Why mulch?

By: 
MARY MESSINA

We know that mulch is any material we cover soil, but are there really advantages that offset the effort? Indeed, mulch makes a garden bed more attractive, and in the case of shrubs around the house where it would be difficult to mow, a layer of landscape cloth topped with stones or wood chips around the shrubs solves that problem. But in a flowerbed or vegetable bed, is it worth the effort? Yes. Mulch helps retain moisture, reducing the amount of watering. And the appropriate kind of mulch improves soil quality, but one of the most important reasons to mulch is to keep the soil cool. Studies have shown that on an 85-degree day, mulched soil in the sun is 83 degrees, mulched soil in the shade is 74 degrees, and sunny soil that isn’t mulched is 120 degrees. Understanding that plants grow the best in soil that is 70 to 80 degrees, we can see why it is important to mulch.
So, what material is best? Use organic mulch that will decompose and improve the soil’s fertility, such as bark, compost, composted manure, grass clippings, newspaper, shredded leaves, or straw.
Bark is best used around trees, shrubs and in garden beds where there isn’t much activity, like walkways and foundation plantings, because it is tedious to move them to plant, and they decompose much slower.
Compost and composted manure can be used anywhere as side dressing or as a thick mulch that will insulate and provide nutrients to the plants. Be sure it is weed free, chemical free, and well aged.
Grass clippings are best suited in remote areas of your garden where weed control is important. Grass clippings decompose quickly and may look and smell unpleasant in the process. Be certain no weed killers or pesticides have been used on the lawn.
Newspapers mostly use organic dyes, especially the black and white sections, so shredding them for mulch is great. Further, if four to eight layers of newspaper are spread around plants and then topped with another organic mulch, there should be good protection from weeds and good nutrients for the entire growing season.
Shredded leaves will attract lots of worms, and are especially attractive in woodland gardens. If used as winter mulch, be certain that the plants mulched in this way won’t be affected by the matting that occurs when snow collects. This is not a good mulch for roses because it holds the moisture around the base and causes rot.
Straw is quite popular for the vegetable garden because it prevents soil-borne diseases from being splashed up onto the lower leaves, and provides a neat walkway. It decomposes slowly, so will last the entire season and provide a home for beneficial spiders and other insects.
It is easy to see why mulching is well worth the effort, and your plants and soil will thank you by being stronger and healthier and producing more flowers and/or vegetables.
Don’t forget to visit the “Ask A Gardener” booth at the Farmers Market every first and third Saturday for answers to all your gardening questions.

Mary Messina is a Master Gardener who gardens southeast of Lewistown. If you would like to know more about a specific topic, email your ideas to her at mmessina@midrivers.com.

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