Saturday, December 30, 2017

Mulch for Healthier Soil

One of my goals this year is to redo my landscape beds.  As trees and shrubs have matured, light and water requirements have changed in my landscape.  Basically my yard needs a face lift.  Late summer I removed unwanted plants and am excited to plan out new designs.  Of course I am having an extreme deer problem so I may not have much luck with any plantings this spring; nevertheless, winter is a good time to plan and purchase materials needed to spruce up your landscape and garden.  

One of the most beneficial and time saving cultural practices in both the landscape and the garden is mulching.  Mulching results in a healthier garden whether a flower bed or vegetable bed.  Bare soil is not a gardener's friend so the solution is to mulch.

There are 2 types of mulches:  organic and inorganic.  Organic mulches include anything that was formally living such as wood chips, shredded bark, lawn clippings, straw, chopped leaves,  pine needles, compost, or sawdust.  Inorganic mulches would be landscape fabric, plastic, or stone.

Before discussing the various types of mulch, lets look at why the cost and labor of mulching is worthwhile. 

Benefits of Mulch:

  • Conserves moisture by preventing evaporation
  • Maintains soil temperature.  Mulches act as insulators keeping soil warm in winter and cool in summer.
  • Reduces soil erosion and compaction from heavy rains.
  • Reduces annual weeds.  If the mulch is weed free to start with and applied properly it prevents germination of weed seeds.

Added benefits of Organic mulches:  
Because organic mulches are derived from living materials they continue to decompose and improve the soil they cover in a number of ways.

  • The organic mulch provides food for soil microorganisms.  The microorganisms are vital in building your soil.
  • Improved soil structure which results in improved root growth. Microbial organisms secret a substance that binds soil particles together creating pathways for oxygen, water, and root penetration.
  • Mulches reduce soil temperature fluctuation.  Even temperatures allow microbial activity to continue at an even rate.
Your choice of mulch depends on where you are using it.  In the landscape mulches need to be appealing and help with weed control.  In the garden mulches are added to build and benefit the soil.

Compost is the best choice for the vegetable garden.  Other options would be chopped leaves, weed- free straw or hay,  or dried grass clippings.  Decorative wood chips or shredded bark on top of landscape fabric would work well in flower beds and around trees and shrubs or even pathways.
  Looks, longevity, site, and price will all be a factor in choosing a mulch.

Applying Mulch
There are no hard fast rules on how deep to apply a mulch.  You do want to consider the type of soil you have.  Sandy soil needs a thicker layer than clay soil.  A good rule is 2-3 inches.  Anything less than this may not help with annual weed control.

The density of the mulch also will determine how thick you can apply it.  The courser and airier the mulch the thicker it can be applied.  

Apply mulch thicker between plants.  Do not apply the mulch right up to the bark of trees and shrubs this can harbor pests and disease.  Wet mulches against flower or vegetable stems can cause rot.  

Some confuse the term mulch and compost.  Compost is a mixture of decomposed matter.  It can be worked into the soil.  When it is added on top of the soil it is referred to as a mulch.

Using compost as a mulch has many benefits:
  • Prevents some weed seeds from germinated and makes it easy to pull those that do pop up
  • Keeps the soil cool and moist cutting down on water needs
  • Compost does add some nutrients to the soil but is not a substitute for fertilizers.
  • Encourages earthworm and microbe activity which improves the tilth and structure of the soil
  • Keeps dirt from splashing up on plants reducing soil borne diseases
  • Prevents the freezing then thawing of the soil which causes plants and seeds to heave from the soil.

Cautions about mulching:

Stone mulch heats up considerably and can burn the leaves and structures it touches.  Stone also does not decay and improve the soil. Its difficult to pull weeds from and to rake leaves out of.

Wood based mulches will temporarily tie up nitrogen in your soil.  The microorganisms pull nitrogen from the soil to decompose the wood.  You can reduce this effect by first applying a high nitrogen fertilizer such as cottonseed meal, blood meals or a manure. 

Organizing and Ordering Seeds

 It's windy, cold, and a little stormy outside!  The perfect time to plan the spring and summer garden.  No winter blues for me; I'm already planning for spring greens and  summer harvests.  Winter is a great time to evaluate your gardening successes and failures.  Do you want better and more consistent harvests? Too often, the garden is an afterthought thrown together on a free weekend and after one trip to the garden center. The key to successful gardening is giving it some fore thought and careful planning. There are winter garden chores that will help guarantee better success this spring, and the nice thing about winter garden chores is that they can be done inside by the warmth of a fire.

Organize  Your Seed Supply: 

Discard old seeds  Except for dried beans which are used as food, I generally do not keep seeds older than 3 or 4 years. Every variety of seed has a different "shelf life" but 3-5 years is a good average.  It's not that you will not have some older seeds germinate, but that the older seeds have a poor germination rate and the less vigorous the plants.  Good germination rates save you time and money in the long run.   Fresh seeds will keep you from having to replant and allow you to use your space more productively and eat continually  from your garden.  

Organize Seeds by Cool and Warm Season Crops.  Cool crops, or spring crops, include all greens, pac choi, peas, kale, chard, beets, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, and kohlrabi.  Warm season crops include beans, corn, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, and melons. We want to organize this way because cool season crops or spring crops will be planted as soon as soil temperature warms up to 45-55 degrees.  Warm season crops won't be planted until later.

Make a Seed Inventory and List of Seeds to Purchase.  This can be done on your computer or in a notebook.  Customize your record to include info you need to help you plan and plant properly. 

Further Divide cool season crops into those you will direct seed and those you may want to start indoors.  All cool season crops can be directly seeded into your garden but if you want a jump-start on the season and you have a plan to protect your crops from late freezes then plan on starting some seeds indoors. Be sure you have adequate lighting and know when to start the seeds so they will be ready at the right time to transplant into the garden  Some good choices to start indoors are lettuce, greens, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. These are also good choices for transplants, if you do not want to start them for seeds.

Plan out your Spring and Summer Garden

This is the fun part.  List every crop you want to try. Browse seed catalogs to get ideas.  Include favorites and be daring enough to try new varieties.  Keep separate lists:  cool season crops, warm season crops, herbs, and annuals.  Perennial seeds require more expertise to start from seed.

As you plan the size of the garden, consider the time you have and plant accordingly. Be honest.  If you don't like or don't have the time to spend in the garden then don't over plant to the point of being overwhelmed.  If you are an experienced gardener, then consider planting enough to can and preserve food through the harvest.  Consider succession planting so you eat continually through the season.  Additional seeds will be needed to succession plant. Or consider venturing into fruits, berries, herbs, grains.... the options are endless. If you are a beginner, I  think it is better to start small and increase as you gain confidence and have success.


Browse through Seed Catalogs.  With a written record of what you have on hand, the fun part of browsing through seed catalogs now begins.  Along with descriptions of different varieties, these catalogs are also very helpful at educating both the experienced and inexperienced gardener.  Make sure you include old time favorites and new varieties. 

Order Seeds

If you are using online sources,  winter is the perfect time to order.  Ordering online gives you more options and varieties to choose from.  Certain items like potatoes and onion sets can be ordered now and then you pick the shipping date.  Many offer free shipping this time of year.  I love browsing through seed catalogs.  They have a wealth of knowledge and hints in them.

Favorite Seed Companies:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Bountiful Gardens
Jung Seeds & Plants
Peaceful Valley
Pinetree Garden Seeds 
Seed Savers Exchange 
Territorial Seeds 

Lawn and garden stores and nurseries may not have seeds in stock yet.  Your options at a garden center are limited to only a few varieties.  With the recent interest in heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties, nurseries and garden centers are carrying more varieties, but there are so many seeds available to the gardener that it is a shame to limit yourself. Order a few seed catalogs and explore more options. I guarantee they will inspire you.

Before choosing seed varieties, be sure you understand the difference between hybrids, heirlooms, and open-pollinated seeds. Cool season crops are usually biennials which means they need two seasons to produce seeds and would need to be overwintered and would produce seed the second year.   Having open pollinated seeds is less crucial, if you do not plan on doing this.  Heirloom warm season crops are definitely worth trying and are much easier to save seed from. 

   Heirlooms, Open-Pollinated, Hybrids, GMO's: Understanding Seeds

 Order supplies 

I like to order my organic fertilizers and pest control supplies now.  Sometimes organic products are not easily found in the local nursery.  I get lots of calls about pest problems.  If you have to order products, then it delays the management and control of pest and disease.  If you have an orchard, the frequent spray schedule requires that you plan ahead.

These are the basic products I recommend having on hand if you grow a large garden and have the funds.  I also included a bare essentials list for those on a limited budget.


  • Blood Meal
  • Bone Meal
  • Or any other meal fertilizers you like
  • Azomite or Greensand
  • Liquid Fish Emulsion
  • Liquid Kelp

Organic Sprays

  • Neem Oil (Neem)
  • Pyrethrin (Pyola)
  • Jack's Dead Bug Brew (Spinosad) essential if you have an orchard
  • Serenade (If fungal disease is a problem)
  • Surround Crop Protectant (Kaolin Clay)  essential if you have an organic orchard
When buying organic sprays, be sure they are labeled for organic use. l recommend always checking the active ingredient.  I've listed the active ingredient.

Limited Budget Plan:  

I would invest in compost, Neem oil, bone meal, and liquid fish emulsion. 

Weed Control

Any organic product with citrus oils such as limenol or clove oils are great to spot spray weeds. They are effective and safe.  You may want to try a per-emergent weed control for garden paths or weed cloth barrier.


You will also need compost.  If you purchase it, look for products without time released fertilizers.  My favorite compost is Nutri-Mulch which is a composted turkey manure. Learning to compost is great option.

Other Possible Supplies:

  • Light weight and medium weight row covers
  • Material for a low tunnel
  • 1-2 Gallon Sprayer (It's worth investing in a good sprayer so you don't waste time fixing and unclogging a cheap one.  Also I prefer a 1 gallon it's easier on the back. For the orchard we have a 15 gallon that attaches to the back of our 4 wheeler.)

Places to purchase supplies:

Garden's Alive carries pyrethrin.  It is sold as Pyola.  Peaceful Valley also carries pyrethrin. Be careful when purchasing pyrethrin products.  There are non-organic chemical versions and additives that are a poor choice for the organic gardener.

The Kaolin Clay is sold as Surround and can be purchased at both recommended garden sites.