LESSON YOUR FOOTPRINT
Confessions of a Sustainable Gardener
Part 3 – Mulch
Mulch is Part 3 in the Confessions of a Sustainable Gardener journey. The order is not significant. I started with pest (Part 1 – Pest) because this was where I started my journey to become a sustainable Gardener; or rather, where I stopped; I stopped using pesticides, organic or otherwise.
The rest of the series of posts is somewhat in a logical order. Part 2 Soil, was second because gardens are only as good as its soil. This post, Part 3, is to express my madness for mulch. I believe in the power of mulch!
The Power of Mulch
Covering garden beds with mulch is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Used generously, mulch breaks down to add nutrients to the soil, helps retain moisture, moderates the soil temperature, improves soil texture, suppresses weeds, and looks great; it really makes the garden look tidy.
I would like to say that I began adding mulch to my gardens for all the right reasons, but like everything else that led me to become a sustainable gardener, I backed into this.
Mulch makes a garden look tidy. I’m a tidy gardener. Decades ago, before I really knew why and what I was doing, my goal was a pretty garden; I did what I did solely because it looked good.
Sure, I figured it added nutrients to the soil as it broke down, but I was fertilizing back then, so this didn’t matter to me. Ok, so it retains moisture. So what? If the plant was thirsty I watered it. Besides, I was looking for a reason to be in the garden. Moderate the soil temperature – huh?
Over the years, I have used a variety of mulch types – pine straw, various sized pine bark nuggets, shredded hardwoods, compost, gravel.
Pine straw is easy to apply and widely available in North Carolina, the pine state. Nuggets have their place in my garden still. They make great mulch in the rose garden; their size and color are the perfect complement to the rose bushes. Mini nuggets also make a nice path, giving a visual direction on top of another mulch.
Shredded hardwood (I like triple better than double) is what is used primarily in this area. For years, I used triple shredded mulch and loved it. I’ve moved on.
What turned me off about the shredded mulches was, again, looks and then substance.
It would sadden me to gardens newly installed, looking grand, and apparently left to fend for itself. At first everything looked perfect and the mulch, usually a triple shredded hardwood, had a nice brown color lying warmly over the dirt.
Not long after installation, the worst looking part of the new garden was the old mulch. The water washed all the smaller particles away leaving large chunks in the mulch that get bleached out by the sun and look like old bones in a dessert. Or if it is in the shade, just big chunks with some other weed invading the mulch.
The biggy for me though was when I scratched the surface; I would often find crusty, compacted mulch covering DRY ground. The shredded mulches knit together keeping it in place, but also reducing the about of water penetration.
About 10 years ago, I stared to use composted leaf mulch. Black chunky (albeit trashy) gold. Whenever anyone visits my garden, the first question they ask enthusiastically is, “What kind of mulch do you use?”
Raleigh has a great yard waste operation, including composting the leaves collected in the fall. The leaf suckers work the neighborhoods in the fall, taking the leaves to the city yard waste center and compost them.
These leaves are ready for our gardens in about 3 months. They really work this operation. I go there often and just admire the workers coming and going in their big earth moving equipment. Unfortunately, they don’t deliver. During the year when I need to supplement, I can haul about 1.5 cubic yards in Cosmo, my Ford 150 pick up truck. For my big annual application, I call Mulch Masters for delivery.
I almost feel guilty talking about it because it is not widely available. Of course, you can make your own with the leaves that fall in the fall, assuming you have them or have access to them. But I add 20 cubic yards of mulch each year in the winter with an additional 4 cubic yards during the year. That is more of an operation I want to take on in my half acre suburban lot.
Check with your city or county to see what is available to you locally.
The dark rich color makes me the envy of the gardening community. Composted leaf mulch also keeps its color. But because it’s composted, it will break down faster than other mulches. As such, it needs to be added yearly. But as it breaks down, those nutrients are going right into the soil.
Creating a New Garden Bed
Depending on my available time, I go about creating new beds in two ways. The first is with no time on my side. During these times, I mark the bed’s shape, scarify the surface with the tiller, cover with mulch and till in. Because of my horrible clay soil, writing about it is much easier than doing it. My little Mantis tiller is often taking a break while I take a forceful foot to the shovel’s ledge. Then I blend the mulch with the soil. When I have all the giant shovel sized chunks of clay broken and blended with mulch to a reasonable size, usually golf ball-sized chunks, I top dress with 3 – 4 inches of mulch.
The slow approach is much more to my liking, but being reasonable, it doesn’t always happen this way. Let’s face it, when we got it in our minds to create, we don’t want to wait. But if you have time on your side, this is a great approach.
Mark the beds, cover with 8 to 10 layers of wet newspaper and cover with 3 – 4 inches of mulch – ideally a composted type. Soon the earthworms will begin to move it into the existing soil. In about 6 months, the soil can easily be worked. It is moist, rich and ready. For these gardens, I just amend the holes as I need them, not the entire bed.
The ideal time to mulch is in the winter after a period of cold. Keeping the garden mulched all winter, doesn’t allow the ground to freeze, thus keeping some pest alive. It also easier to mulch when there is less to work around. But you don’t want the ground to freeze and thaw too much or heaving may occur.
The drawback to this winter mulching is that it can work so well that it suppresses many desirable reseeding annuals such as larkspur, impatients, and poppies. These seeds reseed best when exposed to the sun and not covered.
I add supplemental mulch to my beds usually early summer. It is never my intention to do so, but invariable I disturb the mulch with a new planting and I need to tidy it up. In the end, I came full circle. I’m still a tidy gardener; a vein practice that lead to great things for the garden.
Look for more posts in my collection of sustainable practices, including planting the right plant in the right place, fertilizers, water-wise design, rain harvesting, fungicides, herbicides, and per-emergences.
Gardening With Confidence