Mulches and Mulching

We’ve used mulches on our gardens from day one. Mulching is a key component to a happy garden in our opinion. There are a number of benefits to mulching. Let’s delve deeper into mulches and mulching.

Chipping Brush with Proper Safety Gear

Chipping Brush with Proper Safety Gear

Benefits of Mulching

It helps control weeds, keeps valuable moisture in the ground where it is best utilized by the plants, makes for a tidy garden, helps prevent soil compaction in the walkways, adds valuable organic matter to the soil helping to improve soil structure when that organic matter breaks down, adds nutritive value, keeps soil from splattering on your plants during rains and it keeps your strawberry fruits, squash, what have you, resting on clean bedding instead of directly on the soil. It also helps to maintain a more even soil temperature.

In regards to soil splattering on plants, you may wonder why that is a big deal. Although we have no scientific backing, it’s our belief that soil splattering on plants is a good way to introduce mold spores and fungal problems. We feel better having clean plants. This also makes for easier cleaning prior to eating.

And one last use for mulch is vital for northern gardeners and growers. The colder the winter the more critical it is to mulch tender plants to give them the best chance of surviving the winter. That mulch placed on a plant in late fall keeps the plant’s roots from freezing and thawing, keeps the plants at a more uniform temperature and we believe, keeps the plants from drying out in deep cold spells, much like freezer burn desiccates meat in a freezer that isn’t properly wrapped. Having lived in an area of -40’s or colder for winter temperatures, mulching was the only way we were able to keep some of our perennial plants alive for the coming spring.

Herb Garden Mulched for Winter

Herb Garden Mulched for Winter

Strawberries Mulched for Winter

Strawberries Mulched for Winter (note green rye cover crop)

It was always exciting in the spring to pull back the covering of mulch and see a hint of green. You made it through the winter little plant, time to come back to life for another productive summer.

Plants Love to be Mulched

I’ve noticed a peculiar thing with my strawberries over the years. They love being mulched! The plants grow bigger which in turn produces more fruit. I don’t have a good reason why that’s so, but it’s been quite noticeable to me. Give it a try and see what you think.

Not a Fan of Plastic Mulches

Having said all that, there are some inorganic plastic mulches one can put down to accomplish some of the same tasks but we by far favor an organic mulch. For example we’ve used black plastic in years past. It was a nice concept to roll out a piece of plastic the width of our bed, make holes where a seedling would be planted and all would be well with the world. In reality, the soil in and around the hole we made had moisture but if we felt under the plastic between plants, it was dry. Plants will send out an extensive root system for nutrients and water and if they struggle to find water because the plastic won’t let water in, that’s a real problem.

One could puncture and make holes in the plastic and that might help the situation, but then weeds will poke their heads through the holes which defeats part of the purpose of mulching in the first place… weed control. Plus the plastic we purchased was pretty flimsy and tore easily.

If you do decide to mulch using store bought or home chipped material, best to get it down in the spring as soon as the ground has warmed up. Throw down and mix in your favorite fertilizer preferably composted manure, bone and or blood meal, wait for a soaking rain and then heavily mulch. Northern gardeners should wait until the soil thoroughly warms before applying mulch, otherwise the mulch will insulate the cold soil inhibiting it from warming up.

Back when we were in Maine, we had copious quantities of sawdust to use as mulch. When we moved to the bush of Saskatchewan, we bought and flew in a chipper. It was imperative we dealt with and cleaned up all brush and branches generated from the homestead clearing. Protecting against forest fires and our safety were priority number one with garden mulch the secondary objective.

Mulch Materials

We thinned the forest over time and never lacked for stock to chip. I’ve read in various places cautioning about mulching with softwood. You couldn’t prove it by me. All I can tell you is from my experience as a guy who has made a living in the forest and dealt with both softwoods such as pine, spruce and fir as well as hardwoods such as alder, poplar and white birch, it hasn’t mattered a bit to our garden and fruiting plants which type of material is used for mulch.

We had predominantly jack pine in northern Saskatchewan along with alder. We gathered and piled material for the chipper and I paid no attention to what was going into the machine. I grabbed something, chipped it and grabbed another handful. Sure, the finished product got mixed to a degree but there were times it was predominantly softwood yet it never turned our garden into a plant graveyard.

Mulched Apple Tree

Mulched Apple Tree

Just to be clear, jack pine, balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce, red maple, alder, poplar, balsam poplar and white birch are the woods we’ve chipped or had available as sawdust which became our garden and orchard mulch. Is there a tree species that truly might make soil difficult to grow a plant? Maybe. I have no experience with any other types of trees so can’t speak on all species.

I’ve read so much about the do’s and don’ts of mulching and types of mulch but we seem to be breaking many of the rules and doing just fine. Does a predominant softwood versus hardwood mulch change soil chemistry? I’d have to say yes. And one needs to be cognizant of that fact. The acidic nature of softwood mulch will be fine for acid loving plants but may need to be corrected through the addition of wood ashes or lime to sweeten the soil for other garden plants. Depends on what one is growing.

But bottom line, we use mixed softwood/hardwood mulch fresh from the chipper spread liberally over the entire garden in spring and then immediately till it in. Once seedlings are planted and rows are established, more mulch goes in the footpaths between rows and around plants. That material will start to decompose on the surface over the course of the summer and will be tilled in come fall. Does our strawberry garden picture look like it is suffering from our yearly mulch ritual?

Saskatchewan Strawberry Plants in Bloom

Saskatchewan Strawberry Plants in Bloom

If you have a chipper to process small tree stems and branches, please take all safety precautions around the machine. One mistake and it’s all over. Always be aware of where your hands are and we always wear helmets with ear and eye protection. It is a noisy machine. Blow your nose as well when done. It’s amazing the dust the nostrils collect.

One final comment about mulches in your orchard. We always use tree guards starting in the fall through winter and then take them off in the spring. Never place any mulch right up to the stem or trunk of a tree since that’s a perfect place for mice to make a winter home, especially if there’s a nice cozy insulating layer of snow. Your trees may get girdled if you don’t have tree guards.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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9 Responses to Mulches and Mulching

  1. Margy says:

    Last year after I had to remove my compost barrel from shore (new water lease rules). Sine then I’ve used the chop and drop method for mulching with my garden plant waste. I don’t have a chipper so I use my garden clippers to cut things up and let them lie on the soil. By the end of the season it is composted and ready to till into the soil. It’s almost as good as using my compost barrel on shore and I have the added benefit of mulch in the short run. – Margy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Nothing wrong with that strategy Margy although I have a couple of concerns to share. Insects and disease are the concerns. If the plants have been attacked by insects and the life cycle of that insect is to lay eggs to overwinter, leaving the host plant in that spot (even though the plant has been chopped up) might be the perfect habitat to create a problem for the following year. That applies to diseases as well. If a plant has a disease, this method might be the perfect setup for that disease to show again next year. Bottom line, if it hasn’t been a problem, continue on since it works. These are just a couple of things that might potentially be a problem for some people’s gardens they should be aware of. Rotating plants the following year so the same vegetable isn’t grown in the same spot as the previous year will help in many ways. Happy Gardening!

  2. nora says:

    I KNOW we still have at least 2 more months of winter, but boy oh boy, do I ever want Spring to come!

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Yeah Nora, we know what you mean. It has been an exceptionally cloudy, dreary couple of months. We have a little sun in the forecast but then right back to cloudy again. It’s just been the same weather pattern. I check the weather occasionally for back in Saskatchewan and it has been much warmer there than normal so it seems like it’s affecting the whole continent. But we’ll all survive and sun will be more frequent one of these days. Hang in there. 🙂

  3. Dave Werrett says:

    I learn so much from your Blog. Be well, Dave

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      That’s very kind Dave. Thanks for the comment. We are glad people are finding some value to the information. You both be well too. This new virus has the potential to be a real problem if the spread can’t be contained or at least slowed down. We are watching things closely. Your old friend, Ron

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