Mulching my garden is one of my least favorite garden activities. It is time-consuming and usually dusty - but so important.
Mulch refers to anything that is used as a protective cover over the soil. For best benefits, keep mulch a few inches away from the base of plants and replenish as needed to maintain a 2- to 3-inch layer.
Moisture retention is, in my opinion, the biggest benefit to mulching. Straw around my tomato plants and wood chips in the flower garden keep the soil from drying out, meaning I water less. Use up to 4 inches of mulch for best water conservation.
Mulch also works like a blanket - reducing soil temperature fluctuations. Bare soil absorbs heat as the sun shines on it. The heat is then transferred to the roots of plants growing there, causing stress and additional water loss. Bare soil in the wintertime will freeze and thaw more quickly than soil with a little cover.
Weed control is another benefit to mulching. Before you get too excited - it will not take care of all of your weeds. Weed seeds need sunlight to germinate, and they will sometimes root into the mulch itself. Mulch generally reduces the amount of weeds in your garden.
A little-known benefit that mulch also provides is especially important around newly planted trees. A 3- to 4-foot ring of mulch around the base of the tree helps to prevent weed-eater and lawnmower damage (unfortunately, one of the biggest killers of young trees.)
Other benefits of mulch are dependent upon the material used. Organic mulches, such as wood chips, straw, and shredded leaves, break down and improve the soil underneath.
Newspapers laid underneath organic mulches also decompose and provide increased weed control.
In the vegetable garden, mulch underneath melons, pumpkins, and other produce reduces rotting from soil-borne fungi and bacteria.
Mulch reduces stormwater runoff and pollution by breaking up the flow of water and filtering it. It can also prevent erosion of bare soil, but lightweight mulches are easily carried off in heavy rains - so keep drainage in mind.
When applying mulch, keep the material 2 to 3 inches from the base of the plant. With trees especially, make a mulch ring that looks like a doughnut instead of a volcano. Mulch piled onto the base of a plant encourages growth of decay organisms.
I'm nearly finished mulching my yard. It has been a daunting task, but the benefits it provides and the thought of hot days ahead keep me going.
If you have questions about how to mulch, what materials to use, or any other garden practices, call a Douglas County Extension Master Gardener at 843-7058, 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org any time.