Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2000
Regional Report

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Nature provided the perfect winter mulch (pine needles) for this perennial Stachys byzantina.

Much Ado about Mulching

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

Mulching offers several advantages such as conserving soil moisture, controlling soil temperature, suppressing weeds, and making plants look great. Lower and more uniform soil temperatures in summer favor beneficial bacterial activity in the soil. Dormant-season or winter mulches reduce injury by moderating temperature fluctuation and reducing moisture loss from leaves.

Organic mulch never stops working for you. While doing its tasks of keeping moisture in the soil and suppressing the growth of weeds, mulch creates a rich, unified background for plants, shrubs, and trees.

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.

It's Mulch Time

There are two schools of thought as to 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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