Sunday, March 27, 2016

Red Mulch Rant

Dyed mulch is taking over - taking over the mulch aisle, that is. The mulch aisle at the big box stores used to have an array of bagged goods: pine bark mulch, pine bark nuggets, pine bark mini nuggets, hardwood mulch, cypress mulch, and soil conditioner (finely ground pine mulch). At least two of those types are gone now, their floor space given over to dyed mulches in at least 3 colors.

The popularity of these dyed mulches has exploded and the stores feature huge spring sales. For the last two years, the parking lots of both Home Depot and Lowes have enormous stacks of these mulches at special prices. I watch as pick-up trucks pull up and get 20+ bags at a time! Red, black and brown dyed mulches are the most common colors.

Mixing red mulch and pinestraw

These mulches are showing up in our neighborhoods and even professionally landscaped areas. Screaming red and coal black landscapes smother scattered perennials, occasional shrubs and solitary trees. Am I the only one that cringes at the unnatural palette they paint? Geez, at least get the brown one!

Nice blend with the natural woodlands - not!

Perhaps my personal preference should be left out of this. Not everyone has the same taste. Leaving aesthetics aside, there are still two reasons to seriously reconsider using dyed mulch.

The Dye

The largest companies proclaim that their dyes are “natural” dyes made from iron oxide (for the red) and carbon black (for the black). While these might be natural by-products, I am not very confident that I need large amounts of rust (iron oxide) and charcoal surrounding my plants. Should we believe them that these are “safe?” I’m sure we can all remember when they said several other chemicals (glyphosate as in Round-up, now considered harmful to humans, to name one) were fine. 

The Wood

Even small amounts of casual research reveals that the wood used in these mulches is primarily waste woods such as ground up pallets, shipping crates, and reclaimed woods such as old lumber that might have been treated with chemicals.

Sometimes it takes a few years for consistent results to show up. Also, are they evaluating human toxicity or plant toxicity? What about earthworms and soil bacteria? We are potentially poisoning the organisms that do the most work for us. (It reminds me of using neonicotinoids on plants and killing the bees. How counterproductive!)

Here are some ideas for mulch:

-          Leaves from your trees make the best, free mulch you can get. They are constantly decaying and releasing nutrients back into the soil while also attracting beneficial bugs and worms that help with the process and provide ground-hunting birds with food. If your leaves are too thick/large, chop them with a shredder or lawnmower before you place them in the beds.
-          Chips from tree companies can be a source of free mulch as most of them don’t want to have to pay to dump their chips in a landfill. These raw chips should not be piled high in the beds as they will heat up. You can age them in a big pile if you have room and then use them later (several months).
-          Bagged or bulk mulch that has not been dyed: pine bark, hardwood mulch (you may consider avoiding cypress mulch due to harvesting concerns, do your research).
-          Pinestraw is a choice that is readily available in the South; it is gathered from pine plantations. Examine the contents when applying to pull out any weeds caught up in the baling process (the non-native old world climbing fern has been known to hitchhike in the landscape that way).
-          Grass clippings, old garden straw – these are options if you know they are chemical free. Don’t pile them too thickly as they can create a barrier to rain if the clippings mat together.

This black mulch isn't 12 months old and it already looks faded

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Redbud – Peas on a Tree

When someone says a plant is in the pea family, do your thoughts immediately go to sugar snap peas? Some people might envision the distinctive butterfly-like flowers associated with so many pea family (Fabaceae) plants (including sugar snap peas). In fact, Fabaceae family members with this type of flower are said to be in the Papilionoideae sub-family, a fitting name for those butterfly-like flowers. Our spring-blooming eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis) is one of those and those flowers are popping out now.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
My first glimpse of the redbud was when I was driving along the highway in the spring of 1989; it was my first spring in Georgia. The highway generally has a thick row of pine trees along each side. Occasionally I would see glimpses of purple; I eventually realized they were thin branches enveloped in a tight arrangement of tiny purple flowers. Someone told me the name of the tree was redbud; I was confused – these were not red! I still haven’t figured that out.

Redbud habit (Cercis canadensis)
The eastern redbud is a small tree, growing 20-30 feet tall. The shape is wide and open, often being as wide as it is tall. Heart-shaped leaves emerge just as the flowers are finishing; it is unusual that the redbud has single leaves while most pea family plants have compound leaves. Pea pods form after the flowers, each holding about 4-10 bean-like seeds which are eaten by birds and squirrels. Seed production can be heavy on some plants and heart-shaped babies often sprout up.

Popular with bees
Of course, we can thank the bees for all those seeds. Bees absolutely love redbud flowers. I can stand next to the tree and see both native bees and honeybees happily foraging in those flowers.

The flowers are made up of five petals: a ‘banner’ petal, two wing petals, and two petals that are partially fused together to form a boat-shaped ‘keel.’ Bees go inside that keel to get to the pollen and nectar.

Close up flower and arrangement on branch
An interesting aspect of redbud is that flowers can emerge not only on the branches but also directly from the trunk. They are usually arranged in small clusters on short pedicels. The flowers are considered edible and are high in Vitamin C. The pea pods can be eaten too (maybe that’s a way to control the volume of seedlings).

If you’re looking for an early-blooming spring tree, give redbud a try. It appreciates part-shade in Georgia but can probably take more sun if it has good moisture. If you're interested in learning about other pea family plants in Georgia, check out my earlier blog post: More Peas, Please!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Flowers Before Spring

When the first sign of green starts to appear and the first flowers open their buds, you notice. After a spell of cold, drab winter, flowers are oh-so-welcome! Georgia may not have a very long winter, but it’s winter enough for us. It’s warm enough now to really be outside (maybe even a little too warm), and the earliest of flowers caught my attention this week.

Bluets (Houstonia pusilla)
Viola bicolor

The tiniest of flowers can often be found in the thin edges of the lawn. When I walk down the street, some of the “lawn flowers” that I see are bluets (Houstonia pusilla), field pansies (Viola bicolor), common violets (Viola sororia) as well as some non-native imports: hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), the very similar looking spring draba (Draba verna), and dandelions (Taraxacum officinale).

Draba verna

Taraxacum officinale with tiny bee

With the exception of dandelions and common violets, these are annual flowers that rely on good pollination to set enough seed for next year. Thanks to early bees and butterflies, they seem to succeed, so it is good news for the flowers and good news for the insects that needed them.

In the woods, tiny flowers are also sprouting: liverwort (Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa), trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) are up well before the official start of spring in Georgia. All of these manage to send flower and foliage up through the fading leaves of fall, sometimes piercing straight through a leaf to reach the sun. Nature finds a way, doesn’t it?

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa
Sanguinaria canadensis

Herbaceous plants aren’t the only early bloomers. In the shrubbery department, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are the earliest to bloom. Overhead, red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) decorate far-reaching twigs until they tumble to the ground for us to examine.

Hooray for the earliest of flowers, arriving even before we might expect them. They are right on time for the insects emerging to seek them and to soothe our winter-weary soul.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Wild blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Myrtles All Around

From our second story window, we have a good view of the winter bird feeders. Of course, we planned it that way. I can sit at the kitchen window with a pair of binoculars and watch the warblers come and go. We have year-round birds too, but I only see the warblers in winter.  Pine warblers are the most common, and occasionally we get a visit from the yellow-rumped warblers.

Also known as myrtle warblers, these small black and white birds with yellow splashes are winter residents in Georgia. They breed further north of us. In the summer they eat insects, which is typical for warblers. In the winter they will look for and eat winter-persistent berries, such as junipers, poison ivy, and those of our native wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), hence the name ‘myrtle warbler.’

I would plant this shrub for the birds alone if need be, but it has other wonderful characteristics to recommend it besides its berries. Wax myrtle is a large shrub native to the Coastal Plain of Georgia, although it has spread into the Piedmont area, perhaps by birds or human intervention, and it grows wild in the woodland edges of yards in my neighborhood now.

Two of them were in my yard when we moved in and one was a female. Only females have the beautiful blue-gray berries that the warbler loves. Other birds eat them too, such as Carolina wrens. The berries have historically been used to make candles, especially the berries of the northern species known as bayberry (Morella pensylvanica). Early settlers would boil the fruit and collect the wax that floated to the top of the pan to make candles.

Ready-to-eat berries of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)

Wax myrtle is an evergreen shrub which makes it desirable for privacy, winter interest and as cover for nesting birds. The leaves are mildly aromatic and an unusual shade of olive green. Deer usually only browse the most tender foliage, leaving the older leaves alone. You can use it as a large shrub or it can be pruned up to resemble a small tree.

Male flowers of wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)
For those in coastal areas, you probably already know that wax myrtle is tolerant of brackish water, sandy soils and salt spray. It also helps to improve soil conditions. The roots of the plant form nitrogen-fixing root nodules similar to legumes. When you count up all the pluses of this plant, you can see why it’s worth having, especially if you’re in its native range.

As for me, I’ll enjoy the ones I have and the warblers that stop by to visit. Whether it’s myrtle shrubs or myrtle warblers, I’m glad to have them around.