Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
June, 2005
Regional Report

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Healthy garden soil appreciates a steady diet of mulch.

Miraculous Mulch

Over the years I have noticed something interesting happening in my garden. It seems like there is a layer of topsoil growing there all by itself. Topsoil is a good thing to have, sure. But we all know soil doesn't just grow out there like magic, so how is this happening?

Over time, I have been feeding my soil a steady, healthy, soil-building diet: mulch! That organic mulch I've applied and topped up over and over again has decayed. The natural processes of decay -- involving weathering, microbes, fungus, insects, and earthworms -- have mixed things up, and now the results are plain to see. This breaking down of the mulch explains why I have to keep applying and reapplying it, and it demonstrates how the soil renews itself in nature.

If you stop to think about it, the forest rebuilds its own soil each year when the autumn leaves drop. They carpet the ground along with the season's accumulation of fallen twigs and nutshells, the remnants of downed trees, and all the other assorted natural debris. By spring they will be partly rotted, and by midsummer much of it will form that nice spongy soil we find beneath our feet when we enjoy a woodland walk.

Mulch in the garden serves the same purpose, adding organic matter back to the soil. It also offers some side benefits, such as keeping down weeds (if weeds are a big problem for you, you can trim them off short, cover the area with a layer of damp newspaper about ten sheets thick, and then top that with your mulch) and keeping the soil cooler. It also helps keep the soil more evenly moist between rains.

Mimic Nature
When you mulch, mimic nature for the best results. Use an organic material, such as pesticide/herbicide-free grass clippings, shredded leaves, straw, half finished compost, wood chips, shredded bark, or what have you. It's best if you can use a mixture of materials or alternate them. Add a little at a time to replenish the layer as needed so there is always a depth of about 2 to 3 inches. The mulch should be laid out in a flat layer and kept several inches away from plant stems and tree trunks. (Never make that volcano shaped pile at the base of a tree; this keeps the bark unnaturally damp and invites problems such as rot or insects.)

As in nature, you want to mulch out all the way to, and slightly beyond, the branch tips where seasonal foliage would naturally drop. And if you like the appearance of fresh mulch, rake it to fluff and freshen it. An occasional raking also disturbs any blown-in weed seeds to prevent them from growing, and prevents compaction of the mulch by repeated heavy rains. This matters because compacted mulch will prevent both air and water from reaching the plants' roots.

Best of all, that decaying organic material helps keep your microscopic soil life in good shape. This is an area of gardening that most people do not think about too often, but it seems like the newest research is revealing that healthy soil life is critical to growing healthy plants in more ways than we have realized.

So, to build better soil and grow better plants, make sure to "feed" them a good healthy diet: mulch!

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