Hey Man, Mulch Is Where Its At: Can You Dig It

Pete Seeger 1919-2014

Pete Seeger 1919-2014

Mulch is Groovy.  The late, great folk artist Pete Seeger even sang a song about Mulch called the Garden Song.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90qRE2F7CM)

Back in the day (waaaaaaaay back), when there were marches for civil rights, protests against the Vietnam War, and clashes with the “Man,” many a disenchanted youth looking for a change gravitated to communes and raised food communally and organically.  The “Establishment” referred to them as “those damn hippies.”  I’m sure you’ve heard that term before.

Damn Hippies at a Commune

Damn Hippies at a Commune

Eventually, those hippies grew up, cut their hair, paid taxes, got married/divorced, raised kids, and are now in their 60’s with grandchildren of their own.  Some went on to become investment bankers, and some became pioneers in the organic and permaculture movements.

Times – they-do-a-change.  But, what hasn’t changed is the desire to commune with nature and to do so as organically as possible.  While its easier to sorta follow permaculture principles or organic gardening when there is an abundance of resources at your disposal – like water –  its more important to stick with it when challenges present themselves – like lack of water.

If you do anything this year in your yard or garden to help your plants make do with less water, do this: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch.  It keeps weeds down, so there’s less competition for resources; it keeps the soil moist, so there is less water usage; it breaks down and adds nutrients to your soil, so there is less need for fertilizers.

mulch-01Applying a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch over the soil keeps the soil cooler and shields the ground from direct sun. The benefit is that moisture stays in the soil longer, where it’s more available to your garden plants.  Run a soaker hose (if you don’t already have a drip system in place) underneath your mulch to maximize water savings: Water will be delivered directly to the ground (reducing evaporation) and slowly (reducing water loss to runoff). It will also keep plant foliage dry, which helps prevent many common fungal diseases such as black spot on roses  Remember to keep mulch 3 to 4 inches away from the trunk or stem of the plant to prevent rot.  Applying mulch in a vegetable garden is a little different.  You can use organic or inorganic mulch, but I’m only going to focus on organic mulching.

mulch 2To use an organic mulch, such as straw or compost, spread a layer of the material on the surface of the ground around the plants after the soil has warmed up in the spring.  If you mulch too soon, it will slow down germination. If you’re mulching around rows of direct-sown seedlings, wait until the plants are about four inches tall. Otherwise, the mulch will overwhelm the plants. Seedlings will poke through a light layer of organic matter, but several inches of mulch will prevent them from emerging. Avoid using a fluffy material with large particles, like bark chips, because you will have to put down a layer that is too thick. If you’re using a denser material, such as straw or grass clippings (I don’t personally use grass clippings), a two-inch layer will be enough. Be careful not to suffocate the vegetables.

MULCHHere are the different types of mulches you can use.

Compost: Partially decomposed compost looks a little rough, but it makes a great mulch and soil conditioner.

Lawn Clippings: Do not use clippings from a lawn that has been treated with a herbicide or weed killer; these substances can kill the vegetables you’re trying to grow. Let untreated clippings dry before putting them around your garden; fresh grass mats down and smells bad while it’s decomposing.

Leaf Mold: Leaves are cheap and usually easy to find, but they blow around and are hard to keep in place. They will stay in place better if they’re ground up and partially decomposed. Nitrogen should be added to leaf mold. Do not use walnut leaves; they contain iodine, which is toxic to some vegetable plants.

Sawdust: Sawdust is often available for the asking, but it requires added nitrogen to prevent microorganisms from depleting the soil’s nitrogen supply. If possible, allow sawdust to decompose for a year before using it as a mulch.

Straw: Straw is messy and hard to apply in small areas, but it is an excellent mulch. Be sure not to use hay, which contains many weed seeds.

Wood Chips or Shavings: Wood chips, like sawdust, decompose slowly and should be allowed to partially decompose for a year before being used as mulch. Additional nitrogen will be needed to supply bacteria during decomposition.

Next, He Ain’t Heavy, Unless He’s Clay: Know Thy Soil