Hello Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners. October is here! That’s right, football, pumpkin picking and apple cider making. Well there’s a lot more going on in the fall, but I enjoy good apple cider, maybe with pumpkin muffins or donuts. They make pumpkin donuts, right?
Autumn is a busy time on the farm and around the garden. Harvest season is in full swing as we envision shorter days, cooler nights and around the corner we can see the old man’s winter. October is the time to plant garlic in the valley, but maybe I’ll talk about it next week.
Fall is a great time to apply mulch and other soil amendments. First of all, you need a soil test to find out what your current nutrient levels are and what the soil is lacking. This is the best time of year to do a soil test for the garden, lawn or field crops. If you have any questions, please contact me at the extension office. Don’t guess, soil test.
This week I want to focus on the importance of mulch. Any homeowner or landscaper knows the crucial role mulch plays, so take the time to spread mulch around flower beds, trees and in the garden. Especially around new plants or those that need protection this winter.
Applying mulch or mulch serves several purposes for the backyard gardener. It helps prevent weed growth, retain soil moisture in the heat of summer, cool the soil surface and stabilize soil temperature. Research shows that two inches of bark mulch will reduce summer moisture loss by 21% and lower summer soil temperatures in the top four inches of soil by 10 degrees F.
Mulch also reduces heaving of small plants (plant roots are pushed up out of the ground) due to alternate freezing and thawing of the soil in winter. It reduces soil erosion and keeps fruits, vegetables and flowers cleaner. Finally, it can improve the general appearance of the landscape.
One of the main benefits of applying mulch is that you add organic matter to the soil. Many gardeners ask me “Where does all the mulch go?” I still have to apply it every year.
The faster the mulch breaks down, the healthier your soil. Your soil is teeming with beneficial bacteria and fungi. The billions of microbes in the soil break down the organic matter in the mulch for use by vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees.
The two most common questions homeowners have about mulch are what type of mulch to apply and how much. Let’s start with the easiest. The recommended mulching depth, depending on the material chosen, is approximately 2 to 2.5 inches. At this depth, most mulches will serve the primary purposes of controlling weeds, conserving soil moisture, adding organic matter, and changing temperature. If a site already has mulch from last year, a thin 1-inch topcoat is more than enough.
However, too many good things can be bad. Mulch applied 3 to 6 inches deep or more can cause serious problems for landscape plants. Too thick mulch can greatly reduce or eliminate drying out and lead to waterlogged soil, especially during wet seasons or in heavy clay loam soils.
Extended periods of wet soils in the spring are the most damaging to a number of perennials, including azalea, rhododendron, and conifers in general. Too much mulch, especially if applied directly against the stalk or trunk of landscaping plants, also leads to consistently wet bark and promotes disease development.
Now we can talk about the type of mulch to apply. It depends on your goals and the plants you are mulching. Most of the organic material such as shredded or crushed bark, crushed wood chips or shredded leaves can provide the main benefits we want from mulch, including moisture retention, weed control, and weed control. addition of organic matter. Cost, aesthetics, and availability are often factored into your decision-making process.
For general weed control and other benefits, use shredded bark. This material is by far the most popular landscape mulch due to its appearance, availability and cost. This includes shredded hardwood in addition to cypress bark, chipped and chunk pine, and fir.
Compost is also an option. Commercial composted manure, mushroom compost, or leaf mold can add a lot of slow-release nutrients to the soil. You can also make your own compost with clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps.
For new garden beds, apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost to the soil surface. You can add other amendments such as lime and fertilizer as needed. Incorporate these materials with a digging fork, spade or tiller. For existing beds, apply a layer of compost about 1 inch deep to the surface of the bed each year.
Dried animal manure can be used if you live near a farm. Free organic matter and all these nutrients, of course, it can be used as a fertilizer. However, weed seeds are often introduced with manure and if it is not fully composted it can burn the roots of small plants. The best plan is to compost animal manure.
The soil pH can be changed depending on the chosen mulch. For example, most composts will be slightly alkaline or sweet (pH above 7) and are excellent for use around flower beds and gardens.
Continued use of oak leaves, pine needles, pine bark, and sphagnum peat moss will increase acidity. Leaf decomposition products, including oak leaves, will be alkaline, but continued use of oak, pine, and sphagnum peat moss products will keep the soil surface acidic (pH below 7).
If you have blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, and conifers, sphagnum peat moss can be a good choice for mulch. It will add organic matter and is acidic, which will keep the pH low for those acid-loving plants. Pine needles along with jagged cones make an excellent mulch, especially for conifers and plants that thrive in acidic soils. Pine needle mulch, once available only in the southern states, is now available.
Historically, straw and hay have been used for the winter protection of perennials, small plants and of course strawberries and small plants. My only caveat is that weed seeds can be introduced from these sources. These materials break down easily, so you will need to reapply.
Lawn mowing is a poor choice for mulch as they tend to clump together and prevent water from entering if they dry out. In addition, they are unsightly and can produce an unpleasant odor as they decompose. A much better option is to compost your grass clippings and then use the compost in your yard or as an amendment before applying mulch.
May and June are good times to apply mulch, but another application is often needed in the fall. For established plants, the timing of mulch application may not be as important as for new plantings, especially shallow rooted shrubs and conifers, herbaceous perennials, or strawberries.
Mulching slows down the freeze / thaw cycle that causes the soil to heave. Uplifting of small plants, especially newly planted ones, occurs after alternating ground freezing and thawing.
To reduce heaving, which breaks roots and causes winter damage, apply mulch at the first sign of frost in the soil. For established plants, water abundantly in late fall if the soil is not already wet, then mulch.
Fall mulching can prevent seed germination of many spring pests in flower beds and raised gardens. Weeds such as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), chickweed (Stellaria media), and cardamine hirsuta (Cardamine hirsuta) germinate in the fall and early spring.
When the soil begins to warm up, they grow quickly and produce remarkable flowers. Mulches serve as a physical barrier that affects seed germination, conserves soil moisture, and reduces the incidence of soil-borne diseases.