Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Green Gardening Tip - Mulching

It's spring ... and for many of us, that means heading outside to the garden. We start vegetable and herb gardens ... we plant trees, flowers and shrubs. Whatever one plans to grow, spring seems to be the perfect time to get started because, for the most part, temperatures are warm without being too hot and rainfall is adequate for root growth.

Then we move into summer, with long, hot days and little or no rainfall ... and our plants and trees, now well established, begin to require more attention. They require more water, more protection from pests, and more fertilizer. Sure, we can spend every day watering ... we can buy pesticides to control critters ... and we can spend a lot of money on fertilizers. Or, we can use natural materials to handle it all ... we can mulch.

Mulching is simply placing a layer of organic material around plants. You'll notice that I said "organic". There are non-organic mulches on the market such as black plastic, landscape fabric, etc. While these man-made materials might keep weeds out of a garden, they don't do anything to enrich the soil. Organic mulch slowly decomposes providing important nutrients for plants and creating an ideal environment for earthworms and other organisms which help enrich the soil. It also protects the soil from erosion, prevents weed growth, conserves soil moisture, stabilizes soil temperature, reduces compaction, encourages root growth, and keeps any fruits or vegetables, which touch the ground, clean and dry (preventing rot and/or disease). This means less watering, less fertilizing and less chance that destructive critters will harm your plants. Best of all ... it's Eco-friendly.

Organic mulch materials include dry grass clippings (from grass which hasn't been treated with weed killer or other chemicals), broken dry leaves, straw or hay, shredded hardwood, sawdust, pine needles and wood chips. Many of these items are readily available from our own yards. Other sources include local farmers and feed stores ... they often are more than happy to get rid of old hay and straw. If there is a saw mill around, check with them for inexpensive sawdust.

Applying the mulch is easy. Once the plants are established (4-5 inches tall) and the soil is warm, mulch can be applied. First, remove any weeds. Then, water the garden well (or wait until after a rain). Place a layer of mulch around the plants. For most mulches, a 2-4 inch layer is sufficient ... dry leaves (which have been broken up to prevent matting) should be about 6 inches deep. Adding too thick of a layer may smother the plants ... so start with a couple of inches and then, throughout the growing season as the mulch breaks down, add more material to the top.

Once the growing season is over, mulch can be worked into the soil or just left on the surface to decay naturally. Either way, it'll continue to nourish the soil.

Mulch cools, protects and enriches the soil ... and for most of us, is readily available on our property. What once was something to haul away each spring, becomes a beneficial ingredient to successful gardening. Now that's what I call brilliant re-purposing.

As always ... I'd love to hear from you!