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The Many Merits of Mulch


By Paul James


I know, I know. Gardening isn’t exactly top of mind for a lot of folks this time of year. My last official act of 2021 was moving my bonsai to a protected area and mulching them with a thick layer of straw to prevent the roots from freezing before temps tumbled into the teens. And that got me thinking about mulching everything else, because the best time to apply mulch in winter is right after a hard freeze, and we definitely had one of those last week.

By using mulch in the garden, you’re mimicking what nature has been doing for eons – covering, and thereby protecting and enriching the soil with organic matter. Deciduous trees and shrubs blanket the forest floor with leaves that prevent erosion, maintain soil moisture, provide cover for overwintering insects, and prevent noxious weeds from germinating. As those leaves decompose, they provide nutrients to plants and food for soil-dwelling critters, especially earthworms, and they improve the soil’s structure and tilth. When you mulch at home, you’re doing essentially the same thing. And you get an aesthetic bonus too, because mulch is beautiful. To me, it’s like icing on the cake. And I love icing.

There’s really no such thing as the best mulch. What you choose to use is entirely up to you. These days, pine-bark chips are my favorite for ornamental beds, although for decades I used shredded cedar as well. In my vegetable garden, I use a lot of shredded leaves, homemade compost, and straw. (Not hay! Hay often contains noxious weed seeds, whereas straw contains only wheat seeds.)

Ideally, you should mulch to a depth of two to four inches for maximum benefit. Keep the mulch off the crowns of annuals and perennials to prevent them from rotting, and several inches away from the base of trees and shrubs to prevent damage by voles and field mice that feel protected under the cover of mulch. Consider “fluffing” the mulch once or twice a year with a metal rake just to loosen it up and bit so that water can easily percolate through it. Beyond that, all you need to do is add a fresh layer every year to maintain the proper depth.

Happy gardening, ya’ll. And happy 2022!

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