Growing Concerns 513: Orientation of root or bulb, mulch, winter burn


When the gardener can't tell up from down, trust the plant to know


Dear Janet,

I was about to plant some bare root perennials, but can't tell which side is up! Help!


Dear F.K.,

When in doubt about the orientation of a root or bulb, plant it any which way in well drained, warm soil with all parts covered by an inch of loose earth. Then sit back and relax. Think of onions or potatoes sprouting in your vegetable bin -- despite their orientation those roots find "down" and shoots find "up." Your plantings will do the same. (A more disturbing image is the last weed you tilled but left in place. Didn't it grow back, even though it had been tumbled?)


Short reports:

Weed in April, mulch in May.

Don't rush to apply mulch. Weed the bed thoroughly before you spread an inch or two of seed-suppressing mulch to make a bigger dent in the weeding during the rest of the growing season.

When figuring how much mulch you need, keep in mind that one cubic yard can cover three hundred square feet of bed about one inch deep. That's a lot of ground -- a bed 100 feet long and 3 feet wide, or 60 feet long and 5 feet wide, or an island 20 feet wide and 30 feet long.

See the mulch for yourself before you buy it.

There are no standards when it comes to mulch names. One company's premium shredded bark may be fine and dark like bran flakes, another firm may use the same name for pale stuff in chunks averaging two inches square.

Especially if you're looking for 'Janet's choice' mulch.

Some landscape supply companies misunderstand phoned-in requests for "composted woody fines", also called "processed pine bark," especially if the caller goes on to explain, "it's that very dark, finely shredded stuff Janet Macunovich likes to use in perennial gardens." The person you're calling may think you're asking for the black-dyed shredded wood called "enviro-mulch," a product I do not wish on any gardener.

Worst winter burn in 30 years.

So says Dennis Groh of Dearborn Heights, president of the Conifer Society. I know Groh to be a careful observer of landscape events and well-connected among others who take a scientific approach to gardening. He reports, "...I have more winter burn on conifers and other evergreens than I have ever seen. My ivy is toast in many places. Some rhododendrons and azaleas look quite damaged and may not make it. Two conifers are definitely lost and my (dwarf Alberta) spruce is burned on the southeast side."

Groh has checked with other experts who report similar damage from Ann Arbor, across the Irish Hills area and in Illinois and Iowa. Like Groh's other contacts I see the damage but can only guess at why it's so bad -- perhaps just several years of drought culminating in a dry fall and fast, hard winter freeze. We are now watching deciduous shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials with fingers crossed, hoping damage there will be less severe.


Green thumbs up

to rain and irrigation during this most important season of growth. Ample, steady moisture now is the only medicine for winter-burned plants and the best insurance for all plants against debilitating losses to disease and insect pests during the coming year. The sooner new growth fills with water, the sooner it can generate excess energy to feed roots, fuel new growth and protect itself against attack with a tough skin and internal chemical defenses.


Green thumbs down

to using the same path across your lawn or garden for all 15 to 30 wheelbarrow trips involved in distributing one cubic yard of mulch, compost or topsoil. That traffic packs the soil underfoot and under wheel, until it's no longer porous. Roots there will die from lack of oxygen or water. Vary approach and departure routes. Where routes must converge, cover the soil with planks or a 5- to 6 inch depth of mulch to spread the weight of your passage.

Originally published 4/26/03