What, Why, and How To Mulch Your Organic Garden
Learning how to mulch is really quite easy once you understand its purpose and a few tips.
The definition of mulch is any layer of material placed over any soil that has been watered. It may consist of newspaper, grass clippings, compost, wood chips, rock or many other "creative" materials, such as old carpets, cardboard and more.
It's Nature's way of dealing with sporadic rainfall, and a need for "fertilizers". In nature, fallen leaves and debris are not raked up but allowed to rot in place. They provide habitat for insects and subsequently, food for insect-eating wildlife. They break down into soil nutrients and continue the cycle of growth, while preventing evaporation from non-irrigated areas. By following Nature's lead, we can create healthy ecosystems within our backyard, as well.
Why Should I Use Mulch?
Its primary and most beneficial purpose is to retain moisture in the soil for longer periods of time by decreasing evaporation caused from exposure to the sun and wind. It retains 20-60% more water than non-covered areas, depending on the type used and surrounding conditions. But it is also an effective way to sustain and amend soil health, discourage weeds, protect roots from heat or cold, minimizes water runoff, and even assist plant growth.
How to Mulch Properly:
Anything that is watered deserves a protective layer over the soil. This means spreading mulch around the base of plants, shrubs, trees, fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Be sure not to place it too close to the base of trees or plants, as that may cause the trunks and stems to rot.
Also, be sure not to use too much, as this can suffocate or drown the roots; 3-4 inches of mulch is plenty to prevent evaporation.
In late fall, use a dark mulch to absorb sunlight and protect your plants roots over the winter. Used in spring, it will also help to warm the ground faster for early planting.
Regarding how to mulch in the summer months, opt for lighter colors or compost to keep the soil cooler.
Organic mulches consist of compost, sawdust, grass, newspaper, etc and can be turned under the soil to amend it.
Do not use hay, which may contain seed that can easily take over your garden. Also, reconsider the use of straw in the garden.
Inorganic mulches are rocks, plastic or other non-plant material. While they last longer they do not support healthy soil and should be used sparingly.
Wood chips or shredded bark are the most popular materials as they still help to amend soil but do not break down quickly, thus lasting many years. I prefer to rake back my shredded bark to add a bit of compost underneath.
If you're in need of a temporary solution until you can get the good stuff down, just get creative; cardboard, raked leaves or yard debris, sheets of newspaper, grass clippings, plywood...technically, anything that covers the ground counts (lay down on the dirt for long enough and you'll be considered mulch).
Just be sure it it's permeable and will allow rain or irrigation water to absorb and be sure to replace it with something more beneficial and (semi-)permanent soon.
Wood Mulch and Termites
Learning how to mulch in an area known for termites can be tricky. You certainly don't want to encourage termites, and using pesticides can be dangerous.
You may be tempted to forego wood mulch altogether, opting for a synthetic mulch instead. But synthetic mulches don't support healthy microbial activity in your soil, so before you make your decision, consider these important points regarding mulch and termites:
- Termites generally won't travel far, so keep the wood mulch away from your house. You can also compromise by using only rock mulch within a dozen feet or your home to keep the termites away.
- Increase bird habitat in your yard and your termite issues may become obsolete.
- The same goes for backyard chickens. They will scratch through your mulch and eat at any insects they find.
- Ants are the natural enemies of termites. They take good care of wiping out any termites they find. Don't kill off any ant hills (unless they sit too close to your home or children's play areas) or the termite colonies will flourish.
- If all else fails, you can try the use of organic pesticides or organic pest control, such as Diatomaceous Earth.
Don't let issues like this turn you off from how to mulch properly. Just look to Nature for the answers; they always exist naturally.