Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Spring Garden Update

I spent most of yesterday afternoon deadheading spent tulips, hyacinths and daffodils to allow the energy to go in to the bulb instead of making seeds.

I’ve finished a lot on my spring list: moved blood grass, divided and potted everything on the list, finished pruning shrubs, finished trimming roses and moved (¾ of) the mulch.

I’ll start the first batch of compost tea this afternoon and make a trip to Hickory Grove in Catasauqua for some annuals to plant in May. If we get more frosty nights like last night I’ll be stashing them in the garage overnight.

There is so much in bloom right now.

Pink azalea

White rhododendron

White lilac

Bleeding Heart

The blooming trees are especially beautiful this year. The redbuds and dogwoods are full of flowers,

After the rain Tuesday, my world is green again.

(Pennsylvania bats white nose syndrome update– Morning Call story 4/29/08,0,6811063.story )


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Earth Day

Bethlehem Area School District Earth Day Celebration at the city ice rink was a hit with approximately 3,000 elementary school children. The April 22 to 25 program was chocked full of educational displays and information.

City Recycling Center’s information “Why We Recycle” and how long waste remains in the landfill amazed the adults as well as the kids.

Liberty High School’s display of a littered campsite showed the mess that could be left behind by campers.

Freedom High School’s “Global Warming” display came complete with a jeopardy game and a lot of hoots and hollers.

An interest in “Snakes, Frogs, Toads ‘n Bats” was sparked by Penn State Master Gardeners. Facts abounded, such as: “bats can eat up to 600 mosquitoes an hour” and “88% of what a toad eats are critters that are harmful in the garden” and “snakes are meat eaters that keep mice and vole populations under control.”

Commercial displays included slide shows and examples of recycled products. The kids went home with a seedling tree to plant as well as other environmentally themed school supplies. A worthwhile day of information, thanks to BASD and all the hard-working volunteers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I haven’t had much time to work in or enjoy the garden this week. I hope to put in some good garden time next week.

The PJM rhododendron is putting on it’s usual spectacular bloom. Tulips, daffodils and grape hyacinths are blooming everywhere. It’s a beautiful spring color show.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The other night I watched Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures Return to the Amazon” on PBS. I was amazed to hear about “Terra Preta de Indio (Amazonian Dark Earths)” currently called biochar or agrichar.

According to Dr. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University Assistant Professor, Soil Fertility Management, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences:
"Soils with biochar additions are typically more fertile, produce more and better crops for a longer period of time."
From Cornell ChronicleOnline by Susan Lang (Dr. Lehmann) “shows how reproducing the Amazon's black soil could increase fertility and reduce global warming."

If biochar is some sort of miracle soil amendment, why have I never even heard of it? Have you?

Originally, Terra Preto was made by pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon River Basin. Most information points to a society that burned trees to make room for agriculture then added agricultural waste, human and animal waste, broken pots and refuse in a sort of an agricultural garbage dump.

As I understand it, biochar can reduce the need for fertilizers, reduce greenhouse gasses. “Char-amended soils have shown 50 - 80 percent reductions in nitrous oxide emissions, increase crop yield as well as supply a renewable energy source" (International Biochar Initiative [IBI]). According to IBI, “The bio-char process . . . produces a combination of both bio-energy and carbon-sequestering fertilizer from agricultural waste, which results in a net reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.”

Today, biochar is manufactured by slow pyrolysis. According to Best Energies in their work on clean energy production:

“Slow pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The feed material is dried and fed into a stirred, heated kiln. As the material passes through the kiln, a combustible synthesis gas (syngas) is evolved and is continuously removed from the kiln. Approximately 35% by weight of the dry feed material is converted to a high-carbon char material that is collected on the discharge of the kiln.”

An easier to understand article was published September 1, 2007 Environmental Science & Technology published by the American Chemical Society:

"Pyrolysis, a technologically advanced form of smoldering, involves burning biomass under controlled, low-oxygen conditions. Small- and large-scale facilities work in various ways and yield a variety of energy products, including bio-oils and gases, with biochar as a byproduct."

OK, let’s just say heating in the absence of air.

There is definite interest in biochar research and production worldwide. The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) was formed in 2006. In 2007, IBI held a conference in Australia. It attracted science & business professionals from around the world. The 2008 conference will be held September 8-10, 2008 in the UK.

Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado introduced S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007. A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884: Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative for the 2007 Farm Bill is published here The bill will boost funding for biochar research.

There are many unanswered questions:

Who will conduct research into the possible negative environmental effects?

Who will regulate or measure manufacturing methods and quality (how)?

Will modern biochar be able to reproduce the sustainability of benefits to the soil that was established in pre-Columbian soils?

What system is best to mass produce biochar?

Will biochar contain enough inorganic ions, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, essential to plant growth?

What is the best raw material to use? How will it be collected?

Who will develop distribution machinery for farmers to use to spread biochar on crop fields? Will it be affordable?

There is a lot of work to be done but I suspect we’ll be hearing more about biochar in the future.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Garden Priorities

It’s the time of year when everything in the garden needs to be done at once. My list includes:

Divide & pot perennials – coreopsis, daylily, liriope, mums, sweet woodruff, sweet shrub, brunnera, lily of the valley

Move Japanese Blood Grass

Continue Cleanup

Spray euonymus for scale (pictures before and after the cut)

Finish trimming shrubs

Finish trimming roses

Move mulch

Fertilize lawn according to the soil test

I got a good start this week but the next two weeks will be very busy with volunteer community garden cleanup, Earth Day, classes and meetings.

I try to remove weeds as fast as they appear. Wild garlic, yellow rocket and ground ivy are beginning to give me fits but I know it pays to keep up. My trusty dandelion digger is always with me.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Garden Awakening

The garden explodes in spring.

There is a lot happening in the garden right now. I’ve managed to divide the liriope, daylily, and coreopsis. About half of the cleanup is done.

The daffodils,

mini iris,

glories of snow,

hellebores are blooming and

I have a load of mulch in the driveway.

As lemon thyme, bleeding heart, mums, coreopsis, lupine, columbine turn green, I’ve got a lot of mulch to move.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Why I Don’t Use Landscape Fabric

Many years ago I tried landscape fabric to keep weeds out of the garden. And it worked, somewhat.

It doesn’t mean I never had to pull a weed. I covered the fabric with mulch. Weed seeds love to settle in mulch and need to be pulled from time to time. Some weeds such as thistle or dandelion go through the fabric. I know someone who’s fabricked garden is completely covered with weeds.

Small weeds in fabricked landscape usually come out easily. If a weed gets large and you pull it out, it pulls the fabric with it and then you have to re-cover it with mulch. Sometimes a strong rain will wash away the mulch and expose the fabric. I hate to see black plastic soil.

The cost for landscape fabric can be anywhere from $13.95 for a 3’ X 50’ roll to $145.95 for 4’ X 250’ Professional Weed Barrier. I found the different types available today confusing.

I used some of the leftover fabric under rocks at the top of our small bank. I hear it may work well under a stone path. I really don’t know anyone who has rock mulch so I can’t comment on that.

The point is – using landscape fabric is not completely maintenance free.

See more information from

But, the most important reason I don’t use landscape fabric – it makes it impossible to add organic matter to the soil. Compost and mulch are basics in the garden. Over time, compost and mulch produce good soil. Good soil produces healthy plants.

If you have a weedy area that you want to cover and mulch, spread newspaper 6 sheets thick and spread mulch on top. It will kill the weeds and then degrade into the soil. My side garden was done that way.

Since you have to cover the fabric with mulch anyway, why not feed your plants at the same time. I don’t even want to think about planting a new shrub in a fabricked bed.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ornamental Grass

Cutting tall ornamental grasses is a spring chore we don’t look forward to. The long blades are tough and sharp. We have tried everything from a sawzall to a chain saw. We’ve gone back to using a hand hedge trimmer or lopping shears.

We tie the grass with baling twine in two places. I pull back on the bundle as my husband chops away at the bottom of the grass. I move the cut stems out of the way so he can see where to cut. When the grass bundle is free we pile it for delivery to the city’s compost center.

The tall grasses tend to get wider over time. I would really like to divide them this year. Since that takes a lot of digging and a strong back wielding an ax, I don’t think it will happen.

I don’t cut back the Liriope (lilyturf) every year - mostly because I forget or I am too lazy. This tough little plant doesn’t seem to mind being ignored. I needed to trim this year because I want to divide the several clumps I have around the garden. I used a grass shears for the job. It’s a tough bladed plant and takes a while to whittle it down.

Stella de Oro Daylily also needs to be divided this year. I have unashamedly put this off for the last 2 years. I have never divided the clump. It was planted in 2001 and it seems to flower less than before. I plan to use a garden fork to lift and then separate the roots by hand. I’ll spread them out in the same spot and perhaps have a few left over to give away.

A few coral bells (Heuchera micrantha 'Palace Purple') try to grow in the same area. (picture right: coral bells on both sides of impatiens in another area where they have room to grow, July ’07) The coral bells are overwhelmed by the daylily, hosta and pink azalea. I’ll move these to the front shade garden. I’ve read that they are rabbit and deer resistant. Since the critters have mowed down a row of crocus, I need more plants rabbits or deer won’t eat. I can’t spread the cayenne pepper fast enough.

Some of these plants will be given to friends who have requested them. Others will go to plant sales for local groups. Hopefully, I will have a less crowded look this summer.