I’m a horrible pool player. I enjoy the game, although I don’t know the rules well. I am familiar only with the basic premise of choosing “solids” or “stripes,” then working to clear the table of only your balls until you get to sink the 8 Ball. I’m not a skilled enough player to sink more than one or two balls on my turn, but I have learned the value of “the leave.” That is, to leave the balls in the best position you can for your next turn, or barring that, putting your opponent in the poorest position to do much good.
There are some parallels in gardening. When we wind down in the late fall, the goal is to leave our garden in the best position for a great start with a minimum of effort in the spring. Along the way, we want to cooperate with winter as much as we can, so that the freezing temperatures and moisture work to our benefit, not against us. This provides us a little bit of a head start when the weather warms again.
In the same way, there are gardening “opponents” as well, including hardy weeds that are dormant, or will germinate very early in the spring. They can take off at the slightest sign of thaw, way before our ground can be transformed from mud to something we can navigate without tracking half of our yard into our homes and vehicles!
As we get closer to spring, I’ll give you some very practical tips on getting ahead of weeds both in your garden and lawn. For right now, suffice it to say that nature abhors a vacuum. This means that bare ground is an invitation to weeds. Mulches of adequate depth do wonders here. For large areas of ground, there are pre-emergent weed killers, but I prefer to “flame” the young weed seedlings using a propane torch made for this purpose. This is very fast and cost efficient. You don’t need to char them, only wilt them. If this doesn’t appeal to you, light surface cultivation using a stirrup or “hula” hoe works well without inviting a whole new batch of weeds to your garden party! Why? The top inch or so of your soil is the germination zone for most weed seed, which is viable for many years. So, when you cultivate deeply by hoeing or by power tilling, you are simply bringing a new batch of seeds into the surface area where they can activate and start the cycle all over again. Minimize disturbing the soil and you’ll have much less weeds to deal with.
As long as we’re talking about weeds here, let me say something that is a bit against conventional wisdom. If you do get an area of weeds that gets away from you, get those pulled or stirrup-hoed as quickly as possible so you can get the ground covered or get something more desirable growing. As long as the weeds you’ve harvested haven’t gone to seed yet, you can use them either in compost or as mulches. At this point they are simply green vegetative matter and can’t reproduce. A word of caution, though, plants that reproduce via root structures (like many types of grasses) have what they need to start over again if they are given the chance.
Back to winter. Because it’s a good habit to keep walkways clear of snow, and many of us lead very busy lives, there are many times that snow and ice builds up and we need to make use of snow melt products. Of course, the most popular and readily available is rock salt. Application of salt works because salt water freezes lower temperatures than regular water does. However, plants, shrubs and grass cannot grow well in soils that have a significant amount of salt in them. In fact, once the salt reaches a certain level, the soil becomes sterile and can only be made to sustain plant life by rinsing the salt out of it or diluting saline concentration.
With all this in mind, there are some ways to minimize the negative effects of salt on your plants, while at the same time enjoying the positive effects of keeping your home safer during the snowy months. The best way to minimize the amount of salt needed to begin with is to keep walkways and driveways cleared off. Pile the cleared off snow along the edges of the of walkways and driveway, then apply just enough salt to both create a film of salt water as well as supply traction on the walk. Repeat this process as needed. If the snow gets ahead of you, gets packed down, and turns to ice, you will need to take more drastic measures. This is where the snow that is piled at the edges of concrete surfaces will serve you well. Because you’ll need to use significantly more salt or ice melt to melt the ice once it’s formed than you would to control it to begin with, the piled up snow will now serve as a barrier and to dilute the concentration of salt as the snow melts when the weather warms. Beds and shrubs can withstand a significant amount of salt if there is a good volume of moisture to dilute it.
Ammonium Sulfate can be used as a form of ice melt as well, but don’t be fooled into thinking that you can use all you want because it will simply fertilize your beds while controlling ice formation at the same time. Keep in mind that almost all chemical fertilizers are a salt of some form. Ammonium Sulfate is no exception. At higher concentrations, it is toxic to plants. Also, the nitrogen will leach out quickly of the soil with water moving down through it, and it is not available to plants until the weather warms later anyway. By the time the plant can make use of it, most of the nitrogen is below the root zone. If you want to use Ammonium Sulfate as ice control, you can, just use it sparingly.
Put these few tips to use and the “Spring You” will be very happy with the “Winter You.”
Gardening Events Coming Up
February is the perfect month to learn how to prune your own fruit trees, and March is the perfect time to attend an in-field, hands-on, “you do it” demonstration. Mark your calendar now for Wednesday, Feb. 26 for “Back Yard Fruit Tree Pruning Basics” by Wade Bitner, at the USU Extension Building, 151 N. Main, Tooele, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fruit tree and small berry pruning field demos will be Saturday, March 8, two sessions, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Stay tuned for more details.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for insights on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.