeds deep
enough that they do not receive enough light to sprout. In most
cases mulch alone is not enough to control perennial weeds already
established on the site - the likes of quack grass or Canada
thistle that grow from roots formed the previous year. Established
perennial weeds must be removed manually or killed before mulch is
applied or they will just grow back up through the mulch. In some
cases, a thick layer of newspaper covered with four or more inches
of mulch can kill perennial weeds by smothering them. Decomposers
then break down the newspaper as well as the mulch.
Reading one of your past articles regarding clematis and
that it's okay to prune them now: What and how much should I prune?
Down to ground level or what? The plants grew runners approximately
seven feet long last year and I have not touched them since last
Also, should I fertilize them this spring? - T.H.
Right: The advice, "Prune weak wood
hard" is very good to have in mind as you clip a Clematis.
These three pictures were taken on the same spring day to show
you buds (left to right) at the base, middle and top of a
Clematis cane. The difference in their sizes explains
why a plant tends to become bare at the bottom unless you regularly
cut some canes to the ground. It happens because the top buds on a
branch grow first and command lower buds to grow less or not at
all. When you remove the top buds the highest remaining bud -- even
a dormant bud -- is released to grow more vigorously.
Clematis vines for cold winter zones can be divided into two
types. There are 1) those large flowered hybrids that begin the
season's bloom in June, and 2) those that don't start blooming
until July or later. (Those with very mild winters have a third
group, early spring bloomers such as C. montana.) Knowing
which type you have is one key to deciding how to prune.
1) "Standard" large flowered Clematis
1) The large flowered hybrid types such as Henryi and Nelly
Moser are the most popular clematis vines. These begin blooming in
June, flower heavily for a few weeks, take a rest and then bloom
again that same year.
Standard pruning time for a large flowered hybrid is in April,
before the season's growth begins. Directions are simple: Remove
one or more of the oldest canes, and cut the others back by about a
third. Do both, in either order. This method of pruning preserves
the first show since the June flowers come from wood that seasoned
last year. Yet it also promotes a significant amount of vigorous
new growth that will be ready to bloom in July or later.
Photos below: We clip out one or more old, thick stem(s) at
ground level every year. Here we take out two, then trace those up
into the tangle, clipping the cane and its side branches loose from
the rest. We also clipped all the canes and their side branches by
about a third -- a seven foot piece became just four to five feet
The vine before and after:
The base with and then without its oldest canes:
We removed all this. If the vine was not one of "ours" and
thus cut every year, this first pruning might have netted three or
four times as much tangle from the top, but about the same from the
2) Later bloomers
2) Less common but becoming more popular are once-blooming
species that hold off on flowering until July or later. Examples
are yellow-flowered Clematis texensis, C. violacea with
its small violet flowers, white fragrant C. maximowicziana
(sweet autumn clematis, also listed as C. ternata) and
blue fragrant bush form C. heracleifolia.
these later-blooming Clematis species can be the same
process as for the large flowered hybrids but since they will bloom
fully even if cut right to the ground every year, they are often
used in ways that depend on hard cutting. For instance, if you want
a clematis to ramble over a lilac, you might grow a Clematis
texensis next to the shrub, cut it back in April so it's out
of the way while the lilac puts on its spring show, then allow
tendrils that sprout from the clematis' base to climb into the
lilac where they will bloom in summer.
Guidelines, not rules!
These standards, like all pruning rules, apply only if your aims
are standard, too. If you have different reasons to prune then your
procedure will differ. Cutting a large-flowered hybrid all the way
to the ground means losing the June flowers for that year. Yet if
you want to prune it back so you can move it to a new trellis and
it's not critical that it have flowers on it that June, chop it to
the ground rather than spend hours detaching and reattaching the
vines. If your fall-blooming clematis can't be cut back to the
ground each year because you wouldn't remember to follow up to
train it back up into the crabapple, then don't cut it at all
or cut only the parts above the point where the vine first takes
hold of the tree.
Below: If you cut a Clematis to the ground, don't
be surprised when new shoots come up in a surge, released from the
control of tip buds.
These three new shoots were on a single Clematis cane one
spring day. Left to right, they came from the bottom, middle and
top of the cane. The lowest shoot (left) is smallest because the
largest shoot (right) has dominance -- it grows biggest, fastest
and exerts control over everything below it. Cut off the cane to
just above that smallest shoot and it will launch its own career as
Green thumbs up
to a late spring. The recent ice, snow and cold would have done
far more damage if our gardens had been showing the normal amount
of soft new growth for early April.
Green thumbs down
to moving weeds along with a transplant. If that plant has grass
or another perennial weed growing in it, reduce it to bare root so
you can see and eliminate all hitchhikers.
First published 4/12/03.
Posted on-line, illustrated and expanded 4/12/13.
Many thanks to our Sponsor, whose
donation aimed at pruning topics
helped us post and illustrate this
and its related issues:
Click to see a linked index of
other articles recommended by
You can Sponsor us. Please do!
In this labor of love we grow because we all
pitch in. GardenAtoZ.com
is simple and inexpensive.