Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mulching a Flower Garden to Promote Its Beauty

With nearly 10,000 square feet of flowered gardens, the application of mulch is essential for us. Like much of the USA this month, the intense heat and lack of rain has been a significant problem. Many gardens have suffered as flowers open but quickly fade, not able to withstand the heavy stress that this hot and dry spell has challenged us with.

The Gethsemane Prayer Garden in Syracuse, NY is in many respects no different. The intensely beautiful garden phlox, for example, normally turn to seed after more than a month of profuse flowering. This year, because we don't water most of the garden, the upper portions of the flower clusters have turned brown and have faded after only a few weeks. Other flowers don't show the stress that abruptly, but the lack of rain certainly has affected their longevity. Without the mulch, much of the garden would look discouragingly drained.

While we water the roses on a weekly basis, we rely on the mulch to do its work in the remainder of the garden. The garden is located across the driveway from the church building, so to lug the hoses into the garden and then roll them up afterwards is a significant chore in itself. And we don't have the luxury of being able to leave sprinklers running for long periods of time because none of our volunteers live near the church – someone would have to come back to the church to periodically relocate the sprinkler and then wind up the hose at the end of the day.

A thick layer of mulch is therefore essential for us to maintain the garden's beauty, allowing God to water the garden when He thinks it is ready. Mulch keeps the roots cooler during these hot days, protecting the soil from the hot sun. Mulch also helps slow down the evaporation process: somehow through a process that only God could design, the roots find some water that has been enriched by minerals and other nutrients, and sends it on its way to nourish the parched leaves and petals.

Mulching also dramatically helps cut down on the weeding when done correctly. In our location, we start working the garden in April, cleaning up the large amount of fallen debris from the previous growing season and winter. Early May is typically our time for the mulching process. Before the three inches of mulch can be applied, we do as good of a job as we can to remove even the smallest weeds; otherwise, we see the weeds later only this time as more mature plants. Therefore we weed extensively before mulching – we must have done a better job this year because there really has not been very much weeding necessary.

Spreading the mulch is a very arduous process involving many volunteers. If the mulch can be spread before many of the flowers start to pop their heads above the ground, the process takes considerably less time. Otherwise we have to get on our knees to ensure that the mulch is placed right up to the plant.

We buy hardwood mulch by the truck load, normally 10 yards at a time. This year we spread 30 yards over a little more than half of the garden, and then next year we will alternate the process by applying 20 yards to the remainder of the garden. Each year we do one or the other, primarily for cost and labor saving reasons. In the second year after the mulching, the weed control is much more of a problem as the previous years mulch has started to decompose.

This garden is now in its eighth year which means we have gone through the mulching cycle for several cycles, particularly in the older flower beds. The soil has dramatically improved in these areas because the rotted mulch provides a very nice nutrient base for the plants. This richer soil is also much looser than our native clay soil which means that the roots can extend themselves further in the search for moisture. We do not use a landscaping fabric between the old soil and the mulch – the fabric becomes a barrier that prevents the roots from finding the newer and richer soil.

Newly delivered mulch is typically very hot as it has been rapidly decomposing in the stockyard. If not treated properly, the heat will burn the flowers and trees that it touches. We have the truck dump the mulch on the lawn near the area we will be mulching, and this too can burn the lawn if not treated properly. The trick is to quickly spread the mulch on the lawn, moving it from a four foot pile to a twelve to eighteen-inch high pile. In this way, the heat is quickly dissipated into the air and the mulch quickly returns to a more normal temperature. Then it is ready to be transported into the garden. There may be a small amount of lawn burning but we find it is quickly resolved when the lawn is cut the next time.

So why mulch? To reduce the need for watering, to improve the beauty of the plants, to help with the weed control, and to promote a better soil for the plants to grow in. It simply provides a better environment for the beauty of God's wonderful creation to be exemplified. In flowers it is especially seen how God has placed His wonderful creation, and the mulch enhances that.

In the Gethsemane Prayer Garden, we face challenges such as drought, lack of water nearby, and few if any workers that can devote their time to the regular upkeep of the garden. The mulch compensates by promoting the glory of the garden. It is the same for us.

Please allow me to ask a question: "What is the mulch in your life that will best encourage that creation, allowing the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed despite the adversities and difficulties that challenge you? What will best help promote that beauty?"

End Note: The overall theme for this series of articles is flowers and plants, showing how they point to love. Sometimes I write 'how to' do something, other times the emphasis is a status update, or the article will be about how a plant or flower touched my heart. All of these writings are based on plants from the Gethsemane Prayer Garden in Syracuse, NY. Please consider some of the other blog articles: Index of Articles About the Gethsemane Prayer Garden.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Be Still, and Know That I AM LORD!

Upon a tree on the other side of the curvaceous stream, a shadow moved in a rhythmic motion, darkened one moment and then much brighter the next in no regular form. Immediately I recognized the familiar pattern of the reflected early morning sun, catching the top of the water, sparkling as it danced its refracted rays onto the trunk of the large willow tree. No doubt a frog had spontaneously changed its location at the edge of the still water; soon the patterns became calm again, that is until the little creature chased after whatever it saw next.

As I look back on this early Friday morning time in the Prayer Garden, I think of how God revealed himself once again. I am in semi-retirement now, giving myself the freedom to follow some of my own pursuits on Thursdays and Fridays; this day I chose to photograph more of God's beautiful flowers in the garden. Sometimes I rest near the stream, and this day I was particularly pulled to do so for a more extended period of time.

While the Gethsemane Prayer Garden is not overly large, it does have a long shaded area with tall willow, ash and walnut trees creating a lovely canopy for the plant and animal life below. I sat on a bench that overlooks this semi-naturalized area with its assortment of transplanted flowers and green ferns. Not too far away, a lovely collection of astilbe with variations of pink, white and red plumes stood softly and gently as they suggested quiet, calm and rest.

"Be still, and know that I am Lord." (Psalm 46:10)

Immediately a rustling sound appeared ahead of me, startling the quiet of the moment. My eye quickly tracked the intrusion, but all I saw were the shiny green leaves of the myrtle plant as they bent with the movement of something briskly moving beneath them. Then it appeared – a chipmunk, chasing after a nut or root as it hid its way to cleverly protect itself from me the intruder.

I sat for a seemingly long period of time as the chipmunks began appearing. One dashed to the right and then stopped, looked, saw something else and then off it ran across the heavily mulched area. Another showed up a few moments later, rapidly going now in another totally random direction, halting only long enough to catch its bearings. Over on the grass which had been mowed just the day before, another chipmunk chose to hop like a bunny as it went from one soft grass area to another. "Why not run?" I thought, but this one almost leaped to get where it was going. This family of young "munks" became my source of entertainment as they gleefully pursued their next destiny.

In that time that morning, I contemplated many things. Nothing heavy or earth shattering, just thoughts of a different pace and a different agenda. I dreamed peaceful thoughts, transposed out of the hectic world that I am so accustomed to. Precious was that time, and precious is my Lord.

Thank you Lord for that peaceful time of rest and enjoyment. Thank you for taking care of all the little details that I never would have been able to manage. And thank you Lord for arranging the place, the joy, the rest and the satisfaction – that precious time with you.

End Note: The overall theme for this series of articles is flowers and plants, showing how they point to love. Sometimes I write 'how to' do something, other times the emphasis is a status update, or the article will be about how a plant or flower touched my heart. All of these writings are based on plants from the Gethsemane Prayer Garden in Syracuse, NY. Please consider some of the other blog articles: Index of Articles About the Gethsemane Prayer Garden.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Maintaining Beautiful Bonica Roses

I have written about the tremendously beautiful 'Bonica' roses in the past (such as my blog entitled Beautiful Bonica Roses) and will no doubt write about them again. Today I feel led to write some tips about maintaining these roses to their luscious optimum.

'Bonica' rose
Let me first say that I find the 'Bonica' to be both easy and temperamental to maintain. To me, when I see these deeply intense pink buds just beginning to open, unfolding to the softer pink exterior petals, my thoughts of frustration are quickly pacified.

Instead of seeing the hours and hours of pruning and tender care that they require, I see beauty, God's glorious beauty represented in these most lovely flowers. And I'm not alone – in 1997, it was awarded the prize as the world's favorite hedge rose.

We currently have twenty-three roses in the Gethsemane Prayer Garden – sixteen are 'Bonica'. Our base soil is moderate to heavy clay which is ideal for roses, and we supplement that with lots of mulch over the years. The beds have been raised so that there is positive drainage away from the plants in the winter. Our location is somewhere between Zones 4 and 5, and we can receive very strong winds as the garden is located near the top of Onondaga Hill above Syracuse.

We try to clip the roses twice per week and we are fairly aggressive with the pruning. Because the garden is located at a church that holds services on Sunday, we attempt to optimize their color so that they peak that day. Weather permitting, this means we do our heavier pruning on Tuesday or Wednesday, and then a lighter pruning on Friday or Saturday. For purposes of photography, I like to take my photos exactly two days after the last pruning.

"How much should I prune?" you ask. If you are at all familiar with the 'Bonica', you know that the deeper pink tones quickly fade to an almost pure white, and then they fall to the ground. When I train our volunteers on how to cut the roses, they are generally astonished that I would take a rose that still has some color and cut it off. I explain, "You want to both catch the petals before they fall, and you want to optimize the color of the plant." I suggest that they look at the stamen at the center of the flower head – if it has turned or is turning brown, I propose that is the time to cut it.

Our 'Bonica' roses are very prone to Black Spot which is a fungus that is easily spread from plant to plant. Therefore, we do not trim them when the plants have any moisture on their leaves or petals. This makes it harder to get the work done because ours is a suburban church with members from many miles around; most of our volunteers simply do not live nearby.

The flowers of the 'Bonica' open in delicious clusters with seven or ten or even more buds on each cluster. Gardening books often dwell on how to trim the roses (on a diagonal so that water does not sit on the freshly cut stem) and about ¼-½" above the branch; when the last flower in the cluster has faded, then the entire cluster is cut to the second branch of leaves. I certainly agree with those recommendations, but will also say that mistakes will happen – I find these roses to be extremely resilient. It is certainly preferable that you enjoy your work.

The first roses blossom in our area of Upstate New York in mid-June. At first, the buds are most prolific which means lots of clipping for the first two or three times. After that, they require less work – typically we spend four hours per week clipping our twenty-three roses.

Roses optimally should receive one-inch of water per week for peak performance. If substantially less that, the plants will not produce new branches that carry the next group of rose buds. If substantially more than that, the petals yellow prematurely and quickly drop to the ground. For us, that often means we must supplement the rainfall that we receive because the summer months often have strong heavy rains that run off quickly rather than longer soaking rains that help keep the roots cooler.

For years, I used a sprinkler to fan the water onto two of the rose beds. I was mystified why the Black Spot spread so quickly when I did this. Last year, the Lord prompted me to add "soaker hoses" to the roses, which are placed underneath the two inches of natural hardwood mulch. Now, when I turn on the faucet, I am assured that all of the water is being dispersed onto the roots and is not spreading that ugly black fungus from one plant to another.

Plant Disease
Our two major problems with the 'Bonica' are Japanese beetles and the Black Spot fungus. This rose is relatively free from other forms of blight and mildew that is common with other roses – we also have a small collection of 'Knock-Out' roses that are much easier care but not nearly as lovely.

I must confess that I am not as good with disease control as I could be. If you look at the bottom of the adjacent photograph, you will see some yellow leaves with small black blotches – that is Black Spot. Optimally I should spray the leaves before the roses first blossom with a fungicide, but that is such a phenomenally busy time for me in most years that I don't get to it. Some years I forget the fungicide entirely, and then come to regret that decision, and some years I end up applying the fungicide after the leaves have already developed the problem which of course is too late.

The Japanese beetles are also a huge pain. We use fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides in other areas of the garden, which rules out the use of Milky Spore powder. I use Milky Spore at my house because I prefer not to use these commercial chemicals; it has had incredible results at eliminating the Japanese beetle problem. In the Gethsemane Prayer Garden, we have used insecticides such as Ortho's Rose Pride Disease Control and their Max Home Defense Garden Insect Killer with moderate success. If the temperatures are more moderate that particular summer, I will simply pinch all those nasty little beetles but it often has discouraging results.

Winter Protection
So far, we have not had to replace any roses at the end of the winter. Thank God! Initially I was protecting the 'Bonica' in the same way as tea roses are treated, meaning cutting them back severely and mounding mulch around their base to protect them from the bitterly cold winds. Last year, at the advice of a well-known garden shop that is nearby, I did nothing to protect them and they did fine. We had some branches that died back but the plant did extremely well – that dead growth was pruned back at about the time that the forsythia bushes came in bloom.

I truly hope you enjoy the 'Bonica' roses with their lightly scented fragrance and their lusciously intense pink flowers. In our area, they bloom from June to November, well beyond the first frost. We stop our regular maintenance of these beauties at the end of September or early October; the few flowers that remain into November are long lasting but not with the same passion as in the summer.

I recognize that for some, this amount of maintenance is simply too much, particularly the elderly. To those of us that still have some energy, the treat is ours. "A person will be satisfied with good from the fruit of his words, and the work of his hands will be rendered to him" (Proverbs 12:14).

End Note: The overall theme for this series of articles is flowers and plants, showing how they point to love. Sometimes I write 'how to' do something, other times the emphasis is a status update, or the article will be about how a plant or flower touched my heart. All of these writings are based on plants from the Gethsemane Prayer Garden in Syracuse, NY. Please consider some of the other blog articles: Index of Articles About the Gethsemane Prayer Garden.