Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mulch Ado About Nothing

Mulch. Beginning gardeners don't think much about it. "What's the big deal, why all the fuss? It's not necessary, is it?! I can still grow veggies and fruit without it, so why bother?"

Here's my 2 cents on the subject. Mulch is a huge part of my backyard. I use it on my raised beds as well as on the ground beneath my fruit trees, berry canes, flowers, and herbs. Heck, I spread the stuff everywhere!

That's what I'm talking about! 5 cubic yards of mulch delivered from a local garden center. I already spread 2 cubic yards the other weekend, but completely underestimated how much I needed.
Why use mulch? I use mulch for multiple reasons. First, it helps maintain even moisture in my raised beds by minimizing moisture evaporation and blocking bright sunlight from "baking" the soil in brutal summer heat. I use considerably less water in the warm months for my raised beds when they are mulched. Second, it smothers growth from unwanted weeds, grass, and seeds. That's the main reason I use it over my entire backyard, and I will continue to use it so I never have to mow grass again. So far, so good. Third, mulch breaks down over time and adds nutrients and organic material back into to the soil. Fourth, appearance. Mulch adds a uniform look and rich color to any yard or raised beds.

What type of mulch? Mulch comes in dozens of varieties. Hardwood, softwood, ground up trees debris, wheat straw, pine needles (for acid loving plants), cut grass, leaves, rough and fine texture, even recycled tires and other "green" options. Basically, anything that can be applied in a thick layer for the reasons listed above.

Detail pic from the huge mulch pile. It's nearly impossible to shovel this stuff with a regular shovel or spade. Use a pitch fork or special mulch fork instead.
Where can I get some? Most large nurseries and greenhouses carry mulch. I prefer to buy it in bulk (cubic yards) rather than the bagged version from the big box stores. It is considerably cheaper this way. You can also find it at city waste processing facilities. Hit the internet to find the best sources near your house or yard. I also like to look at and feel what I'm buying. All mulch is not the same in quality, color, or general appearance.

Freshly applied wheat straw mulch around recently planted cucumber vines. I covered the entire raised bed with this straw mulch to conserve water and moderate soil temperatures. It also decomposes and adds organic material to the soil.
How should I apply mulch to my yard or raised beds? I won't speak for every gardener because we all have different mulch preferences and uses. But I will tell you what I do at .09 Acres.

For raised beds: I apply 3-4" thick layers of wheat straw over all my raised beds. I simply pull sections of it off a compressed bale of straw and spread it over the beds. Sometimes after a few weeks or decent rain a few sprouts of wheat straw will grow from seeds in the bale, but it is easy to pull them by hand. I delay mulch application on warm-season crops that prefer higher soil temps, like sweet and hot peppers. I let the soil sit exposed in the sun until temps are generally warm, then I mulch. It is May 12 and I still haven't mulched my pepper beds. I likely won't until next month. I also mulch heavily for fall and winter crops. The added layer of protection often means that I can leave root vegetables and hardy greens uncovered (no hoop house or low tunnel).

For the rest of my yard (walking paths and beneath fruit trees): First, I pull any existing weeds or unwanted seedlings from the ground before I spread any mulch. Then, I'm ready to spread a 3-4" thick layer of mulch over the entire yard. It will take me dozens of trips with a wheelbarrow, but I load it with a pitch fork and then push it into my backyard. I then dump the wheelbarrow and repeat the process. Only after I have dozens of piles scattered in my backyard do I attempt to spread it. I use a bow rake rather than a leaf rake because it is stronger and I can use it to push and pull the mulch into a uniformly thick layer.
Three distinct layers of mulch in my backyard. Last year's layer of mulch is visible on the right near the raised beds. This year's layer (not fully spread over entire yard yet) is the dark brown stuff visible on the left.  I will eventually cover all of last year's mulch with a thick layer of new mulch. Also, note the wheat straw mulch directly beneath the fig trees.
Will I still be singing the praises of mulch when I'm sweating my tail off in the midst of shoveling and spreading 5 cubic yards of mulch? Probably not. But as soon as I'm finished, showered, and standing out in the yard with a cold beer in my hand, I'll quickly remember why I do this every year. You should try it to.


Nancy said...

I actually use coffee grounds as mulch on many of my herbs. I get them free from our coffee house. They have worked great over the years! Thanks for your thoughts on mulching, it's a total necessity for weed control!

.09 Acres said...

Thanks for your input, Nancy! I forgot to mention coffee grounds. They work great for acid loving plants and in compost. But when it is really hot and dry, sometimes they have a tendency to clump together in a hard, crusty layer.

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Ahh mulch. Last year we had 11 cubic yards delivered. That was a lot of mulch..... :) We cleared it from the center of the driveway in a small amount of time but left it on the sides for quite a while due to being burnt out!

Was incredibly happy when it was finally finished. Yes because it accomplished our goals, but more so because no more shoveling!

Jenny said...

that's our next weekend goal - to mulch our new garden. I have two bales of hay for the melons, tomatoes and peppers and we'll get regular mulch for the outside garden and the walkways.

.09 Acres said...

Stay @ Home-Gardener, 11 cubic yards is a monster job! I can see how that would easily cause burn out and even more sore muscles.

Jenny, good luck!

Anonymous said...

Dave, do the tomato cages work well for your cukes? Would they do well for yellow crook neck squash, or not necessary?

.09 Acres said...

Last year was the first time I used tomato cages for my cukes. They worked perfectly and I will continue to use the for the indefinite future. The right strength, height, etc. Easy to see and harvest cukes, they grow straight, etc. I don't grow much squash because (dare I say) I don't like squash. Somebody else will need to chime in here, but if I remember correctly most yellow or green squash grow from a central lead and tend to stay lower to the ground (not vine-like). So a cage wouldn't be necessary. But don't quote me on that.