I don’t know about where you garden, but here in my neck of the woods the heat is ON! Gone are the comfortable days of spring…well, we didn’t really have a spring. We had a record breaking cold April followed by maaaaybe two or three days of spring. Then, BAM!, it was full-blown summertime heat in May. All this record breaking weather has stressed many gardens, mine included, so this is one summer where you’re going to want to mulch, mulch, mulch to keep your garden thriving.
Soil covered in a heavy layer of mulch not only produces fewer weeds, but remains cooler and retains more moisture between waterings than bare soil. This allows plants to gradually drink as needed rather than gulping it down all at once when the hoses are turned on, thus reducing plant stress. And since plants are less stressed, they are better able to produce higher quality fruits and veggies as well as bigger, more beautiful blooms. In addition, the cooler soil allows many plants such as tomatoes and cucumbers to continue producing fruit even during the dog days of summer when they would typically go into shutdown mode until cooler weather reappears. It’s a win-win situation all around.
But wait, there’s more…
Mulch not only helps the plants themselves, but helps build soil fertility—a necessity for high quality fruits. Just as plants need the constant moisture and cooler soil temps provided by mulch, so does the soil life surrounding those plants. The mulch’s cooling effects keep the hardworking soil microbes and earthworms thriving and decomposing organic material which in turn increases the soil’s fertility and water holding capabilities. Left unprotected, these creatures either burrow deeper into the ground and go dormant or, more commonly, simply die off. Once these soil dwellers are gone, the soil is essentially ‘dead’ and becomes incapable of supporting healthy plant life. So to keep—and increase—your soil’s fertility, be sure to lay a heavy layer of mulch each year.
But wait, there’s still more…
Ok. This will be the last infomercial voice. I promise. Not only does mulch keep the soil life thriving, it also provides lots of cool shade and air conditioned homes for the good guys that eat the bad guys. Well, maybe air conditioned is stretching it, but you get the point. Most insects are like people. They’re only going to call a place home if it’s comfortable, close to good food sources (the bad bugs, not your veggies), and safe. So don’t be surprised when you pull back the mulch and see pest eating spiders, beetles, toads, and more. All eager to eat your pests.
Mulching Material 101
Two of the most easily recognized mulches include wood bark/chips and landscaping fabric. Available at garden centers, these work best for flower beds, pathways, trees and shrubs as they decompose slowly, or nearly not at all. If you’re on the organic gardening path, you’ll want to steer clear of most landscape fabrics as they leech pollutants into the soil which can enter your food crops. However, there are a few organic alternatives available and certainly worth seeking out. I like to use old newspaper with soy based ink, paper bags, and even wax-free cardboard. These work much like the fabric mulch, just with a shorter life span as they decompose over the course of one summer in most cases. Yet, this very decomposition in turn feeds the soil and builds fertility.
Leaves and pine needles are another good choice for most gardens. You will likely need to shred leaves with a lawnmower first, because whole leaves can mat down potentially creating an impermeable blanket. Some gardeners prefer to avoid acidic oak leaves/ pine needles amongst non-acid loving plantings, but as long as you apply ph neutralizing compost annually, the acidity shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve started using pine needles in recent years, and so far, haven’t had any trouble with ph. I’ve also discovered that for me, pine needles are the best at keeping weeds at bay over any other mulching material I’ve used over the years.
Old straw or hay bales are another great option. Again, I’ve used both for many years with great success. And while straw is typically preferred by most as there are fewer weed seeds, I’ve found that a very thick layer of hay is also suitable as most weed seeds won’t germinate successfully without ample light. Hay and straw decompose very quickly and may need to be replenished at least once during a long summer but are readily available from hay farmers and even some feed stores for free once the new haying season begins.
The key to a good mulching job is to first weed the area thoroughly before applying mulching material. Whether you till, use a broad fork or hoe, or hand pull is up to you. Just try to get as many weeds as possible. Then lay the mulch down heavily in the rows, around the plants, and against any fencing. However, be sure to never let the mulch touch plant stems as the added moisture encourages mildew and fungus to grow on the stems causing the plants distress. Lay at least a solid 6” down followed by a thorough watering. If, once the mulch settles, you find it is less than 6”, go ahead and add a few more inches to ensure a good smothering blanket is established. Monitor weekly for weeds poking through any holes, replacing mulch as needed.
While mulching does take a bit of time and attention on the front end of the gardening season, it is always worth the effort. You’ll find you water less, have less disease, harbor more pest eating beneficials, enjoy better soil, and pull fewer weeds. I know I’m always grateful to have nearly no weeds once the days turn to 100+ degrees which, by that alone, makes me remember to mulch each season. Give it a try once, and you’ll never go back to naked ground again.