Using mulch in the garden is an important practice for the home gardener interested in saving time weeding and watering. Mulching involves providing layers of material over the garden surface in order to conserve moisture and block weed growth. Other valuable advantages include insulating plants from extreme temperatures and improving soil nutrients and structure.
A variety of types of mulch can be used in the garden: compost, shredded leaves, straw, grass clippings, bark chips, newspaper, sawdust, green manure, landscape fabric, plastic or a combination of materials are all useful.
Determining the type of mulch to use is often dependent on what is most readily available. Commonly used organic mulches such as grass clippings, shredded leaves and straw are most effective in inhibiting weeds when layered about 4 inches in depth. Organic mulches have the added advantage of providing helpful nutrients to the soil while encouraging earthworm activity. Non-organic mulches, like landscape fabric or black plastic, are desirable choices for larger garden areas and for raising soil temperatures for heat loving plants.
Green manures, also known as cover crops, are living mulches planted between or around plants. These beneficial crops include legumes and non-legumes. Clovers, soybeans and alfalfa are examples of legumes capable of fixing valuable nitrogen into the soil while non-legumes, ryegrass, buckwheat and oats can add nutrients and biomass to the soil and protect against water loss and erosion.
The timing of mulch application is an important consideration. Generally, organic mulches are applied in the spring after the garden is planted and the soil temperature has warmed, but before undesirable weeds get a foot hold. It can also be applied in late fall to protect sensitive plants from extreme winter temperatures. Inorganic mulches (black plastic or landscape fabric) are installed after preparing the garden surface followed by making cuts into the material to insert transplants or seeds. Green manure seeds can be planted between crop rows after the plants emerge in the spring or early summer. If a fall/winter cover is intended, seeds can be scattered over the garden plot several weeks before harvest.
Available materials, time of year, individual growing preferences of a particular crop and the desire to improve the garden soil should be considered when choosing the type of mulch to apply to the garden. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, it is important for the gardener to experiment with different types of materials to determine the most effective material to use and the most advantageous timing to achieve its intended purpose.
Further information on this topic or other gardening subjects can be found at www.gardening.cornell.edu/
The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year.
For more information contact Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension/Chautauqua County, 542 Turner Road, Jamestown, NY 14701; 664-9502 X204; firstname.lastname@example.org. "Like" the Chautauqua County Master Gardeners on Facebook for gardening news and information.