Weeding has been easier this summer in the garden at Douglass High School. There are significantly fewer weeds, and the ones we have come up more easily. I recently pulled up a dandelion and the entire five-inch root came up without breaking!
The difference is mulch – much, much mulch. I had seen deep mulching at the Master Gardeners’ Collierville Victory Garden, but I hadn’t tried it myself. So last fall after a crew mowed and bagged leaves at our house, it seemed a waste to leave those jumbo bags of finely chopped leaves on the curb to be hauled away. My husband and I team-lifted heavy bags into my “Mulchmobile” and took about a dozen of them in two trips to the garden. It was enough to top off three of the long beds with six or seven inches of mulch.
At the end of the summer, the students and volunteers had put cardboard on top some of the beds to smother summer weeds and discourage winter weeds. The leaf mulch helped hold the cardboard in place and filtered rainwater down to the cardboard to break it down. By spring, the mulch had settled to about four inches.
The students were interested in conducting an experiment to see whether seeds and seedlings thrived better planted in the layer of mulch or in soil with the mulch pulled slightly away. As predicted, the seeds and seedlings in the soil sprouted at a better rate, and their roots seemed to gain a firmer footing in the soil. Once the plants were taller than the layer of mulch, we pushed the mulch back in place around them.
Water conservation is an added benefit. Several days after a spring rain, one of the volunteers pulled back a small section of mulch and discovered that the soil beneath it was still moist in contrast to a bed nearby that hadn’t been mulched. This fall we’ll make sure to bring enough leaves to mulch all the remaining beds.
For vegetable gardens, chopped leaves are an economical mulch. The light color might seem less attractive than darker commercial mulch, but it looks a lot tidier than a bed full of weeds. In one of my early attempts at gardening, I tried using fresh grass clippings as mulch. The result was a mass of dusty, moldy gray. Grass clippings are better mixed into the compost pile for later.
My personal favorite for mulching flowerbeds is shredded pine bark. It looks natural because it is natural in this part of the country. Two or three inches is deep enough, and it still isn’t too late to mulch your flowerbeds if you put off doing it last spring. I would hate to face a large delivery of mulch in this month’s heat, but I can easily divide bags of mulch from the garden center into 5-gallon buckets that are light and maneuverable. Remember to leave breathing room when mulching around trees and not pile mulch against the bark.