Cool Gardening ideas: Barriers

By Betty Harris

Observation is vitally important to understanding and solving problems.  Unfortunately not nearly enough of us are actually noticing what goes on around us.  Sometimes it is probably that we are too busy with those things that we’ve decided are important enough to have our attention.  Sometimes we may not actually decide what is important, we just let things happen as if we have no control.  To solve the problem we do need to focus… to observe what is happening and decide if it is a problem and if so what to do about it.

With this thought in mind let us turn to gardening as an example.

When we bought our property in 2010 the landscape was mainly trees and grass with some invasive plant species such as false spirea (what I renamed the bush from hell), bamboo, Russian Olive and sumac.  Over the past 6 yrs we’ve converted or transformed…depending on one’s view point from water thirsty plants to water efficient plants with a much more interesting, I think, eye pleasing layout.  I use the term layout because I’m not a landscape designer and though a visual thinker I tend to plant something to see how it does, how it looks, how tall it is, etc and then move things around to create a look that I like.

Part of the transformation was done using barrier cloth to suppress the weeds and grass which it did well enough that I didn’t have to spend the summer weeding. This is important at my age and with my focus on NOT poisoning the earth, water, plants and insects.  By observing what others have done and do around us I’ve learned a great deal about barrier cloth that I don’t personally care for.  Recent observation really made me understand more about what happens when you use it with mulch.

With my tendency to put things in the ground without knowing exactly which species or variety it is, what it’s habitats are, etc.  about 2 years ago I transplanted some iris into one of the front beds that had barrier cloth over it.  Over time I’ve applied various versions of mulch layers.  But I discovered that I had planted some dwarf iris behind some taller varieties.  So this past week it was finally time to do something about it.  So I dug up the dwarfs, then dug up the taller varieties and moved the taller ones back into the bed and the dwarfs out toward the front edges.  Which was easy to do since I wasn’t trying to divide them this year.  I ended up with extra clumps of dwarfs than I had spaces for in that bed. So, thinking that some of the outer edges were bare I decided to fill that area in with iris.

There was no easy way to do that since the barrier cloth was in the way. Taking my trusty 40 year old scissors (they don’t make them like they used to?) I cut out some sections of barrier cloth and discovered that there was at least 4 inches of mulch and soil on TOP of the cloth and there were worms in that stuff. Under the barrier cloth was a hard, bare surface that appeared to have some worm trails on top but it was hard and dry when I dug into it with no soil life that I could find.   So I dug a hole in the hard dry dirt and moved the mulch and soil from the top of the barrier cloth into the hole and planted my iris, watered and mulched slightly.

What I learned from this and from my studies is that barrier cloth mostly prevents water from penetrating the dirt.  It also interferes with other soil life.  This also goes along with what I’ve observed around town. In areas with any kind of slope covering the soil with barrier cloth, cutting holes to plant things and covering with mulch requires a drip system at each opening to get the water in the soil.  It is also obvious that heavy rains or rains over time causes the mulch to wash off and down the hill.

Now we do live in a desert even if we try to pretend otherwise.  To grow things here we need to build soil, increase soil life (biology) and retain water for the plants.  Barrier cloth interferes with water penetrating the soil just as building on the soil and adding impervious surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, and other flat rock surfaces.  If we were wise humans we’d work at getting the water to soak INTO the soil rather than having it run off to be disposed of.  Keeping the water in the soil helps increase the water table sending more water into creeks, streams, lakes and eventually into aquifers? Or perhaps the oceans.  Water hitting barrier cloth does not soak into the soil so if you want to grow things in it you have to use a lot more water and control exactly where it goes.

This year I also noticed that those areas where I had NOT improved the dirt were very thirsty and needed more watering but in the raised beds where I’ve spent 6 years building soil rather than dirt have paid off because that soil is still moist without much watering until just this past week.

Maybe we are building our own barriers against success when we cover the earth with hard surfaces that prevent nature from doing its thing.

Just an aside: Leaves are solar panels which absorb energy from the sun and convert it with other chemicals into food for plants and thus for humans.  Those leaves on your iris plants should NOT be cut off until they die in the fall.  Cutting them off is like installing solar panels on your roof to generate electricity and throwing a tarp over it. Maybe not so wise.  Besides the uneven heights and widths and shapes of leaves make a much more interesting design than hard edges.  Leave the leaves to feed the rhizomes and bulbs so you’ll have more flowers next year without a lot of extra work.  When your tulip leaves have died on their own they separate easily from the soil.  If you cut them off after the tulips bloom you get few if any tulips next year.  Try gardening like God does.  If it falls on the ground, leave it to feed the next set of plants.  Reduce the barriers, use lots of mulch, try cardboard instead, improve the soil to reduce bindweed, increase your garden’s chances for success.

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