The case against commercial garden soil and mulch

I have learned over the years that commercial garden soil and mulch are not the best products to use in my garden beds  By commercial I mean purchased in bags or loads from nurseries or even garden centers.  Every time I have used these products, I ended up with more weeds in my gardens.


So, if you shouldn’t use the commercial garden soil and mulch in your gardens, what should you use?  Instead of the soils and mulches that are available in bags from your local garden center or delivered in truck loads, I currently use the following plan.

In the fall I use shredded leaves as a mulch throughout my gardens.  In the spring I spread composted manure around all my emerging plants.  Be sure to use well-composted compost or manure in this step to avoid stinking up your neighbourhood. The extreme heat levels in the composting process kills weed seeds.  This is a very important factor.  You could use your own compost pile, but ensure it has matured to the weed-free level.  For large volumes, I use this variety of composted cattle/steer manure, particularly because it does not smell bad.  It is available at Home Depot.

composted cattle and steer manure

This process adds both nutrients and humus to existing soil which improves its quality immensely.  The proof is in the beautifully healthy looking plants and lack of weeds.


Leaves make great garden mulch

When all the pretty leaves fall from the trees this fall, instead of bagging them to put out on garbage day, use them in your garden as free mulch.  Most leaves, with the exception of oak leaves, break down easily over the winter.  They add nutrients and humus to the soil in your gardens.

If you do not have a leaf mulcher   like I do, you can break (mulch) the leaves up by running them over with your lawn mower while they are still on your lawn.  Then rake the debris onto your garden between the plants.  Your soil and plants will love it.

Mulch full of weeds

This is another rant, based on a pet peeve of mine.  I advise gardening clients to use mulch to keep their gardens from drying out and to help reduce weeds.  The problem is, some products out there are full of weed seeds, so when I go back to check out gardens two weeks after planting them I see more weeds than were there before I planted!  A dead giveaway is that each use of mulch seems to have its own species of weed, today’s was horsetail weed mixed with a coarse grass:


This is not the first time this has happened with this particular brand of mulch.  I will be contacting the manufacturer of Scotts Nature Scapes to complain and will avoid this brand from now on.


Too bad, because I do like their choice of colours, and the colour does not fade in the sun like some other brands.  My favourite is the dark brown as it looks like wet earth so I think the most natural looking.  I also like the size of their bags, big enough but not too heavy for me to load, unload and carry from my van to my gardens.

If anyone can recommend an alternative (weed free) brand (available here in Ottawa) for me to use and recommend to my clients, please let me know!  I do use a lot of mulch in a season!

Cool wet weather great for weeding

The cool, wet weather we had last week was great for weeding gardens.    Without removing the whole root system of the weeds, they will quickly return to spoil your gardens. After a hard rain, it is much easier to remove the weed roots intact…


A well-mulched garden also makes it easier to remove weed roots intact.  Weed roots growing in soil seem to resist removal, often breaking off in the soil, leaving pieces of the root behind to continue growing.   When growing in mulch, the weed roots come out intact with much less effort.


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Fallen Leaves make Great Mulch!


Fallen leaves make great mulch and compost for your garden, protecting your perennials as well as improving the condition of your garden soil.  Instead of raking the leaves up and taking them to the curb in lawn waste bags, consider using them to your advantage this fall.

If they are small leaves, simply rake or blow them into your garden around your perennials and shrubs, taking care not to bury the smaller plants.  If the leaves are large, run them over with your lawn mower to shred them before adding them to your garden.  Oak leaves especially should be shredded, as they are slow to decompose.  You may have to spray the leaves with your hose once they are in the garden to keep them from blowing back onto your lawn.

In the garden, worms from the soil will draw the decomposing leaves into the soil, improving the condition of your soil, which in turn benefits your plants.  Next spring you can bury the portions of leaves that have not decomposed in the garden, and marvel at how rich your soil is.

The leaves in the garden will also protect your perennials and shrubs, like a warm blanket, from the freezing and thawing cycles that do the most damage to garden plants.  Roses especially benefit from a blanket of leaves around their crowns at the soil level.

Leaves should not be left on the lawn however, as they will smother the grass, ruining even the healthiest lawn.

So, when you are out raking the leaves off of your lawn within the next few weeks, save your money by forgoing the lawn bags and turning the leaves into compost and mulch.

To Mulch or not to Mulch?

Sometimes I advise clients to use mulch in their gardens, and sometimes I advise them not to, but most often I advise them to use it wisely.  Why?  Because many times mulch is used for the wrong reasons and incorrectly, causing more harm than good…

Mulch is beneficial for keeping moisture in and keeping weed levels down, but it must be applied properly.  Applied incorrectly, too thick or too close to plants, it can cause rot,  mildew/mold and eventually the demise of your perennials, shrubs and even large trees.

Mulch should not be piled right up to the base or stalk/stem of your plants.  When applying mulch to your gardens you should leave a space of at least 1 inch (so the soil shows) between the base or stalk/stem/trunk of your plant or tree and the mulch.  After a heavy rain and in the spring after snow has moved the mulch, you should reestablish this space as soon as possible, especially for young plants that will rot quickly if the mulch is left too close to the stems.

Mulch applied too thickly around the base of a tree will eventually kill the tree.  The roots of all plants, including large trees, require oxygen, moisture and nutrients.  If mulch is applied too thickly, these required items cannot reach the roots, causing starvation and death of the plant. This theory also applies to ornamental rocks and anything else piled around trees to minimize the growth of weeds and grass.  These pictures show mulch piled much too thickly around the base of a mature tree(incorrect), and removed from the base and spread out (correct):

Mulch will keep weed levels down, but it will not eliminate weeds altogether as many people are led to believe.  Weed seeds blow in the wind and will settle in the mulch and germinate there too.  The difference is, when you pull out a weed growing in mulch, it comes out much easier and more completely, with the root intact.  If you do not remove the entire root of a weed it simply grows back, often very quickly.

Mulch applied in a thin layer (one inch thick is plenty) around a tree can be beneficial to keep weeds and grass roots from competing with the tree roots for oxygen, moisture and nutrients. Just remember, more is definitely NOT better!

Nothing, including grass, should be planted around a new tree for the first five years, allowing the tree roots to get established. After that, shallow rooted perennials or annuals work best as they do not force the tree roots to compete for required elements.  A few examples of shallow rooted perennials are geraniums, sweet woodruffe and lamium.  My personal favourite is the perennial geranium (very different than the red annual geraniums that I am not so fond of) because it tolerates almost full shade to almost full sun, and is the first plant to green up in the spring.  Perennial geranium flowers can be white, pink, blue, purple and many shades in between, but are almost inconspicuous in many of the varieties; the foliage is the main attraction to me:

If you do decide to mulch your garden or use mulch under your trees, please use caution and apply it correctly so you do not do more damage than good…

My Latest Garden Renovation

I have finally completed this garden renovation.  I started working on this large garden late last summer; it was full of overgrown perennials (mostly huge hostas and fall sedums) weeds and grass.  It took a week and a half just to get all the overgrown plants out and divided.  I had to enlist the help of my son to help dig out some of the large hostas as they were close to four feet in diameter!  The sedums were not much smaller.

As I hate to throw any plants out, I used most of the hostas along the walkway into the client’s backyard, planted among the riverrock at the edge of the sidewalk.  They survived the winter and look great this spring.

Although I got caught in a few thunderstorms and had to run for cover, the wet soil was ideal for planting a variety of new perennials and transplanting the ones I wanted to keep.

I was surprised that all of the plants survived the harsh winter we had.  This spring I dug out the new crop of weeds and grass, then covered the exposed soil around the well spaced plants with a nice thick layer of mulch.  I use cedar mulch because I love the smell of it, especially when you are watering the garden.  I prefer the dark brown or black color of mulch because it is closest to the color of earth in a freshly watered garden.  This mulch will help keep the weeds out of the garden and keep the plants from drying out in the hots days of summer.

I look forward to visiting this garden next season after the plants get a chance to spread out into their new homes.  Spacing them well apart now will ensure they do not end up in another overgrown, jungle-like setting any time soon.


Spring Cleaning your Gardens and Lawn


Just like the inside of your home, your gardens and lawn will benefit from a good spring cleaning too…

As soon as the snow disappears from your lawn and garden you can start the spring cleaning.  When the lawn is dry (not spongy to walk on) give it a good rake to remove all the dead grass and leaves. Core aeration is recommended after raking to allow oxygen and nutrients to penetrate into the root system of your lawn, especially if your soil is heavily compacted.(as most lawns are in this area)  If your lawn has a lot of crabgrass and broad leaf weeds (dandelions) you can treat it to a weed and feed product.  The ones containing corn gluten are particularly effective if used before the weed seeds have a chance to germinate.  I sprinkle corn gluten right on the snow when there is only a small amount of snow left on my lawn, because as soon as the snow is gone, the weeds start to germinate and within a few days the crab grass growth is visible.  You can also overseed your lawn (but only if you have NOT applied something for weeds, otherwise wait 6 weeks to seed) by raking in topsoil and sprinkling grass seed on the soil.  This is best done before a rainy spell as the seeds should be kept wet until they germinate.

Your gardens can also use a good raking early, but be sure to use a plastic rake and a gentler touch, so tender dormant perennials are not damaged.  Remove all the dead leaves, last year’s annual (annuals are plants that you must replant each year) plantings and the twiggy pieces of last years growth on the perennials (perennials are plants that come back on their own each year).  Generally speaking, if the twiggy pieces break off easily with a gentle rake, it is safe to remove them.  Woodier perennials (lavender, sage, hibiscus etc) need a bit more time and should not be cut back until new growth is visible.  Shrubs that bloom in summer or fall (weigela, pink spirea, burning bush etc) can be pruned in early spring, while those that bloom early in spring (forsythia, lilacs, magnolia etc) should not be pruned until after they bloom.  Dividing perennials is best done this time of year too; dig up the overgrown clumps, divide them with a sharp spade, and plant in their new locations.  This can be done as soon as the ground thaws.  Annuals should not be planted until the danger of overnight frost is gone, usually late May in this area.

Once all of my perennials have re-emerged, the weeds and old annuals are removed, and the necessary pruning is done, I like to amend the soil around them with a triple mix of soil, compost and peat moss.  This product can be purchased already combined.   A layer of cedar mulch (I prefer the dark brown or black) is the final touch, but to prevent your plants from rotting, be sure not to apply the mulch too close to the base/stalks/stems of the plants.

The last step is to retrieve the outdoor furniture from its winter storage, and, the most important part, take a few minutes out of your busy life to sit down, relax and admire your efforts…



Create a New Garden Without Digging up the Grass

I found this article in a recent issue of Canadian Gardening… describing a method to make a new garden right over top existing lawn, so you do not have to spend hours of back-breaking work removing the grass.

I mentioned it to a friend of mine, who thought she would like to give it a try in her backyard.  Her backyard is small, but it features a gorgeous rock wall that must be at least 12 feet tall along the back edge.  The home is in a subdivision build on a rocky ridge, so the rock wall was created instead of carting the huge boulders away.  The only drawback it that her yard is substantially lower than her neighbours’ behind her, giving her yard a “fishbowl” setting.  I am told that when we receive a heavy rain, the water cascades down the rock wall in several spots.  I will have to choose plants that like damp soil for  these spots; I have several in mind.

There are two maple trees and a few sumac shrubs that will eventually provide some privacy along the back.  One side of the yard is walled off by a tall, full cedar hedge and the opposite side has a wrought iron fence.  In my plan I will add a few small trees to the side with the fence, possibly lilacs, as they grow quickly, are inexpensive, hardy and a favorite of my client.  For now the yard receives a lot of sun, but once the trees get larger, they will provide some shade with the privacy…

The old, single level deck was recently replaced with a beautiful, multi-levelled deck with two sets of steps leading off it.  The plan is to have a walkway between the two sets of steps with a small patio (just large enough for a small table set and a lounger) on the ground level between the cedar hedge and one set of steps.  The deck builder was kind enough to leave us this area bare, you can see it in the first picture.  I recently found two colors of patio stones for sale at a great price on Kijiji, and will keep looking for more inexpensive material to create a pattern for the patio and walkway.   The rest of the yard will be a combination of garden and river rock; no grass.

This seems like a large, expensive project, but with the method outlined in the article and the use of many recycled products and donated plants, we hope to keep the budget at a minimum.  It is also a plan we can work on in stages as time and budget permit…

The first step was to get rid of the grass.  To do this we cut it short, then covered it with several layers of newspapers, which in turn was covered with a triple mix of soil, peat moss and compost.  The final layer consists of leaves that I collected, bagged and ready for pickup, from my neighbors curbs on garbage day.  I used the leaves as an inexpensive (free) substitution for the mulch suggested in the article.

I did not disturb the perennials that were randomly planted; I simply applied the layers of paper, soil and leaves around the plants, and will move the plants to their new homes in the spring when we get to the planting stage…

It did not look very pretty when we were done this stage, but we managed to get the layer of leaves down before the snow arrived.  I am anxious for spring to see how well the process worked.

I will keep you posted!

Is Mulch Really Killing our Trees?

This post is courtesy of Steve Elwell, president of SumaGreen.  Visit his website at

Is mulch really killing our trees?

YES!!! Mulch can kill trees.

This is a subject of much interest because the trees are suffering. When the soil around a tree gets too high, problems develop. This can occur naturally but is more often caused by people. People who love their trees are hurting and even killing their trees for lack of knowledge. To much mulch around a tree could actually KILL your tree.

Soil is one thing, mulch is another. The difficulty is that both cause problems for trees when applied incorrectly and mulch, good organic mulch that is, becomes soil eventually. The deeper the mulch around the tree trunk the worse the situation for the tree.

Landscapers and builders/developers (sometimes the same but sometimes different companies or different people) cause damage to trees in the normal course of their respective business. Builders prepare the land for building structures and landscapers make the prepared land beautiful. After scraping the earth with heavy equipment the landscapers, and sometimes the builder/developer bring in soil to cover the land for various reasons. The soil level gets raised. Any pre-existing trees that were preserved have to cope with an unhealthy high soil level that actually comes as a mix of detriment and benefit. High soil levels hurt, but new rich soil helps (as long as it does not get to high on the existing tree trunk.

Sometimes homeowners feel it is a good idea to make rings around the trunks of trees by removing the grass and then covering the bare soil with mulch. Sometimes the soil around the trunk will be cultivated, augmented and raised. Then flowers will be planted there. This practice is not good for the trees.


Please remember too, when using mulch around plants in your garden, don’t put the mulch right up to the stalk/stem/base of the plants.  Leave at least a 1/2 inch space so the plants do not rot.