Resist temptatio of bad habits

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By Jeneen Wiche

We all have bad habits. Some people chew their fingernails, while others mow their grass too short in the summer. You can guess which one bugs me the most.
The odd thing about many of the worst bad habits in the garden is that they have become so commonplace. The worst offenses are repeated everywhere to the extent that gardeners think they are the rule.
Over-mulching is bad
Over-mulching, for example, has been an epidemic problem for many years despite the fact that research spells trouble for our plants when we bury their roots under a foot of hardwood mulch. We are told not to do it because it prevents oxygen from reaching the root system, and thick layers of mulch become hydrophobic, repealing water instead of moderating soil moisture.   
Still, people over-mulch. I’ll be frank, 2 to 3 inches is all that should be put down, more than that and you are contributing to the eventual decline of your plants. When another stress factor comes along, like prolonged drought, the root systems of your over mulched plants will not be able to respond efficiently.
You may want to reconsider what kind of mulch you use, as well. Look at some larger textured mulch this year, like pine bark nuggets or pine straw. Large textured mulch allows for better oxygen and water penetration.  
Too-deep planting
Another common problem in our landscapes is that woody plant material is planted too deep. If you look around and added it all up (I’ve done this) at least 75 percent of the trees and shrubs in any given landscape is a tad too deep. There is not much to do about it now, especially if a tree has been in the ground for several years, but you can pull away any loose soil that may be around the base of the plant and you must be careful not to over mulch.
How can you tell if a plant is planted too deep? The best sign is if you see no flare at the base of the trunk. If it looks like a telephone pole sticking out of the ground, it is planted too deep. If a non-suckering shrubs starts to sucker, it is planted too deep.
Shake it for flare
In 2011, when you plant woody plants, be sure you shake away the soil from the container and you find the natural flare of the plant. It is a good thing to see some roots at the soil surface when planting; allow for a little settling once it is in the ground. And, in order to spread the good cheer, if you don’t do the planting, nicely remind your landscaper “don’t plant it too deep.”
Don’t spring fertilize
The other thing that seems to continue on good faith, which it shouldn’t, is spring lawn fertilization. There are a number of reasons why this is not a good practice. First, it is a waste of your money with no real benefit to your lawn. If you must fertilize your lawn, do so in the fall when all the nutrients actually help the turf develop a stronger root system. The advertisements tell us to load on all sorts of things in the spring, but consider this: our spring rains usually wash all of this highly soluble stuff right into the storm drains and into our creeks, streams and lakes. Lawn and garden chemicals and fertilizers are major offenders when it comes to water pollution. The good news, however, is that many agronomists say that good management practices, like regular mowing habits at the height of 2.5 to 3 inches are all you need to do to maintain a healthy lawn.  So, you may want to forgo fertilization this year and see if it really makes a difference in the end.  Here’s to some extra good habits in 2011; and to good health, peace and a bountiful harvest.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at www.JWiche@shelbybb.net.)