Mulch is a gardener’s best friend, sitting right up their with massage therapy following a long weekend in the garden! I can’t stand seeing bare soil in a garden. It drives me crazy. So, all season I do my best to keep every plant tucked into some sort of mulch.
Why am I so adamant about mulch? Let me count the reasons, as they say. In the winter and early spring it helps moderate soil temperature and does a great job reducing frost heave of perennials overwintering, particularly ones recently planted the previous fall, and does the same for hardy annuals, plants so critical to the spring bouquets. In the summer it also acts to moderate soil temperature extremes and helps the soil to retain moisture from the surface on down. Given the seeming increase in pounding rains we are receiving (when we actually receive rain, that is) I am happy to have a layer of mulch protecting the soil and plants from resulting pit marks and helping reduce runoff and soil erosion. I like adding a coating of mulch, which can slowly break down and amend the soil with nutrients and improve the porosity of soil to enable better water and airflow within it. Finally, mulch does wonders for weed control, which saves you time when it comes to garden maintenance.
Before I started gardening on such a large scale, a.k.a. flower farming, my go-to mulch was always pine bark in small size chips. I liked the bagged material, even though it cost more, and I liked the bark pieces rather than the shredded. It broke down slowly, had a color I liked, was generally a uniform product, and my plants grew well. Cost per bed foot (4-foot wide beds) was about 50 cents. Although it breaks down over time, the bark mulch does last more than one year.
Mulching on a large scale has become an unwanted expense, but I refuse to grow without it. So over the years, I have tried quite a few options. I'll share my thoughts with you in hopes that you will NEVER consider growing without using some sort of mulch. In fact, I hope you will consider a nice topdressing of mulch if you lose some during fall leaf clean up. Mulch in the winter, in my mind, is as valuable as mulch during the active growing season.
For perennials, which stay in the ground year-round and year to year, I still like to add some pine bark mulch or chopped leaves so as to add organic material to the soil, in addition to the compost tea I regularly add. In some of the perennial beds I am trying two different types of paper product this season, and both are working well. The first, and least expensive, is brown Kraft-type paper, which comes in rolls and cost about 10 cents a bed-foot in my 4-foot wide beds. The second is a thicker rolled paper product, which is marketed as a paper weed barrier. Its cost was about 36 cents a bed-foot (4 foot wide rows) and it is made of cellulose fibers and no petrochemicals. For both of these I cut holes into the paper using either scissors or box cutter early in the spring, before the perennials put out much growth, so as to surround the plants with paper, and cover the area in between plants. Both products are holding up well, but look to be capable of breaking down by season's end, or certainly by next spring, which is exactly what I want. For a small garden, I would prefer the second type of paper as it seems to hold moisture better than the thinner brown type paper and is a bit heavier, which makes it less prone to blowing with wind. For both products I weighted down the edges with soil and a few small rocks. For perennials I want this type of mulch to break down by year end and to be able to be incorporated into the soil so that I can have access to the soil for annual amending. For compost tea applications, which would normally go onto the leaves and soil, I am spraying onto the hole in the paper immediately surrounding the plant so that the soil also receives regular compost tea application. Removing paper at season's end, by having it decompose, eliminates a welcome winter cover for voles and moles, which feed on plant roots, among other things.
For annuals, I am finding both papers to be working well, as they are for perennials, and I recommend either for a small cutting garden or vegetable garden. For a larger scale, and to reduce time, I prefer to use black landscape fabric (woven) into which I burned holes with my small flame torch. The holes allowed for even spacing. The material allows for water and air flow through it.Weeds are covered out in most areas, but weed seeds can, and do, sprout if they are in the same location as one of the planting holes. For certain crops, I added straw and/or salt hay on top of the black fabric at certain times to reduce the soil temperature. Even though creating the holes initially is time-intensive, I expect to gain a number of years out of each fabric piece, and I will bring them inside at season's end to prolong usability.
Also for annuals, I have used straw or salt hay (not regular hay) after planting. Both have worked well as mulch, and they are lighter and easier to spread than the bark chips. A bale of straw or salt hay goes a long ways, bringing the cost to about 12 cents a bed foot (4 feet wide) which is less than the bed-foot cost of the wood chips. One drawback is I am finding both materials more prone to drying out than my reliable pine bark chips. These two materials will remain in my mulch repertoire when I put a lot of new annual seedlings into the ground. The are light in weight and seedlings grow nicely through them. Pine needles are abundant adjacent to part of my growing area and actually look quite nice as a mulch. I don’t personally like working around the pointed needles, but they are available, so I use them in some of my perennial growing areas.
Plastic is a type of mulch I have not yet used, even though it is a staple of many farms. I do not want any more plastic than necessary floating around the beds, or having to be disposed of. Four years ago I tried an organic corn starch-based “plastic” type material. It is said to decompose into the soil and is, as mentioned, organic. I am personally not sold on the product, even though it works very well for others and might be worth your trying. I might try it again. My problem with it is I find, even this year, pieces of the product still in my soil, not yet broken down as I expected. This was a disappointment. Also, I put transplants into the ground by hand, as other gardeners might, rather than with a mechanical transplanter. Creating holes in this type of product proved more time consuming than I wanted. Having said this, for a small garden, I would definitely prefer to use this product than to use plastic. Like plastic, these plant-based “bioplastics” prevent air and water from passing through, so a drip type water system should be employed.
A neat product, which I have s seen in action, but have not yet used, is called Flora-Flow ©. It is a plastic product, which not only serves as mulch, but also has irrigation drip tape attached to its underside. With a simple connection to your garden hose you achieve mulch and water system all in one. Planting holes can be created in pre-marked, partially perforated locations. This might be a trial product for me for next year. Other flower farmers use it and like it, but on my growing scale, I must always consider costs. FloraFlow has a recycling partner so, even though the product is a plastic product, it is said to be recyclable
Leaves, or rather chopped leaves, will become an increasingly greater-used garden mulch around the farm. The benefits of leaf material are huge and leaves are generally abundant and, happily, free. I intend to write at greater length about my leaf plans later this year, so check back in. In my mind, leaves are magic!