Saturday, May 28, 2011

To mulch or not to mulch?

Mulch is a protective cover placed over soil to help retain moisture, suppress weeds, reduce erosion, and even provide nutrients. There are many different types of organic mulch material: lawn clippings, wood chips, pine needles, hay, straw, chopped leaves, shaved bark, sawdust, shredded newspaper, cardboard, compost or animal manure. What you apply to your plants depends on availability and the type of plant in the ground. 

Potato plant with chopped leaf mulch
We've got plenty of fallen leaves, pine needles and wood chips. We have to doctor the leaves before applying them as mulch: we run over piles of them with our lawnmower. This prevents them from matting together and actually doing more harm then good by not allowing water or sunlight to penetrate to the soil.

The type of mulch we apply depends on what fruit or vegetable we have planted. For example, pine needles, sawdust and wood chips are slightly acidic and can be applied to strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. These carbon-rich mulches also take a lot longer to break down than other mulches, so it is more practical to use them with plants that you will not pull up or that are perennials. Our vegetables, on the other hand, prefer chopped leaves or hay as mulch. It is amazing how much moisture they help retain.

That said, we've learned a few "don'ts" with mulch this year. I can hear Josephine, our Argentine farmer friend, always saying that whether to mulch or not depends on the person. Because despite all the good mulch does, it also attracts the bichos. Bugs. We've noticed our bean and Chinese cabbage seedlings have holes in some of their leaves. And some of our bean plants seem to have been nibbled to the point that they no longer exist. Our non-mulched beds do not have the same hole-y-leaf problem (but note, they are different plants).

Strawberry with pine needle mulch
I've also noticed more weeds in some of our mulched beds. I think this is for two reasons: (1) the mulch has weed seeds or weeds in it and (2) our soil is so inhospitable that even weeds can't survive unless they're planted or put there.

We've also learned not to mulch with radishes. We do have a controlled experiment with this one: the radishes that had been mulched actually try to grow in the mulch, and because it is so loose and not compact like soil, the "radish" does not get round, but rather long and skinny. The radishes that are planted and not mulched are developing as planned.

So mulching allows you to never have to use a hoe, but you might have bug problems or mulch weeds growing alongside your vegetables. If you don't mulch you might be carrying around your hoe every time you're in the garden... or you'll have to figure out a way to make weeding with friends a fun task.

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