Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2006
Regional Report

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This windfall will make terrific mulch material for my trees and shrubs.

Mulch Now for Spring Rewards

Mother Nature is sending those subtle hints again, and her timing is usually so impeccable that I try to pay attention and take my gardening cues from her. It's really no coincidence that leaves fall in the autumn to provide nurturing mulch around plants. Mulching, as practiced by gardeners, is merely an adaptation of this natural process.

Advantages of Mulching
Mulch offers several advantages, including conserving soil moisture, controlling soil temperature, suppressing weeds, and creating an attractive, unified background for plants, shrubs, and trees. Dormant-season or winter mulches reduce injury by moderating temperature fluctuation and reducing moisture loss from plants.

What Mulch to Use
Any mulch derived from living organisms is termed "organic." Shredded leaves, straw, wood chips, pine bark, and loose pine needles will all break down into humus, improving soil structure and providing nutrients along the way. Inorganic mulches, such as black plastic, will moderate soil temperatures and suppress weeds, but will not improve the soil.

How to Apply It
Speedy decomposition is acceptable in a summer mulch, but a winter mulch applied now should be sturdy enough to hold up against the elements and provide season-long protection through winter. I use maple leaves and pine needles because they're so readily available in my garden and because they're slow to decompose. After cleaning debris from the perennial beds and removing any weeds, I apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic material over the soil, taking care not to pack it against plant stems or tree trunks. I tuck it around the crowns of low-growing plants, allowing some space for air circulation. Mulch placed too near a crown may hold in excess moisture and cause the crown to rot.

When mulching around trees, avoid piling the mulch material up around the trunk. Creating "mulch volcanoes" is not a healthy practice; wet mulch can rot bark and become a haven for insects. Instead, spread a layer of mulch over the root system and keep it 3 to 4 inches away from the base of the trunk and the root crown of the tree.

It's Mulch Time
There are two schools of thought about when to apply mulch. Some insist mulching should be done before the ground freezes, and others insist it should be done after the ground freezes. I'm not sure it matters much, as long as mulch is applied. But when in doubt, it's not a bad idea to follow nature's lead; mulch in the late fall, just before the ground freezes.

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