It’s a big statement — but I can honestly say that without mulch — I couldn’t garden.
The work involved in gardening without using mulch — not to mention the decrease in productivity — would be beyond my ability to handle. Mulch is a tremendous tool that I would not want to be without!
Like most tools — you have to know how to work with it to get the most out of it.
A reader wrote to me several weeks ago and brought up some things about mulch that sooner or later every gardener has to address and learn to work with in order for their mulch to keep moisture in — rather than keep moisture out.
“I have noticed over the years that some areas that I mulch (with shredded bark) seem to stay dry under the mulch when the rain is not heavy. I know mulch is supposed to help with moisture retention, but I wondered if you have any guidelines on using it correctly so that it doesn’t keep moisture out. Maybe it has to do with the type of mulch you use, but even where I have shredded leaves and pine needles, it seems to do the same. The mulch gets wet on top, but the ground seems to stay dry underneath.”
Key solutions to this problem are
- in timing — when you put it on — and
- how you apply your mulch.
The best time to apply mulch is after a soaker rain.
A perfect example happened in my garden this winter. Because of some very untypical tree roots (which sooner or later I’ll write about) — 10 of my wonderful garden beds were just about destroyed by digging.
When finally the beds were “put back together” — they were very dry from the soil being exposed to the elements for such a long period of time. I applied only a thin layer of shredded leaves to protect the beds.
I had to wait for 3 rains before we finally got a good soaker that wet the beds down deep and finally allowed me to cover beds and paths with deep layers of straw, leaves or pine tags. The straw, leaves and pine tags were also moist and that was an added bonus. Eventually the moisture in the mulch will move down into the soil.
Had I mulched my beds and paths thickly while they were dry —- they probably would have a little moisture in them by now — but not anywhere near the amount they have because of my chosen strategy. The rain would have seeped through the deep straw but may not have gone as deeply into the bed as is desirable.
Another example takes place almost every summer. By the time my onions come out of the beds in July and August only a skimpy layer of straw remains on the soil. I wait — no matter how long it takes — for a soaker rain and then apply a heavier layer of mulch.
Applying straw, leaves, pine tags, or almost any mulch — be aware of forkfuls that may be matted together. These matted-together-clumps are the main culprits in keeping beds dry — rather than allowing rain to drain through.
Generally speaking, if the mulch you apply is “loose” when you apply it — it’ll better be able to allow rain to penetrate.
There are times that you’ll miss a matted clump of mulch — or one will develop in the process of gardening. When you discover it — just correct the problem.
How to Mulch Lettuce Seedlings
I’m adding this example (March 15, 2013) after receiving an email from a reader who wanted to know how much straw to put on newly planted lettuce seedlings after a rain. (The indication was — that after reading this post — he thought he should mulch the seedlings only after the rain. This will serve as clarification.)
When you transplant lettuce seedlings into the garden — if the soil is the least bit dry — you need to water those seedlings for good root to soil contact. As soon as that’s accomplished sprinkle a thin layer of straw on that area. A light layer that covers the soil all around the seedlings will keep heavy rain from beating down the baby plants. Otherwise you could loose all the lettuce you planted.
Rain will still penetrate through this thin layer of straw, but will protected from damage by heavy rain.
This is a case where you need not apply more straw after the rain —– until the seedlings grow a bit. And then you will continue to add more straw — so that when hot dry weather arrives —- your lettuce will be heavily mulched.
Bark for Mulch
I don’t use bark because it doesn’t make a good mulch. The pieces are big and they naturally overlap each other to keep moisture out.
Many years ago we had access to two-year-old wood chips. Unlike bark, the chips are small and make a wonderful mulch. I especially liked to use them a foot deep in my paths.
After a year or two we’d dig out the paths. The chips had turned to a wonderful rich soil. We’d throw that on the beds and fill the paths again with wood chips.
And no, it did not take nitrogen away from plants. I think because it was aged enough.
Some say that wood chips can be toxic and that they’re low in nutrients and won’t improve soil fertility. I did NOT find that true with the ones we used —- and we used them for YEARS — at least 10 years. And — as I said — they decayed into a rich soil that our plants loved!
It held water better than anything else. All around – it was the best stuff I’ve ever used!
By applying your mulch after a soaker rain, watching for large matted-together-clumps, and using mulch that allows more penetration your mulch will do a better job of keeping moisture in your beds rather than keeping it out.
Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and it’s a lot healthier.
All content including photos is copyright by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved.