Mulch is awesome. Mulch makes gardening easier and helps cut down on watering, weeding, and worrying. Mulching always leaves me feeling satisfied, like I just ate a big fat meal or gave someone a good back rub. How do I get such happiness from piles of debris? By following these seven simple rules:
- Ignore the fancy people who tell you to “clean out” your flower beds. What you’re cleaning out is the free, renewable, organic fertilizer provided by the plants themselves. Certainly we all need to cut things back or tidy up a sprawling mess of dying foliage a few times a year, but when doing so, chop the bits and pieces right into the garden and let them serve as mulch. The “pests” most garden advice columns warn about seem to be the most popular bird food in the spring, and as an organic gardener I want to see lots of bugs in my garden, yo.
- Keep your leaves. All of them. Leaves have nutrients no fertilizer can offer because they are fed by the deep roots of trees. The extensive root system of the tree brings minerals and micronutrients from places your little perennials and shrubs only dream about. The leaves release all this yummy goodness into the soil as they break down. Since leaves are a favorite snack of worms, the leaves will break down fast and the worms will aerate the soil as they tunnel through, and leave nutritious “castings” (i.e., poop) to fertilize the soil.
- Keep all your leaves. Seriously. Unlike many commercial types of mulch, leaves remain light and porous allowing air to get to the roots of plants. Leaves also conserve moisture, as they can hold many times their own weight in water. Chopping the leaves helps prevent them from blowing out of the garden beds and speeds their decomposition. You’ll want your leaves to break down a little faster than they would in nature to prevent nitrogen loss from the soil. I use an electric leaf blower on the vacuum setting to reduce the leaf volume by about fifty percent.
- Mulch over bare dirt to keep both moisture and temperature more consistent, preventing a freeze-thaw cycle that can damage roots in the winter, and water evaporation from the hot sun in the summer. If your soil is exposed, you’re wasting water. Dried out soil obviously deprives plant roots of water, but it also ceases microbial activity in the soil. Keep your soil hydrated and alive with mulch.
- Mulch to prevent weeds. Weed seeds may be less likely to germinate in mulch as they are deprived of light, and weeds are easier to pull out of a nice friable material. Since weeding is pointless if you leave a piece of root behind, mulch helps by keeping the dirt loose and flexible so the roots can be pulled all the way out rather than broken off to re-grow. Mulching makes weeding less repetitive and less frustrating.
- Never use landscape fabric or, horror of horrors, plastic mulch. Please don’t even think about the rubber mats of fake mulch made from recycled tires. Remember that the soil is a living organism, just like you. Would you want a big sheet of black plastic stretched over your face? Mulch with something organic, free of chemicals and pesticides.
- Mulch for the future. Never dig. Feed the soil by layering on organic materials instead of fertilizers to build a stronger, healthier soil food web as the years go by. Allowing the vast network of underground fungi to develop in the soil brings stronger and better nutrients to plants. The fungi respond to signals from the plant and deliver the exact nutrients needed in the exact dosage required. Even if I had a laboratory in my backyard I couldn’t fertilize my plants with such precision, so I let the fungi do the work.
To some people, a big pile of leaves might look like a problem, but to me, it is the solution. I can get a good workout for free by raking, unlike my friends who pay for a gym membership. I can harvest piles of organic fertilizer for free, rather than spend money at the store for fertilizers and soil amendments. Recycling my own garden debris into mulch and compost closes one gap in the cycle of waste that defines suburban American living. Mulch rules, dude.