If you do not believe that mulching is important, or if you wonder if you’ll be the only one in your neighborhood to do it, I would say, “take a ride.” Drive by Home Depot or Lowe’s and see the piles and piles of bags of mulch. Drive by various garden centers and see the piles of mulch, ready to load into your pickup. All this mulch is there because people are buying and using it. And all that bark mulch is only the tip of the iceberg. There are rock and gravel mulches, shredded leaf foliage (from last fall’s rakings) and plastic mulch. There is mulch made from shredded automobile tires. Some folks use old carpets, straw and even shredded newspaper to do the job.
The first question that I usually get is, “Why do you need to mulch?” Well, you really do not need to mulch if you are not particularly worried about the overall beauty of your garden, if you like to water every day during the bright and hot summers in Auburn, or if you don’t care if weeds pop up and dwarf the beautiful plants you treasure.
In times gone by, mulching that was available most probably did not enhance the beauty of the garden very much. It was there for the other reasons I mentioned above. Today, you can choose from wood chips that come not only in natural colors, but a myriad of them. They go all the way from dyed brown to brilliant reds, with dozens of choices in between. Gravel can come in natural stone, with reddish tints, and in pure white marble chips. And, no, the tires, shredded newspapers and carpets do not add to the aesthetics of the garden, but they do accomplish the other two reasons for mulching.
The second major reason for mulching in our area is for water retention in the garden. When the sun is pounding down and the temperatures hover above 90 degrees, water evaporates from our garden soil at an astounding rate. No only that, but sometimes the soil can get so hot that the rootlets, those tiny hairs that bring water into the plant, can be harmed or even killed. An inch or two of a good mulch will absorb much of that heat, keeping the soil cooler. While a stone mulch is best for weed control, I sometimes wonder if it might get very heated and have the opposite effect, making the soil hot. I do not have an answer for this, but I am wondering. The exception is, of course, coarse marble chips. Not only do they make a beautiful background for our beautiful green plants and colorful flowers, in my opinion, but they reflect the sun, doing a very good job of keeping the soil cool.
Another thing that mulches are wonderful for is weed control. First of all, weed seeds, especially larger ones, can’t get down to the soil level to get the moisture they need to germinate and grow. And if they do pop up, they seem to be a whole lot easier to find and pull.
Of course, so far this discussion explains the value of mulching in our flower beds and around shrubbery. But do not forget mulching in the vegetable garden. All of the same reasons apply, water conservation and weed control especially. But there is another factor to consider. When growing squash, eggplant, cucumbers or beans, the fruit is resting on clean mulch, not on soil where it can not only get dirty, but where rot begins. Mulch is very effective in preventing blossom-end rot in tomatoes by regulating the amount water the plant gets, as well as giving us a longer season.
“Roses benefit greatly with a thick mulch of peat moss, corn cob or well-rotted manure.” This last quote comes from a gardening book published in the 1850s. When is the last time you saw “well-rotted manure”?
When you come right down to it, mulch matters.