Mulching

The Mulching Method

Story by Worth Hudson, Contributing Writer

A sure-fire way to bring up those fat, tasty veggies this season.

Photo courtesy of Worth Hudson.

Many readers of this magazine have experience with vegetable gardening. You may have grown up on a farm where gardening was a necessity to help feed the family or it may have been a pleasant pastime activity. Most likely you do not have to be convinced of the value of fresh, nutritious vegetables contributing to your healthy well being.

Associated benefits include the joy of partnering and cooperating with nature to provide for one’s own need or to share the surplus with a neighbor or an organization providing meals for the less fortunate. Garden exercise is more fun and productive than a treadmill or some aerobic repetition.

Browsing those garden catalogues you received in the mail just after Christmas has provided you a time to dream and plan on what and how much you will plant, based on your available space, time and projected energy level. You may have decided to experiment with some new veggies or at least try some different varieties. Remembering to label your choices will be helpful in determining what you decide to plant or eliminate next season.

As the hours of daylight lengthen, planning time becomes planting time. A variety of cultural practices must be considered, but this space is limited, so let’s consider one practice that has proven to be beneficial — mulching.

Reasons to Mulch

Mulching is simply the time-honored practice of covering the soil with a layer of, preferably, organic material. Some proponents say one can increase the yield 50 percent on the same space by mulching. One reason is that rows can be spaced much closer as there is no need to cultivate. There are many other good reasons to mulch.

Weed suppression, better known as “hoe work,” is a major benefit of mulching. Mulch doesn’t keep weed and grass seed from sprouting, but plant emergence is blocked when the mulch is thick enough to exclude light. Generally, about three inches of mulch is sufficient after it has settled. Plants that do come through can be easily pulled up. Weeds rob plants of moisture, nutrients, and growing space. They reduce quality and yield, make the fruit more difficult to harvest, and provide a cover for disease and insects.

Mulching conserves soil moisture by reducing water evaporation and allowing more water to soak into the soil. Plants are better able to tolerate drought conditions.

Mulch also moderates the soil temperature by insulating the roots in the summer; however, midseason vegetables should not be mulched until the soil has warmed and the plants are established.

Another major benefit of mulching is the improvement of soil structure with the addition of organic matter. Organic matter improves all soil types, but especially clay and sandy soils. Clay particles are extremely small and when compacted, the result is poor drainage and air movement. The opposite is true for the larger sand particles. Organic matter helps correct the problems of both soils. In addition to improving the tilth of the soil, the soil fertility will gradually improve and the nutrients will be more available to the plants. Providing an environment for the development of a good root system is vital for a productive plant.

Other reasons for mulching include the reduction of erosion and the spread of some soil-borne diseases. Vegetables are kept cleaner after a heavy rain and fewer nutrients are leached from the soil. Also, there is less rot when the fruit doesn’t touch the soil.

Types of Mulches

Plant material — organic mulch — breaks down when tilled into the soil. There is no best, all-purpose material for every job, but there are several options. Some of the most satisfactory are compost, straw, grass or legume hays, grass clippings, leaves, and aged or rotted sawdust.

Compost, that may be obtained from some municipalities or that you have made, is usually free of weed seeds and is an excellent choice. Partially decomposed compost adds nutrients and improves soil structure. Since straw is coarse textured, more is required than compost or grass clippings. It is especially good to prevent soil splash on vegetables, but needs to be weed free.

Grass or legume hays are another good choice. This writer was fortunate to have a neighbor to provide me with four large, round bales of grass hay last spring. My garden never looked better and was very productive in a dry year.

 Most gardeners suggest letting lawn clippings dry two or three days before using. If using green clippings, spread thinly and add more later. Clippings from lawns treated with herbicides may injure mulched plants. Partially shredded leaves are usually a plentiful source of mulch and provide food for beneficial earthworms. Sawdust is satisfactory if it is well rotted before applying. Green sawdust tends to crust and shed water and may cause a nitrogen deficiency.

Some other mulches such as wood chips, bark, and pine needles are best used for landscape shrubbery, as they do not break down in one season.

Inorganic mulch, such as black plastic, may be used in the spring to warm the soil and give the transplants an early start. Commercial producers most often use this practice. Home gardeners must punch holes for air and water penetration. As hot weather approaches, cover with a reflective material to prevent cooking the root systems. Layered landscape fabrics, a combination of synthetics, are somewhat expensive, but can be tilled into the soil at the end of the season.

Consider the cost of materials. Do not spend money when suitable materials are available at little or no cost. Recycle and use what you have.

If you are already mulching, you are likely to be a proponent of this practice. If you have not mulched, hang up your hoe, try the natural “lazy-bed” method, and enjoy your gardening even more.

Editor’s Note: Worth Hudson is a master gardener and former board member of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative. He lives in Virgilina.

 

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