Friday, April 11, 2014

"What vexes all men? Sums?"

Still planning out my new garden areas in my north and west yards. Since these will be island beds containing mostly shrubs and small trees, they are quite large and present several physical, logistical and financial problems:

To Mound or Not to Mound?

I was given a very good suggestion by Larry at Conrad Art Gardens: mound up soil in my new island beds to improve drainage. I have clay soil here, and raising the bed level by about a foot would probably increase the chance of success of many of the trees and shrubs I am planning to plant. It would also look nice too.

However, upon calculating the cubic feet of soil needed to raise the new beds, I experienced sticker shock:

"What vexes all men? Sums?" Having recently watched
"Pirates of the Caribbean" with my children (since we had ridden
the Disney World ride in February and they hadn't seen the film),
the phrase came to my mind as I calculated the cubic feet of soil
 needed for this and the other two island beds I am planning.
(Note the two shocking dollar figures I reached at bottom right.)

After calling local quarries and finding that the cheapest garden soil costs about $250 per 16-ton truckload delivered, and calculating that I would need about NINE truckloads, I realized that this was just not doable.

We do have a two-acre field that I thought about hiring someone with a large front-end loader to come out and strip topsoil from. But the soil from the field would be filled with large chunks of sod that would take years to break down (as well as numerous weed seeds), making my new garden areas look pretty ragged for a long time -- plus, it would probably still cost close to a thousand dollars for a day of front-end loader work.

So I've decided to go with the original plan:

  1. Spray grass
  2. My husband plows the areas with his tractor to loosen the soil. This will make it much easier for me to dig large planting holes for planting the trees and shrubs.
  3. Liberally amend each "$20 hole" ("for a ten-cent plant") with leaf compost and/or peat moss, depending on acid needs of the plants.
  4. Mulch the entire areas with either wood chips or leaf compost.
#4 raises another question: which would be better to mulch the large beds with:

Wood Chips or Leaf Compost? 

Both are available to me at the local landfill for a reasonable price, and the quality of both is good.

The peony border, the near side of which has been mulched for several
years with leaf compost. It has a dark, rich look.

Leaf compost pros and cons:
  1. Pro: very good for the soil, especially my heavy clay soil
  2. Pro: looks nice, like rich black soil
  3. Pro: keeps weeds from germinating quite effectively
  4. Con: breaks down more quickly than wood chips and would need to be replaced more often
  5. Con: costs twice as much per ton as wood chips 
The Green, Blue and Purple sections of the Rainbow Border
last June. This Border is mulched with wood chips, which don't
look as nice, but are probably a third the price per volume
and last longer, making for less work.

Wood chip pros and cons:
  1. Pro: I have read that wood chips can deplete the nitrogen in soil, but this article (and especially the information in the first 20 accompanying comments) has debunked this fear for me (as well as the fear of transmitting plant disease from wood chips, which is a very low risk). As long as the wood chips are not tilled into the soil when fresh, the nitrogen is changed only at the soil line, and only for a couple of months. And deep-rooted plants such trees and woody shrubs are not affected by what happens at the soil line anyway.
  2. Con: wood chips turn gray after a few months, which doesn't look as nice as compost
  3. Pro: effectively keeps weeds from germinating
  4. Pro: costs half as much per ton, and also contains more volume per ton, which makes it even cheaper -- and I can make fewer trips with my pickup truck to obtain a larger volume (when I get compost, I can only carry about a half-full truck bed, because of the weight limit of my half-ton truck; when I get wood chips, I can carry a load mounded up above the top of the truck bed)
  5. Pro: wood chips don't settle or break down as quickly as compost, which means I won't have to replace it every year -- this might seem lazy, but it could take ten pickup truck loads to cover these areas, and that's a lot of work for me to unload and spread out! Eventually, my husband and I will buy a small front-end loader for this kind of task, but right now, labor is preferable to large expenditure.
I think I've decided to use the wood chips for the general ground cover mulch, making sure the planting holes are liberally amended with leaf mold. 

I'm now in the process of deciding the basic layout of trees and shrubs to plant in the areas after this ground preparation has been done (we're just waiting for the grass to begin growing, so that the glyphosate will work when we spray it). I've been visiting all the nurseries and garden centers in the area to see what trees and shrubs I can purchase locally, and I hope I can get started planting soon! 

Then, the 5-10 year wait for the trees and shrubs to grow larger will begin, and I hope someday that these areas might resemble these in some ways:

Flowering trees and bulbs are so beautiful in spring.

And a few conifers too, since I like the way Adrian Bloom's
Bressingham Garden (in England) looks, with trees and shrubs
in island beds. His father, Alan Bloom, started this garden and
is credited with popularizing the island bed style of planting
in the 1960s and 1970s.
( Stuart Logan)

Planning, calculating, deciding... then doing!


  1. Beth, have you thought about using pine needles for compost? We get it free every fall from neighbors and it looks pretty.

  2. Hi Beth, I've heard pine needles make good compost/mulch, especially for acid-loving plants, which I'm planning to plant in one of these beds. We don't have any pine trees here, however, and I'm not sure where I could get it from around here. Perhaps I'll look around at my neighbors' farms and ask them if I see any pines planted. Thanks for the tip!