Saying goodbye to the summer garden

Alder leaves, knocked down by recent heavy rains, blanket the south trail on Near Island. Alders, like garden peas, beans, and other legumes, improve the soil by fixing nitrogen. 


Today when I walked around the garden, I bid goodbye to summer camp. You know the feeling: intense bonding for a short time (in this case, with plants) and then, just as quick as they came, everyone disperses and goes their own way.

Calendulas that glowed yellow and orange in August sagged like brown trench coats. Had elephants trampled the rhubarb? And tell me: How did the delphinium that once towered over my head with purple hoodies for flowers get to looking like dead bamboo?

Questions abound this time of year as cooling weather and dwindling light pole-vaults us into winter. Yet I’m not the only one with questions. 

Let’s go over a few questions that came my way last week, starting with spring bulbs. 


Q: Is it too late to plant bulbs?

A: No, but the weather clock is ticking. If you don’t have room or can’t chisel holes in the ground, at least overwinter them in soil-filled pots stashed in a cold shed, hoophouse or greenhouse. Water them lightly.

You can also bring them inside for forcing. That way, you — or a friend who could use a little cheer — can enjoy crocus, jonquils and other blooms.


Q: Is it OK to compost shredded paper or add it to the garden as mulch?

A: Many studies have tested the safety and usefulness of shredded paper in the garden. But not all paper is created equal. Newsprint, for example, gets a thumbs-up from almost everybody because the inks are mostly soy-based. Something else to consider: White paper bleached with dioxins may be of more concern than the inks used on it.

Slick paper, like that used in magazines, is another story. The bright inks found on shiny paper inserts and magazines often contain dangerous components. 

The main problem with using paper as a mulch is that even though they might be deemed safe, they’re basically inert. Which means they don’t have much going for them. Shredded paper or sheets of newspaper make a good weed barrier, but as a soil improver — hmmm, not so much.

As for using shredded paper, unless it is finely shredded, it decomposes slowly. And in the process, it robs (uses up) nitrogen from the soil. All things being equal, it’s much better to take your paper to Threshold Recycling and use kelp, grass clippings or leaves in the garden and compost pile.


Q: Which leaves are best for the garden?

A: Leaves are packed with minerals. And white paper bleached with dioxins may be of more concern than the inks used on it. To earthworms and beneficial microbes, leaves are gourmet fare. When added to the compost pile, leaves provide carbon and keep the pile fluffy and oxygenated. 

Don’t pass up a great opportunity to rake up some high-quality leaves to add to your compost pile. At the very least, store them in heavy-duty bags for next summer’s mixing with grass clippings. 

As a mulch, leaves feed your soil like a slow-release vitamin. They also help stabilize freeze-thaw fluctuations that often damage trees, shrubs and perennials. 

But what kind of leaves are best? The answer might surprise you.

“Alder leaves have more nitrogen in them than any other type of tree leaf here in Kodiak,” says Lorne White of Strawberry Fields Nursery.

Alders are more than scruffy trees that block views and trip up hikers navigating a trail. Alders deserve a second look, at least below the surface.

A member of the birch family, alders carry on an amazing symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Frankia alni. This bacterium performs a valuable function as they develop into fist-sized nodules or lumps on the alder roots.

These bacterium quietly go about their business performing what is one of nature’s most amazing processes: absorbing nitrogen from the air and making it available to the tree.

Here’s the other part of the relationship: Alders, in turn, provide the bacterium with sugars, which it produces through photosynthesis. Through this amazing and mutually beneficial relationship, alders improve soil fertility wherever they grow.

Another local source of leaves is the cottonwood tree. Cottonwood leaves are alkaline, which helps balance the acidic quality of our native soils.


Q: Can coffee grounds go directly into the garden, or do they need to be composted first?

A: Coffee grounds do not need to be composted before turning them in the garden. After all, they’re ground-up plant seeds, right? Simply work the nitrogen-rich grounds into the soil. Keep in mind that coffee grounds are on the acidic side, so don’t add more than, say, 5 pounds per 100 square feet unless you need to lower your soil’s pH.

One more thing: With summer behind us, now is a good time to pay attention to your long-forgotten houseplants.

To finish my walk around the garden, as I bid goodbye to summer plants, I found, tucked under dead stalks of a bleeding heart shrub, a clump of calendula plants bursting with small, soft, yellow blossoms. They must have re-seeded themselves because I hadn’t planted them for several years.

I was delighted, for their seeds, which came from the U.K., are no longer available. I’ll be collecting seeds for next season ...


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