Archive for Sunday, May 3, 1998


May 3, 1998


he bags are back. They are stored along the sides of houses. They are squeezed inside the garage, stacked in the tight space between the wall and the car as protection from curious neighborhood cats and kids, as well as the rain. And very often they are piled on driveways right in front of the garage door, blocking the entrance.

You have watched with amusement, perhaps even a bit of envy, as your neighbor hauled trunkloads of bags home from the garden center. Then, no doubt, you have probably bought some of these very same bags and hauled them home yourself, too.

The bags are prevalent at this time of year -- without fail. Measured by the cubic foot, they lie in wait for the owners to have the time to slit them open and use them in the garden. Each bag, most too heavy to drag around easily, is destined for a certain place in the garden, to accomplish a certain thing. For these are the bags whose contents contain the stuff from which our gardens grow.

The bags are filled with a variety of garden goodies -- composted manure, peat moss, mulch, sand, gravel, fertilizer or grass seed. They are used to meet the gardening needs for our earliest chores outdoors.

Occasionally, tightly bound bales of hay are seen sitting squarely on the pavement awaiting dispersal over newly planted grass. Sometimes we spot a discarded cardboard box letting us know about the owner's new lawn tool. But mostly, it's the bags that capture our notice.

The bags of composted manure may be our most treasured. The contents are filled with a nutrient rich substance that supplies organic material for plants. Commercial manure, such as cow and sheep manure, has undergone a drying and shredding process. Much of the heat that normally is emitted from fresh manure is eliminated through the composting process. Thus, the danger of burning plants is virtually eliminated. Composted manure can be worked into the soil when planting new flowers or used as a top dressing for established plants. Most gardeners are well advised to use manure in plentiful quantities in their garden beds.

Another bag worth dragging home from garden centers is one containing peat moss. This organic material is made up of the partially decomposed remains of plants generally found in boggy areas.

Peat moss has a shredded, porous appearance to it. It is highly acid, making it ideal for use with plants that thrive in acidic conditions. The most common type is sphagnum peat moss. Although it is light weight, its main characteristic is its ability to hold water, making it a desirable addition to the soil. The material is highly compacted and sold in large bags.

When a bag of peat moss is first opened, it may have formed into large dry clumps. Unless broken before application, these clumps actually slow the water absorbing activity of the material. So break them apart before using the peat moss. It is also a good idea to moisten the material or at least allow some moisture into the bag before using it.

Generally, peat moss does not make a good mulch since it can act as a wick, actually drawing water away from the roots of the plants. Plenty of other mulch materials are available, though, most in large bags. A few of the more industrious gardeners have entire truckloads of mulch dumped on their property.

Mulch is placed on the surface of flower beds to control weeds, enhance the water retention of the soil and maintain an even soil temperature. Mulch placed to a depth of a few inches is usually sufficient for the task. Too much mulch may inhibit plant health. Too little may not do the job.

Depending on your garden problem, select the type of mulch that does what you really need it to do. For example, if you want weed control, seaweed kelp may be a better choice than large redwood bark chips. However, you may sacrifice some esthetics. Pine needles, on the other hand, may have the appearance you are after as well as the soil insulation value.

Some mulch materials can be used in combination with each other to get the best qualities of both. For example, gardeners sometimes spread several layers of newspaper over the ground to inhibit weed growth, then camouflage it with a more decorative wood mulch.

Sand is another of those materials we find laying around in bags in spring. I personally have several bags under a bench in the garage, left over from winter when they were used as weights in the back of my little red truck. Sand is a great base for setting bricks in a new path or for refilling the spaces between bricks in an existing path.

Grass seed and fertilizer bags get used fairly quickly once they are brought home. The timing for both should be accurate to ensure the best results.

Even though we have only recently begun to haul these heavy garden bags to and from our houses, gardening activities have already been going on for several weeks. For some time we have felt safe planting trees and shrubs. In fact, we know they are best planted in spring before the heat of summer bears down. A few new perennials have even found their way into our gardens by now. Planting them is a fairly safe venture at this time of year since the light frosts of spring do not harm them. They have joined the other perennials that have slowly, at first, broken their dormancy.

To be sure, the purchase and dispersal of many of our treasured garden bags and the recent warm days have combined to push the gardening frenzy up another notch. With each passing day we are more and more confident that the frost free date is behind us. We are less reluctant now to plant annuals, eager for their constant bloom. So, as the weather warms, we graduate from bags to flats.

Annuals, unlike perennials, are plants that germinate, grow, flower and fruit, produce seed and die all in one growing season. They are classified into three groups, each one designated by how well it withstands frosty weather. Some, like calendula and poppies, are classified as hardy annuals. The seeds of these plants can tolerate moderate frost and will survive through the winter as long as they have not germinated prior to heavy frosts. The light frosts of spring pose no threat to them. Thus, the seeds of hardy annuals can be sown in the ground in early spring and be well established long before the more frost tender annuals can be planted.

Half-hardy annuals can only withstand a limited amount of frost. Their seeds are cold resistant but the plants are not. The plants of half-hardy annuals will be damaged or killed by frost. So they must be protected until frost danger has passed.

Tender annuals are easily injured by frost. Both their seeds and germinated plants must be protected from frost.

A trip to local garden centers attests to the flurry of activity as folks ponder the colorful annual offerings. Some gardeners arrive with plant lists in hand heading straight to the desired specimen. Others, less prepared but no less enthusiastic, meander about until something strikes their fancy.

Still others continue to heave bags of mulch, manure or peat moss into the trunks of their cars. These bags, like the flats of annuals, will be placed in front of the garage waiting for the gardener to place them in the garden.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at gardenspot

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