Mulch Much In March

By “Green” Gene Sottosanto

March is a good month (any month is) for the very important task of mulching due to an abundance of garden trimmings and weeds. Pruning and cleaning up your garden produces a bounty of coarse mulch materials that may be spread on the ground to keep out the weeds while nurturing the rest of the garden. Longer and drier days make it easier to be in the garden and it is also a time
(in Southern California) when the soil begins to dry out with amazing quickness.
One very important reason to apply mulch is that it keeps moisture, mixed with air, in the top level of soil.
Genesis 2:15 is a biblical mandate to “dress” and “tend” our garden.
In a correct version of Genesis 1:28, we are told to replenish the Earth.
It is common for people to think of mulch as something you buy in a bag that looks very much like compost or planting mix. These types of soil amendments are more like adding dirt than the coarser materials that make better mulch. Coarser material allows air to flow around the base of your plants and is necessary to prevent rotting or unwanted sucker growth.
Mulch around your plants looks clean and neat, yet it minimizes garden chores such as weeding, watering, and feeding. Your garden looks better while you work less.
By walking on a loose coarse surface the cracking leaves, twigs, bits of bark, and other materials break into the soil layer and create a better consistency for percolation of water and air into this critical layer. It is much nicer and cleaner for you and your gardener to walk on a layer of leaves, twigs and other natural material, than to walk in dirt. Larger twigs and some branches can be tucked away in more remote areas to provide a sanctuary for beneficial critters.
Without mulch the dirt is hurt. It is unhealthy for soil to be exposed to sun, wind, and compaction by foot traffic and forcefully applied hose water. This compacted layer also resists absorption of water and very useful nitrogen from the air. Unprotected earth can become dry and crusty. It can blow away as dust in the air or wash away. The beneficial earthworms and soil organisms also suffer and so do your plants. Earthworms need to come out of the soil as it gets waterlogged, and when they surface, they need to find the security and the food that a covering of mulch provides. (Throw coffee grounds into your mulch and worms will be even more prolific).
Unfortunately, it is a natural inclination to throw nitrogen containing and nutrient generating mulch materials into the trash. It is easy to overlook the immediate availability of pleasing and decorative botanical provisions that can be used to dress up the ground around your plants. Fresh Juniper, Rosemary, and even Ginkgo Biloba leaves are a few examples of very attractive earth covers. We can also use hay, grass clippings, and ground up branches.
Remember tender seedlings and annuals can be vulnerable to creatures hiding under your mulch. Snails and slugs do not cross over wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, or copper strips. They are attracted to bowls of beer where they go and happily drown. Collect them very early in the morning when they are still coming back from their nocturnal forays.
Infested leaves may re-infest. Certain leaf residue may be harmful to some other garden plants. Be careful with eucalyptus, pepper and walnut.
Despite all the clipping, snipping, pruning, and gathering from your garden and gardener, you may still benefit from a truckload of extra mulch. It is ideal to keep from three to seven inches around your established plantings. (If necessary, rodent prevention includes protective barriers and trapping.). Due to many green waste programs there are huge inexpensive bulk mulch supplies available from any landscaper.
Just as we humans like to shield ourselves from the elements, the earth also likes to be protected. An informed gardener knows that the use of mulch is a very important chore to perform. In Genesis chapter 2 verse 15, we are told to tend and dress the garden. This word dress that is used in some versions refers to mulch. So remove leaves from walkways, drains, and other plant surfaces, but leave the leaves that protect and nourish the soil. Better yet, pile on as much mulch as your yard yields. Bring in some more. Then watch your garden grow.

published as “Mulch for a healthy garden” in Orange County Home on March 2002