Mulching can take your garden to the next level

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By: Jim Carpenter

Ryan/Flickr

To mulch or not to mulch? That should be the question. 

While this subject is not exactly pertinent to this time of the year, it is still something to think about for next year. Also, while it might not be the most exciting garden topic for most people, it is another tool that can be used in productive gardening. Most gardeners are familiar with mulching and most if not all use it to some extent.

The variety of mulching materials and the way they can be used gives us another area to experiment with in our quest to find out just what works best for us in our gardening endeavors. To me, one of the joys of gardening is trying different methods that either make gardening a little easier or make it more productive. In the 35 or so years that I have used mulch in my garden, I am still experimenting and finding different ways of using it to produce a more productive and easier way to garden.

When it comes to using a mulch for weed suppression and moisture conservation, wheat straw has always been my favorite. While this is relatively expensive to purchase these days, I have always been able to obtain free used straw from a variety of sources. One way was to note various farm houses that might use straw bales in the winter as outside insulation around a side of their house or perhaps to insulate a water pump house. By March, most of these people are happy to have the straw hauled away.

Several years ago, I ran into a situation where I was able to obtain about 100 bales of straw from a modular housing development after winter was over. Many of these bales were very heavy with the moisture they collected during the winter but I always told the people I would take what I could handle. Some of the dry bales I would actually store in my barn to use at a later date. Of course, hauling straw bales usually necessitates the use of a pickup truck.

While a straw or grass type mulch is ideal since it will break down and add organic matter to the soil fairly quickly, there are a lot of different mulches that can be used. If you use lawn clippings, just be sure you know if there is any chemical residue on the grass. I won’t go into detail about some of the things I have used through the years, but here are a few common mulches:

  • Newspaper
  • Cardboard
  • Wood chips
  • Plastic

I have even used old carpeting (don’t go there), boards (very limited) and even a discarded pool cover (still picking brittle blue plastic pieces out of my garden after five years). Do keep in mind if you use a wood type of mulch to make sure there is no walnut in it. The walnut tree produces a chemical called juglone that is toxic to many garden plants — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes, just to name a few. Of course, I kind of inadvertently planted a walnut about 10 feet from my garden about 20 years ago — dumb! I finally cut it down about five years ago.

I should mention my use of black plastic in growing potatoes. In some years, I will get my soil tilled early and in late March or early April, I will lay down rows of black plastic and plant my potatoes through holes slit in the plastic, making sure water can still get to the plant. The black plastic collects heat from the early spring sun and warms the soil. This accelerates the growth of the potato, letting you enjoy new potatoes in June. By the time the summer starts getting too hot, the potatoes have enough foliage to keep the roots from being cooked by the sun. One year, I tried doing this later in the spring and nearly every single potato got fried by the heat. You live and learn.

Depending on your type of garden, the availability of material and the look you are striving for, mulching can mean many things to many people. To me, anything I can do in the garden that will help conserve moisture and make the chore of weeding a bit easier is a good thing. But as with most endeavors in life, the journey you take to get there should be half the fun. Gardening should be the same way. So whatever you use, however you use it or even if you use it, have some fun along the way.

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