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Caring For Plants

Water Conservation

It is important that we all use common sense to conserve water. In addition to conserving a valuable natural resource, avoiding water waste will lower your water bill.

In the home, check your water meter at a time when you are sure no water is being consumed. If the meter is running, you may have a leak. Running toilets and dripping faucets are easy repairs. Using low flow toilets and showerheads saves a lot of water. Remember that just one drop of water is a waste of 2,700 gallons per year! 

Outdoors, water can be collected in cisterns for watering plants or washing cars. Cisterns are built under homes, underground, or above ground. Also, the run-off water from window or central air conditioners can be collected and used for irrigation. 

Homeowners should consider the use of what is commonly referred to as "xeriscape" or low maintenance landscape plantings. First, consider using natives, drought tolerant species requires less work in watering, fertilizing, and pest control, and will attract birds and butterflies to your yard. Second, group plants (native or non-native) with similar water requirements together for more efficient water use. Third, using mulch will save water, time, and money. 

For irrigation systems, use rain sensor devices that deactivate the system when enough rain has fallen. Also, water bedding plants and gardens with microirrigation, rather than the sprinklers used for grass. Another tip is to water early in the morning or late in the afternoon to prevent water waste through wind and heat evaporation. 

Conserving water is the right thing to do, and will save you money. Encourage friends and guests to do the same!


Mulch

Mulching is a practice that has many advantages for anyone who grows plants. In simple terms, mulch is any material used to modify the soil environment. Benefits include moisture retention, weed control, and moderation of temperature changes in the soil. In addition, organic mulches help improve soil structure and provide essential plant nutrients.  

Mulch can be used to cover garden beds, around trees and shrubs, in the yard in place of grass, in vegetable gardens, and on paths and driveways. The several types of mulch include organic, plastic, woven ground cloth, and rock-like materials such as gravel, pebbles and crushed stone. Each has its place, but the advantages and disadvantages of each must be considered.  

Organic Mulch. Organic mulch includes pine bark, wood chips, straw, grass clippings, and shredded twigs and small branches. Any type of dry (aged) plant material, free of seed pods, can be used as mulch. Cypress mulch has been popular because of its color and longevity, but should be avoided because of the destruction of large areas of cypress swamp necessary for water conservation. Organic mulches decompose and must be renewed from time to time. As they decompose organic mulches recycle and return many essential plant micronutrients.  

The recommendations for applying organic mulch around a tree or shrub are: 1) to keep it 2 inches from the stem, 2) apply in a circle 2 feet in diameter for every 1 inch of stem diameter, and 3) maintain a 2-3 inch settled depth, with repeat applications as it decomposes.

Rock Mulch. The inorganic mineral mulches such as gravel, pebbles, or crushed stone do not have all of the advantages of organic mulch and are difficult to remove once applied. Rock mulches have the disadvantages of providing easy escape for scarce water, and of reflecting solar radiation, which creates a very hot environment. Weeds are also a common problem in rock mulches. However, since they do not decompose, rock mulches do not require repeated applications. Rock mulch from native sources also adds to the alkalinity of the soil and creates minor element nutritional problems for many landscape plants, especially palms.  

Plastic Mulch. Plastic film, if black, is effective controlling weeds but is rather unsightly. Although plastic mulch prevents the escape of soil moisture, it also inhibits the penetration of rain and overhead irrigation water. Plastic mulch can be covered with an organic or inorganic mulch material, but because it is slippery, it is difficult to keep the other material in place. If uncovered, plastic mulch can absorb solar radiation causing high temperatures in the soil underneath, which is undesirable for plant roots.  

White-on-black plastic mulch is also available. This is a plastic sheet with a white top and black bottom. It provides the benefits of weed control, moisture retention, and avoids high soil temperature. However, the penetration of rain and overhead irrigation water is still prevented, and the reflection from the white surface creates a hot environment.

Ground Cloth. Woven ground cloth, whether plastic or fabric, allows air and moisture to move through, but does little to conserve soil moisture. For aesthetic purposes, it should have another mulching material on top. If an organic mulch is used on top of the ground cloth, soil moisture can be retained. Ground cloth also suppresses weeds


Composting

Compost is the product resulting from microbial organisms decomposing organic matter (OM), resulting in a nutrient rich, dark, friable material that is ideally suited for growing plants. Compost can be incorporated into the soil, improving soil structure and water holding capacity. In addition to these physical characteristics it contains nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients essential for plant growth. And soil compost can also be used as mulch around plants to moderate soil temperature and conserve water.

Plant material, paper, and food scraps (except meat and dairy products) can be used in the compost pile. Plant material includes grass clippings, leaves, seaweed that has been washed with clean water, wood chips, sawdust, twigs, and branches, but keep in mind that twigs and branches should be put through a shredder-grinder to increase the surface area before trying to compost. Remember composting depends in the action of soil organisms on the OM and the more surface area exposed the quicker the compost is produced.

Soil organisms need carbon, nitrogen, air, moisture, and heat for decomposition. Carbon is found in woody plant parts, dead leaves, and paper. Nitrogen is contained in grass trimmings, living leaves, seaweed, and food scraps. Carbon and nitrogen must both be present and in proper proportions (30:1 carbon:nitrogen). Most composting problems occur from a poor balance of carbon and nitrogen.

Moisture, air, and temperature are also important in the compost process. All can be adjusted by turning the compost. For moisture, the compost mixture should be damp, but not soaking wet. Composting occurs under aerobic conditions, so the pile should be packed, but not compacted. Temperature of the middle of the pile should be 122-131oF to kill weed seeds and plant diseases, but should not exceed 140oF or the microbial organisms will die. The temperature can be monitored by a compost pile thermometer, and used to determine when it is time to turn the pile.

There are many compost bins available through retail stores and catalogs. Home-made bins work fine also. Small amounts of compost can be made in a drum or barrel with holes cut out to allow air exchange as the barrel is rolled or turned over. For composting large amounts of OM construct a bin not less than 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. Corner posts supporting vinyl coated wire mesh makes a good compost bin. The 3 feet provides enough material so that the pile can heat properly.  

When building the pile, add your carbon material and nitrogen material in alternating layers 3-4 inches thick. To insure enough nitrogen is in the mix, a handful or so of high organic nitrogen fertilizer can be added to supplement the nitrogen material if needed. Next, add enough water after each 2 layers to maintain a moist but not wet pile. Finally, add a shovel full of soil to introduce microbial organisms.  

Maintenance is easy with periodic turning and mixing. To determine when the compost pile should be turned, monitor the temperature in the middle of the pile. When the pile cools to a consistent temperature, it is time to turn. In the Keys, piles are usually turned once per week. You will know when the compost is ready when turning the pile does not cause an increase in temperature. If properly built and maintained, the compost pile will produce a finished product in 6-8 weeks.


Pruning: The Cutting Edge of Landscape Maintenance

Snip, snip, clip, saw, buzzzzzz….familiar sounds of yard work. Proper pruning is essential to maintaining a safe and healthy home landscape. And, do not forget that pruning can be dangerous, so arm yourself with knowledge before you arm yourself with pruning tools. 

Pruning is the selective removal of plant parts (usually shoots or branches) for a specific purpose. The goals of pruning are: 1) to create and shape plant form, 2) to promote plant health and longevity, and 3) to ensure the safety of people, 4) control growth, enhance flowering and fruiting. Before you take tool in hand, remember that some trees, such as mangroves, and other native trees are federally protected, and require a permit before you trim. 

The two general methods of pruning are the thinning out cut and the heading back cut. The thinning out cut removes branches at their point of origin. Thinning is used to reduce the height and the spread of a plant, while retaining its natural shape. The heading back cut removes the tips of branches to a bud or node, leaving a stub. Also called pinching and tip pruning, heading back is used to train young trees and shrubs by stimulating growth of lateral shoots.  

When starting a pruning job, first prune dead, diseased and damaged wood, crossing branches, and growth cluttering the center of the plant. Pruning cuts should be made at a lateral bud, crotch or trunk of plants. Cuts should be smooth and made with sterilized pruning tools. Tools can be sterilized with alcohol or diluted bleach. 

Tree Pruning. When tree pruning, prune with the natural shape of the tree. When cutting limbs (thinning out cuts), be careful not to cut too close to the trunk. All tree limbs have a branch collar, which is often visible or feels like a very slight swelling. Prune just past the collar at an angle, making sure that the collar is not cut so that the tree will heal naturally. Pruning seal products are not recommended because they are not needed, and may actually harm the tree by trapping disease into fresh cuts. This situation may be more inviting to wood rotting organisms than one with no wound cover. However, treatment with a fungicide may be beneficial.  Also, be aware that different trees should be pruned at different times of the year, depending on when they flower and whether flowering occurs on the current or previous season's growth. Structural pruning and light pruning can be done anytime. However, no more than 20-30% of the canopy should be removed in one year. 

Other types of tree pruning include crown raising cuts and drop crotch pruning. Crown raising cuts are cuts that remove lower branches. This is usually done to increase visibility under a tree for traffic or safety purposes. Drop crotch pruning reduces the length of the main branch by cutting it just above a lateral branch that is large enough to assume the role of leader. This is only done in cases where the original leader goes through power lines. (Planting trees under power lines should be avoided.) Never top or hatrack a tree: this is heading back all the branches to an indiscriminate height. 

Shrub Pruning. Shrubs are pruned by either heading back or thinning. Shrubs pruned as a solid hedge should be trimmed so that the base of the hedge is slightly wider than the top. This ensures maximum light exposure for the lower leaves; otherwise, the top of the hedge casts a shadow on the bottom leaves, which then fall off due to lack of light. 

Safety. Lastly, and most importantly, a few words on safety. Wear protective eyewear and gloves. Do not work alone. Never trim a tree near a power line; call the electric company to prune or call a certified arborist. If a ladder or chainsaw is required, call a professional certified arborist.  Sterilize cutting equipment after each use to prevent spread of diseases.











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