Garden And Gardener

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To mulch or not to mulch

by Diane - April 24th, 2012.
Filed under: General Gardening.

Nature mulches all the time, so why wouldn’t you?
Leaves falling off trees are probably the easiest way of explaining nature’s own mulching. The leaves fall off, and gather normally around the bottom of the tree. They are then broken down by a combination of weather and microorganisms that rot the leaves and the nutrients are released and can be reabsorbed by the tree.
If you’ve ever swept up leaves to make your garden tidy you’ll know just how bulky they are. They rot down really well though it does take a few years. The mulch of rotting leaves is beneficial to the tree, so why shouldn’t similar mulch be useful to other plants? You have to look at setting to decide what sort of mulch to use. What mulch would you find around that plant naturally? Anything that grows in a field is likely to have a grass or straw like mulch build up around it. Anything near trees is likely to have wood based mulch near it.

You can use this basic decision making process to look at what mulches to use near plants.

Paper and cardboard can be used where you might find a wood based mulch, as can bark and cocoa bark mulch. You can also use paper as mulch in areas that would expect a grass based mulch mainly because of the thinness of the paper, so the rule isn’t quite strict. Straw or grass clippings can be used as mulch around plants in a bed or border.

The rules are generally to put mulch down when the ground it wet. This is what nature would do. Leaves fall in the autumn when the rain tends to increase. Although with the British weather at the moment this isn’t always the case – but it’s what’s best for plants.
Mulch a sensible layer – too little and it won’t do the job, too much and you’ll bury the plant. A few inches is good for basic mulching but if you want to make sure you keep weeds down then a bit more is best.
Don’t put fresh mulches near plant stems. If you want to mulch right up to plants then use a more mature mulch material – something that has started to break down already. Home made compost or even well rotted horse muck can make great mulch once it’s cool again. Hot mulch could damage plant stems and even kill plants.

Mulching for better soil – one aspect of mulching is that it protects and helps the soil. It encourages worms to be more active by acting as a blanket against cold weather, and an insulator against scorching hot weather. The mulch itself will start to break down and this increases the soil fertility.

Reasons not to mulch? The only reason not to mulch is if you can’t get any mulch materials. This is where you need to start thinking ahead of the game. Keep lawn clippings in bags ready to sprinkle on to the beds, collect leaves in autumn, ask anyone you see shredding garden waste for the chippings. Once you start to see places to get free mulch then you will realise there are lots of opportunities out there. Even newspaper and cardboard can be used as mulch. Some people use shredded newspaper.

Mulching in practice
If you wanted to mulch a large area for growing vegetables then you might find an organic material you can layer on the surface. Don’t rush out and throw it on. Remove any nasty weeds – especially dandelions and docks. These are best dug out as their tap roots enable them to stay alive even if deprived of light for some time.
Mow the grass surface or strim it as short as possible.

Cover the surface with cardboard or newspaper. You could ask your newsagent if they have any papers that you could have, or old boxes. You could always collect newspapers off a couple of neighbours until you have enough. Wet this layer of newspaper as you put it on as this will stop it blowing away quite as much. Then cover the wet newspaper with the layer of organic material.
This method should stop light getting to the weeds and the worms will love the mulch layer above them and get more active. This activity helps create more air ways through the soil which in turn improves the structures. The worms action also helps put organic material into the soil further improving it.