GHS Guide to Soil Testing and Soil, Part 3

gardener putting garden mulch in wheelbarrowSoil is such a deep subject that it can seem like you'll never get to the bottom of it. But you eventually do: it's called bedrock. All levity aside, in this, our third and final newsletter about soil, we're going to talk about mulching, a very important practice for keeping your soil healthy, and one that is perfect to do right now.

The Magic of Mulching

Mulching is almost as important as adding compost when it comes to fostering healthy soil. A well-mulched garden can yield 50 percent more than an unmulched garden the same size. Space rows closer as there is little or no need to cultivate the soil. Plant food is more available in cooler soil, and the extra soil moisture increases plant growth and yields.

A quote by the Virginia Cooperative Extension from their article, Mulching for a Healthy Lawn says it this way: Mulches conserve soil moisture, allowing you to water less often; keep down weeds; reduce erosion; keep plant roots cool; provide winter protection; and make your yard more attractive.

The kind of mulch you'll want to put down this time of year is winter mulch. Organic is best, because it will decompose and disperse organic matter throughout your soil. This will increase the nutrients and level of bioactivity, and will improve drainage in clay soils.

Many people use wood chips, sawdust, fresh manure, grass cuttings, and even gravel as mulch, but these are not ideal. Gravel adds no organic matter to the soil and doesn't decompose; wood chips sometimes contain seeds that can sprout and cause problems, and if not aged correctly, they can be too acidic and even toxic. Sawdust also often contains weed seeds that sprout, plus it tends to cake together. Fresh manure and grass cuttings can burn plants as they decompose.

That's why we recommend the following four mulch materials:

  • Straw. Straw is inexpensive, keeps the weeds out, holds in moisture, and will protect your plants from the cold. Be sure to get straw and not hay, as hay usually contains a lot of weed seeds. Dig the straw under after your fall or winter harvest.
  • Bark. These mulches contain either shredded bark or bark chunks and are usually made from the by-products of pine, cypress, or hardwood logs. They will neither blow away nor get compacted. Plus they look nice and are readily available.
  • Pine needles. Pine needles look nice, resist compactation, are easy to work with, and are readily availableperhaps even right under your own pine trees.
  • Newspaper. Many people apply three layers of newspaper, either as sheets or shredded, as an undermulch upon which they lay one of the mulches listed above. Newspaper alone will blow away, not to mention leach nitrogen from the soil, but applied in this way, it will keep down weeds and give plants an extra layer of protection from the cold. Turn it under after your harvest.

You'll want to spread mulch made from bark, pine needles or shredded leaves or newspaper to a depth of two to four inches, while straw needs to be applied to a depth of six to eight inches. Don't pile mulch around the base of trees or shrubs, and leave the area around the base of plants bare or mulched at a depth of less than one inch.

In closing, let's reflect on the fact that caring for the good earth has been a keynote of Western civilization for millennia. From the Biblical command to be stewards of the land, right up to the words of Kentucky's farmer-sage Wendell Berry who describes soil as the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all, this is a subject that will continue to be of concern to our children, grandchildren, and for many generations to come. Let's do our best to leave them all a rich, fertile legacy.

Happy Gardening from all of us at Garden Harvest Supply!

Note: This is the last in a 3-part series. For more information, read our Guide to Soil Testing Part 1 and Guide to Soil Testing Part 2.

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