Volume 13, Issue 44 ~ November 3 - November 9, 2005
The Bay Gardener

By Dr. Frank Gouin

Cover Your Garden with Rye or Mulch

Natural cover crops not only aid your garden plants; they could cut your fertilizer bill by 25 percent

Whether you fertilize with commercial brands or compost, few typical garden vegetables or flowers use up all the nutrients applied. Thus it becomes the responsibility of the gardener to recover those unused nutrients before they enter the groundwater or the Bay. A cover crop of annual rye grass is the best scavenger of soil nutrients because it both produces a root system that penetrates deeply into the soil and grows throughout the winter months when temperatures are above freezing. It stores those nutrients in its stems, roots and leaves. In the spring, when rye grass is plowed or rototilled, those nutrients are released slowly back into the soil as the stems, roots and leaves decompose.

The amount of organic matter returned to the soil by a cover crop is equivalent to applying approximately one-half cubic yard of compost per 1,000 square feet. In other words, a cover crop of annual rye will reduce your fertilizer bill by about 25 percent. Other benefits include improved water holding capacity, better root penetration and fewer problems with soil-borne diseases.

If you do not wish to have grasses growing in your garden, consider mulching with leaves. If your landscape is blessed with deciduous trees, use those leaves to your advantage. Rake no more than a six-inch-thick layer of leaves into your garden. Using your lawnmower, grind those leaves to beyond recognition. Either rototill or spade the leaves into the garden soil. During the winter and early spring months, the ground leaves will rot in place. The microorganisms responsible for rotting the leaves will absorb the nutrients from the soil, thus preventing them from leaching further into the ground.

Meanwhile, the rotted leaves will also be helping to improve your garden soil. This practice is known as sheet composting and is common in the Middle East. The important thing is to add just enough leaves that they will have time to fully decompose by spring when the gardening season begins.

Yes, We Have More Bananas

Q My banana tree spent last summer outside in a pot, last winter inside in a southeastern exposed, uninsulated lanai in a pot and this summer outside in the ground. It has flourished this year and I'm struggling with what's next. It has never produced bananas but has developed at least six very healthy sprouts from the base.

– Ray Selke, Owings

A If you have a sun room that does not freeze, then transplanting the banana plant now into a very large pot, 18 inches in diameter or bigger, will do. But you should cut off the bottom row of older leaves. Because the stem of the banana serves as a water storage organ, water the plant thoroughly only once each month during the dormant winter months.

If the plant starts to grow in late March of early April before you move it outdoors, water it once every two weeks.

I prefer cutting all of the leaves of the plant, rolling it in three or four layers of polyethylene and storing it in a cool place over winter. I don't dig up the plant until after the first frost.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at [email protected]. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

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