, Salem, MA

November 8, 2013

Do cocoa bean shells make good garden mulch?

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: A neighbor has done her mulching with the shells of cocoa beans this year. I’ve never seen it before. The shells are very rough, even though they are shredded for mulch. It’s still the husk of the cocoa bean, something like chocolate. Will it hurt pets or even squirrels?

A: Cocoa is indeed part of the cocoa plant, which is a toxic plant. So, besides being toxic, cocoa would be very damaging to the intestines and could cause bleeding and vomiting if eaten. The chance of the mulch causing physical harm is minimal, however. A 50-pound dog would have to eat more than 5 ounces of the mulch to cause seizures and rapid heart rate. But is it worth the chance? I don’t think so. There are many substitute mulches you can use.

Caution: a lot is being said about mulch being a fire hazard. Be safe and rake the mulch several feet away from buildings, and wet the mulch thoroughly during dry weather.

Q: I’m planning to plant about a hundred new bulbs this fall. Is there a simpler way to plant than a shovel — that hurts my back. The soil I’m planting in is sort of hard but not rocky, with a few large rocks.

A: You need something to dig the planting holes. If there are only a few bulbs to plant, use a trowel or a bulb digger. Bulb diggers are available in short or long-handled varieties. The longer-handled one is better for use in very firm, rocky or rooty dirt. A shovel will work, too.

But what if you have a lot of bulbs? You need to invest about $20 in a bulb augur or drill. It’s a very large drill bit, which fits in your electric or battery-powered hand drill and drills all the holes in the soil for your bulbs. They’re not terribly expensive, and if you can share the tool with a neighbor, the cost is even less. It’s a tool you won’t use very often, but when you do use it, you’ll really appreciate it. You will use this simple tool now to drill the holes in the earth for each bulb. And you can use it again in the spring to plant a mass of smaller annuals along a garden border.

You might want a very low stool to sit on while planting. Consider using a kneeling pad to protect your knee joints; even an old pillow or a rug stuffed in a plastic garbage bag will help protect your knee joints.

As you choose your spot to plant, remember that you will have to allow the foliage to mature and brown before you cut it later in the summer, and it could look messy. Mark your plantings so you can plan to plant other plants to camouflage the dying bulb foliage, and so they won’t be mowed down before the foliage matures in late spring.

Plant bulbs about three times the depth of the bulb or even slightly deeper. Deeper planting gives bulbs more protection from rodents and freezing weather. Plant bulbs in groups rather than in rows. For a natural look, scatter bulbs and then plant where they fall. Plant with the root end of the bulb down and the pointed end up.

Fertilizer isn’t necessary the first year they’re planted, but plan to use it every year in the future. Just scatter the fertilizer over the top of the planted area and water in well.

If you have severe problems with small rodents digging and eating your bulbs, you can lay a layer of chicken wire or hardware cloth over the planting surface, or plant bulbs in wire cages, which are sold in garden centers, to protect the bulbs.

Finally, haul out the garden hose and give your bulbs one last drink before winter.

There is still plenty of time to plant bulbs, so buy some more of them! You can plant until the ground freezes. You never have enough bulbs — buy just a few more or try a new color. You won’t regret it in the spring!

Q: After flowering last winter, my amaryllis bulbs grew healthy green leaves through the summer. Now the leaves are getting yellow and rotting — I think the bulbs are dying. What did I do wrong? Can I save them?

A: Your amaryllis isn’t dying — it’s just taking a well-earned rest. You did exactly what you should have done. By growing the bulb as a green plant over the summer, it gains strength to bloom again. If you don’t grow the leaves of any bulb, you’ll never get flowers again. Amaryllis is naturally a summer bloomer from South America, which is perfect for us! When it’s midsummer below the equator, it’s Christmas here — and that’s when we want our amaryllis to bloom.

They’re a real houseplant, not a throwaway. They’re a flowering bulb plant and a green summer porch plant all rolled into one. With proper care, you will enjoy amaryllis for years.

But now it needs to rest, and the leaves die and the bulb hibernates. Bring your amaryllis in now so they won’t freeze and withhold all water. Remove the leaves only when yellow. Let the bulb dry out for at least eight weeks. Anywhere cool is fine — it can even be in a dark cellar. Forget them until about mid- to late December, or even later if you want them to flower later. After at least an eight-week nap, re-pot the bulb if absolutely necessary. Then soak the whole pot in water for a few hours. Drain and bring the pot into a warm, sunny window and begin a regular watering and feeding schedule. And watch! In four to eight weeks, the first green sprout will appear!

Want to know if what is sprouting is a new flower or another green leaf? You can tell if it is a leaf or a flower stalk by checking the tip of the new stalk; a newly emerging flower stalk has a notch, and a leaf tip is rounded. The flower bud is usually the first to appear.

This week’s dirt: Outside gardening days are now officially over. November marks the end of the 192 days we are given each year, and we’ve used up every one. How long do we have to wait until the outside gardening days arrive in 2014? April 18 is the last frost next spring, which is not too long of a wait. In the meantime, come and garden with me indoors this winter!


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at