February 2011: Green Scene


Trees in the garden

Want mulch for your walkways or plantings that’s not only green, but free? How about mulch that contains the ghost of Christmas past? You’re in luck: Albemarle County creates exactly that by chipping discarded Christmas trees. Collection of trees took place until the middle of last month (and by the way, mark your calendar for next year—tree dropoff is free and details are available on the County’s website, www.albemarle.org. No need to landfill your holiday!). 

Those trees did not die in vain: Starting February 1, the free mulch is available for anyone to pick up at Darden Towe Park. We say, someone should come up with an equally useful remake of balled-up wrapping paper.—Erika Howsare

Permaculture on Pantops

Local permaculturists probably know that multi-week courses are often organized locally by the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network (see blueridgepermaculture.net), but if a single weekend is all you’ve got, check out two briefer offerings February 4-6 at the Mountaintop Montessori School. Author and teacher Dave Jacke will give a public talk on Friday night, February 4, 7-9pm, for a $10 suggested donation. The topic? “Gardening like the forest”—in other words, designing a garden to mimic a forest, which naturally fertilizes and renews itself. 

February 5-6 Jacke will expand on those ideas in an intermediate-to-advanced workshop, which costs $250-295 on a sliding scale. If you’re interested, contact Terry Lilley at tygerlilley@gmail.com.—E.H.

Up on green roofs

Thinking of installing one of those nifty vegetated roofs on your house? You can pester an expert with all your questions—in person!—at the Blue Ridge Eco Shop on February 12. Scott Titanish, who sells the LiveRoof modular green roof system, will make a presentation at 11am. 

Green roofs are said to have numerous advantages, including insulation, absorption of rainwater, providing wildlife habitat and—in the city—combating the “heat island” effect.

The workshop is free, but you must register by e-mailing paige@blueridgeecoshop.com. For more info, call the store at 296-0042.—E.H.

Feeling drained


When the kitchen sink drain is clogged, it certainly feels like a minor emergency. The urge to grab the nearest bottle of chemical drain-opener and dump the whole thing down can easily take over. But resist! There is an alternative. Instead of pouring toxins down your plumbing, try a bacterial drain opener. Unique Super Digest-It is one brand.

Here’s how it works: Bacteria of the non-disease-causing type—Bacillus, to be exact—eat through whatever organic material (food, hair, etc.) is causing your problem. They can do this even in anaerobic conditions (i.e., lacking oxygen). If you’re worried that this process might be smelly, the manufacturer says “fear not”—no odor is involved.

The stuff can be used for maintenance too, ideally preventing those minor emergencies. Find it at greendepot.com.—E.H.

Using good scents

I strolled into the office yesterday and my nose was met with the powerful scent of my co-workers’ new cinnamon plug-in air freshener. The scent may be enticing, but many don’t realize that commercially sold air fragrances in aerosols, powders, and foams are unnecessary and sometimes polluting to indoor air quality. Phthalates as well as a plethora of other irritants can be released, not to mention toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), causing headaches or worse with people sensitive to allergens. 


If you’re using air fresheners, ask yourself, what is your intention—to mask an odor or add a scent? If it’s the former, can you eliminate the offending odor? Does your trash can need cleaning or your bathroom need scrubbing? When was the last time the dog was bathed? Preventatively, sprinkling baking soda at the bottom of your trash cans and on the floor before vacuuming really helps.

Now let’s talk about adding scents naturally. Soy or beeswax candles scented with essential oils are great alternatives to the petroleum variety. Rather than burning incense (the smoke is harmful in large quantities), boil cinnamon sticks and cloves in a pan of H20. Can you get creative by making your own potpourri of dried flowers and spices? Lavender is one of my favorites. I keep a bag of cedar chips from a diseased cedar in my linen drawer. A rosemary plant in your kitchen can double as cooking ingredient. Finally, bamboo sticks dipped in your favorite pure essential oil (try eucalyptus, lemon, or tea tree) look and smell nice.

Check out Better World Betty’s local green living resource list at www.betterworldbetty.com and blog at cvillebettyblog.blogspot.com.

Waiting for the sun

Winter holds us firmly in her cold and bony lap. Although there can be a certain beauty in the bare landscape, anyone who hasn’t utterly succumbed to Seasonal Affective Disorder is looking forward to the spring equinox—that magic day on March 21 when our planet begins to turn back toward the sun. Until then we must soldier on with tasks appropriate to the season. 


A common mistake this time of year is to cut back azaleas, lilacs or blue/pink hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla varieties). Early bloomers like these (including quince, forsythia and the white spireas, Spirea prunifolia, S. x vanhouttei, S. nipponica) are trying to nurse their flower buds through winter. Help them. In contrast, holly and boxwood respond well to mid-winter pruning, as do late summer flowering shrubs like butterfly bush, Russian sage, white hydrangeas (H. paniculata, H. arborescens) and the pink and red spireas (S. japonica). Know your plant before you cut it.

Another error is over-mulching. It’s an easy way to make the grounds look neat and tended, but Tracy Disabato-Aust, author of the classic The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, got it right when she said, “We have become a nation of over mulchers, feeling compelled to go out…and mulch whether it’s needed or not.”

It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing. Mulch deeper than 2-3”—especially the popular shredded hardwood which is heavy and takes longer to decompose—can be very bad for plants, smothering roots, rotting crowns and shedding water and fertilizers off into the gutters to pollute the waterways. Give this organic matter a chance to break down, amending the soil and absorbing water and oxygen. 

Instead of piling it on, take a fork or hard rake and fluff up existing mulch 1-2” in perennial beds and 2-3” on trees and shrubs, keeping it well back from crowns and trunk flares. Mounded up on trunks and perennials, mulch causes rot and entices mice and the dreaded vole. Add more only if you need it and thoroughly loosen existing mulch first. 

If you have problems with scale insects or mites on roses, euonymous, holly, boxwood, or hemlock, look for a mild day above 45 degrees, with no freeze for 24 hours, to spray horticultural (not dormant) oil. This will smother, not poison, overwintering eggs of these pests. Where you’ve had such infestations, clean up old debris, especially mulch, before spraying the shrubs. Burn or thoroughly compost it. 

To break out of a February funk, visit the camellias at UVA. Large specimens shelter against the west ranges and in Garden VII: gaudy flowers of white-gold, vermillion and pink. Look also for the wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) blooming in the back of Pavilion V. 

Here in the country I look out the window with a good fire to my back, contemplate a blue gazing globe at the edge of the broom-sedge meadow and plan to plant snowdrops next fall beneath the beech.—Cathy Clary