Mulch – Is it Time to Abandon the Spring Tradition?

spruce mulch

April usually starts out yucky in our neck of the woods.  It’s brown and messy and we’re impatient to cover up the wet decay with something fresh, and nothing beats the smell and tidy look of a new layer of bark mulch, right?  Well, I’ve been reading about that and talking with other pros in the industry and if you’re a traditional gardener attached to the tidy mulch aesthetic you may not like what I have to say.  The advances of ecological research are making it quite clear that plant-community based design is the way of the future resulting in healthier plants, and a drastic reduction in resources – less time weeding, less money spent on mulch.  The writing on the wall says we will be abandoning our mulching practice as we know it and replacing it with living green mulch – lots of vertical plant layers including a dense ground cover layer.

Bark mulch belongs under trees and woody shrubs, sprinkled between the ground cover if it’s too dark to allow vigorous plantings, and that’s about it.  Here’s why.  If you look at your landscape as a reproduction of very simplified natural plant communities you end up with three archetypes including meadows, woodlands, and the intersection of the two which is called Savannah, or the woodland border.  The meadow contains herbaceous annuals and perennials, naturally crowded so tightly together that there is no exposed soil, and it dies back each year and leaves behind bacteria rich, high nitrogen, rapidly decomposing organic matter.  In other words a meadow creates and feeds itself compost.  The woodland contains trees that shed leaves and woody material that break down slowly thanks to fungi, and thus recycles its own energy in the form of something similar to a combo of leaf mold and bark mulch.

compost from Vermont Natural AgSo long story short, here are some conclusions based on my observations – compost can be used as a top dressing for perennial beds (our closest thing to meadows which are not native to VT) and bark mulch should only be used on woody shrub and tree beds, but not more than a 2″ accumulated layer.  For woodland groundcovers (such as Tiarella) that would naturally occur under deciduous trees, an application of fungi-rich compost made primarily from shredded leaves is ideal.  Now of course there’s a grey area which is where we all get confused – new plantings.  Again, in a perfect world in a sunny area we are installing naturalistic-style meadows and woodlands we hydroseed with native grasses, sedges and groundcovers and then plant through it.  But in cases where a client demands a more formal/traditional style garden bed we generally apply a layer of compost and then a layer of 3-year decomposed bark mulch right after a bed is initially planted since the individual plants need a few years to reach their mature size and fill in completely.  Bark mulch deters the germination of weed seeds better than compost, and keeps the soil surface cooler for the grow-in period, but we warn clients that open mulch comes with a 3-year weeding price-tag.  With the correct spacing and layering herbaceous perennials reach maturity in 3 years, no bare soil/mulch is exposed and existing plants are allowed to reseed in place.  If after three years we are still removing copious weeds (cutting, not pulling to reduce soil disturbance) then there aren’t enough plants in the design and we need to add more.  If the soil is depleted (sandy or gravel with low organics) then we can apply a 1″ layer of compost, preferably in the fall shaken between plants.
Here’s the new mantra – plant more groundcovers and skip the mulch.  I realize that this will take time for people to adopt and may even start a small riot, so please feel free to call me with questions.  Lots of research is being done now about the roles of fungi and bacteria in the soil, composts and mulches of different composition, and how that translates to plant health, especially in landscaped gardens.  It’s a lively debate, and we’ll do our best to keep our practice in sync.

Curbside Gardens in Hellstrips

Last season we designed and installed curbside gardens in downtown Burlington that would replace the lawn hell-strip that runs along King St. and is owned by the Hinds Lofts apartments.  The owners wanted a curbside planting along both the side of the building and the hell-strip that would allow stormwater to infiltrate but also be resistant to salt and allow for daily dog use.  It had to remain fairly open for people parking on the street to navigate, and it had to be drought tolerant since no additional irrigation would be added.  Here’s the design we came up with that we hoped would align with the tenants modern aesthetic – the grasses are Schizachyrium ‘Carousel’ a dwarf Little Bluestem.  In this photo they are newly planted and more are scheduled to go in this year so eventually the space will get covered.

Curbside garden hellstrip Burlington VT

 Little Bluestem Carousel in curbside garden Burlington VT

The movement to remove lawn turf in curbside gardens and replace it with dense planting is a trend happening across the country.  A helpful book written by Evelyn J. Hadden,  Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise between the Sidewalk and the Curbgives more specific guidance for anybody interested in taking on such a project themselves.  Just be aware that usually there are lots of utilities under the surface and approval must be obtained by the City or town before you start digging.

Hell-strip plantings aren’t just standing on their good looks alone.  Thousands of Curbside bioswales are planned for NYC to help reduce stormwater overflows into the Hudson River – a 5′ wide layered system can absorb up to 2,000 gallons of water every time it rains.  Similarly an awesome design was done in 2014 for the College Street area of Burlington by Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, and his firm called Urban/Rain.  Kevin is an expert in Green Infrastructure and Artful Rainwater Design and his videos are worth watching:


section drawing of curbside bioswaleHere are some more examples of attractive curbside plantings that I’ve seen in my travels, but you’ll notice that the first two apparently don’t have curb cuts that would allow surface water to run into them:

groundcovers planting between sidewalk and building

A nice blocked planting along 5th Ave in NYC

A densely planted curbside planting along a driveway with Hydrangea and Geranium

Curbside planting along the entrance road at Chanticleer Gardens in PA.

narrow garden space Rose of Sharon

An elegant green and white border seen in Newburyport, MA containing traditional Rose of Sharon, Rhododendron, Yews, vinca and boxwood

The Challenge of Adding Pollinator Hedgerows to Residential Landscapes

Border of Panicum 'Shenandoah' and Aster 'Raydon's Favorite'

Border of Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’

I was recently asked by a writer “Do you feel that pollinator hedgerows are becoming more popular/acceptable in residential landscapes? How do you work with those who feel a hedgerow looks “messy”?

When it comes to residential landscapes I see my clients struggling with a desire to do good, and still maintain order in their private corner of an increasingly chaotic world.  With so many demands on our time, it’s natural to surround ourselves with things that are quick, easy, and predictable.  So it’s challenging to explain to clients that the new landscape they are buying is not a pretty piece of furniture, but more like the adoption of a beautiful but wild creature.  I don’t see a design as a success until a homeowner is an active participant in its evolution, and my job is to provide the counseling necessary along their journey to reach that goal.
To be acceptable in residential landscapes pollinator and habitat hedgerows need to strike a balance between science and good design, between our desire to be good stewards and still maintain a sense of order.  I do think that public awareness of the plight of pollinators is helping to drive an acceptance of wildness in our landscapes, and we can make it more acceptable by edging the wildness with “Ribbons of Order”, simplified plantings, and bold brushstrokes of color. Yet I find that acceptance is an ongoing process, and I need to remind both myself and clients frequently that only by embracing the unknown do we learn new things.

Invasive Plants or Nature’s Bandaid – an Evolving Perspective

I recently ran across a comment on a blog post about invasive plants and found myself nodding in agreement, especially after attending Noel Kingsbury‘s talk on primary colonizers at Longwood Gardens, and working with Claudia West (co-author of the fabulous book Planting in a Post-Wild World with Thomas Rainer) and preparing a presentation about multi-layered landscape designs.

Centauria cyanus colonizing in VT farm fields

Centauria cyanus colonizing in VT farm fields

A woman named Wendy Howard, whom I don’t know, but seems to understand ecological processes at least from a permaculture standpoint, objected to the notion of invasive plants.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument, and I don’t fully agree with all of it, but it was eloquently said:

“Nature is constantly trying to repair the damage man does through his lack of understanding of natural systems. Don’t stop using the plants: stop creating the circumstances that call for these plants to act like they’re doing!

Nature never leaves soils uncovered. When you till soils, all the soil life and soil carbon are progressively lost to oxidation, even before you start applying a barrage of chemicals. Soils lose their ability to hold water, communication pathways between plants working in collaboration are cut and the cycle that has built and regenerated the soil for millennia is broken. The soil starts to lose its structure and ability to support life. It becomes prone to erosion and flood-drought cycles. Groundwaters are not recharged because the rain can no longer infiltrate. One third of the planet’s soils are now classed as degraded. The UN estimates we may only have as little as 60 years’ worth of growing left. In less than 200 years, we will have completely destroyed what took thousands of years to build. Through our incredible stupidity we are destroying our life-support system. We need to get our heads round how this works and work with it. FAST!

Most of the invasive plants listed are primary colonisers. They’re nature’s Bandaids. If they’re growing and ‘invading’ spaces humans don’t want them to occupy, it’s because the soils and the health of the ecosystem are in a bad way. They’re generally short-lived species because they pave the way for the climax vegetation to establish or reestablish itself. They will very rarely colonise healthy ecosystems, even if non-native, because they’re not needed. Their job is to form a protective cover for disturbed or degraded soils as quickly as possible and generate a large amount of biomass to restore those soils to health and fertility as quickly as possible. Some of them are attractive to grazing animals so the animals will process some of that biomass into fertiliser and speed up the soil regeneration process even more. Some of them form impenetrable thorny thickets to keep everything well clear of the area while it undergoes repair. Many of them are nitrogen-fixers – ie. they can make their own fertiliser to support their growth when the soil is exhausted. Many of them have lots of uses to man as well.”

I’m not sure I would go so far as to promote the use of plants that are listed as invasive and included in our State’s Quarantine Rule, but I agree that focusing on the demonizing of a few species isn’t fixing the problem.  It’s much more complex, and the above argument helps point out the root of the problem, bare and depleted soil.  We need to be designing landscapes that restore soils, filter water, and provide food and cover for the entire food web, and it starts with plants, lots of them.  I agree with Claudia and Thomas – we need to incorporate a dense protective groundcover of primary colonizer plants, topped with a seasonal theme layer that simultaneously is attractive (legible and colorful) to both humans and wildlife, and framed with canopy structure that does the heavy lifting.  Designed plant communities get us one step closer to restored habitats in our Post-Wild World, and help the majority of homeowners re-establish a connection to the natural world, which is sorely missed in our suburbs, even here in Vermont.

plant layers in an ecological landscape

An excerpt from Post-Wild World showing dense layers


Pollinator Plants for Northeast Gardens – A New Source

Looking for Pollinator Plants for Northeast Gardens?  Let me introduce a new source called Northeast Pollinator Plants –

pollinator plants for the Northeast

One of 5 Collections available from NEPP


A fellow Landscape Architect, farmer, and lecturer at UVM, Jane Sorensen, has launched an on-line store to promote pollinator plants in the northeast U.S., which has been frustratingly under-served for access to native perennials for pollinators.  She saw it as a means to get more pollinator plants into the hands of gardeners who are looking for them and provide a little education on what and how to create habitat in one’s landscape.

One of the questions we often hear is how many plants, how far apart?  Here’s the advice Jane is passing along:


An ideal pollinator garden should offer constant and overlapping flowering of native wildflowers from early spring to late fall.  To do this, Xerces Society suggests selecting:

At least 9 species of wildflowers with 3 early-flowering, 3 mid-flowering and 3 late-flowering, offering a variety of flower colors, shapes and sizes to appeal to a diversity of native pollinators AND,

Add at least 1 native grass for nesting sites and material, AND

Plant in swaths of 8 of each species for more efficient foraging.

Using these guidelines, Northeast Pollinator Plants has created several Pollinator Garden mixes for varying sun/shade and soil conditions.  Their “84 Plants” garden collection will get you closest to the guideline, giving you 8 plants each of 10 flowering species plus 4 plants of 1 native grass species.  You may also make your own collection or enhance your existing garden by selecting from the list of individual plant species.

The only significant change I would make is about spacing – a common recommendation is to plant approximately 2′ on center which allows each plant to reach its full size with nothing below it or above it.  Instead I would recommend planting in layers, spacing taller, larger plants about 2′ apart, but making sure there are plenty of smaller groundcovers under these plants, using a combination of seed and plugs – otherwise weeds will gobble up that empty space and all your free time to boot.

Vegetable Seed Starting Calendar for Zone 4-5 VT

greenhouse bustingMany people have asked for our vegetable seed starting calendar so here it is just in time to get the soil and flats dusted off.  If you’re looking to determine how much of each vegetable to grow (desired yield and row feet) please refer to our previous post Oh My is that 850 lbs of Veggies.  Also a very helpful production table can be seen here:

NCSU veggie production table

This is a simple table showing when we plant, and how many, sorted by seeding date.  The quantities were based on our old veggie garden at the farm which was about 16 rows, 4′ wide and 40′ long, 2560 square feet of growing, not including pathways.  Our new garden will be about 520 square feet in raised beds close to the house for small crops we pick often and then another production garden 40′ x 50′ in the field that will hold the corn, squash, dry beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, paste tomatoes, and anything else that doesn’t fit.

vegetable seed starting calendar zone 4b VT seed starting calendar zone 4b VT


The varieties we’ve listed are some of our favorites, but I try new ones every year, mostly form High Mowing Organic Seeds, (HMS) which is located in Wolcott, VT right down the road from where Tim grew up, and Johnny’s Seeds, located in Maine near where I grew up – of course we are probably biased but these are two of the best sources in the country for seeds that have been trialed to work well on organic homesteads and small farms.  We select varieties based on flavor, but more importantly disease resistance.  Two of the new varieties we are excited to try from Johnny’s are:


Caribou Russet Potato

Caribou Russet Potato


Caribou Russet Potato Tubers

New! New russet for the northern states.

A new release from the University of Maine that is excellent for baking and mashing. Moderate yields of very attractive, oval to oblong, russeted tubers that store well. Variety was bred for and performs best in cool climates, so should only be grown in the northern tier (New England and states that border Canada). Moderately resistant to common scab and verticillium wilt; resistant to golden nematode race Ro1.


Omero Red Cabbage

Omero Red Cabbage


Omero(F1) Cabbage Seed

New! Mid-season red with good flavor. The avg. 3-lb heads are a vibrant bright red and are round to slightly oval. Good, slightly sweet, and peppery flavor. Suitable for planting at close spacing to produce mini heads. More attractive than Super Red 80, which it replaces.

Two from High Mowing are:

  1. Chiba Soybean

    Chiba Soybean

    Organic Non-GMO Chiba Green Soybean – OPEN-POLLINATED Super early edamame with delicious, very large green seeds. Consistently 5-7 days earlier than Midori Giant, yet still blew away the competition for flavor. Compact, upright plants make harvesting easy and produce predominantly 3-seeded pods with attractive deep green color. Widely adapted throughout North America. Great for small gardens! Early · Compact habit (Glycine max) Days to maturity: 75-80 days

  2. Yellowfin Zucchini

    Yellowfin Zucchini

    Organic Non-GMO Yellowfin F1 Yellow Zucchini – HYBRID The first organic yellow zucchini with PM resistance! Uniform, cylindrical fruits with pure gold color and buttery flavor simply glow at market. Compact, nearly spineless plants have an open habit for ease of harvest. Strong resistance to powdery mildew and intermediate resistance to CMV for a reliable harvest even in challenging field conditions.


There are so many great vegetable gardening books out there, including those from our local food gardening writer Charlie Nardozzi.  Charlie’s most recent book is called Foodscaping and looks at creative ways of incorporating vegetables and fruits into our everyday landscapes.





Landscape Design Process Gets Streamlined

I admit it, I’m a workflow process junkie.  I’m tickled with anything that involves steps, schedules and flowcharts.  I’ve been continuously adapting our landscape design process for new clients over the years and finally technology is making it super easy.  We are using Typeform for a new client questionnaire, then Calendy to schedule meetings, and Trello to handle our project management.  I feel like I’ve hit triple 7s on the slot machine of business efficiency.  Once upon a time we were smaller and I met with about 30 design clients in a season. Last year it was about twice that and I realized I needed some help.  Freedom is great but sometimes schedules are better.  This year I’m going to have office hours (egads!) and a clear process that is consistent for every client.

The Typeform guides a client through how we work and what the design process involves.  Here’s what it looks like:  Linden Questionnaire

Calendy is a great tool for minimizing the back and forth emails that I usually write trying to find a date and time that works for everyone.  The program can see my schedule and the available slots and then allows the client to pick one that works for them.  Then it confirms the meeting in both our schedules.

Trello is a free workflow program that is a dream for visual learners like me – I have my set up so that each phase of a project is a vertical lists, and each card is a client/project.  Each card has a photo of the property (easier for me to identify that text) and on each card I can attach photos, make notes, and have discussions with clients about preferences etc. Then I can easily move the cards into the next list as the project progresses down the pipeline.

These are tools that every business can use and benefit from.  Hopefully they create more time to stop and smell the roses.

Landscape design in Middlebury VT

Every landscape design/build project starts with an assessment of the client needs and the site challenges

#landluv 4 – Asters for Pollinators

New England Asters

Wild native New England Asters in our hedgerow in Shelburne


Aster 'Raydon's Favorite'

Asters in a Linden designed meadow bordered by Panicum

I always include some form of Aster in an herbaceous border for both late season color and as a source of nectar for pollinators when choices are limited.  Many clients feel that Asters look messy, wild, or too much like the flowers that bloom roadside here in Vermont in September and October, but when used en masse they form puffy blue clouds.  Two of my favorite varieties are Aster oblongifoilius ‘October Skies’ (nice and dense at 18″) and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (slightly taller at 30″).  One way to help reduce the messy impression is to provide a tidy edge.  Read more in our post “Ribbons of Order”.

#landluv 3 – Tim’s Stump Art

Okay, so I’m not a fan of chainsaw art – in general if it’s something that’s associated with a Kardashian or Duck Dynasty I don’t want it in my backyard.  However, there’s something to be said for temporary land art, and if Tim decides to get creative with a chainsaw, who am I to say no?  And yes, I made him put on his safety gear after I snapped the photo.

chainsaw art stump mushroom

Tim getting creative

Chainsaw sculpture mushroom

Tim’s Stump Mushroom

#landluv 2 – Birch Copses (not corpses)

River Birch Copse with Geranium and Alchemilla groundcover

‘Heritage’ River Birch Copse with Geranium ‘Bevan’s Variety’ and Alchemilla.  Linden 2015.

noun – “a thicket of small trees or bushes; a small wood”.

I include copses in entries, and as a transition between two spaces – I love the intimacy that they create, the simplicity of the architecture, the feeling of airiness.  To see more of this project go to our Houzz project page “Beauty for Birders”.

Share if you #landluv it too!