Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mulch Mode, Lasagna, and Daffodils, Oh My

I took a trip to Seattle this week to give a talk to the Seattle Chapter of the North America Rock Garden Society on ‘The Sex Life of Plants’.

What a great and receptive group of people they are. It feels like my 3rd home (after Salem and Battle Ground). I spent the night with my good friends Judith and Vanca in Judith’s beautiful log home on 5 gorgeous acres studded with giant Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir and quirky artwork, on the Skykomish River, in Gold Bar, WA. Judith Jones, as some of you might know, is the proprietor of Fancy Fronds Nursery, one of the premier fern nurseries anywhere. In fact Judith herself is one of the world’s experts on ferns. If you are interested in ferns, (and really, can you have too many?) check out her informational web site at


She knows her stuff and won’t steer you wrong !

I’m in mulch mode. The wind and rain has finally knocked all the leaves off the nearby trees. The house next door sits empty for now and that property is where most of the leaves are coming from. I can only hope that the new occupants will be as generous with their leaves as the last owner. They never minded that i would help rake them and haul them away. Perhaps the new owners will be gardeners and want to keep all the leaves for themselves. But that would be good. There is certainly no shortage of leaves around here. Over the weekend, I picked up 8 giant black plastic bags full of Linden Tree leaves that someone had set out by the curb for pickup. I will probably set some of these aside for next summer when leaves are not so easy to come by and I will be needing some for my compost pile.    


The borders and beds are all covered now, to a depth of 3–6“, but I already see the leaves compacting. What I didn't use on the beds are in one of my several compost piles. There is one under the front window hidden from view by the Scarlet Runner Bean trellis, and one in the back corner of the garden by the vegetable beds. My hot compost pile will be in the back under the pear tree. I have been holding back some of the bags of coffee grounds I picked up at Starbucks, along with kitchen scraps, and bags of grass clippings for about 6 weeks now, and I will be making one big pile all at once, hopefully by the end of this week. These, along with the leaves from the pear tree and from the neighbors English Walnut tree that hangs over our fence, and a few big sacks of the Red Maple leaves and the Linden will go into making a ‘hot’ pile. The last few years, I have been able get the pile close to about 130 degrees, but this year I am aiming higher.   

I’m trying an experimental thing with the mulch of Norway Maple leaves along the fence line. There is a little dip there, so there is an extra thick layer of leaves. Maple leaves like these take longer to break down, (unless you run them over with a mower first, or shred them in some way) but if not, they usually have just barely begun to decompose by spring. So, I took a couple of buckets of kitchen scraps and added a layer of them in the mulch, and I am also going to be adding some handfuls of alfalfa meal. Alfalfa meal is a concentrated  source of nitrogen, and the intention is to see if this makes the pile break down faster. I will report on how it has worked. 

There are 'Heavenly Blue' Morning Glories blooming inside our sun porch!  Apparently one of the stems wormed its way through an opening in the window earlier this year, and it took off, now it's growing up against the inside of the window, full of buds, and every once in a while one opens. The plant is rooted outside by the corner of the house but we are expecting to get our first real frost of the season this week, and I'm guessing it will knock the whole plant out. It is another experiment.         

So, big news! The first episode of 'Down in the Dirt with Diana' (the radio show) on KMUZ 88.5 FM, aired last week, Tuesday, Nov. 12.   

A quick summary :

My first guest was Dan Fahndrich, a landscape designer and co-owner of Farwest Gardens, a design/build company in Salem Oregon, in the horticulture business since 1976, discussing sheet composting, also referred to as Lasagna  gardening. See his work at his website:    http://farwestgardens.com/

Lasagna gardening, sheet composting, whatever you call it, is a great way to start a garden bed were there was not one before, even on a grassy or weedy area, without tilling. Once you have decided on the dimensions, you can either build a frame for a raised bed, or just mound it up. If the ground is compacted, (and usually it is) take a pitch fork and poke the ground in spots, rocking the tines back and forth, just loosening the ground a little for better drainage and to let the water penetrate. Make sure the soil is moist before starting the layers. Of course this is usually not a problem at this time of year. Think of sheet composting like making a big flattened compost pile, but without ever having to turn it. 

First lay down a thick layer of overlapping newspapers, about 6-10 sheets, or a thick piece of cardboard. This will kill the grass and weeds beneath it and add a lot of organic matter to the soil as the grass and weeds decompose. On top of this layer add alernate layers of what, in the compost world, are referred to as 'browns' or 'greens'. The microorganisms that are responsible for the breakdown need a combination of a carbon source (the browns) and a nitrogen source (the greens). On top of the first layer of newspaper or cardboard, add alternate layers of the same ingredients you would add to a compost pile. ‘Browns’ are anything that have a high carbon content, like leaves, newspaper or straw, and the ‘greens’ are vegetable scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, manure.  Add them in layers about 2–4” deep, making the brown layers about twice as thick as the greens, moistening each layer as you go, until you have reached about 2’. Add a few shovelfuls of soil or finished compost occasionally - this helps to stimulate the breakdown by adding some necessary microorganisms. Finish the pile off with a layer of leaves or straw, then just let it sit. Cover it with plastic or groundcloth if the leaves start blowing away. By spring the layers will have broken down and compacted enough to plant directly into the pile. If the newspaper layer is very thick, or if you used cardboard, this first layer may not have broken down completely. To overcome this, just take a shovel or a pitchfork and cut down into it in spots, or dig a hole under the starts you are planting to give the roots of whatever may plant there a place to easily penetrate. 

We will be talking more about the benefits of no-till gardening in upcoming segments.    

Steve Vinisky, my second guest, is the proprietor of Cherry Creek Daffodils at  http://www.cherrycreekdaffodils.com/  and an internationally known expert on bulbs. He told us that the Willamette Valley is one of the 5 best growing areas in the world for bulbs. He breeds Daffodils, mostly miniatures, and explained to us that daffodils are such great garden plants, for one, because they are ‘critter proof’ – deer, mice, voles, all steer clear of them. The three things to remember when planting bulbs are full sun, well drained soil, and no summer water. However, some bulbs are more forgiving in this area, and can take some watering in a garden situation. .  

Daffodils are easy, almost fool proof. They increase well, but only need dividing when you notice a decrease in flowering. Daffodils (as many other bulbs) do extremely well in containers, as long as you keep the bulbs from freezing. This is as simple as bringing the dormant pot into a garage or basement, or digging a hole and plunging it into the ground. For an extra show, try making a  'Superpot" - planting up a container of daffodils or other bulbs in layers. In a large 10"-12" container, add about 6-8” of soil, place a layer of bulbs with the sides touching, then add enough soil to cover the bulbs just to the tips. Add another layer of bulbs alternating with the first layer. You can stop here or add another layer. Try mixing varieties or even types of bulbs. I'm going to try this one ! 

For more information on Daffodils check out the American Daffodil Society website at 


There are lots of bulb-related festivals and events in spring, and I will be listing them on the garden event calendar as they come up, but a very special one to keep in mind is the Amity Daffodil Festival.

This festival has been on-going since 1995, and is totally organized and run by the students of Amity High School in Amity, Oregon in cooperation with the American Daffodil Society, as a part of the Hospitality, Tourism, and Recreation Program at the School.  

And in case you were wondering, Daffodils and Narcissus are the same thing (the number one asked question). Narcissus is the scientific name for what we commonly call Daffodils.   

(Nomenclature note: The Narcissus was named for the beautiful youth in Greek Mythology who drowned while admiring his own reflection in the water. After he died, the gods took pity on him, and since they could not restore him to mortal life, they made a beautiful flower out of him that would bloom every spring.)  

Until next time - 

Happy Gardening !