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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wildfire Mitigation for Homes

The enormous power of wildfires can be devastating. While much of the Rocky Mountain region confronts an historic fire season, tragic lessons are being learned. Many of us living in urban neighborhoods used to think we were safe when grasslands and forests burned near us, but the firestorm that engulfed West Colorado Springs proved those assumptions wrong.

Crack fire crews were ready, air tankers had dropped tons of fire retardant slurry, national experts put a good defensive plan in place, and sudden, erratic, unanticipated 65 mile per hour winds made all of that irrelevant. Entire neighborhoods were erased in minutes. A firestorm overwhelmed all preparations and incinerated hundreds of houses. These weren't houses sitting solitary in a forest. They were homes sitting side by side along wide streets with sidewalks, playgrounds, and fenced backyards.

I was in Colorado Springs the afternoon of June 26, 2012, and felt sickened by the sight of flames cresting the ridge line that was perceived by all of us as a critical border between the city and the threat beyond. I wasn't overly worried because I knew the fire crews were ready based on the many updates we were following on the news channels. Upon arriving home, 20 miles east of the danger, I told my wife the fire was worse. It was a sorrowful understatement.

The best-trained, professional, defensive fire teams in the world can be defeated when Mother Nature adds enormous destructive energy to an already devastating force of nature, but those events aren't common. The Colorado Springs fire is being described by career firefighters as"epic", with growth patterns and expansive actions previously unseen.

This tragedy has many of us reviewing our own homes and neighborhoods with an eye toward the threat of fire. The idea of "wildfire mitigation" was previously unknown or ignored by many homeowners, but now is the discussion topic at the dinner table.

A wildfire is an uncontrolled burning of grasslands and woodlands, or prairies and forests. The large majority of urban settings are still safe from wildfires, but houses and neighborhoods that border zones of bone-dry vegetation should be aware of practices to reduce the fire threat. Wildfire mitigation for a homeowner involves taking actions to lessen or eliminate the potential damage from a wildfire.

A primary factor in determining a home's ability to survive a wildfire is the "defensible space" around it. This defensible space is the area of vegetation around a building that can either hinder or fuel a fire. Gardeners are uniquely qualified in determining the appropriateness of such vegetation.

A house is more likely to resist a wildfire if overgrown grass, dried brush, and overhanging trees are thinned or removed from the immediate vicinity of the building. With no or little fuel, a wildfire's progress can be slowed when it approaches.

Extending a clear space around a structure provides firefighters room to work as they fight flames, keeping a structure fire or a wildfire from moving to other structures or to surrounding woodlands. Giving the trained defenders a defensible space can make the difference between success and failure.

When viewing the area around your home and analyzing the defensible space, think horizontally and vertically. The horizontal space runs across the ground and encompasses low vegetation that could be potential fire fuel. The vertical space runs from the ground to the top of bushes and trees that might ignite. Vegetation that provides both high horizontal and vertical fuel potential poses the biggest threat; thick stands of brush and tightly-packed trees can be hazardous.

Mitigation of wildfire for homes involves disrupting the natural continuity of these horizontal and vertical fuel sources. Thinning large shrubs and trees so there is at least 10 feet between crowns reduces the potential of wildfire moving from one plant to another. Removing low branches and smaller plants under a tree removes these "ladder fuels" that can transform a low, grass fire into a high, tree fire.

A few years ago I was fortunate to receive forestry training as part of our Master Gardener program. It included education on wildfire mitigation and creating defensible zones around houses. I garden using many of those concepts. I've worked to prune lower branches off trees near the house to a height of about 10 feet. I don't plant shrubs near trees. I keep the grass within 100 feet of the house no higher than six inches. Dead trees and branches are removed quickly. No logs or wood are stored within five feet of the house and nothing is stored under the deck.

Even with my education and awareness a wildfire mitigation analysis shows deficiencies and potential hazard zones in my landscape. I was aware of some of them, overlooked others, and discovered new concerns.

My gardening activities focused on my backyard. Many earlier problems with potential wildfire fuels were corrected. It now offers a substantial defensive space and is maintained well. Little needs to be done there.

Good defensible space in the back

The front of the house has the road and gravel driveway as fire barriers and the old Ponderosa Pine is pruned up to about 15 feet; it is not threatened by a slow-moving, low fire. But there are Aspens and shrubs that abut the exterior walls. They are thick and not pruned as well as they should be. We like the way they look but in a wildfire situation they pose a danger to our home. This is the first place in our landscape where a decision needs to be made between aesthetics and safety. It's difficult sacrificing landscape plants, but it may be necessary to mitigate fire danger.

Obvious fire mitigation concerns

A similar situation exists on the north side of our house. Open pasture leads to the lawn, a thick stand of Aspens grows about 20 feet from the structure, overgrown bushes rest against the house, and a lone Ponderosa Pine rises within 10 feet of the deck and house. Though the lower branches are removed, the tree poses a serious threat. If it were to catch fire from a wind-blown ember, it threatens both the wood deck and the house. It is now a priority for removal.

Close growth is the biggest issue

The worst situation is on the south side. Our neighbor's thick brush and numerous trees flow into a space filled with pine trees on our property that grow right up to the house. Their branches intermingle. There is nothing to stop flames from spreading between them and to our roof.

No defensible space and obstructed mitigation zones

The first defensible zone around a house should extend at least 15 feet around it. All flammable vegetation should be removed from this zone for maximum fire mitigation. The second zone extends to at least 75 feet. Within this zone the continuity and arrangement of vegetation should be adjusted to reduce fuel potential. The south side of my home breaks all the rules of creating a wildfire-defensible space.

Many people move to the country or into the forest because they enjoy the scenery and wish to be engulfed by the plants and trees. No one expects that their home will be annihilated by a wildfire. We are now confronted by this obvious possibility.

In the early days of the Waldo Canyon fire as it threatened Colorado Springs, news crews and commentators highlighted the structures that remained immune to the widening fire lines. These homes were in the heart of the forest but they had obvious tree-free zones extending well beyond their walls. The grasses caught fire as the onslought approached but they were easy to extinguish. These homeowners who practiced serious wildfire mitigation practices saw their houses spared.

Creating defensible zones as part of wildfire mitigation works. It needs to exist on a large scale to be most effective. And an entire neighborhood needs to be involved. You can do what you can to reduce fire threat in your landscape but a neighbor's recklessness can still spell disaster.

I'm working with our homeowner's association, of which I'm a board member, to address this issue in our community. Already we're discussing plans for teams to help neighbors remove dead trees and brush if they're not able to do it on their own.

Many fire stations offer help in fire mitigation. If they have the resources they'll be happy to examine your landscape and identify problems. Believe me, it is beneficial for them to have defensible space around the homes they protect.

Mother Nature always has the last word. Even the best-defended home can be lost in a firestorm, as we saw this week. In a typical wildfire, wise mitigation practices can prevent loss. Educating yourself becomes critical when confronted by sustained drought as much of the U.S. is facing. High winds  and catastrophic low humidity increase danger. When the fire approaches it is too late to prepare your landscape. Think and act in advance to protect your home.

For more information read these fact sheets from Colorado State University:

Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones, no. 6.302
Fire-Resistant Landscaping, no. 6.303
Forest Home Fire Safety, no 6.304
Firewise Plant Materials, no. 6.305



The enormous power of wildfires can be devastating. While much of the Rocky Mountain region confronts an historic fire season, tragic lessons are being learned. Many of us living in urban neighborhoods used to think we were safe when grasslands and forests burned near us, but the firestorm that engulfed West Colorado Springs proved those assumptions wrong.

Crack fire crews were ready, air tankers had dropped tons of fire retardant slurry, national experts put a good defensive plan in place, and sudden, erratic, unanticipated 65 mile per hour winds made all of that irrelevant. Entire neighborhoods were erased in minutes. A firestorm overwhelmed all preparations and incinerated hundreds of houses. These weren't houses sitting solitary in a forest. They were homes sitting side by side along wide streets with sidewalks, playgrounds, and fenced backyards.

I was in Colorado Springs the afternoon of June 26, 2012, and felt sickened by the sight of flames cresting the ridge line that was perceived by all of us as a critical border between the city and the threat beyond. I wasn't overly worried because I knew the fire crews were ready based on the many updates we were following on the news channels. Upon arriving home, 20 miles east of the danger, I told my wife the fire was worse. It was a sorrowful understatement.

The best-trained, professional, defensive fire teams in the world can be defeated when Mother Nature adds enormous destructive energy to an already devastating force of nature, but those events aren't common. The Colorado Springs fire is being described by career firefighters as"epic", with growth patterns and expansive actions previously unseen.

This tragedy has many of us reviewing our own homes and neighborhoods with an eye toward the threat of fire. The idea of "wildfire mitigation" was previously unknown or ignored by many homeowners, but now is the discussion topic at the dinner table.

A wildfire is an uncontrolled burning of grasslands and woodlands, or prairies and forests. The large majority of urban settings are still safe from wildfires, but houses and neighborhoods that border zones of bone-dry vegetation should be aware of practices to reduce the fire threat. Wildfire mitigation for a homeowner involves taking actions to lessen or eliminate the potential damage from a wildfire.

A primary factor in determining a home's ability to survive a wildfire is the "defensible space" around it. This defensible space is the area of vegetation around a building that can either hinder or fuel a fire. Gardeners are uniquely qualified in determining the appropriateness of such vegetation.

A house is more likely to resist a wildfire if overgrown grass, dried brush, and overhanging trees are thinned or removed from the immediate vicinity of the building. With no or little fuel, a wildfire's progress can be slowed when it approaches.

Extending a clear space around a structure provides firefighters room to work as they fight flames, keeping a structure fire or a wildfire from moving to other structures or to surrounding woodlands. Giving the trained defenders a defensible space can make the difference between success and failure.

When viewing the area around your home and analyzing the defensible space, think horizontally and vertically. The horizontal space runs across the ground and encompasses low vegetation that could be potential fire fuel. The vertical space runs from the ground to the top of bushes and trees that might ignite. Vegetation that provides both high horizontal and vertical fuel potential poses the biggest threat; thick stands of brush and tightly-packed trees can be hazardous.

Mitigation of wildfire for homes involves disrupting the natural continuity of these horizontal and vertical fuel sources. Thinning large shrubs and trees so there is at least 10 feet between crowns reduces the potential of wildfire moving from one plant to another. Removing low branches and smaller plants under a tree removes these "ladder fuels" that can transform a low, grass fire into a high, tree fire.

A few years ago I was fortunate to receive forestry training as part of our Master Gardener program. It included education on wildfire mitigation and creating defensible zones around houses. I garden using many of those concepts. I've worked to prune lower branches off trees near the house to a height of about 10 feet. I don't plant shrubs near trees. I keep the grass within 100 feet of the house no higher than six inches. Dead trees and branches are removed quickly. No logs or wood are stored within five feet of the house and nothing is stored under the deck.

Even with my education and awareness a wildfire mitigation analysis shows deficiencies and potential hazard zones in my landscape. I was aware of some of them, overlooked others, and discovered new concerns.

My gardening activities focused on my backyard. Many earlier problems with potential wildfire fuels were corrected. It now offers a substantial defensive space and is maintained well. Little needs to be done there.

Good defensible space in the back

The front of the house has the road and gravel driveway as fire barriers and the old Ponderosa Pine is pruned up to about 15 feet; it is not threatened by a slow-moving, low fire. But there are Aspens and shrubs that abut the exterior walls. They are thick and not pruned as well as they should be. We like the way they look but in a wildfire situation they pose a danger to our home. This is the first place in our landscape where a decision needs to be made between aesthetics and safety. It's difficult sacrificing landscape plants, but it may be necessary to mitigate fire danger.

Obvious fire mitigation concerns

A similar situation exists on the north side of our house. Open pasture leads to the lawn, a thick stand of Aspens grows about 20 feet from the structure, overgrown bushes rest against the house, and a lone Ponderosa Pine rises within 10 feet of the deck and house. Though the lower branches are removed, the tree poses a serious threat. If it were to catch fire from a wind-blown ember, it threatens both the wood deck and the house. It is now a priority for removal.

Close growth is the biggest issue

The worst situation is on the south side. Our neighbor's thick brush and numerous trees flow into a space filled with pine trees on our property that grow right up to the house. Their branches intermingle. There is nothing to stop flames from spreading between them and to our roof.

No defensible space and obstructed mitigation zones

The first defensible zone around a house should extend at least 15 feet around it. All flammable vegetation should be removed from this zone for maximum fire mitigation. The second zone extends to at least 75 feet. Within this zone the continuity and arrangement of vegetation should be adjusted to reduce fuel potential. The south side of my home breaks all the rules of creating a wildfire-defensible space.

Many people move to the country or into the forest because they enjoy the scenery and wish to be engulfed by the plants and trees. No one expects that their home will be annihilated by a wildfire. We are now confronted by this obvious possibility.

In the early days of the Waldo Canyon fire as it threatened Colorado Springs, news crews and commentators highlighted the structures that remained immune to the widening fire lines. These homes were in the heart of the forest but they had obvious tree-free zones extending well beyond their walls. The grasses caught fire as the onslought approached but they were easy to extinguish. These homeowners who practiced serious wildfire mitigation practices saw their houses spared.

Creating defensible zones as part of wildfire mitigation works. It needs to exist on a large scale to be most effective. And an entire neighborhood needs to be involved. You can do what you can to reduce fire threat in your landscape but a neighbor's recklessness can still spell disaster.

I'm working with our homeowner's association, of which I'm a board member, to address this issue in our community. Already we're discussing plans for teams to help neighbors remove dead trees and brush if they're not able to do it on their own.

Many fire stations offer help in fire mitigation. If they have the resources they'll be happy to examine your landscape and identify problems. Believe me, it is beneficial for them to have defensible space around the homes they protect.

Mother Nature always has the last word. Even the best-defended home can be lost in a firestorm, as we saw this week. In a typical wildfire, wise mitigation practices can prevent loss. Educating yourself becomes critical when confronted by sustained drought as much of the U.S. is facing. High winds  and catastrophic low humidity increase danger. When the fire approaches it is too late to prepare your landscape. Think and act in advance to protect your home.

For more information read these fact sheets from Colorado State University:

Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones, no. 6.302
Fire-Resistant Landscaping, no. 6.303
Forest Home Fire Safety, no 6.304
Firewise Plant Materials, no. 6.305



Monday, June 18, 2012

How to Identify Weeds

Many gardeners have difficulty determining what is a weed and what is a vegetable. We all love growing plants and just about any sign of new green is welcome. The idea of unnecessarily pulling, digging, or spraying a valuable garden plant is painful. In an effort to positively identify the suspect, we'll let it grow to large size through delay and procrastination. A major problem arises because bigger plants can often present bigger problems like large roots, reseeding potential, interference with companion plants, and difficulty in removal.

Weeds can dominate a gardener's chore list if not dealt with early in their life cycles. It's easier to pluck small, tender seedlings than it is to remove a long taproot that can grow into new plants if not completely eliminated. Spraying herbicide on weeds will often kill them, along with neighboring plants that you wish to keep alive. The whole world of weeds is a pain in the overalls especially when we think we don't know how to tell which plants are weeds.
 
Can you spot the weeds among the lettuce? (Hint: the lettuce is purple and green)

Weed identification begins with garden plant identification. There are thousands of plants that we typically consider weeds, but you don't need to learn even a fraction of them. There are far fewer plants that we cultivate in our gardens; it is much easier to learn what they look like. Learn what a cucumber, corn, squash, pea, radish, lettuce, and carrot seedling looks like and you're well on your way to learning weed identification.

The basic premise is that you become familiar with the plants you're intentionally growing. If anything else pops up next to your chosen few, it's a weed.

These three little plants are not asparagus or rhubarb

Use my definition:  A weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. You'll find other sources that classify weeds as "wild" plants competing with "cultivated" plants, but I think that is too limiting. If something is growing where you don't want it to, you need to move it, remove it, or kill it; it's a weed.

How do you know what a cucumber seedling looks like? The answer is to sow cucumber seeds in a discernible pattern. As they grow you'll see the small plants lined up as you planted them. Those are the cucumbers.

Cucumber seedlings

Want to learn about green beans? Grow green beans. You'll see a collection of plants growing at the same rate because you planted them at the same time.

Green bean seedlings

Weeds don't follow the same guidelines of cultivation. They grow haphazardly. They grow to different sizes and shapes and colors. They'll often be grouped into a small space where their seed pod landed. Or they'll be widely scattered. There is no recognizable pattern to weed growth, which makes them easy to spot if you design your plantings in a recognizable pattern.

As you care for your seedlings, transplants, and established plants, remove any invaders before they become established. It may be Milkweed, Spurge, Purslane (my nemesis), Sorrel, or Thistle that moves in. While experienced gardeners can often identify such culprits it really doesn't matter as they are plucked from the soil. Pull them early and pull them often. Keep your garden bed for your intended plants only.

Eventually, as you maintain this basic regimen, you'll become familiar with which plants are the most common weeds in your garden. You pluck them from your beans and peas and then you'll see them among your daisies and poppies. You won't have to struggle deciding if it's a weed or not, you can be confident in eliminating the threat.

Of course keeping up with the attack of weeds can be daunting. Use that to your advantage. When one of your beds is overrun, remember what the attackers look like when you eventually deal with them. This can help in their identification in other beds.

These weeds left of the raspberries are common in my garden (they're in the lettuce photo above)

While you can handle the anonymous weed threat forever, there may come a time when you need to learn more about pernicious attackers. A few years back I had an infestation of a particular weed that consumed great amounts of my time. While I try to avoid using herbicides in my garden, they can be effective when needed. But specific herbicides are only effective against specific types of plants. That's when you need to identify your weed.

The internet, reference books, local Extension offices, and experienced gardeners can all help you identify a plant. In my case I learned that my weed nemesis was "Purslane". The waxy leaves, low growth pattern, and green-purple color became very easy to spot in the garden. I learned that purslane is edible and is often cultivated by gardeners as a salad plant. I also learned that it is resistant to many of the herbicides I would have used on it. The best method of eradication was pulling or cutting it before it seeded.

Purslane among onion seedlings

When I moved to a new house,  I started a new garden with many transplants I dug up from my previous garden. Before long I noticed the tell-tale Purslane emerging among some of these plants. I acted quickly and mercilessly. No Purslane was allowed to live and my garden is now completely Purslane-free. The problem was eliminated because I only allowed specific plants in my beds and I learned to identify a specific threat.

Pay attention to everything in your garden. We typically don't sow seeds in our garden paths. If something begins popping up between our stepping stones or through the mulch, it is a wild plant that was sown by wind or birds or was lying dormant in the soil for untold years. Take a few seconds to make a mental image in your mind and store it in your "weed file". The next time you see that plant in a garden bed you won't need to hesitate. It's a weed.

Even plants you place intentionally can become weeds. Remember, a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. You want them in your garden, but they can self-sow or spread to an area that isn't part of your plan. Once they interfere with other plants and you don't like their location, they're weeds.

You're probably more familiar with this category of plant so identification can be easy. My Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina) is nice to look at and fun to feel, but one section has overrun my Knautia and Salvia. It's turned into a weed and needs to go. Lucky for me I can easily tell the offending plant from the others I'm trying to save because it's one I planted on purpose. The Knautia in this bed is also beginning the march into other areas. Right now it's a valued plant but I recognize that it will become a weed once it escapes into nearby plantings.

This Lamb's Ear is now a weed

You don't need to know the name of the weed you confront. We all know what Dandelions look like, but many of us don't know the name Prostrate Knotweed, a plant that many gardeners have and instantly pull as a weed. I have it, I pull it, and I only recently learned the name.

Identifying weeds can be quite easy but identification doesn't imply knowledge about the nomenclature, history, cultivation, and life cycle of a plant. You don't need to know the name to identify a plant as a weed.

Don't delay dealing with a problem plant while you learn about it. Know the plants you want in your garden. Learn about their cultivation and maintenance needs; know their nutrition and fertilization requirements; know their names. Realize that any plant interfering with your garden is a weed. You can learn its name after you remove it.




Many gardeners have difficulty determining what is a weed and what is a vegetable. We all love growing plants and just about any sign of new green is welcome. The idea of unnecessarily pulling, digging, or spraying a valuable garden plant is painful. In an effort to positively identify the suspect, we'll let it grow to large size through delay and procrastination. A major problem arises because bigger plants can often present bigger problems like large roots, reseeding potential, interference with companion plants, and difficulty in removal.

Weeds can dominate a gardener's chore list if not dealt with early in their life cycles. It's easier to pluck small, tender seedlings than it is to remove a long taproot that can grow into new plants if not completely eliminated. Spraying herbicide on weeds will often kill them, along with neighboring plants that you wish to keep alive. The whole world of weeds is a pain in the overalls especially when we think we don't know how to tell which plants are weeds.
 
Can you spot the weeds among the lettuce? (Hint: the lettuce is purple and green)

Weed identification begins with garden plant identification. There are thousands of plants that we typically consider weeds, but you don't need to learn even a fraction of them. There are far fewer plants that we cultivate in our gardens; it is much easier to learn what they look like. Learn what a cucumber, corn, squash, pea, radish, lettuce, and carrot seedling looks like and you're well on your way to learning weed identification.

The basic premise is that you become familiar with the plants you're intentionally growing. If anything else pops up next to your chosen few, it's a weed.

These three little plants are not asparagus or rhubarb

Use my definition:  A weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. You'll find other sources that classify weeds as "wild" plants competing with "cultivated" plants, but I think that is too limiting. If something is growing where you don't want it to, you need to move it, remove it, or kill it; it's a weed.

How do you know what a cucumber seedling looks like? The answer is to sow cucumber seeds in a discernible pattern. As they grow you'll see the small plants lined up as you planted them. Those are the cucumbers.

Cucumber seedlings

Want to learn about green beans? Grow green beans. You'll see a collection of plants growing at the same rate because you planted them at the same time.

Green bean seedlings

Weeds don't follow the same guidelines of cultivation. They grow haphazardly. They grow to different sizes and shapes and colors. They'll often be grouped into a small space where their seed pod landed. Or they'll be widely scattered. There is no recognizable pattern to weed growth, which makes them easy to spot if you design your plantings in a recognizable pattern.

As you care for your seedlings, transplants, and established plants, remove any invaders before they become established. It may be Milkweed, Spurge, Purslane (my nemesis), Sorrel, or Thistle that moves in. While experienced gardeners can often identify such culprits it really doesn't matter as they are plucked from the soil. Pull them early and pull them often. Keep your garden bed for your intended plants only.

Eventually, as you maintain this basic regimen, you'll become familiar with which plants are the most common weeds in your garden. You pluck them from your beans and peas and then you'll see them among your daisies and poppies. You won't have to struggle deciding if it's a weed or not, you can be confident in eliminating the threat.

Of course keeping up with the attack of weeds can be daunting. Use that to your advantage. When one of your beds is overrun, remember what the attackers look like when you eventually deal with them. This can help in their identification in other beds.

These weeds left of the raspberries are common in my garden (they're in the lettuce photo above)

While you can handle the anonymous weed threat forever, there may come a time when you need to learn more about pernicious attackers. A few years back I had an infestation of a particular weed that consumed great amounts of my time. While I try to avoid using herbicides in my garden, they can be effective when needed. But specific herbicides are only effective against specific types of plants. That's when you need to identify your weed.

The internet, reference books, local Extension offices, and experienced gardeners can all help you identify a plant. In my case I learned that my weed nemesis was "Purslane". The waxy leaves, low growth pattern, and green-purple color became very easy to spot in the garden. I learned that purslane is edible and is often cultivated by gardeners as a salad plant. I also learned that it is resistant to many of the herbicides I would have used on it. The best method of eradication was pulling or cutting it before it seeded.

Purslane among onion seedlings

When I moved to a new house,  I started a new garden with many transplants I dug up from my previous garden. Before long I noticed the tell-tale Purslane emerging among some of these plants. I acted quickly and mercilessly. No Purslane was allowed to live and my garden is now completely Purslane-free. The problem was eliminated because I only allowed specific plants in my beds and I learned to identify a specific threat.

Pay attention to everything in your garden. We typically don't sow seeds in our garden paths. If something begins popping up between our stepping stones or through the mulch, it is a wild plant that was sown by wind or birds or was lying dormant in the soil for untold years. Take a few seconds to make a mental image in your mind and store it in your "weed file". The next time you see that plant in a garden bed you won't need to hesitate. It's a weed.

Even plants you place intentionally can become weeds. Remember, a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. You want them in your garden, but they can self-sow or spread to an area that isn't part of your plan. Once they interfere with other plants and you don't like their location, they're weeds.

You're probably more familiar with this category of plant so identification can be easy. My Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina) is nice to look at and fun to feel, but one section has overrun my Knautia and Salvia. It's turned into a weed and needs to go. Lucky for me I can easily tell the offending plant from the others I'm trying to save because it's one I planted on purpose. The Knautia in this bed is also beginning the march into other areas. Right now it's a valued plant but I recognize that it will become a weed once it escapes into nearby plantings.

This Lamb's Ear is now a weed

You don't need to know the name of the weed you confront. We all know what Dandelions look like, but many of us don't know the name Prostrate Knotweed, a plant that many gardeners have and instantly pull as a weed. I have it, I pull it, and I only recently learned the name.

Identifying weeds can be quite easy but identification doesn't imply knowledge about the nomenclature, history, cultivation, and life cycle of a plant. You don't need to know the name to identify a plant as a weed.

Don't delay dealing with a problem plant while you learn about it. Know the plants you want in your garden. Learn about their cultivation and maintenance needs; know their nutrition and fertilization requirements; know their names. Realize that any plant interfering with your garden is a weed. You can learn its name after you remove it.




Friday, June 8, 2012

Recycle Wine Bottles with a Garden Border

It's easy to recycle wine bottles in the garden. I pondered about the best way to combine two things that I enjoy... gardening and wine. Creating a garden border with the empty bottles is a great way to recycle and create a unique visual accent.

My wine bottle border

My wife and I share a bottle of wine on our Friday date nights and I save the bottles. The empties multiplied in boxes stowed in a shed while I decided on the best way to recycle them and after a few years the wine bottles needed to be used before we were overrun by glass. Many bottles can make a long garden border and I have a big garden.

A wine bottle border is long-lasting, colorful, distinctive, sturdy, and can even repel gophers and moles (more on that in a minute).

The process is easy: dig a hole and put in the bottle. Digging a trench makes the process a little faster and more uniform as you place the bottles side by side. Digging individual holes adds a slightly more random look.

Placing bottles before burying

Wine bottles come in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. Depending on which wine you drink you may have many similar bottles or many different bottles. Wine bottle borders can reflect your personal tastes in wine and gardening. Using the same kind of bottles can make a border of consistent and vibrant color. A more eclectic design comes when you mix shapes, sizes, and colors.

There are no rules when creating recycled art in the garden. Burying the bottles with the bottle top in the hole and the bottle bottom above the soil allows the widest part of the bottle to define the border. Placing the bottles with the open end up creates a slender profile. Mixing the orientation combines both aspects.

Burying the wine bottles with the open end facing up can even repel burrowing creatures. The concept is that when wind blows over the bottle top it creates a tone, like the music from a jug band. This creates noise that vibrates through the soil. The theory is that this random annoyance repels animals sensitive to sound, namely gophers and moles. I'm not aware of any studies on wine bottles repelling animals, but the idea seems plausible.

My gopher-deterring border

I've buried hardware cloth beneath the fence around my garden in an effort to keep gophers out. If weird soil noises keep any brave gophers from exploring weaknesses in the buried metal fence, I'm all for it.

Removing the label beforehand makes for a cleaner look. Soak the bottle in water to loosen the label. Some labels only need a few minutes in water while others need hours. Some labels are plasticized and come off in one piece, others need to be scraped with a knife or thumbnail to remove the paper and glue. It's not hard work but it may take a little time. I placed a number of bottles in a large bucket filled with water to hasten the process.

Bottles ready to soak

When deciding on creating a wine bottle garden border keep in mind that the bottles are made of glass and broken glass is not a good soil amendment. Consider placing the bottles in an area that is not exposed to activities that could break them.

Spots that border the lawn and could interact with lawn mowers and trimmers pose possible breakage. Spots that border walkways raise potential of someone kicking or tripping over the bottles. Spots that border children's play areas pose risk for the kids.

I've placed some of my bottles in a border around my perennial vegetable bed, the asparagus and rhubarb. That bed isn't tilled and the soil isn't disturbed so the bottles are safe from potential damage. It also sets that bed apart from the rest of the garden, defining its uniqueness.

The perennial bed border

Other bottles can be used to make a garden border, but they may be more susceptible to breakage. Wine bottles are thicker than most beverage containers and can handle great pressure. Beer bottles can look great as a border, but they're made with much thinner glass and can break when exposed to sun, wind, and hail. Plastic bottles won't hold up to weather and don't look nearly as good either.

So if you have a lot of wine bottles or have the potential to collect a lot of wine bottles, consider making a garden border. You'll probably be the first in your neighborhood to have one.
It's easy to recycle wine bottles in the garden. I pondered about the best way to combine two things that I enjoy... gardening and wine. Creating a garden border with the empty bottles is a great way to recycle and create a unique visual accent.

My wine bottle border

My wife and I share a bottle of wine on our Friday date nights and I save the bottles. The empties multiplied in boxes stowed in a shed while I decided on the best way to recycle them and after a few years the wine bottles needed to be used before we were overrun by glass. Many bottles can make a long garden border and I have a big garden.

A wine bottle border is long-lasting, colorful, distinctive, sturdy, and can even repel gophers and moles (more on that in a minute).

The process is easy: dig a hole and put in the bottle. Digging a trench makes the process a little faster and more uniform as you place the bottles side by side. Digging individual holes adds a slightly more random look.

Placing bottles before burying

Wine bottles come in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes. Depending on which wine you drink you may have many similar bottles or many different bottles. Wine bottle borders can reflect your personal tastes in wine and gardening. Using the same kind of bottles can make a border of consistent and vibrant color. A more eclectic design comes when you mix shapes, sizes, and colors.

There are no rules when creating recycled art in the garden. Burying the bottles with the bottle top in the hole and the bottle bottom above the soil allows the widest part of the bottle to define the border. Placing the bottles with the open end up creates a slender profile. Mixing the orientation combines both aspects.

Burying the wine bottles with the open end facing up can even repel burrowing creatures. The concept is that when wind blows over the bottle top it creates a tone, like the music from a jug band. This creates noise that vibrates through the soil. The theory is that this random annoyance repels animals sensitive to sound, namely gophers and moles. I'm not aware of any studies on wine bottles repelling animals, but the idea seems plausible.

My gopher-deterring border

I've buried hardware cloth beneath the fence around my garden in an effort to keep gophers out. If weird soil noises keep any brave gophers from exploring weaknesses in the buried metal fence, I'm all for it.

Removing the label beforehand makes for a cleaner look. Soak the bottle in water to loosen the label. Some labels only need a few minutes in water while others need hours. Some labels are plasticized and come off in one piece, others need to be scraped with a knife or thumbnail to remove the paper and glue. It's not hard work but it may take a little time. I placed a number of bottles in a large bucket filled with water to hasten the process.

Bottles ready to soak

When deciding on creating a wine bottle garden border keep in mind that the bottles are made of glass and broken glass is not a good soil amendment. Consider placing the bottles in an area that is not exposed to activities that could break them.

Spots that border the lawn and could interact with lawn mowers and trimmers pose possible breakage. Spots that border walkways raise potential of someone kicking or tripping over the bottles. Spots that border children's play areas pose risk for the kids.

I've placed some of my bottles in a border around my perennial vegetable bed, the asparagus and rhubarb. That bed isn't tilled and the soil isn't disturbed so the bottles are safe from potential damage. It also sets that bed apart from the rest of the garden, defining its uniqueness.

The perennial bed border

Other bottles can be used to make a garden border, but they may be more susceptible to breakage. Wine bottles are thicker than most beverage containers and can handle great pressure. Beer bottles can look great as a border, but they're made with much thinner glass and can break when exposed to sun, wind, and hail. Plastic bottles won't hold up to weather and don't look nearly as good either.

So if you have a lot of wine bottles or have the potential to collect a lot of wine bottles, consider making a garden border. You'll probably be the first in your neighborhood to have one.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Using Biochar in the Garden

Biochar is a great amendment for any garden soil. I wrote about the wonder product a month ago (May 9, 2012, "What is Biochar?"), and have incorporated it in a few of my garden beds for testing. Biochar research is in its infancy so information on how to use it in gardens is still being developed by researchers and gardeners like me. While I encourage you to add biochar to your garden soil based on present data, be aware that my methods are one option developed only by me; there are other options and other undiscovered processes for using it.

100 percent biochar

Biochar acts as a repository and delivery system of beneficial soil bacteria. These microorganisms are an important component in soil that make nutrients available to plants by converting elements to the ionic form that roots absorb. Without an encouraging environment, bacteria and other microorganisms exist in soil but not at a level that can support sustained plant growth.

Compost is another repository and delivery system of beneficial soil bacteria and is the most common soil amendment used by home gardeners. Both biochar and compost enrich soil and provide similar structural, textural, and fertility improvement, but compost needs to be added regularly due to its steady decomposition while biochar remains relatively intact for decades.

To begin, biochar must be acquired and that is currently a major limiting factor. There aren't many biochar manufacturers or distributors. I bought my biochar from Soil Reef Biochar through their website. Until wholesale manufacturing and processing becomes competitive you can expect the cost for biochar to remain relatively expensive, but you need to consider the long-term benefits. One application of biochar can save you the cost of multiple applications of compost over many years.

That being said, I'm pursuing a joint approach to soil improvement. My working hypothesis is that if compost is good for soil and if biochar is good for soil, then compost and biochar together should be really good for soil. My garden test beds are amended with both.

To be most effective, biochar should be prepared before adding it to your soil. Biochar provides a positive environment for beneficial bacteria but if just mixed with soil its effectiveness is minimized. It's a "build it and they will come" approach that can be compared to building free housing in Europe for customers in the Americas; there is a big ocean that needs to be crossed before it can be occupied. Bacteria have difficulty transiting wide spaces.

Inoculating biochar overcomes this obstacle. Inoculation incorporates the bacteria directly into the biochar before you amend your soil. One method to inoculate it, and the one recommended by Soil Reef Biochar, is to mix biochar with an equal amount of compost and let them meld for two weeks. The bacteria in the moist compost gradually multiply and migrate to their new home.

I developed a speedier, and in my opinion more effective, method for inoculating biochar. Using a method analogous to the way we inoculate against disease, I essentially inject raw biochar with bacteria-rich fluid.

To begin I take equal quantities of compost tea and worm tea. Compost tea is made by soaking or steeping compost in water for two or three days; the resulting liquid is swimming with the bacteria that populated the compost. Worm tea is made in a similar process but using worm castings (manure) instead of compost; it has similar multitudes of beneficial bacteria.

About one gallon of compost tea and one gallon of worm tea are mixed and combined with one cup of dark molasses in a four-gallon bucket. This sugary concoction becomes an incubator for bacteria growth as the tiny creatures feed and multiply.

Oxygen is a critical component for the growth of beneficial bacteria; the "bad" anaerobic bacteria don't need oxygen. To ensure adequate oxygen in the developing inoculant you can insert a fish aquarium pump with plastic tubing into the liquid to provide air bubbles. As an alternative I covered the bucket and physically twisted, bounced, and shook it multiple times during the day.

After three days the inoculant is a little foamy on top and ready to use. If left alone for a longer period the sugar in the molasses will eventually be totally consumed by the bacteria and the liquid will ferment, turning into alcohol. The lack of food and the presence of alcohol can kill the bacteria, which defeats the whole purpose of creating a bacterial incubator. Use the inoculant before it goes bad.

Biochar and inoculant

Two gallons of this concoction is enough for five gallons of biochar. Starting with small batches, I poured the liquid inoculant into the dry biochar using a rough one to two ratio.

Adding inoculant

I stirred it with a garden trowel and let it soak for about five minutes. Then I mixed and stirred it again because some of the liquid drained to the bottom. After the second mixing and another five minutes, the biochar was evenly moist.

Stirring mixture

Liquid inoculant achieves two important steps in biochar preparation.

First, it incorporates the bacteria directly into the microscopic crevices and holes that constitute biochar. While contact with moist compost can take two weeks for this crossover to be accomplished, inoculating with a liquid achieves the same results in minutes.

Second, it moistens the biochar so it can immediately provide the moist environment that bacteria need. Pure 100 percent biochar from the distributor is very dry with a large portion of it very powdery. It needs to be wet before adding to soil to be most effective, both to benefit bacteria and to keep the dry powder from blowing away.

The inoculated biochar can be added to soil immediately or covered and stored for later use. However, it should be used within a day or two of inoculating for best results because the bacteria will go dormant or die if the biochar dries out or if their food source is diminished.

There is no universal standard developed yet for biochar distribution in garden soil. The Soil Reef Biochar 5-gallon bucket says it will cover 36 square feet when distributed one-half inch thick. The Soil Reef Biochar website says the same bucket will cover 18 square feet at one-half inch thick. A biochar handbook developed by EcoTechnologies Group recommends a maximum of one pound per square foot; biochar is very lightweight so at this rate the five-gallon bucket would only cover about five or six square feet.

I spread my inoculated five-gallons of biochar over about 48 square feet. The addition of the liquid increased the mass slightly. I added the biochar to one half of two separate 32 square-feet beds and into one 16 square-feet bed. The spread depth of the biochar varied between one quarter and one half inch thick.

Spreading wet biochar

Using a garden spade I turned the biochar into the soil to incorporate it about five to six inches deep. Biochar works its magic with the bacteria that provide nutrients to roots. To be most successful it should be resting at root level. A garden tiller can also be effective in distributing it evenly in soil.

Turning into soil

An alternative to adding 100 percent inoculated biochar to soil as I did is to combine it with compost at the time of application. If inoculated as Soil Reef Biochar recommends, it is already mixed with an equal amount of compost. If inoculated as I recommend, it can be mixed with compost for easy soil amending.

The amount or organic material present in your garden soil will determine whether you need to add compost at the same time as biochar. I add compost at the beginning or end of the growing season based on the quantity available. One of the nice things about biochar is that once it's amended to soil it never needs to be replenished.

Another option is to add biochar to your compost pile. Biochar can shorten the time it takes for compost to develop and is already incorporated in the mix when you amend your soil. You'll get the benefits of biochar but it may be difficult to determine how much of the mass is biochar and how much is compost. For accurate distribution and for testing, I suggest adding biochar as a measured amount directly to the beds you want amended.

Once added and turned in or tilled, water the garden bed right away. You want the inoculated biochar to stay moist for best effectiveness. Moist soil also gives the bacteria a new potential environment. Think of the biochar as an urban center and the surrounding soil as the suburbs. Eventually the bacteria will inhabit all of it. Because biochar retains moisture better than basic soil, it will continue to propagate the beneficial bacteria even when the soil dries out between waterings.

Watering the amended bed

To date there is no definitive research that recommends the ideal amount of biochar for home gardens. One test by EcoTechnologies Group showed no difference between plants grown in a 10 percent biochar application rate and that of a 20 percent rate. My distribution is much less than that, but I still anticipate positive results.

Already my test bed is showing benefits of using biochar. Cucumber seeds on the biochar side germinated a full two days earlier than those on the unamended side. I'll continue documenting its effectiveness and report on it in the future.

Consider biochar in your garden and let me know how you do it.


Link to "What is Biochar?"

Link to Soil Reef Biochar
Biochar is a great amendment for any garden soil. I wrote about the wonder product a month ago (May 9, 2012, "What is Biochar?"), and have incorporated it in a few of my garden beds for testing. Biochar research is in its infancy so information on how to use it in gardens is still being developed by researchers and gardeners like me. While I encourage you to add biochar to your garden soil based on present data, be aware that my methods are one option developed only by me; there are other options and other undiscovered processes for using it.

100 percent biochar

Biochar acts as a repository and delivery system of beneficial soil bacteria. These microorganisms are an important component in soil that make nutrients available to plants by converting elements to the ionic form that roots absorb. Without an encouraging environment, bacteria and other microorganisms exist in soil but not at a level that can support sustained plant growth.

Compost is another repository and delivery system of beneficial soil bacteria and is the most common soil amendment used by home gardeners. Both biochar and compost enrich soil and provide similar structural, textural, and fertility improvement, but compost needs to be added regularly due to its steady decomposition while biochar remains relatively intact for decades.

To begin, biochar must be acquired and that is currently a major limiting factor. There aren't many biochar manufacturers or distributors. I bought my biochar from Soil Reef Biochar through their website. Until wholesale manufacturing and processing becomes competitive you can expect the cost for biochar to remain relatively expensive, but you need to consider the long-term benefits. One application of biochar can save you the cost of multiple applications of compost over many years.

That being said, I'm pursuing a joint approach to soil improvement. My working hypothesis is that if compost is good for soil and if biochar is good for soil, then compost and biochar together should be really good for soil. My garden test beds are amended with both.

To be most effective, biochar should be prepared before adding it to your soil. Biochar provides a positive environment for beneficial bacteria but if just mixed with soil its effectiveness is minimized. It's a "build it and they will come" approach that can be compared to building free housing in Europe for customers in the Americas; there is a big ocean that needs to be crossed before it can be occupied. Bacteria have difficulty transiting wide spaces.

Inoculating biochar overcomes this obstacle. Inoculation incorporates the bacteria directly into the biochar before you amend your soil. One method to inoculate it, and the one recommended by Soil Reef Biochar, is to mix biochar with an equal amount of compost and let them meld for two weeks. The bacteria in the moist compost gradually multiply and migrate to their new home.

I developed a speedier, and in my opinion more effective, method for inoculating biochar. Using a method analogous to the way we inoculate against disease, I essentially inject raw biochar with bacteria-rich fluid.

To begin I take equal quantities of compost tea and worm tea. Compost tea is made by soaking or steeping compost in water for two or three days; the resulting liquid is swimming with the bacteria that populated the compost. Worm tea is made in a similar process but using worm castings (manure) instead of compost; it has similar multitudes of beneficial bacteria.

About one gallon of compost tea and one gallon of worm tea are mixed and combined with one cup of dark molasses in a four-gallon bucket. This sugary concoction becomes an incubator for bacteria growth as the tiny creatures feed and multiply.

Oxygen is a critical component for the growth of beneficial bacteria; the "bad" anaerobic bacteria don't need oxygen. To ensure adequate oxygen in the developing inoculant you can insert a fish aquarium pump with plastic tubing into the liquid to provide air bubbles. As an alternative I covered the bucket and physically twisted, bounced, and shook it multiple times during the day.

After three days the inoculant is a little foamy on top and ready to use. If left alone for a longer period the sugar in the molasses will eventually be totally consumed by the bacteria and the liquid will ferment, turning into alcohol. The lack of food and the presence of alcohol can kill the bacteria, which defeats the whole purpose of creating a bacterial incubator. Use the inoculant before it goes bad.

Biochar and inoculant

Two gallons of this concoction is enough for five gallons of biochar. Starting with small batches, I poured the liquid inoculant into the dry biochar using a rough one to two ratio.

Adding inoculant

I stirred it with a garden trowel and let it soak for about five minutes. Then I mixed and stirred it again because some of the liquid drained to the bottom. After the second mixing and another five minutes, the biochar was evenly moist.

Stirring mixture

Liquid inoculant achieves two important steps in biochar preparation.

First, it incorporates the bacteria directly into the microscopic crevices and holes that constitute biochar. While contact with moist compost can take two weeks for this crossover to be accomplished, inoculating with a liquid achieves the same results in minutes.

Second, it moistens the biochar so it can immediately provide the moist environment that bacteria need. Pure 100 percent biochar from the distributor is very dry with a large portion of it very powdery. It needs to be wet before adding to soil to be most effective, both to benefit bacteria and to keep the dry powder from blowing away.

The inoculated biochar can be added to soil immediately or covered and stored for later use. However, it should be used within a day or two of inoculating for best results because the bacteria will go dormant or die if the biochar dries out or if their food source is diminished.

There is no universal standard developed yet for biochar distribution in garden soil. The Soil Reef Biochar 5-gallon bucket says it will cover 36 square feet when distributed one-half inch thick. The Soil Reef Biochar website says the same bucket will cover 18 square feet at one-half inch thick. A biochar handbook developed by EcoTechnologies Group recommends a maximum of one pound per square foot; biochar is very lightweight so at this rate the five-gallon bucket would only cover about five or six square feet.

I spread my inoculated five-gallons of biochar over about 48 square feet. The addition of the liquid increased the mass slightly. I added the biochar to one half of two separate 32 square-feet beds and into one 16 square-feet bed. The spread depth of the biochar varied between one quarter and one half inch thick.

Spreading wet biochar

Using a garden spade I turned the biochar into the soil to incorporate it about five to six inches deep. Biochar works its magic with the bacteria that provide nutrients to roots. To be most successful it should be resting at root level. A garden tiller can also be effective in distributing it evenly in soil.

Turning into soil

An alternative to adding 100 percent inoculated biochar to soil as I did is to combine it with compost at the time of application. If inoculated as Soil Reef Biochar recommends, it is already mixed with an equal amount of compost. If inoculated as I recommend, it can be mixed with compost for easy soil amending.

The amount or organic material present in your garden soil will determine whether you need to add compost at the same time as biochar. I add compost at the beginning or end of the growing season based on the quantity available. One of the nice things about biochar is that once it's amended to soil it never needs to be replenished.

Another option is to add biochar to your compost pile. Biochar can shorten the time it takes for compost to develop and is already incorporated in the mix when you amend your soil. You'll get the benefits of biochar but it may be difficult to determine how much of the mass is biochar and how much is compost. For accurate distribution and for testing, I suggest adding biochar as a measured amount directly to the beds you want amended.

Once added and turned in or tilled, water the garden bed right away. You want the inoculated biochar to stay moist for best effectiveness. Moist soil also gives the bacteria a new potential environment. Think of the biochar as an urban center and the surrounding soil as the suburbs. Eventually the bacteria will inhabit all of it. Because biochar retains moisture better than basic soil, it will continue to propagate the beneficial bacteria even when the soil dries out between waterings.

Watering the amended bed

To date there is no definitive research that recommends the ideal amount of biochar for home gardens. One test by EcoTechnologies Group showed no difference between plants grown in a 10 percent biochar application rate and that of a 20 percent rate. My distribution is much less than that, but I still anticipate positive results.

Already my test bed is showing benefits of using biochar. Cucumber seeds on the biochar side germinated a full two days earlier than those on the unamended side. I'll continue documenting its effectiveness and report on it in the future.

Consider biochar in your garden and let me know how you do it.


Link to
"What is Biochar?"

Link to Soil Reef Biochar