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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Friday - December 05, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Watering, Herbs/Forbs
Title: Berms to hold water around roots
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I planted new flower beds this November. There are currently dirt 'berms' around each plant - creating a well for water to seep into the immediate plant area. How can I keep these berms from eroding and breaking? In the past I have recreated them but with watering or rain they quickly disappear.

ANSWER:

Actually, we think the dirt has been trying to tell you something you need to know. Our suggestion is that you get a rake and pop right out there and smooth those berms out. What you have been trying to do is create water standing on the roots of your plants by making a little pond. Plants that do well in Austin are NOT water plants. They are hardy, drought resistant plants that can grow in rocky, alkaline soil. Water standing on those roots will quickly cause the roots to rot, and severely damage or destroy the plant you have been trying to coddle.

We understand your intent, and it is a good one, of assuring water to the roots. The best way to do this is to improve the drainage in the soil around the plant. If you have a very sandy soil, sometimes it can drain too much, but that's not what we have here in Austin. More likely, you have a clay soil, unless you put some amendments, like compost, into the soil when you planted. So, after you have removed the little dams, stick a hose down in the dirt in your flower bed, and let it drip slowly until water appears on the surface. If you're testing the whole bed, this could take a while. If the water continues to stand on the surface for more than a half an hour or so, you need to improve the drainage. The best way to do this, as we said earlier, is to incorporate compost or other organic material into the soil before planting. However, it can be done now by gradually working amendments into the soil, and then mulching with a shredded tree bark mulch. This mulch will help moisture stay in the soil, without it standing on the roots, and will slowly decompose to augment the materials already in the soil. It also will help in keeping the ground warm, or cool, as the case may be, and assists a little in keeping weeds down. When the rains come again, those berms wouldn't last 5 minutes, and the water would still end up standing on the roots, or draining away into the street much too quickly. Let the dirt do the job, that's what it was designed for.

 

 

 

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