I have been spending a lot of time attending Zoom meetings and webinars since we have all been sheltering at home. I’ve learned some things, but let’s be honest, some of the webinars have been more enlightening than others.

This month the Goodhue Extension Master Gardeners had our first official Zoom meeting and before it started we attended a webinar given by Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator Kelly Allsup. Kelly’s presentation was about the precepts given in the book “The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden” written by Roy Diblik and her program was titled “The New Perennial Garden Theory.”

This was definitely one of the better webinars. We were all pretty interested to hear what she had to say and she started out by debunking several commonly accepted gardening practices. When she started talking about mulching our perennial gardens — it really got good.

She recommended that we not bring in mulch — especially wood mulch — creating as Kelly put it, “a wood chip wasteland.”

Dead stems, hydrangea flowerheads and leaf litter were left in the woodland garden this spring. Terry Yockey / Columnist
Dead stems, hydrangea flowerheads and leaf litter were left in the woodland garden this spring. Terry Yockey / Columnist

The idea was that instead of clearing out your whole garden in the spring and removing every bit of dead stems and plant debris and then going out and buying more mulch, Doesn’t it make more sense to cut up the dead plant materials from your garden and use that around your plants?

It was a eureka moment!

Since the Master Gardeners learned about Asian jumping worms last season we have been very cautious about bringing in any type of mulch that might contain the worm cocoons (eggs) or other pests. This seems like a great alternative.

I would take it one step further though: Even better than cutting all the dead plant material to the ground, cut the stems 6 to 12 inches tall and leave them standing for native bees that use the pithy plant stems for their nests. I’ve been doing this for a few years and although the garden is a little messier looking in the spring, by early summer the growing plants have outgrown the dead stems and you would never even know they were there.

I left all the turtlehead stems knocked down by heavy winter snow and the new growth is coming up through the stems. Terry Yockey / Columnist
I left all the turtlehead stems knocked down by heavy winter snow and the new growth is coming up through the stems. Terry Yockey / Columnist
Another idea from the presentation that works well with self-mulching was to “stitch together” your perennials. Instead of leaving big empty spaces between plants where weeds can become established, crowd the weeds out by planting closer together.

Yes, you are still going to get some weeds that blow into your garden or are planted by th

Only mid-May 2020 and the new growth is already covering much of the plant debris left in the perennial garden. Terry Yockey / Columnist
Only mid-May 2020 and the new growth is already covering much of the plant debris left in the perennial garden. Terry Yockey / Columnist
e birds. My best advice for weeds is to pick them as soon as you see them. Take a walk around your gardens every day and enjoy the beauty and if you find a beastly weed — take it out before it goes to seed and makes many more beastly little weeds.

Advantages to using your dead plant debris as mulch:

You are saving yourself time, money and effort when you aren’t buying and hauling loads of mulch from elsewhere.

You aren’t bringing in pests like Asian jumping worm cocoons that might be hiding in outside mulch.

You are providing shelter and nesting materials for butterflies, other pollinators and beneficial insects that over-winter in stems and leaf litter.

Butterflies enjoy puddling (sipping the salt and minerals in muddy water) and if you have thick wood mulch around your plants, there isn’t any open soil to puddle.

Wood mulch can migrate too close to plants which may cause crown rot.

So, if you have procrastinated and not gotten out and cleared your gardens yet, kudos! Keep up the good work.

For more information on Asian jumping worms see Goodhue Master Gardener Diane Mueller’s article at z.umn.edu/jumpingworms3.