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Dirty Fingernails: Make your peace with grass
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Dirty Fingernails: Make your peace with grass

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Q: I have a line of bushes that make a nice border and a good windbreak, but grass has grown underneath them. Over the summer the grass gets tall and messy looking. I did some really hard work on my hands and knees, digging it out, but I could not get all the roots. Any ideas about how to do that?

A: My first idea is that all the roots cannot be dug out without digging out the bushes, too. My second idea is that whatever grass I dig out would soon be replaced with more grass. My third idea is that there are easier ways to deal with a combination of shrubs and grasses.

Some gardeners use landscape cloth around bushes so that grass cannot grow in the area. I dislike that solution because it works only briefly. I had my fling of weed suppression with landscape cloth some time ago. The first impression is beatific — what amazing, easy success! Nothing at all comes up between the bushes.

Three years later, grass is starting to appear. Four years later, the grass is tall and thick. An attempt to remove the landscape cloth reveals that it is firmly stitched to the ground by grass. The cloth must be cut loose, inch by inch. I think that landscape cloth is a solution only if you plan to move every few years.

Since grass would carpet all this part of the world if permitted, I prefer to let it surround bushes but keep it trimmed short. I mow as close to the bushes as possible, use a string trimmer to get even closer, and hand-cut or pull only the stray plants shooting up through the shrubbery. The bushes are big, the grass plants are small. The grass will hold its own but has no chance to win the contest.

Possibly 2 or 3 inches of woody mulch around the bushes would keep the grass in check. Some annual work to renew the mulch and to hand-weed grass would be required. It should also be possible to surround the bushes with a planting of ground cover dense enough to compete with grass. Bare soil is not an option. There are many wild plants eager to find a vacant place to take up residence.

Q: Is it true that I can grow new shrubs by getting branches of my existing ones to make roots?

A: For most shrubs, yes. It is the easiest way to start new ones, because most shrubs can grow roots on their branches. The process is called “layering” or “rock rooting.” There are a few shrubs which naturally spread in this way. Blackberries, for example, will root themselves wherever a stem tip touches the ground.

To create the blackberry effect with a different shrub, this is a good time of year to try. Choose a branch fairly close to the ground. Pick a spot on the branch where you want roots to grow. If you can find the junction between this year’s growth and last year’s, roots will form most easily in that area.

That bit of branch is going to be underground, so strip off any leaves which would be buried. If you can bring yourself to scrape a few places on the bark where it will be buried, do so. That will provide places for roots to form. If you cannot stand to wound the branch, do not worry. The roots will find themselves a place.

Now dig a little hole to fit that area of the branch. Bend the branch until the area is in the hole and cover it with an inch of dirt. Put a rock on top to hold the branch down. Push a second rock against the branch tip to hold it more or less upright and keep the area well-watered for the rest of the summer. Roots will form on the buried area of branch, and the tip will become the top of a new plant.

Usually it is best to leave the branch attached to the parent plant for the winter. Next spring cut the branch from the parent. Dig up the new plant and grow it in a pot — outdoors, of course — until its root system is big enough to plant permanently in the ground.

Q: We go south for the winter, so I am not here at the time of year when I am supposed to be pruning trees. What would happen if I pruned them now?

A: Trees pruned in summer will make new growth more slowly than ones pruned in late winter, but the old adage still holds: pruning stimulates growth. New branches will start in exactly the same places as if you had pruned the trees last March. As a matter of fact, if a tree is growing faster than is desirable, summer pruning will effectively slow its growth rate without harming the tree.

It is important to complete any summer pruning soon. The new growth needs time to mature, time for the bark to harden. That process cannot be hurried.

Bugs in the ground

For a few years now, gardeners have been encouraged to allow a healthy population of bugs in their gardens. We are told that not only are bugs good for the earth, good for the ecosystem, but also good for a garden. Technically referred to as invertebrates — animals without backbones — these ground-dwelling garden bugs include all the six-legged insects like beetles. They also include eight-legged spiders, and many-legged centipedes, millipedes and sowbugs.

Why do these bugs matter to a gardener growing either ornamental or food plants? For one thing, the bugs are part of the food chain. Bigger bugs eat smaller ones and in turn are eaten by birds and mammals. Furthermore, even the smallest bugs (as well as some big ones) spend their lives eating and breaking down organic debris, returning nutrients to the soil to keep plants healthy and growing well.

The Royal Horticultural Society in England has carried out a three-year study called Plants for Bugs. The idea was to find out if bugs were good or bad for gardens and how gardeners could use the plant/bug relationships to improve their gardens.

The third scientific paper resulting from the study has just been published. Since Plants for Bugs had already established the importance of having a healthy population of bugs living in the ground, this paper suggests ways in which gardeners can encourage good bugs. The answer is to grow plants reasonably close to each other. Although it is never good to crowd garden plants, it also is important not to leave patches of bare soil.

A mixture of plants is good. Try to include some flowers. Try to include some native plants, but do not worry about having all natives. Of the non-natives, include some from other parts of the northern hemisphere, not all exotics from south of the equator. Plant a few evergreens. Those guidelines should provide homes for many ground-dwelling bugs that will contribute to the well-being of the garden.

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