Rural Missouri - March 2013 - (Page 30)
Protect and improve
your garden with a layer
of organic nutrients
by Kris Wetherbee
re you looking for a simple, one-step
process to keep weeds out of the garden,
improve soil texture, increase beneﬁcial
critters, fertilize your plants, conserve soil
moisture, moderate soil temperature and prevent
soil compaction and erosion? Mulch is the answer!
Covering the ground with a blanket of mulch is
one of the easiest and quickest ways to protect and
enrich the beauty and health of your garden plants
and overall landscape. In fact, it can make the difference between a plant that thrives or one that dies.
Most any type of organic or inorganic material
that you spread or lay on top of the soil is referred
to as mulch. Examples of organic materials include
compost, aged manure, straw, shredded leaves, grass
clippings, bark chips, nut hulls and pine needles. As
these materials decompose, they improve the condition and fertility of the soil.
Inorganic materials — such as plastic, landscape
fabric and small rocks — perform similar functions
but do not add organic material to the soil and
can be difﬁcult to remove. As such, they are best
reserved for more permanent plantings in good soil.
The makings of a good mulch
While there is no perfect mulch for every situation,
an ideal mulch allows water and air into the soil,
resists compaction, is odor free, attractive and stays
where you put it. Your decision about which mulch
to use depends mostly on its availability, ease of
application and aesthetic appearance.
Rocks and 100-pound straw bales are heavy to
move; black plastic tears and shreds; and straw may
not beautify your perennial bed. Yet, in the right setting, each of these makes excellent mulch.
Garden centers, farm supply stores and others
sell a variety of mulching products. Straw (be sure to
use straw that was cut before going to seed), wood
chips, aged sawdust and even crushed nut hulls are
popular commercial mulches. But you need not buy
mulch. Shredded leaves, pine needles, compost, tree
trimmings or unsprayed grass clippings can all make
Right mulch, right time, right place
The effectiveness of any mulch depends on when
you use it and where you put it. In general, applying mulch in late winter or early spring will prevent
most weed seeds from germinating. Mulch applied
in late spring to early summer will help keep the soil
cool and conserve moisture during the hot days of
summer. Late fall applications keep soil temperatures
photos by Rick Wetherbee
Above left: Place mulch by hand to protect new plantings, and keep a “mulch-free zone” around plants, trees and
shrubs — 1 to 2 inches around plants, 4 to 8 inches around shrubs and 12 to 36 inches around trees. Above: Mulch
enriches the beauty and health of your garden plants and overall landscape, as seen with this path of bark mulch
through an herb garden.
warmer through winter, protecting roses, evergreens,
trees, shrubs and any bare ground. Keep in mind
that organic mulch applied in any season ultimately
adds nutrients to soil, thereby feeding plants.
In the vegetable garden, plastic mulch helps
prevent weeds and retain soil moisture. A black or
colored plastic mulch also raises soil temperature for
heat-seeking fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes,
peppers, watermelons and eggplants. However, this
type of mulch is typically not permeable to water or
air, and it can crack or tear easily.
Landscape fabric lets water and air ﬂow through
while still preventing weeds. This makes it ideal
around trees, shrubs and other permanent plantings,
as well as in aisles between beds or on paths. The
durable fabric often is used as an underlayment or
as a base mulch, then topped with a thin layer of a
more attractive mulch, such as wood chips. The two
together will provide more protection against weeds
than either alone.
How to apply mulch
Whether you rake it, dump it or spread it with your
hands, the right way to apply mulch will depend on
the area and the plants you’re mulching.
On paths and around trees or shrubs, you can
spread it with a rake. But in smaller vegetable or
ﬂower beds with established plantings, you’ll be less
likely to damage existing plants if you spread the
mulch with your hands.
Keep a “mulch-free zone” around plants, trees
and shrubs — 1 to 2 inches around plants, 4 to 8
inches around shrubs and 12 to 36 inches around
large established trees. Also, do not pile mulch
against trunks. The ﬁner and denser the mulch, the
less you need to apply. Maintain a 2- to 3-inch-thick
layer for ﬁne-textured materials such as sawdust,
shredded leaves and compost. Keep a 4- to 5-inchthick layer for coarse-textured materials such as
wood chips and straw. Organic mulch will eventually break down and settle — some decompose faster
than others — so you’ll need to apply additional
mulch to keep it at the right depth.
No matter how, why, when or where, the beneﬁts
of mulching go beyond the soil and plants. Organic
mulch also provides food, shelter and hibernating
sites for birds, butterﬂies and caterpillars. A mulched
landscape also is more attractive and provides a unifying effect to the overall scenery. It’s amazing how
a one-step process can be so simple yet so signiﬁcant
to a beneﬁcial, beautiful and thriving landscape.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and author from
Oregon who specializes in the areas of gardening, food
and outdoor living. For more tips on gardening, visit her
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - March 2013
Rural Missouri - March 2013
Table of Contents
Musings in mud
The lure of tying flies
Out of the Way Eats
Queens of the court
Hearth and Home
All about mulch
Rural Missouri - March 2013
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