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The Magic of Mulch

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By Colleen Plimpton
My patient, non-gardening husband is frequently befuddled by garden doings. Early each spring, for instance, he wonders why a mountain of organic mulch appears in our driveway. True, the dark steaming heap consumes a generous corner of the drive, forcing my spouse into some fancy maneuvers as he backs his truck out of the garage. But it’s a necessary inconvenience, because copious quantities of fragrant, moist and useful mulch are essential to the garden. The richness feeds and beautifies the soil, protects it from the elements, regulates temperature, and allows rainfall to percolate deep into the life-giving earth.

I long ago decided that with my acre of ornamentals I could no longer haul mulch in bags. Thus began the annual ritual of the rumbling dump truck unloading four or five yards of the good stuff in my driveway, to be distributed among the gardens at my leisure. I start applying it once the soil warms. Though opinion varies, I don’t like to spread mulch while the ground is still chilled; the insulating layer would lock in the cold and delay growth.

Whether you lug bags from the nursery or have a load dropped in the driveway, now is the time to order and mid-April is generally the time to apply. At that early point the only garden interference you’re likely to encounter are plants such as daffodils, pulmonaria and Virginia bluebells, instead  of huge stands of iris, peonies and  other burgeoning perennials later in  the season.

Once the supply arrives, grab the good pitchfork and the wide snow shovel, load the wheelbarrow and get to work. My favorite mulches are Sweet Peet, Agri-mix or other proprietary blends composed of a combination of horse bedding, wood shavings and manure. These weed-free mulches remain dark and are chock full of microbes that feed the soil as they decompose. Also beneficial (and cheap!) is mulching with one’s own leaf mold.

Some beds I let Mother Nature mulch, for instance, the shade garden under a mature white pine, which layers the ground below with softly attractive pine needles and cones. Heuchera, hydrangea and azalea thrive in these conditions.

Some materials should not be used as mulch. Peat moss, for example. Not only is it considered endangered, but it quickly forms an impenetrable crust, impervious to moisture. Marble chips reflect too much light, don’t feed the soil, and won’t break down in a hundred lifetimes. Landscape cloth looks  artificial, tends to shred, and also doesn’t nourish the soil, from which all things grow.
For me, the satisfying work of mulching consumes several weeks off and on. I prefer to cast large handfuls (or occasionally bucketsful) onto areas between perennials and shrubs, spreading it evenly with my hands. An optimum layer is 2 inches; a lighter covering allows weeds to break through, while more tends to suffocate the soil. Never mulch over the crowns of plants, and leave the good stuff a few inches away from tree trunks. No mulch volcanoes! And do consider applying a deeper layer of mulch on garden pathways to prevent muddy shoes. Lay down pieces of old carpeting first, to stretch the supply.

Remember, though, that an application of mulch may well smother any seedlings you’re anticipating, such as spider flower or love-in-a-mist. If your garden depends on their annual  appearance, it might be best to mulch after these self-sowers have emerged in May.

Don’t exhaust yourself by doing too much at a time. Mulching is a wonderful excuse to be out in Mother Nature’s grand landscape, listening to birdsong and breathing in the clean fresh air, but as with any job, too much of a good thing isn’t good.  The work doesn’t have to be completed all at once; doing some each day, interspersed with other spring chores such as division, fertilizing and pruning will spread out the labor. Think of mulching as a gateway chore, but when the major task is complete, brush off the remnants from the sidewalks and other paved areas, and stand back to admire your work.

After my beds are mulched and marveled at, a small pile of Sweet Peet often remains in the corner of the driveway. I’ll need it to replenish a few areas subsequent to transplant chores later in the season. I don’t leave the pile too long, though, or critters will move in; I’ve seen both toads and moles take up residence in my lingering heaps, so I’m careful as I pitchfork or shovel the remainder.

If your garden has attracted meadow voles, you may need to reconsider mulching. These mouse-like, voracious vegetarians dine on plant roots and thrive under a warm covering. If you spot 1-inch, perfectly round holes among your plants, and astilbe, hosta, carex and daylily have unaccountably lost their roots, you most likely are hosting voles. Do not make your garden cozy for them! Leave affected areas bare, the better for visiting owls and hawks to find their natural prey.

This spring, ignore the complaining spouse or help him tolerate the driveway clogged with your beautiful mulch. And if there are still objections, sweetly inform your mate that the sooner  he or she pitches in, the sooner the  garden will be dressed and the  driveway returned to its original, unobstructed use.

Colleen Plimpton lectures on, writes about, coaches and teaches gardening. For more information, visit her website at colleenplimpton.com

HealthyHome free seminar series
Gardening  with the Birds, a lecture by Colleen Plimpton
1 p.m., Sunday, April 28
The Gardener’s Center and Florist
1396 Post Road, Darien
Want your garden to come alive with songbirds? Learn how to plant for, feed, house and attract a wealth of avian visitors, as well as get answers to your spring gardening questions.
Space is limited for this free program, so register online at www.healthylifect.com/seminar

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