September 21, 2012
An awkward time of year is upon us, the time when those of us who have called Florida home for decades notice something a little different in the air. It’s faint: the morning breeze is just a bit cooler and drier, without heavy tropical fragrance.
The Gulf of Mexico temperature is falling dramatically. Average water temperature in August is 87°, then 86° in September, and then 81° in October, falling to 66° in January and February before starting back up.
Cooling is a result not only of lower sun angles; the days, too, are becoming much shorter. In August, days are around 13 hours. By December, days are 2.5 hours shorter with the sun much lower in the sky.
The plants, of course, know that the weather is changing. Swamp Maples and Cypress trees are beginning to show color and to drop leaves.
Here at Peace and Plenty, shorter days mean vegetable gardening. Last year, I started tomato plants in late August but didn’t get fruit until January and I do not know why. I do know that Immokalee tomatoes appear in the stores in December, which means that they are put out in late August. This year all of our veggies will be planted in mid-october.
And the vegetable garden will be completely re-built this year, mostly because when Mrs. Pundit watches Victory Garden on PBS, and then she looks at our veggie patch, and then she looks at me, without saying a word, there is a certain unspoken energy in the air.
Do the plants care? Maybe not so much but then again they don’t live with Mrs. Pundit.
Many multifamily communities apply mulch every year in the fall in anticipation of season. My own testing at two communities has shown that the cost of mulch can be dramatically reduced with a few sensible steps.
First, of course, shop around. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone…after all, mulch is usually an expense that ranks in the top four of all annual expenses for Homeowner Associations (HOA).
Second, remember that monoculture is your friend: use large numbers of a single species. Plants should be spaced at about 80% of natural spread and 120% of spread from pavement or buildings. When mature, you will have a bed that needs no mulch whatsoever, except at the margins, and during the grow-in, of course.
Third, do not waste money on dyed mulch. And do I have to tell you once again that red mulch is just bad? Mulch is not a design element, people. It is a necessary evil, with the emphasis on ‘evil’. We use mulch as a temporary element in a well-designed garden to help plants establish a natural canopy. During the grow-in period, the ground is exposed to the sun, so we need a way to keep weeds out and water in.
But when a planting bed is properly mature, the plants themselves serve as the best possible mulch, shielding the ground from the sun. Here at Peace and Plenty, for example, and at many of my multifamily projects, are large beds of (for example) Ficus ‘Green Island’ with no irrigation and no mulch. Similarly very large beds of Macho Fern, and of Wart Fern. All of these beds are self-mulching and require additional irrigation only very occasionally.
Fourth, in many homes and communities maturing trees have obviated grass growing below them. So often, I see large mulch beds in these areas, mulch beds that must be sprayed to keep down weeds. A better solution is to use ferns or other low-light plants.
Fifth, if you have a large bed of mulch, something is wrong someplace. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but not many. Mulch is expensive and in the long term the use of plants is cheaper.
And finally, remember to use low maintenance or no maintenance plants. These are the shrubs that do not need pruning or trimming: the grasses and ferns are two examples. And there are many shrubs that require only irregular pruning, like Ficus Green Island.
Keep those emails coming.
A version of this piece appeared in the Naples Daily News 9.21.2012: Download 9.21.2012 Fall, Mulch.