Go for the mulch
Last fall I had 12 bales of straw delivered. A few were placed near where I would be planting small cedars during the winter. The rest were divided between two locations: my small orchard area and my vegetable garden.
Then I waited. First for the rains, which soaked the bales, and then for some warmer temperatures in late winter, which would allow any seeds to sprout. By the time I cut the strings on my first bales in March for my little cedars and newly planted bareroot fruit trees, this wonderful organic material was already decomposing.
Three months later, using this mulching material in my vegetable garden, it is so decomposed that I can barely lift it with a pitchfork. It just falls through the tines. As I reach my hands into the pile, which has not been watered since the last rainfall, it is still moist.
Newly planted strawberries and pole beans, which are already more than 10 feet high and loaded with beans, have a thick mulch of this straw more than 5 inches deep. These fruiting plants will be far more productive with the cool, moist soil the straw mulch creates.
By mid-July even the heat-loving vegetables benefit from a thick mulch to conserve moisture. When eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos have begun to set a lot of fruit, it’s time for mulch.
For these heavy feeders, I first add compost as a mulch, followed by several inches of straw.
When choosing mulching material, establish your goals. The mulch may be simply to cover the soil and prevent compaction.
However, it may also be to cool the soil, especially for those crops preferring a break from our summer heat. Raspberries and other cane berries, strawberries, beans, and all the greens are examples. For young plants, use a light mulch and build as the plants grow.
Choose a mulch high in nutrients, such as compost, for those vegetables needing a richer soil. Trees and ornamentals may also be “fed” with a thick layer of compost. Organic materials added as a mulch on the soil surface will also attract earthworms adding to soil fertility.
Another primary goal of mulching is to conserve moisture and extend periods between irrigation. Decomposed straw is an excellent choice for this goal for most plants.
It does not work in a rock garden, however. In this situation, many of the plants will not benefit from organic material at their base.
Dianthus, Santolina, and Lavandula are examples of low-irrigation perennials that may actually decline in vigor with organic mulch. These heat-loving plants prefer rocks or gravel for a mulch to conserve moisture. My rock garden is watered every
two weeks in the heat of the summer.
Weed suppression may also be a goal of mulching practices. The best approach is to use layers of newspaper or cardboard, followed by a thick layer of chips. In most situations there’s no need to weed first. Even weeds with perennial roots may be discouraged when the light is excluded by the thick layers. In time, these organic materials will decompose and may need to be renewed.
While black plastic is often used for weed control, it should not be. If you have plastic in your landscape, remove it.
It actually prevents soil from being healthy because it excludes both moisture and air. Landscape fabric is a better product, but usually does not allow earthworms to reach the organic materials spread on top of it.
Keeping your soil vital is the primary goal of mulching. Think organic!
Carolyn Singer has gardened in Nevada County for 28 years. She is the owner of Foothill Cottage Gardens (www.fcgardens.com). Send your
garden questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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