A GROWING CONCERN: Take some time to mulch things over

I’VE BEEN THINKING about all the spring jobs to be done and realizing it is now spring, let’s do mulch.

One of the most misused, unused, incorrectly applied, not understood gardening products I come across is mulch. Why?

Well, fundamentally, mulch is misunderstood, so let’s define it.

Mulch is a layer of material placed on the ground and around plants in order to conserve moisture, hold down weeds, and ultimately increase fertility.

Mulching also has a protective weather element, too, which is completely different in structure and thus I will write about it in late October when is it is relevant.

Mulching is a basic gardening job; not only is it the building block of organic gardening, but it is most effective in increasing yields of flowers, vegetables and fruit.

Avoid unnecessary weeding

Countless hours of weeding are eliminated with correct mulching of landscape. These folks also benefit from the water savings mulching provides.

Mulching is vital in lessening the effects of harsh weather.

Cold, heat and dryness or drought — all these factors are greatly mitigated by proper amounts of mulch. And finally, soil texture and quality are enhanced with little physical labor. Well-mulched soils stay loose and well cultivated — which are optimum characteristics in growing media.

So what is mulch and where do you get it?

Practically any organic material could be used as mulch. Keep in mind that different materials have different traits.

Common mulches, especially for vegetable gardens, would be grass clippings, straw, leaves, hay, sawdust, various hulls and husks — even ground corn cobs.

For this time of year, let’s focus on landscape mulching and leave gardens until later.

To the homeowner, landscaping is your mulching experience. Beauty bark, chips, shredded bark and other bark wood products are the staples of the mulch realm.

To me, these names are meaningless. They are all mulches. Take your pick — it’s dealer’s choice.

It matters only in your preference of product and the aesthetics you want.

Be careful with fabric

What really matters is the amount and procedure.

To begin, prep the area. Now, this does not mean go out and get fabric and cover the area.

In fact, for my last job, it meant pulling up the fabric 3 inches below the mulch surface.

I have never used fabrics outside of lining drain fields. They are useless, bubble up for years but, most importantly, they block the interface of mulch benefits to the native soil (roots, bugs and microbes).

Fabrics are used because few people apply the right amount of mulch around landscape and thus do not achieve the weed free results expected.

So back to area prep. Do a basic cleanup. Weed and rake the area, cultivate lightly if possible.

Next, and hear this, fertilize the area ever so slightly heavy (an additional 10 percent above recommended levels).

Next, and extremely importantly, make sure the soil below the surface is moist.

Between nutrient fixation and not getting moisture through a half-foot of mulch or more, these two factors can severely damage the plants.

This time of year is prime for this type of mulching, because both your soil and mulch are wet.

Next, and here is the hard part, lay down 6 to 8 inches of wood mulch. Spread it thick!

Get a stick 4 feet high, paint the bottom 8 inches and there is your marker.

Hold it on the soil so as to see the mark and keep the mulch uniformly thick as you move across the area.

Around bushes and plants, leave a slight indented cone for water collection at the base.

It is best to sprinkle a lawn fertilizer on the surface of the mulch to feed the decomposing microbes. They thrive on nitrogen, so throw them a party and use ammonium nitrate (21-0-0).

Next, sprinkle out a germination inhibitor and water it in thoroughly.

Just one more step left to do. This step, unfortunately, stops 90 percent of the people from enjoying a fairly weed-free, eye-pleasing landscape that is lush and mulched — top dress.

For newly mulched 6- to 8-inch areas, the first two years are a breeze.

Use wonderfully rich humus. You pull or cultivate an occasional weed and germination inhibit every four or five months.

Then, at the 25th month, put down a heavy fertilizer layer and add 1 to 2 inches of new mulch.

Good wood mulch, after 2 years, will decompose an inch or two each year. This wonderful rich humus will feed roots and worms alike.

The looseness of the soil will make the few weeds easy to pull.

The look will be most professional.

Plant roots will explode into this zone.

To close, although done at any time, March and April are the months to do this.

You are getting close to many yard chores to come.

The weather is perfect and so is the mulch, so do not make the mistake of using too little, too late — that’s one of my best gardening secrets.

And… please stay well all!


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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