Plants: Not Good at Multitasking


20170919A.jpgWe all know people who seem capable of multitasking (performing multiple tasks simultaneously): answering the phone while filling in a crossword, weeding the vegetable garden while watching the kids, washing the baby while mowing the lawn, and so on.

But plants are not very good at multitasking. They prefer to do one thing at a time, performing their various tasks—rooting, growing, flowering, producing seed, preparing for winter, lying dormant, etc.—successively. Thus, when they’re in bloom, they’re not inclined to produce new roots, new stems or new leaves, nor when they’re producing seeds, and when they’re dormant … well, they won’t do much of anything!

This affects the way we garden, or at least should affect it. Unfortunately, too many gardeners expect their plants to do everything at the same time and come away disappointed or confused when that just doesn’t work.

Here are some examples of situations where it is better to let our plants do one thing at a time:

  • When you transplant or divide a plant, pinch off its flowers. It may pain you to do so, but you’ll reap the rewards later, as a pause in blooming encourages the plant to concentrate on producing a good root system. Once it is well established, you can let it bloom again … and now it will bloom much more heavily.
  • Avoid supplying nitrogen fertilizer (one where the first digit on the label, nitrogen, is the highest) to plants that are “hardening off” (preparing to enter dormancy), especially in late summer. Too much nitrogen at that time can stimulate off-season growth that will be weak and subject to cold damage and even reduce the plant’s overall hardiness.
  • Remove any fruits in the first year or two after planting small fruits (blueberries, currants, bush cherries, etc.) and for up to five years after planting fruit trees (apples, plums, pears, etc.). This will give the plant time to settle in well before having to invest its energy in bearing fruit.

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    Cutting back salad greens just before they mature will often encourage  them to start all over. Photo: Kent Tarrant

  • Harvest leafy vegetables like lettuce, arugula and spinach just before they reach their peak by cutting them back to about an inch (2 cm) above the ground. This will prevent them from producing a flower stalk and thus thwarts their goal of producing seed. It’s a well-known fact that when leaf vegetables “bolt” (the term used when they produce a flower stalk), they become bitter and inedible, but if you harvest them early, most will resprout from the base, producing new leaves … and giving you a second harvest.

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    Let broccoli resprout after you harvest it. Photo:

  • Similarly, rather than pulling out broccoli plants after harvest, simply leave what remains of the plant growing. Since you prevented it from blooming (what you harvest on broccoli are its immature flower buds), the plant will try to produce new flower stalks, giving you a second crop. This works too with cabbage and kale … if there’s still a few weeks left in the growing season, they’ll have time to produce a small head (cabbage) or a cluster of new leaves (kale).
  • If you buy a perennial that has been forced into early bloom for May sales (often the case with echinaceas and gaillardias, for example), it will pass the rest of the season trying to keep on blooming and will barely put on any growth at all, no matter how much you baby it. Thus it won’t produce the solid root system it needs to survive the winter. As a result, you often you’ve paid for a perennial that behaves like an annual and doesn’t come back the following spring. The secret to “re-perennializing” such a plant is to not to let it bloom at all the first year, but rather to remove not only the flowers that were present at purchase time, but every flower that it tries to produce that season. Since you thwart its effort to keep putting its energy into blooming, the plant will invest it instead in a robust root system, dense foliage and hardening off for winter. Then, the next summer, once it’s well-established, let it bloom its head off and you’ll find it’s gained in both vigor and hardiness.
  • Deadheading (removing the faded flowers) from certain shrubs and perennials (roses, golden marguerites [Anthemis tinctoria], perennial salvias, etc.) will prevent them from putting energy into producing seeds and will therefore often help the plant rebloom that same season.
  • Remove flowers and flower buds from cuttings and pinch even the tip of their stem to stop them temporarily from growing and blooming. That way the stem will focus on rooting.

Take full advantage of the natural tendency of plants to unitask and encourage them to do what you want them to do. After all, it is your garden!20170919A


The Rule of Three


Plant bulbs at at depth 3 times their height and space them at 3 times their diameter.

The basic rule for planting bulbs is to plant them at a depth equal to three times the height of the bulb and to space them at three times their diameter. In very cold climates (zone 3 or less), it may be helpful to bury hardy bulbs deeper than normal, up to a depth equal to five times the height of the bulb. That way the bulb will be better protected against the cold.


Tulips perenniallze best when planted 1 foot (30 cm) deep. Photo:

It is also worthwhile making am exception for hybrid tulips, like Triumphs, Parrots, and Darwin Hybrids. You’ll find that they will be more more perennial and better protected from squirrels if you plant 1 foot (30 cm) deep. That’s about twice the usual recommendation.

Even so, only plant tulip bulbs extra deep when you can offer them loose, well-drained soils. In heavy clay soil, which the tulip’s spring shoot  has more difficulty piercing, it is better to stick to the original rule of three!011.K

Plant Trees without Amending the Soil

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When planting a woody plant, just backfill with the original soil. Photo: Alex Indigo, Flickr

Forget the old technique for planting shrubs and trees, the one I learned when I was a kid. We were told at the time to amend the soil removed from the planting hole of a tree, an evergreen or a shrub by mixing in a good dose of compost, organic matter or fertilizer. Some gardeners even went so far as to replace all the soil removed with quality top soil.


Tree and shrub roots tend to remain in the area with the best soil, eventually girdling the plant. Photo:

However, studies led notably by the American tree guru, Dr. Alex Shigo, have since shown that when the soil in the planting hole is better than the soil all around, the roots tend to stay in that area, circling within that patch of richer, more friable soil. In fact, with time, they can literally girdle the tree, strangling it.

Instead, backfill with the original soil, adding no soil amendments (fertilizer, compost, manure, etc.). Since the soil is now of the same quality everywhere, the roots will do what Mother Nature wanted them to do: extend out in all directions.

You can, however, apply mycorrhizal fungi to the plant’s rootball, especially in soils that have been perturbed. These beneficial fungi improve root growth and, contrary to fertilizers that, when added to the planting hole, encourage the roots to stay nearby, actually tend to spur them to spread out widely.


To improve the soil around a tree or shrub, apply compost or fertilizer throughout the entire root zones… and it extends beyond the drip line. That will encourage the roots to extend outward.

If you do want to improve the texture or quality of the soil, do so after planting, fertilizing or applying a layer of compost over the entire area, as far as the roots will eventually reach, that is out to and beyond the tree’s eventual drip line. That way, you’ll encourage the roots to spread in all directions in search of the added nutrients … and you’ll also improve the growth of all the plants in that zone.20170917A.Alex Indigo, Flickr

10 Favorite Daffodils



I don’t often repost blogs that were posted elsewhere, but I just saw this one, written by Kathleen LaLiberte of Longfield Gardens and recently published on the National Garden Bureau website and it was fun, simple and attractive, so why not share it? Also, I’m a big fan of narcissus (daffodils or jonquils if you prefer). Besides, with over 500 cultivars of narcissus currently available, who doesn’t want to know, which ones a plant expert considers to be the best!

Here you go!

The National Garden Bureau’s 10 Favorite Narcissus

Yellow trumpet daffodils are far and away the world’s most popular style of daffodils. But why stop there when the daffodil world has so much more to offer? According to the American Daffodil Society, there are 13 official daffodil flower types and more than 25,000 named cultivars!

So how do you decide which varieties to plant in your garden? Start with these 10 timeless favorites. All have proven to be vigorous, sturdy and reliably perennial. They include many different flower styles and bloom times, so you will get a full month of spring color every year.

#1 – Dutch Master’ or Yellow River’

Daffodil Dutch Master - The iconic daffodil is big and yellow with a very large cup. A Top 10 Favorite from NGB

The iconic daffodil is big and yellow with a very large cup. For years, the go-to variety was King Alfred, but it’s no longer in cultivation. Instead, look for ‘Dutch Master or ‘Yellow River. Both have large, egg-yolk-yellow flowers with oversize trumpets. These classic yellow daffodils are great for massing and naturalizing. They bloom early and have a bold presence in the landscape.

Height: 18  inches (45 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#2 – ‘Barrett Browning

Daffodil Barrett Browning has pure white petals surrounding a red-orange cup. One of NGB top 10 favorite daffodils for your garden and home
 This daffodil is easy to recognize: pure white petals surrounding a red-orange cup. A golden yellow halo encircles the base of the cup and adds to the glow. ‘Barrett Browning’ is an early bloomer, an excellent naturalizer and it holds up well in warm climates.
Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#3. Goblet

Daffodil Goblet has a yellow halo at the base of the trumpet gives the blossoms an even sunnier look. One of the top 10 NGB daffodil picks for your home and garden

This daffodil makes a perfect partner for ‘Dutch Master or ‘Unsurpassable. The large flowers have pure white petals surrounding a widely flared and ruffled yellow cup. A yellow halo at the base of the trumpet gives the blossoms an even sunnier look. Long-lasting and simply beautiful.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#4 – ‘Orange Progress

Daffodil Orange Progress have Deep yellow petals set off brilliant orange, tightly ruffled cups. One of NGB top 10 Daffodils!
 Extra-large flowers and extra-bright colors make ‘Orange Progress’ a great choice for landscaping. The flowers never go unnoticed. Deep yellow petals set off brilliant orange, tightly ruffled cups. The weatherproof blossoms have thick petals and lots of substance.
Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#5 – Pink Pride

20170916C Pink Pride


Possibly the best pink daffodil around. The oversize flowers and have broad, thick, snow-white petals. Prominent, ruffled cups open apricot and age to coral pink with a touch of orange (no narcissus has truly pink cups). ‘Pink Pride’s blossoms face outward and slightly upward, which makes them extra showy in the garden and great for cut flower arrangements.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#6 – Tahiti

Daffodil Tahiti - One of the all-time greats of the daffodil world.

One of the all-time greats of the daffodil world. ‘Tahiti is a multiple award winner and has been consistently popular since it was first introduced back in 1956. Layers of rounded, golden yellow petals are interspersed with frilly, red-orange accents. ‘Tahiti is a mid to late season daffodil that is long-lasting in the garden and is an excellent cut flower.

Height: 18 inches (45 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#7 – Cheerfulness

Daffodil Cheerfulness's double flowers are creamy white with yellow highlights and one of NGB top 10 Daffodils for your home and garden

There are so many reasons to love this daffodil…starting with the name ‘Cheerfulness’! The double flowers are creamy white with yellow highlights and are borne in clusters of 3 to 4 blossoms per stem. ‘Cheerfulness has long slender stems and narrow foliage. It looks fabulous in a vase and has a wonderful, gardenia-like fragrance. Blooms in late spring.

Height: 16 inches (40 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#8 – ‘Golden Echo

Daffodil Golden Echo - An outstanding daffodil in every way.
 An outstanding daffodil in every way. ‘Golden Echo’s mid-size flowers and relatively compact height are perfect for flower beds and containers. The blossoms measure about 3” across and have long, lemon yellow trumpets, crisp white petals, and a striking yellow halo. They are fragrant and just the right size for cheery spring flower arrangements.
Height: 14 inches (35 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#9 – Jetfire

Daffodil Jetfire is an energetic little daffodil that looks like it’s rushing full speed into spring. A top 10 daffodil for your garden and home.

‘Jetfire is an energetic little daffodil that looks like it’s rushing full speed into spring. The 1” wide flowers have bright yellow petals that sweep back from their long orange cups. This variety’s 10” height makes it perfect for planting in the front of a flower bed, tucking under shrubs or growing in containers. Very long-lasting and doesn’t flop over.
Height: 10 inches (25 cm)
Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

#10 – Tête-à-Tête

Daffodil Tete a Tete - This adorable miniature daffodil is among the longest-blooming, most versatile varieties you can grow.

This adorable miniature daffodil is among the longest-blooming, most versatile varieties you can grow. ‘Tête-à-Tête’ blooms early and keeps on going for weeks. Great in flower beds, landscaping and in containers. The grassy foliage doesn’t compete with the flowers and it fades away relatively quickly. Available since 1949 and still in the top 10.

Height: 7 inches (18 cm)

Hardiness zone: 3 to 8

Growing Narcissus

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Narcissus bulbs. Photo: Longfield Gardens

Plant narcissus bulbs in the fall, between September and November, in a location that receives lots of sunshine in the spring. They can be planted at the base of deciduous trees and shrubs in spots that will be shady in summer as long as their foliage has time to receive its annual dose of sunlight before it fades away.

The bulbs prefer deep, loose and moderately rich soil that is relatively moist in the spring. Avoid places where the soil is always damp, though, like irrigated gardens: the bulbs do like to dry out during the summer.

Plant the bulbs, with the tip pointing upwards, at a depth equal to three times their height, spacing them at three times their diameter. Adding a good slow-release fertilizer and mychorrhizal fungi to the soil under the bulbs is often helpful. Cover with soil and water well. It’s always wise to mulch well for at least the first winter.

No attention is needed when the bulbs are in bloom in spring. Afterwards, let the foliage yellow naturally before removing it.

After several years, the bulbs may become too crowded and flowering decreases. If so, dig up and divide the bulbs when their foliage turns yellow. No need to wait until the fall to plant them, however: put them in the ground as soon as you’ve harvested them.

And there you go: the very best narcissus and how to grow them in a nutshell! Best of luck with your narcissus planting this fall!10-Favorite-Daffodils-NGB1

Fall Webworm: Spectacular Damage, But Not That Harmful

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Fall webworm nest in a crabapple tree. Photo: G. Barriault

The fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) is the caterpillar stage of a rather inconspicuous white moth. Its small size belies the damage it does or, should I say, they do, for they are very gregarious and live in colonies: often huge webbed nests filled with skeletonized leaves and droppings and 2 to 3 hundred creepy crawlers.

Fall webworms can be compared to that other web-producing moth larva, the tent caterpillar, but they occur in late summer or fall, while tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum and others) are limited to spring. Also, tent caterpillars leave their nests daily and feed elsewhere, while fall webworms mostly remain within their nest, increasing its size to encompass more and more edible foliage. Only in the final stages do they wander out on their own. And tent caterpillar nests tend to be built at a crotch of the host tree while fall webworms normally start at branch tips then work they way downward.

20170915B Melissa McMasters, Flickr

Fall webworm. Photo: Melissa McMasters, Flickr

Not many people study the caterpillars themselves, but if you do take a peek inside their nest, they are highly variable in color, with a black to reddish head and a light yellow to green body and tufts of both short and long gray to white hairs emerging from two rows black tubercles along their back. They can actually be quite attractive… at least to my eyes!



Distribution of fall webworm. Illustration:

Originally a North American pest and found all across that continent to the limits of the deciduous forest (they don’t infest conifers), fall webworms were accidentally imported into the Old World have now spread throughout Europe and are advancing rapidly in Asia. They thrive in both warm and cold climates.

Life Cycle

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Female fall webworm laying her eggs under a leaf. Photo: UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation

In fall, the larvae leave their nests to pupate in cracks in bark and among leaf litter and in the soil at the base of the host tree. Adults emerge in summer and the female lays masses of hundreds of hairy white eggs under a leaf of the new host. They hatch about a week later and soon start to build a new web to protect themselves from predators and the elements. Damage usually becomes evident in mid-August, increasing into September, but in warmer climates, the cycle starts sooner and there can be a second generation.

To Treat or Not to Treat?

In fact, you don’t actually have to treat fall webworms. Since they start their cycle late in the season, when host trees (almost any broadleaf tree seems to do, although they do seem to prefer crabapples and walnuts in home gardens) are winding down for winter and have stored up most of their reserves for the following season, even defoliated branches tend to come back in perfect shape the next spring. And why treat something that’s doing no harm?

Also, fall webworms are an important food source for over 40 species of birds and have dozens of insect predators as well. If you leave them alone, you’re actually benefiting local wildlife.

Possible Treatments


When a single tree has several nests, it can be completely defoliated… yet will generally still grow back in perfect health the next spring.  Photo:

Still, the nests are unsightly, doubly so when there are several nests in the same tree and you may therefore feel impelled to react. So here are some suggestions about what to do.

The traditional treatment is to cut off and destroy the nests while they are still small and the caterpillars are still young. That works fine … when you can safely reach the nest (they can be out of reach, high up in the host tree). Plus indiscriminate pruning can seriously harm the tree’s symmetry.

If you do prune off infested branches, you can bury the nest or soak it in soapy water to kill the caterpillars. Or put simply it out with the garbage in a plastic bag. Again, traditionally you’d be told to burn the nests, but then you’d be polluting the air.


You can blast the nests with a strong spray of water. Photo:

In my opinion, a better way of eliminating them is to blast their nest to smithereens with a high-pressure water hose. That will get rid of most of them. To kill the remaining caterpillars, now spray nearby leaves with Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki, a biological insecticide). When they eat the leaves, the Btk will make them sick and they’ll soon stop feeding and die.


BTK makes caterpillars sicken and die, but harms no other wildlife. Illus.: laidbackgardener@blog

Although you can also use other commonly available pesticides, Btk has the advantage of killing only caterpillars and not harming beneficial insects or in fact any other life form. Also, caterpillars treated with Btk can still be consumed by birds and beneficial insects without harming them.

When the caterpillars have reached near maturity and begin leaving their nest to wander about on your patio furniture, something they do just before they pupate, you can simply squish them, spray them with a mild insecticide like insecticidal soap or neem (neither are harmful to birds), or drop them in soapy water. Staying indoors for a few days will also work.

Many people also pay quite handsomely to have arborists come in and treat the trees or remove the nests … a bit of overkill, I’ve always felt, considering the limited damage actually caused to the tree. However, when the same tree has several nests, and that can happen, one does feel that something should be done.

Will They Be Back?

20170915D, Michigan Department of Natural Resrources

One nest is not so bad, but dozens?  Photo: Michigan Department of Natural Resrources

That’s always a concern, but there seems to be no way of predicting whether fall webworm nests will be abundant in a given year or nearly absent and their numbers do fluctuate considerably. Spraying tree trunks with dormant oil (horticultural oil) in early spring may help kill pupae overwintering on the bark, but is unlikely to stop an infestation if one is about to occur since most pupae are in the soil or leaf litter. Also, female moths fly, so even if they come out of pupation on a tree trunk or at the base of a given tree, they’re likely to travel a certain distance before laying their eggs. So spraying with oil often has little noticeable effect.

Fall webworms: they cause such visible damage that you often feel compelled to react, but tree life goes on in spite of them, so it’s up to you to decide whether to intervene or not.20170915D, Michigan Department of Natural Resrources

Pick Un Nuts and Fruits Without Bending Over!


20170914BI’m always looking for easier ways to garden and here’s one: a garden tool that will pick up fallen nuts and fruits rapidly, easily and, even better, without you having to bend over!

I’ve seen it sold under several names (nut and fruit gatherer, nut gatherer, nut broom, Nut Wizard, etc.) and it is certainly easy enough to use. Simply use the handle to roll the oval gathering basket back and forth over the ground, pressing lightly as you go. The basket’s flexible wires pull open when it hits any fruits or nuts in the sector and in they pop. As it rolls, it picks up more and more objects, even in fairly tall grass. In fact, I found it even able to pry loose and pick up fruits and nuts half sunk into the ground.

When it’s full, simply hold it over a pail or other recipient and spread the wires apart to release the basket’s contents.

We use it to pick up the thousands of crabapples that fall from our very prolific crabapple tree each fall. When they fall in flower beds, I just leave them be and let them decompose on the spot. On the other hand, when crabapples litter the path or lawn, it becomes very slippery and possibly dangerous. We used to spend a lot of time raking crabapples into piles and getting down on our knees to pick them up. Now, we just run the nut gatherer and it’s all done in an instant.


Marie loves this tool and now picks the fallen crabapples herself. There’s nothing I like better, as a laidback gardener, than a task my wife is willing to take over. Now if only I could get her to clean out the eaves!

My wife calls this tool “the eighth wonder of the world”, so easy is it to use! And my stepdaughter makes delicious jellies with the crabapples we harvest!


The model we purchased is, according to the instructions, designed to pick up objects from 3/8 inch to 2 inches (1 to 5 cm) in diameter. That would include crabapples, walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, pecans, ginkgo fruits, acorns, sweet gum fruit, olives… and golf balls. Actually, it will pick up much larger objects than it claims to: I tried it on larger objects and had no trouble picking up full-size apples, pears, pine cones and tennis balls. So, it’s good for objects at least 3.5 inches (9 cm)—the size of the oranges I tested it on—in diameter. However, with larger fruits, the basket does fill up more quickly. Not to worry, though: there are models with bigger baskets specially designed to pick up larger objects.

Note that the rolling basket will not pick up soft fruit like tomatoes and plums without damaging them, nor is it very good with seriously rotten apples: it tends to mush them up and break them into pieces, although it does admittedly pick them up. To gather soft fruits, you will still probably have to get down on your knees.

You ought to be able to find a nut and fruit gatherer in larger garden centers or in big box stores. If not, you can order one at Lee Valley Tools (Canada and USA), Nut Wizard (USA) and Garden Weasel (USA). In Europe, look for it on Amazon and on eBay. Lee Valley delivered ours in only two days!20170914B

When to Apply Compost?

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Your homemade compost is ready … when should you apply it? normanack, Wikimedia Commons

Question: When should I apply compost so it will be most profitable for both the soil and my plants?


Answer: There are two ways of looking at compost: as a soil amendment or as a fertilizer.

As a Soil Amendment

20170913B United States Air Force Academy .jpg

To amend soil, you can apply compost any time. Photo: United States Air Force Academy

As a soil amendment, there is no specific season for applying compost. You can add it whenever the soil is not frozen and it will be effective. And unlike fertilizers, it can’t burn roots, so you can apply it generously.

Its benefits as an amendment include:

  • Improving soil quality (light soils retain more water and minerals, heavy soils drain better and are better aerated);
  • Helping prevent erosion;
  • Reducing the effects of drought;
  • Making acidic soils less acidic and alkaline soils less alkaline;
  • Introducing and maintaining all sorts of soil organisms and microorganisms that are beneficial to plants;
  • Helping eliminate plant diseases present in the soil;
  • Decomposing pesticide residues and other pollutants and turning them into useful minerals plants can use for their growth;
  • Naturally recycling products that would otherwise have been treated as waste.

All these advantages benefit the soil—and secondarily the plants that grow in it!—no matter what season you apply the compost.

As a Fertilizer

Compost normally contains all the minerals that plants need for their growth, but even so, in smaller amounts than most commercial fertilizers. Nevertheless, they are usually in a form that plants can easily absorb.

20170913C Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta, Pixnio.jpg

For maximum benefits as a fertilizer, apply compost just before the plants will need it. Photo: Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta, Pixnio

In order for compost to perform better as a fertilizer, logically it should be applied just before the plant needs it the most. Thus:

  • Approximately two weeks before planting or sowing, normally in the spring, although if you replant the vegetable garden with fall vegetables, also in August or early September;
  • Failing that, whenever you put in new plants;
  • In established beds or in woodland gardens, apply in spring, just before plants wake up;
  • For lawns, top dress with up to 1 inch (2 cm) of compost in fall is possible. If not, in spring.

How to Apply Compost

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Compost used as a mulch. Photo: Bryn Pinzgauer, flickr

Traditionally, you’re supposed to work compost into the soil to a depth of about 6 inches (15 cm), but … it’s just as effective when you simply leave it on the surface as a mulch or top dressing. Apply a good 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) of compost for mulching purposes, if you have enough of it that is, but even a lesser amount will be useful. Soil microbes, beneficial insects and earthworms will take care of working it into the soil. You can even apply compost on top of a mulch already in place and the earthworms and their friends will still work it into the soil below.

Personally, as a laidback gardener, I’m more than happy to just toss compost onto the ground, then let soil creatures take care of placing it where it needs to go. It makes feel them happy and useful … and who am I to spoil their fun?20170913 normanack, WC