A little work now saves a ton of work later
by Peg Fisher
hat does mulching do for your garden? Provided you use a natural, degradable mulch, quite a lot. Natural mulch helps keep weeds from sprouting, holds water, protects plant roots, and nourishes the soil of your garden. It is particularly useful to mulch now, at the end of the growing season, as well as during summer.
Add a layer of organic mulch once the soil has been cleared of this year's dead stalks and canes. This can insulate the roots of perennials you are wintering over--tuck it in around the plant, without covering the top. Mulch also helps reduce storm erosion, and begins returning nutrients to the soil. When the weather warms in spring, a layer of mulch reduces sprouting of unwanted weeds as well.
Besides preventing germination of weed seeds, reducing erosion by reducing water runoff, holding moisture in after rainfall or watering, and slowing evaporation so plant roots have more of a chance to absorb it, mulch is also beneficial for earthworms. They thrive in a moist environment free of toxins, and will aerate the soil with their tunneling and fertilize it with their castings. Fertile, well aerated soil is ideal for growing plants, so a healthy earthworm population is a sign of good soil. Mulch helps you get, and then maintain, those good conditions.
Sometimes things prevent the gardener from getting out to garden. Unexpected travel, health challenges, a new baby, even an expected vacation can mean needing to leave the garden untended for longer than originally planned. Mulching the garden before that happens can mean a lot less catching up to do once you are able to return.
In extremely dry seasons, mulch can make the difference between your plants' survival and the risk of withering up. A case in point is my own experience last summer. I had to go into the hospital with a severe kidney infection and I was not able to water my garden at all during July or August, two of the hottest months.
However, because I had mulched thoroughly, I still had a crop in September when I was finally able to return. The tomatoes, sunflowers, onions, and garlic were somewhat smaller due to the drought, yet they were alive and producing. Meanwhile, other gardeners near me had lost their crops to the intense dry heat. Mulch is what made the difference, by conserving what little rainfall we did get, and holding the needed moisture in so my crops could survive.
While some people use black plastic for mulch, I definitely do not recommend it. Using black plastic exposes your soil to unnecessary petrochemicals, besides making a shredded mess when it breaks up after prolonged sun exposure. On the other hand, a natural mulch will enrich your soil when it breaks down, and add nutrients--much more preferable.
What natural materials can be used for mulch? Quite a variety.
Grass clippings--Fresh-cut grass clippings generate a lot of heat as they degrade, and can actually scorch tender plant seedlings if they touch them then. So be sure your grass clippings are thoroughly dried before placing then in direct contact with your plants during growing season. If you need to use fresh grass clippings, place them either in your compost pile, or spread them out on your garden's walkways to dry--any area where plants are not growing will work.
Autumn leaves--A layer of leaves spread on the garden and left to overwinter will help prevent weed seeds from germinating in the spring.
Pine needles--Strawberries benefit from a pine needle mulch, as pine needles acidify the soil, which strawberries like. Rhododendron and azalea shrubs also like acidic soil and a pine needle mulch is good for them as well.
Bark chips--Bark chips or shreds are the slowest degrading types of organic mulch, so use them in areas like walkways where a thick layer will keep weeds from sprouting.
Newspaper--Before using newspaper, you may want to call the publisher and ask what kind of ink they use. Soy based newspaper inks are nontoxic, and fine to use for mulching. Because newspaper by itself is light and would tend to blow away in heavy winds, it is best used in layers, with another mulch on top of it to hold it down. It can also help to soak newspapers in a bucket of water before placing them on the soil. My fellow gardeners, Michael Kuric and Hazel Beeler, have successfully used a combination of layered newspapers topped with grass clippings to mulch the roots of their prize winning green beans. Also, the local YMCA Community Garden here in Blacksburg encourages placing layers of newspapers under pine bark mulch for making pathways.
Potting soil--Here's a tip that a friend just taught me for mulching roses for winter: Once there has been a heavy frost, it's good to cover roses around the roots with either a thick layer of potting soil or else ground up leaves. This insulates the roots and helps them survive winter cold. When using potting soil, use about 20 pounds around a full size rose bush, or five to seven pounds for a miniature rose. Whichever mulch you use, remove any low foliage from under the mulch. (Do not use rose cones, as they can overheat the rose during mild days.)
At the other end of the season, a garden that is well mulched for overwintering will have much less of a weed problem if you are delayed in getting out to it next spring. Either way, mulch well repays the effort of applying it.
This article © 2000-2005 Peg Fisher, used by permission.