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Mulch

June 25, 2012

Newly-delivered pile of compost (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)I am a strong believer in the power of mulch in the garden. Mulching has two major benefits: it suppresses weeds (leaving the gardener more time to enjoy the garden) and it conserves moisture (thereby reducing the amount of water needed). In a garden like mine, with very sandy soil, the right kind of mulch can have the added benefit of infusing organic matter. For this reason, I like to use compost as mulch.

I am very late getting my garden beds mulched this year. The ideal time to mulch is when all the plants (even late ones like Platycodon) are up out of the ground, but before they have fully leafed out or started to bloom; at this stage in their development, it is easy to get into the flower beds and get mulch put down all around the plants. But this year’s very warm and early spring meant that ideal time to mulch occurred while I was still in Pennsylvania finishing up the school year. By the time I got to Maine, plants were much further along. But even then, I didn’t get the job done. Instead, I delayed for another month while I tried to decide on the best source for compost.

A 2” layer of mulch in all my flower beds requires much more compost than I can produce. Fortunately, compost is readily available for sale in Maine – some of it produced by local farmers who sell it to retailers and much of it produced by commercial composting facilities that use waste products from agriculture, seafood processing, and wood processing. Two such facilities are located within a few miles of my house, so their compost should be readily available to me. But they package their finished product in bags for the retail market, and I use far too much to buy it by the bag.  I need compost sold by the cubic yard and delivered by the truck load. My indecision was about whether to buy less expensive mulch produced by local farmers and delivered by a local nursery (but which is sometimes inadequately composted, leaving large chunks of uncomposted matter and weed seeds) or to spend much more on high quality organic compost sold by a nursery 20 miles from my house.

Wheelbarrow with compost (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Finally, better late than never, I stopped dithering and ordered 3 1/2 cubic yards of the expensive stuff. It was delivered on Thursday, during our heat wave. On Sunday, I was finally able to take advantage of dry, sunny weather to work on mulching.

I use my wheelbarrow to move compost from its delivery spot at the side of the driveway to the flower bed that is being mulched. I’ve learned from experience  (and several painful achilles tendon strains) not to fill my wheelbarrow all the way; almost all my flower beds are uphill from the driveway, and a full wheelbarrow is too heavy for me to push uphill. A wheelbarrow that is about three-quarters full is much more manageable.

Mulch piled in flower bed before being spread (photo credit: Jean's Garden) When I get to the flower bed that is being mulched, I don’t dump my wheelbarrow of compost into the bed. I want to keep mulch out of the crowns of plants, where it can create conditions for disease, and I’ve found that the best method is to use my garden spade to carefully place piles of compost in the spaces between plants and then get down and spread it around by hand. My mulching strategy involves weeding and putting down soaker hoses before I mulch (see Weed, Water, Mulch), so that the mulch covers up the soaker hoses and keeps water from the hoses down around the roots of the plants.

Compost pile after an afternoon's work (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)After several hours and many wheelbarrow loads of compost, by the time that fatigue, a headache, and the slanting rays of the sun told me it was time to quit and make some dinner, I had finished mulching the fence border, the serenity garden, and most of the deck border; and I had taken a big bite out of my pile of compost. Several more hours of work later in the week will be needed to finish mulching the deck border and the blue and yellow border. About 1 cubic yard of compost will be left  for this year’s new garden project – a raised bed to close off the serenity garden from the clothesline area.

It may have taken me a long time to get to it, but today I am looking out with satisfaction on my newly mulched flower beds.

The satisfying look of a mulched flower bed (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 9:31 pm

    Love your Lady’s Mantle … a huge favorite of mine.

    • June 27, 2012 10:08 pm

      Joey, When I first planted Lady’s Mantle, I didn’t know I would love it. But some of the plants have become enormous, and both their beautiful foliage and their billowy plumes at this time of year have such presence in the garden (not to mention the delicious way those chartreuse flowers enhance the pinks and blues of plants blooming nearby).

  2. June 25, 2012 11:28 pm

    Wow, that is a lot of work. The total square footage of your beds must be pretty impressive to use that much compost. My soil is pretty loamy, so I don’t use that much compost. I generally only mulch in the areas that show bare soil, which have shrunk considerably. For mulch I use old leaves, pine bark, or cocoa shells.

    The exception is the small vegetable garden and a favored few plants who receive special pampering, mostly my roses and new shrubs or small trees like my flowering dogwood. These receive generous amounts of compost.

    • June 27, 2012 10:14 pm

      Jason, I probably have about 600 square feet of perennial beds; 500 square feet, covered 2″ is 83 cubic feet or about 3 cubic yards. (It’s amazing how quickly those numbers add up!) My “soil” is glacial sand that has been amended with lots of manure and compost. Whenever I’ve had my soil tested, it has scored off the low end of the scale on organic matter. So, when I prepare a new bed, I add in 1 cubic foot of manure and 1 cubic foot of compost for each 6 cubic feet of sandy soil, and then I add new compost every year. It is a lot of work, but once it’s done, I can forget about it (and I won’t have to spend time weeding). I just wish I had gotten it done earlier, when it would have been a bit easier to maneuver around the plants.

  3. June 26, 2012 7:01 am

    Mulch is absolutely a lovely thing for gardens and especially my garden! :P. Thank you for making this article it was kind of a reminder, that i need to go do the job.

    • June 27, 2012 10:15 pm

      Loui, It’s kind of reassuring to know that I’m not the only one who has been a bit tardy in getting this job done :-).

  4. June 26, 2012 8:07 am

    We simply use the garden waste clipped or shredded then laid on any bare soil. Sometimes he buys a bag of compost for planting.

    Stuart – did bob up at Google Plus, said he is still busy, getting there, but no dates after being burnt last time. We wait …

    • June 27, 2012 10:17 pm

      Diana, I’m guessing that garden waste probably decomposes more quickly in your warm Mediterranean climate than in my cold north temperate climate.

      Thanks for the update on Stuart and Blotanical.

  5. June 26, 2012 1:24 pm

    Great job Jean! I would use compost liberally every year if it weren’t so much work to spread. As it is, I hope to spread some every few years to improve the soil. We did spread a thin layer of bark in the front yard this year. You didn’t mention another great reason for mulch – the way it dresses up the beds! Although that depends on the type of mulch you use – no doubt your expensive, evenly composted stuff looks very nice in your beds.

    • June 27, 2012 10:20 pm

      VW, I agree; I love the way those freshly mulched beds look — and my expensive stuff is very pretty :-). One of the things that will be easier when I’m retired (in 2 years) is that I’ll be able to do this job on a more leisurely schedule earlier in the season. Doing it all in one week is a lot of work.

  6. June 26, 2012 3:34 pm

    I am terrible about mulching and getting it down every couple of years even. The back beds are composted or mulched with layers of leaves that fall. It never helps with the weeds but maybe eventually I will get to mulching those back wild beds…

    • June 27, 2012 10:24 pm

      Donna, I probably wouldn’t be so disciplined about mulching if my sandy soil didn’t leach organic matter almost as quickly as it is added — and if I didn’t hate weeding so much. One of the frustrations during the two years that I bought the inexpensive but inadequately composted stuff was that it actually introduced weeds (along with some plants, like squash, that might have been desirable in a different location) into my flower beds.

  7. June 26, 2012 7:39 pm

    Great job Jean, the beds look wonderful. Plants really sprang ahead quickly this year didn’t they? I’ve been trying to move plants for the last two months along with weeding and mulching but they got so big so quickly I had to give up.

    • June 27, 2012 10:28 pm

      Marguerite, It’s been raining here for the past three days, but it finally seems to be stopping; so I’m hoping to get outside and get this job finished tomorrow and Friday. Then all my flower beds will have that lovely newly mulched look. …Well, almost all; I’ve given up on trying to get a soaker hose or any mulch onto the back slope. The plants there are all so big and crowded together that I need to just forget about the weeds that are included; I don’t see any way to get in there without doing damage to plants I don’t want to hurt.

  8. June 27, 2012 12:00 am

    I’m a big believer in mulch too, both for the moisture retention benefits and for the reduced weeding chores. Our local landfill offers free mulch that they produce from all the yard clippings homeowners contributed to the greens recycling program. The stuff doth have a sour aroma, and quite frankly I don’t trust that everyone has been good citizens in not contributing the worst weeds and yard and household poisons. So for now I’m buying bags of the stuff. Both your local options sound like better ways to go!

    • June 27, 2012 10:32 pm

      Many municipalities here also offer mulch, but it usually includes sludge from sewage treatment plants, and I’m a bit wary. Also, you have to transport it yourself, which is hard to do with my little compact car! Since I can afford it, it makes more sense for me to pay for compost from someone who will deliver it and for a high-quality product that has been certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

  9. June 27, 2012 5:08 pm

    Now, there’s a title to make a gardener’s heart start beating faster! I’m with you on the benefits of mulch, although 3 1/2 cubic yards would raise the soil level in my little garden by several feet… For some reason I find it fascinating how different kinds of mulch produce different results or have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, wood chips here get too thirsty. They do well at suppressing weeds and holding moisture in, but they’ll soak up every drop of a 1/2″ rain storm before it ever gets to the ground. Compost does beautifully if it’s dug into the beds and increases moisture retention that way, but as mulch it tends to blow away. Gravel keeps the crowns of desert plants dry and can “steer” rain directly to the soil but does nothing to improve it.

    Sorry to have gone all pedantic on you, Jean, but I’ve been thinking about mulch a lot lately! Your own labors will be well-rewarded, I’m sure, and your garden beds look lovely. And so GREEN!

    • June 27, 2012 10:37 pm

      LOL, Stacy, you don’t have to apologize to me for being pedantic; I’m a professor! 🙂 Everything is very green here this year because we have been having a lot of rain. Actually, we are all ready for less rain, and my CSA farmers are worried about blight and other fungal diseases. Yesterday, on my way to my weekly CSA pickup, I drove by a farm field in my neighborhood and noticed that a low, marshy area in one corner of the field had now turned into a pond and that a family of ducks had taken up residence there!

  10. June 29, 2012 1:41 am

    Couldn’t agree more, just posted a few weeks ago about mulch and adding organic material to beds. Also warned of bad mulch available in the trade. Compost in perennial beds always.

    • July 1, 2012 8:52 pm

      Reed, Thanks for visiting and for pointing me in the direction of your post on mulch. It’s a great overview of issues surrounding mulch. It’s always reassuring to have practices I’ve developed through trial and error validated by a professional.

  11. June 30, 2012 1:19 am

    That is some good-looking mulch!!

    Like you, I love the idea of using compost as mulch. (I’m a relatively new gardener so I haven’t done much mulching yet, partly because I couldn’t decide what to use!)

    Question — If you have groundcovers (and it looks like your beds are densely planted) shouldn’t some of the organic material falling from the plants act as a living mulch? Or do you still need to add compost frequently?

    Sorry if those are obvious questions!

    • July 1, 2012 9:26 pm

      Aaron, Thanks for visiting. Those are great questions! I should start with a disclaimer that I’m not an expert; I’ve learned what works for my soil conditions by trial and error. But here are my experienced amateur thoughts about your questions:

      (1) Lots of gardeners swear by groundcovers as an alternative to mulching, since the right groundcover can also suppress weeds and keep in moisture. I haven’t used this practice much, but here are a couple of cautions. First, you need true groundcovers — plants that grow densely at ground level — to do this. Many plants, including most of those I grow in my garden, grow up and out from the base. This means that a canopy of plants that looks dense at eye level may not be densely planted at ground level. A good example is my Amsonia hubrichtii. The canopy of this plant is 4′ in diameter and seems to be crowding the plants around it; but the base of the plant is only 1′ in diameter, with lots of space between it and other plants. I would need a groundcover that would actually grow in these spaces at ground level if I wanted to substitute it for mulch. Second, if you’re going to grow groundcovers around the stems and crowns of larger perennial plants, you need to choose a groundcover that won’t outcompete those perennials. The only true groundcover I have growing in my garden is Geranium x cantabrigiense; but I keep thinning it and weeding it out as it tries to cozy up to the other plants because it tends to crowd them out if given the opportunity.

      (2) I think whether you can use organic matter falling from plants as mulch depends on your soil and weather conditions. How long will it take that organic matter to decompose into something the plants can use for nutrients, and can the plants wait that long? Because my sandy soil leaches organic matter very quickly, I need to replenish it every year.

      You might find the following information from real experts helpful. Reed of Reed’s Garden Ramblings has provided an informative post on how to choose mulch here. And Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens has provided some recommendations on groundcovers here.

  12. June 30, 2012 11:04 am

    Jean,
    Like you, I waited too long to mulch — and it was a task and a half to get it all placed beneath plants that had grown much too large. And I love the satisfaction of seeing a job well done.

    That’s one of the reasons I have nominated you for the Illuminating Blogger Award. Details on the award can be found at http://foodstoriesblog.com/illuminating-blogger-award/. I find myself returning to your blog over and over again for inspiration and illumination.

    Best,
    Kevin

    • July 1, 2012 9:05 pm

      Kevin, I finally finished mulching today — July 1, good grief!! I’ve always had a tendency to procrastinate, but this was ridiculous.

      Thanks so much for the award nomination.

      • July 1, 2012 9:21 pm

        You’re welcome. I’m still mulching — and no matter what I wear on my hands, they end up stained at the end of the day. And that stain lasts a long time! 🙂

  13. June 30, 2012 9:33 pm

    I’m impressed with your efforts. I do the same thing in my garden… but much earlier, as our growing season begins earlier. I KNOW how much work this is. I topdress my lawn areas with 1/2 inch of compost every spring, as well. By the time I had finished putting down a couple yards of compost on my beds this year it felt like 50 yards! The payoff is worth it, though. Take it easy on the Achilles tendon. I’ve got an elbow tendon giving me fits. This gardening is not for sissies!! 🙂

    • July 1, 2012 9:08 pm

      Toni, I should have done this much earlier — the first half of May would have been ideal. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here then.

      I was very careful with the Achilles tendon. I don’t know what your experience is, but I feel as though those tendon injuries take forever to heal. So every time I was tempted to throw another couple shovelfuls of compost into the wheelbarrow, I stopped and reminded myself that it was far better to take an extra hour or two to make more wheelbarrow trips than to spend months hobbled (literally!) by an Alchilles tendon injury.

  14. July 1, 2012 9:02 am

    Hi Jean, thanks for asking the rain to come over here for us, but it hasn’t arrived yet! That is a lot of work you’re doing in your garden, but am sure with those compost your plants will be very healthy and productive.

    • July 1, 2012 9:09 pm

      Andrea, We’ve had more rain almost every day this week. I really do wish I could find a way to steer it toward your part of the Philippines!

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