Mulch

August 21st, 2009


Mulch is a magical, multifunctional thing. It conserves soil moisture, protects plant roots, prevents erosion and over time, leads to more workable, healthy soil. So why isn’t that we don’t see it around every tree and beneath every shrub? I see a lot of bare, hard earth in gardens full of struggling plants. I am here to spread the gospel of mulch.
Mulch is any material placed on top of soil. When we talk about mulch for gardens we most often mean wood chips. But mulch can be leaves, wood chips, ground up rubber, shredded bark or even plastic sheets. You have probably seen the black plastic sheets used as a mulch in strawberry fields.
When I go to spruce up a landscape the first thing I usually do after weeding and trimming is spread a nice, thick layer of mulch. In a matter of hours a garden that looked tired and weedy becomes tidy and beautiful. The mulch makes the space between the plants more defined and the color of the wood chips contrasts nicely with the colors of the plants it surrounds.

Mulch promotes living, healthy soil. If you scrape off a handful of mulch you will find rich, dark soil full of bugs and microorganisms. You won’t find that in uncovered soil baked in the unrelenting Southern California sun. I work with a lot of fruit trees and too often see sad trees with no mulch around them. Citrus and avocado trees have rather shallow root systems so they do notably better under a layer of protective mulch. But nearly any plant benefits from a protective layer of mulch. When mulching around trees do not let the mulch actually touch the trunk. Leave a two to three inch space around the trunk of the tree. Then spread several inches of mulch out beneath the canopy of the tree.

So I recommend you get mulching. You can buy bagged wood chips at any nursery or garden supply store. Local tree trimmers are often willing to drop off large quantities of wood chips for free. This is a great option if you need a large amount of mulch and aren’t too picky about the type or color of wood chips.
Mulching a garden is a service that Full Circle provides as well. We are always happy to spread more mulch.

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3 comments on “Mulch”

  1. anne says:

    Lora,
    I am trying to mulch with materials from my own property. This summer I grew corn. After the harvest I stripped the leaves off my corn stalks and used them as mulch. I have also been using sunflower leaves. Is this okay or would it be better to compost this material?
    I have also gotten leaves from other peoples yards. Last season I got oak leaves. Some people said I should not use the oak leaves since they contain something that inhibits seed germination. Is it okay to put vegetable seedlings in soil mulched with oak leaves? Are their other trees with the same issue?
    Lastly, what about mulching with clippings from the plant that is growing- say tomatoes. Is it okay to mulch with the clippings from the plants or is that considered “green compost”- or could those two things be the same thing?
    Thanks!

  2. Lora says:

    Anne, the only thing you mention that I would avoid in terms of mulch is vegetables with their own trimmings. If I trimmed a tomato plant or a squash plant, I would definitely compost the trimmings. This is just because they are subject to a lot of molds and diseases. It is best to be sanitary around them and remove affected leaves and stalks and compost them. Hot compost can kill the pathogens which could be undesirable on the plants. But overall, I hardly worry about these things. The truth is, the fact that you are composting, mulching and recycling organic matter means you are building your soil, inviting an array of microorganisms, adding nutrients and overall making your garden healthier every year. I have seen vegetable gardens grown under oak trees. While many trees do produce compounds that inhibit seed germination I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Just keep planting, see what grows well and what doesn’t and keep planting the things that grow well. That is smart organic gardening.

  3. I actually share Anne’s concern. When I trim or deadhead, I just place the cuttings on the soil so that these will be recycled in time. So far, I haven’t seen any negative effects yet.

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