Professor Communication and Media
Denise is a devoted organic gardener who challenges herself to live as sustainably as possible in her home in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media at West Chester University with a Ph.D. from Kent State University. Her teaching and research areas consist of sustainability, close interpersonal relationships, integrating work and family, and conflict resolution.
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June 1, 2022
In the Garden of Deeden: Mulching
Anyone who has walked a trail in the Amazon is aware of a very subtle, steady, quiet descent of dead leaves and other plant materials from the canopy above. This material covers the soil of the forest floor. Natural mulch! However, you can easily employ mulching in your own garden.
Mulching cannot be overrated. By definition, mulch is any material used as a covering over the soil. It provides several benefits:
- First, it helps control weeds.
- Second, it helps plants retain moisture.
- Third, it breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil.
The list of items that can be used are pretty vast. For outdoor plants, shredded leaves are a great option – they are often free in your own or a neighbor’s yard (if you’re gardening organically, be sure they haven’t been treated if you’re using someone else’s leaves). Plus, a mulching mower can do the trick unless you want to invest in a chipper shredder.
In my garden beds, I also use pine needles or straw. Some people will caution that pine needles can be too acidic, but I’ve been convinced by others as well as my own experience, that they work just fine. Straw can be tricky because it can sprout. I often leave a bale of straw to overwinter until spring to limit any sprouting. Given that I have just a few fruit trees in my yard and that I travel the neighborhood to scoop up pine needles in our alleys, I also use commercial mulch since I have quite a few garden beds.
Something else I have practiced is sheet mulching. This is a method to create thriving and healthy soil quickly. It’s often called lasagna mulching. It is considered a way of permaculture gardening (see an earlier post about permaculture). Basically, it involves creating a garden bed or planting zone over an area of grass by layering sheets of organic matter. Some of the items you will want to layer are mineral amendments, nitrogen rich material (good examples are fresh manure, blood meal, or even diluted clean urine), cardboard or newspaper (remember to overlap pieces by about six inches and if using newspaper make sure the layer is about at least one-half inch thick), 8-10 inches of brown material (dried grass, old leaves, etc.), compost or some good quality soil about two-three inches thick, and more mulch material.
- Wet the area to be mulched.
- If there is existing vegetation, chop it down and leave in place.
- Break the area up with some type of groundbreaking tool.
- Apply the mineral material.
- Layer the nitrogen and wet it.
- Lay cardboard and wet it as you lay it.
- Lay down more nitrogen material.
- Now layer your brown material.
- If doing so in the fall, add your compost or soil. If done in spring, add compost and then make holes in the cardboard for the plants.
- Finally mulch on top of your/around your plants.
Even in my established beds, I love to use cardboard between plantings for weed control, and I typically add some other type of material on top so the cardboard doesn’t blow away.
Some people are big advocates of using black plastic or landscape fabric as a mulch for warm crops like tomatoes. You still have to make holes for the plants to grow. However, I prefer not to have the waste and to lose the benefit of organic material breaking down. It also costs money. It does provide benefits of retaining moisture, transmitting solar heat, and limiting weed growth.
For houseplants, I use bark mulch, pine needles, and sometimes I even use pistachio shells that I rinse first to remove any salt. Some people advocate peat for potted plants or beds, but peat is a limited resource – its supplies are dwindling. I have some on hand in a pinch but I don’t use it often.
It is not a good idea to use dead/dying leaves from houseplants as a mulch since this tactic may only spread more disease. If you don’t already mulch, consider giving it a try – you will save time on watering and weeding. If that’s not persuasive enough, I don’t know what is!
So as you wrap up your spring plantings of veggies and flowers, don’t forget to mulch!