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Bugs and Disease – Are they hiding in the Mulch?

As many of you know I have been trying to finish the book I’m writing.  I’ve not had to work outside during this cold spell as is my habit and that’s been helpful towards getting the book done.  (Regular readers know that I try to work one to two hours in the garden and/or borders everyday.  I usually average about 300 days per year. )

I’m coming into the home stretch with the writing of the book and am working on the last of the 3 keys to success in gardening which is Mulch.

Chapter 17 in the section on Mulch is so important that I thought it a good idea to put it up as a post. Some of the information you’ve seen me write about before, but I think you’ll find this fresh and encouraging.  I hope so anyway.

I hope you’ll let me know what you think of this Chapter and leave a comment.  I’m always open to your input and appreciate your taking the time to express how you feel about what I write.

CHAPTER 17 from the Section on Mulch (the 3rd key to success in gardening)

(Not ready to tell the title of the book yet. 🙂 )

I’ve had readers of my website (TendingMyGarden.com) write to me and say they can’t mulch because it gives insects a place to hide and that mulch spreads disease.  It’s a point of view shared by many.

Although I can understand those concerns — I think it boils down to a knowledge deficit of how the earth works.

When I first started gardening my knowledge deficit was huge.  My shortage of knowledge about how the earth works remained huge for a lot of years. (I’m still working on closing the gap.)

But I did have one thing  that many gardeners don’t seem to have and that was the mental mindset and confidence that nature (the earth) knew how to do things and if I imitated what she did I’d be successful.  And I was.

My problems with disease and insect pests became less and less over the years as I continued to add organic materials to my soil and keep my soil mulched.

Closing the Knowledge Deficit Gap

As I continue to learn more of what has been accomplished by farmers/gardeners who have worked with natures principles rather than against them, I’m amazed at the healing power of the earth. Even soils that had been severely abused and totally depleted were restored and able to produce abundant crops when organic techniques were used.

Louis Bromfield, an American author and conservationist who gained international recognition, worked with a brilliant soil scientist, Dr. William A. Albrecht in the mid-1900s.

He purchased several worn out farms in Ohio. They were cheap because they were considered useless by farmers in the area. The farms were totally restored by Bromfield and Dr. Albrecht and were proof that insects and disease could be controlled with good organic management of soil.  In other words — the two men used nature’s principles to restore the soil.

Mr. Bromfield  had studied the research of Sir Albert Howard. Sir Howard had totally proved wrong the idea still carried forward in today’s conventional agriculture of treating the symptoms of disease and pests —- rather than their cause. (Modern conventional medicine does the same thing.)

Sir Howard believed in treating the cause. Thus, preventing the disease or pests in the first place.

He was in India at the time (early 1900s) and watched the natives who never used artificial fertilizer or poison sprays.  They returned all animal and plant residues to the soil. He applied their methods to his farm and was not surprised to observe a gradual lessening of disease with each passing year.  Crops resisted pests and the resistance was passed on to the livestock that fed on the crops.

Back to our Concern of “Bugs Hiding in the Mulch”

Bugs will hide anywhere.  If they don’t have mulch they’ll find another place.

If you’re thinking “good — then they won’t be in my garden” — don’t get too excited. When their preferred crops are growing in your garden again — they’ll be back.  They’ll find them.  They will most especially find your plants if the soil is not providing all the nutrients the plants need to be in the best of health.

The better the health of your soil the better the health of your plants.  The better the health of your plants — the less pest bugs you’ll have!  That’s the way it is, because that’s the way nature works.

Do I have Pest Bugs in MY Garden?

Yes, I do.  The worse pest in my garden is the squash bug.  I HATE it!

I USE TO HAVE lots of potato beetles, bean beetles and cucumber beetles.  Now I have a few. They seem to be getting less and less each year. Hopefully that will continue.

I have an occasional horn worm on my tomatoes but the beneficial braconid wasp lays it’s eggs in the worm and its larvae stops the horn worm for me.

My garden is pretty healthy but each year I work on improving it and making it even better.

What about Fungal Diseases?

In Chapter 2 of this section we listed the advantages and benefits of mulching.  One of those was that mulch helps prevents pathogens in the soil that cause diseases from splashing onto plants when it rains.  It acts as a barrier between the soil and the plant.

Lots of studies have been done on this (especially with tomatoes and early blight) to show that mulch is really helpful in preventing fungal diseases. It was shown to cut down on the disease by a good percentage.

Can mulch have disease?  I guess it could. But as with everything in nature, a lot depends on if good principles are used to produce the mulch and how it’s handled after it’s harvested.

I’ve been gardening 36 years this spring and I’ve used mulch at least 35 of those years.  I’ve never had diseases that I felt could be attributed to mulch.  (And I’ve used many different kinds of mulch.)

As my soil improved the diseases went away.

The Bottom Line to this
“Bugs Hiding in the Mulch” Thing

If you have problems with insects and fungal diseases —- believe me — mulch is not the cause or the main problem. It’s much more likely that your soil still needs work (improvement).

Mulching is a weapon in your arsenal to help you fight plant disease and pest. It helps create the healthy soil that’s your number one defense against pests and disease.

As you continue to improve your garden soil you’ll have far less of the fungi, blights, rots and wilts and insect pests that haunt most vegetable gardens  — especially those whose tenders know nothing of the importance of healthy soil.

The benefits of covering the soil far outweigh any possible negatives. I know I couldn’t garden without it — nor would I try.

Copyright by Theresa Martz. All Rights Reserved.

16 comments to Bugs and Disease – Are they hiding in the Mulch?

  • Sandra

    Yes, I’ve heard that a lot, Theresa. I used to be a person who ‘cleaned up’ every Fall – and I wasn’t done until the soil was raked flat and completely bare. It takes a little faith to ignore the conventional wisdom, but I can testify to the truth of what you are saying. I can see that my soil has improved after only two years of mulch. It’s hard to convince people that this is the way to go, but if they try it (even as skeptics) – there’s no going back.
    Thanks for sharing this info. And thanks for sharing (so generously) this chapter from your book. If this is one chapter, I can imagine how much more great information you have packed into the others. Can’t wait!

  • Theresa

    Really appreciate this testimonial Sandra!
    Theresa

  • “A man cannot impart the true feeling of things to others unless he himself has experienced what he is trying to tell of.”
    ― Jack Kerouac
    That is why I consider YOU my organic guru, Theresa! I hang on every word.
    I have had a difficult time finding organically grown straw, or any straw for that matter. I have instead raked up and used the thick pointed oak leaves from my southern live oaks and my own pine straw. Both seem to work. I do better with it when my rows aren’t raised up. I made that mistake last year and all the mulch just washed away into the furrows!
    I am still just a nymph…needing patience, experience and your wonderful expertise on my journey. So looking forward to your book! YAY!!

  • Beppy

    Theresa,
    I am excited about your book. There are people I want to gift it to.
    I certainly agree about the benefits of mulch. The horn worms have all but disappeared as well as potato bugs, in fact I had no bugs last summer (I did not plant squash because of bugs but may try again this year. They are my last battle to win)
    I think the most important thing about mulch is where it comes from and how it is produced and I know you have covered that.
    Can’t wait!
    Beppy

  • This is great information. Well-written and clear as always–as if you’re talking to me, anticipating and answering my questions. I’m sharing your blog on Facebook.

  • RAY KENT

    WE SPENT MANY WINTERS IN FLORIDA. I WAS USED TO MULCHING BUT PEOPLE THERE WERE HORIFIED ABOUT THE HABITAT FOR BUGS I WAS CREATING. THEY DO HAVE SOME INTERESTING BUGS THERE. I WENT TO THE HORTICULTURAL EXTENSION SOCIETY IN LARGO FLORIDA AND ASKED THEM. WITHOUT HESITATION, I WAS TOLD TO MULCH, MULCH, MULCH. ONE OF THE PROBLEMS THEY OFTEN ENCOUNTERED WAS THE STORY OF ALL THE BUGS THAT LIVE IN MULCH. SO I KEPT UP MY MULCHING AND HAD NO BUG PROBLEMS. WHEN WE COULD NO LONGER GO SOUTH, I TOOK MY LAST WALK AROUND AND ADMIRED ALL THE MULCH I SAW ON THE WALK. KEEP IT UP, IT PAYS. GOOD GARDENING AND THANKS. RAY

  • Tom

    Good information and thoughts, Theresa. I’m a confirmed mulcher too. I just love to see those plants all cozily tucked in!

    One thing that would really help me would be a better understanding of specifically how good soil enables plants to ward off bugs. It would seem that good soil would nurture big healthy plants–which would then be all the more attractive to the bugs! Would you rather eat a healthy-looking plant, or a sickly one? Why should bugs be any different. I realize that neither you nor anyone else can have all the answers, so maybe the “why” of this is not known; rather, maybe it’s just been observed to be true—

  • Theresa

    Suzanne –Thank you for the compliment. I will continue to try to add as much benefit to TMG as I possibly can.
    Leaves and pine straw are excellent mulches. (I cover them in detail in the book.)

    There is a section in the book on mulching paths. Most new gardeners especially have a hard time grasping the concept of why you need to mulch paths. If you bring the path level (using mulch) up to the level of the soil in the beds there will not be as much problem with wind blowing the mulch away.

    I explain in the book that raised bed don’t have to look raised. (Originally raised beds were beds that had been deeply prepared.) I have raised beds (meaning – the soil was deeply prepared) but you can’t tell it because I bring the mulch in the paths up to the level of the beds. See pictures here http://tendingmygarden.com/why-mulch-your-garden-paths/

    Beppy – your testimonial about mulch will help many. THANK YOU for taking time to share that.
    I have a lot in the book about residual herbicides. I know you will appreciate that part too because of your experiences with them.

    I’m excited about the book too and am coming into the home stretch with it’s completion but still have a lot of proofing and reviewing to do before it’s ready to print. I don’t think there is anything like it on the market — at least I’ve not seen it. I’ll give more details in a post here on TMG once I complete it.

    Betty — Appreciate your letting me know how you feel about my writing. When I write post I always think of you and other readers who have corresponded via comments or email with me. It’s so easy to share thoughts with friends and I feel that I’m talking directly to you.

    Ray – this is a great testimonial! I was a little surprised that you were told to mulch,mulch, mulch and without hesitation on their part. There are times that State extension offices give very poor advice.
    Perhaps this was not the state extension office — but rather another horticultural society. Thank you so much for taking time to post this.

    Tom — your question is one that haunted me for years. I’m only in the last year finding a satisfactory answer to this question. And yes — the “whys” are now known and its AWESOME!! In brief — sick plants signal bugs by means of infrared radiation and the bugs pick up these signals with very complex antennas. That is why bugs can be miles away and still find the plants. Humans enjoy and benefit from healthy plants, but insects enjoy and benefit from sick plants. Two species — two different diets.

    When soil is healthy and thus plants are healthy — the healthy plants do not send off the same signals that the unhealthy plants send off. The unhealthy pants actually send signals that call the bugs to them! How’s that for amazing!

    As soon as I complete the book and catch up on posts, I’ll write more about this now that I know you’re interested.

    Great comments! You guys sure got me even more excited than I was! THANK YOU so much for all your encouragement and support!
    Theresa

  • Beverly

    Theresa, I am not much of a reader, but will be buying and reading your book.

    I’m an older lady (82) trying to garden, about 7 years, on the south Texas Gulf Coast.

    Love learning from you. Wish I could remember it all.

    My thinking was along the same lines as Tom, as to the healthy-sick plants. Glad you set me straight.

    I don’t do a good enough job of mulching. I should, because I live in the woods and have all the leaves I want. It’s getting them raked, bagged, back to the garden and shredded that is the hard part.

    We get quite a lot of wind and most of the leaves end up on the north side fence.

    Wasn’t able to have all my good greens this fall. I just finished reworking the garden, narrowing the rows, so I can reach across, now. New year, new garden. Better, I hope.

    Like some others have said, why did I wait so long to start reading your post? With your knowledge and help, I will do better.

  • Theresa

    Great hearing from you Beverly.

    Regarding being 82 — keep in mind that we are only “older ladies” (or men) to those who are a decade younger than we.
    You still have a quarter of century (or more?) to garden — so I’ll help you find a way!

    Regarding your leaves. I would not worry about shredding them. The years that Bill is not available to shred mine — they don’t get shredded.

    If you are able — get a good sized piece of plastic to rake the leaves up on and pull it back to the garden. Bagging is just too much work. If you can’t pull the leaves back — maybe you could enlist the services of a young man or woman who would be willing to do it.

    A lot of folks have trouble with the wind. This should help: Wait until the leaves are rained on to put them on the bed. Then cover with wet straw (rained on or watered). If that absolutely does not work — then cover crops are the answer for you next year. Oats planted in late summer or fall will get good growth before winter and then winter kill. But the roots will hold the soil and improve it. The roots will decay in time for you to put some crops in the following year. Oats is an easy cover crop to use and will do what you want without a lot of effort or learning curve. Also keep buckwheat in mind. That will winter kill as well, protect your soil during winter, and not be a problem come planting time.

    Glad that in answering Tom’s question — I answered yours as well.

    Keep up the good work Beverly and let me know whenever I can help you.

    One last note — keep thinking “out of the box” about ways to do things in your garden.
    Just remember — there is always an easier way to do it — we just need to find it. 🙂
    Theresa

  • Theresa,

    Wonderful information. I do hope the book covers how to properly handle mulch. I was so happy that you made me aware to investigate how the acquired mulch was processed. Such as checking to see if it came in contact with pesticides or herbicides. And even finding out if the cows (for cow manure) had been fed with antibiotics or herbicide laden feed.
    Now I need to learn how to handle the mulch after acquired.
    Also, thank you for the information about living mulch, cover crops. I am so eager to learn as much as possible for success.
    You are such a wonderful wealth of information and so enjoyable to converse with.
    I am so eagerly awaiting your book. Thank you for sharing so much information.

    Toni

  • Theresa

    I dreamed all last night about the book! Your comment contained a lot of what I needed to hear this morning, Toni!
    I have LOTS in the book about sourcing organic materials that will not harm your plants. Which is why I needed your comments. I was a bit concerned that I had TOO MUCH about that — but I wanted to give people an overall picture of what they needed to look for and be aware of. Also tried to tell quite a bit about what materials they could use. Hope it does not overwhelm the new gardener!

    There is a very long chapter in the book on how to get the most out of mulching and how to apply mulch.

    I have 4 Chapters on Cover Crops. I don’t cover strategies (except touching on them) because that’s not really the purpose o the book. BUT I do tell a lot about them and I touch on them through out the book as I discuss other things.

    You encourage me tremendously by being so eager to learn. I’m eager to share what I know. One of the things that the book will accomplish for me personally is — after it’s out – I will feel that I won’t leave this world with “my music still in me” — so to speak. Not that I’m planning on going anywhere — but I just felt that the information that I have needed to be shared. I want so much for new and seasoned gardeners alike to know how easy and rewarding growing your own food can be — not to mention how much more healthful it can be!

    Toni, I can’t begin to thank you enough for taking time to express what you had hoped for in the book. It was VERY HELPFUL.
    Let me know if you have any other concerns or hopes for the book. It really helps a lot. I’ve got a couple of chapters to write and then I can start on the proofing. But I will be open for ideas and suggestions right up to the last minute.

    I appreciate you so much and all my other readers who have encouraged me! Each one is so special to me!
    Thank you again Toni!
    Theresa

  • Sharon

    I wouldn’t think of not using mulch, Theresa. Fortunately, I have access to bales of straw at a feed store near me.
    Every time I go into my garden, and that is frequently, getting down and dirty, I’m on the lookout for the bad guys hiding somewhere. This way I’m able to stay in control of these pests and notice each season there are less and less of them.
    I’m so looking forward to getting your book when it’s finished…can’t wait to read it!

  • Theresa

    Good to hear from you Sharon!
    Glad you’re able to get straw that’s ok.
    And yes — the pests get less and less each year as we continue to improve our garden’s soil.
    I’m 99% finished the writing for the book. Am going over to make sure I haven’t missed anything
    that should be included.
    Hope to get a post up within the month telling even more about it.
    Thanks for taking time to comment and letting me know your thoughts Sharon.
    Theresa

  • Betty Dotson

    Theresa,
    It has been a busy & very wet winter here.

    I’ve taken every opportunity possible to continue preparing new beds the way you’ve taught us here.

    I’m excited to see the improvement in vegetable production my garden will have because of your advice.

    I’m even more excited that you are writing the book we’ve all wanted for so long!

    I can’t wait to dive into it!

    Thanks for taking the time to help us have a successful garden, also.

    Betty

    P.S. I’m starting my winter sowing this week! Yea!

  • Theresa

    Good to hear from you Betty. Missed you.
    I too will be excited to hear of the improvement in the production of your garden. I’d love to know more about what your situation was and what you did to improve it. Email me and let me know all the details if you have time.
    Great that you’re starting winter sowing. Spring will be upon soon!
    Theresa

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