Mulch: Multitude of Benefits


 Cabbage in mulch

The Willamette Valley, usually known for it’s darn near perfect summers—dry, breezy, in the eighties with cool nights—has seen two serious heat waves this summer. One came at the end of June, the second at the end of July. Both were problematic for crops, as they came right when many young transplants were settling into the fields. My own small scale fall and winter garden went in about four days before the second heat wave. How could I keep them alive in the blazing afternoon sun when their roots were not reaching deep into the soil? I mulched. First, I worked all of the residual mulch from the early potato crop into the bed. Then I nested each start in a base of straw mulch laid over the ground and soaker hoses. They all came through. Mulch. Straw, leaves, winter cover crops, cardboard or woodshavings … it’s useful stuff. Placed neatly around the base of young plants and later worked into the soil, it has a multitude of benefits.

1. Mulch keeps the weeds at bay. If the garden bed is thoroughly weeded before the mulch is laid down, the organic matter keeps new weed seeds from sprouting as quickly by blocking the light. And, when they do sprout, they are often more loosely attached to the soil and thus easy to pull.

2. Mulch maintains soil tilth and fertility. Mulch and compost alone will not provide all of the nutrients hungry plants need, but they do harbor many microorganisms that aid in nutrient exchange. Organic matter also holds water longer, which can reduce both run-off from a sudden rain and the need for frequent watering. Finally, it can protect soils from compaction during a winter of steady rains.

3. Mulch keeps water where it belongs, in the soil, not on the plants. If you use soaker hoses, covering them with handfuls of straw before the watering season begins helps keep the water on the ground, and in the garden bed, not in the pathway or on the plants. This reduces water waste and helps with plant health by not spreading diseases.

4. Mulch keeps the roots of you plants cool—twenty or thirty degrees cooler on mid-summer afternoons—by providing shade. Slide your hand under a mulched bed and then lay it on the path between the rows and notice the difference! When the weather is hot, this temperature differential can make the difference between a healthy plant and one that is covered by aphids or flea beetles.

9/29/2018 10:14:58 PM

I live in Lake County in Northern California and I have mulched heavily for several years, but after this year I will need to do some serious thinking about mulch. The Ranch Fire (one of the two fires making up the Mendo-Complex fire) burned to within 50 feet of our house. Fortunately I have lived in fire-country all my life and our house was "defendable". The only problem I had was the mulch. The fire burned through my garden and down fence lines where I had up to a foot of mulch down, and just about only on the areas where there was mulch. I lost nearly all my plants and was very grateful that I had not mulched anything near the house. Please consider fire hazard when you mulch. We were under mandatory evacuation for 8 days Wet mulch may not burn but mulch that has been in 110 degree heat for over 5 days, with no water, is not wet. No, you can't leave a sprinkler running. The power goes off and well pumps stop working. If you are on city water the firefighters turn your sprinklers off and lock them off because they need the water in the city's system to fight fire. Roof-top sprinklers do not work for the same reason. If fire gets to your house any mulch you had will be dry and brittle, guaranteed. Mulch is great but please consider carefully where and how you use.

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