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The Many Benefits of Mulching

 

Study and mimic the forest floor and the plants in their native habitat. In areas such as rain forests, plants have a thick layer of mulch around them. As much as six inches of plant debris is piled around these lush plants. In desert areas, on the other hand, there is very little mulch. Most plants require mulch between these two extremes. Four inches of loose fibrous materials works well around trees and shrubs. The finer and smaller the particle size, the thinner the layer needs to be. Thick layers of very fine material block air to the roots of plants. In their search for air the roots will grow up into the mulch, which can be harmful to the plants if the layer of mulch is not constantly maintained.

The shredded branches from tree trimmings and large two-inch bark would be considered a fibrous or loose mulch. Leaves or leaves mixed with some grass clippings and one-inch size bark would be a medium mulch. When using medium mulch, the layer should be about two inches thick. One-half-inch and smaller materials, like fine-screened and double-ground barks should be used thinner, only up to one inch. These tiny particles quickly settle together and prevent air and water from penetrating properly. This finer, smaller material should be used around small flowers and vegetables. Note: Small, fine-ground, fresh pine bark releases phonols, trepans and tannins that can be toxic to certain plants and can slow their growth considerably.

The mulch on the forest floor is never a pure product. Instead, it is a mixture of grass, leaves, a few sticks or twigs, and a very small percent of manure and dead animal life. The homeowner and gardener will have an accumulation of material in similar ratios. If an abundance of green grass clippings, kitchen scraps, manure or other high-protein products accumulate; it is best to compost them before using them. The compost can be put down under a fibrous, dry-brown, high-carbon mulch. This duplicates the profile of the forest floor.

When applying mulch around plants, cover as much of the root area as possible. Do not pile the mulch up against tree trunks. It isn't needed against the trunk and may do harm.

Mulch is helpful in flower and vegetable gardens as a weed deterrent. Weed seeds that blow onto bare earth quickly sprout and become a problem. Weeds that blow onto mulched areas are less likely to sprout, and weeds that come up through a layer of mulch are much easier to remove.

Although it is mostly ignored, research and common sense has shown that a high-organic content in the soil is needed for soil microbes to detoxify pesticides after they are used and also to furnish the energy the microbes need to make high-analysis fertilizers available to plants without the fertilizer itself becoming toxic. Again, we discover another great benefit and the importance of using organic mulches. The toxic materials in pesticides and fertilizers kill the microbial life of the soil. Mulch and the organisms that live in it can help reduce that toxicity.

MULCHING THE LAWN:

The Don't Bag It program and the new mulching lawn mowers are the best and most natural things to do for the lawn. Why did it take so many years to figure that out? Most lawns, however, would still benefit from additional mulching. Naturally, you wouldn't use the same mulch you put around flowers, shrubs, and trees on your lawn. One-half inch of fine-screened compost applied in the fall or early winter after the grass has stopped growing is a good mulch. Water in thoroughly and you'll find the thatch improves dramatically. It never fails. Even a fine horticulturist like Dr. Parsons found that mulching with compost improved his lawn.

The improvements to lawns from mulching with compost are very quickly evident. The contrast between the mulched and un-mulched areas are so visible that many people have brought me pictures of mulched and un-mulched areas. They are amazed.

People tell me: "My lawn stays greener in the fall and comes out earlier in the spring ."  "I have no freeze damage." "The lawn is thicker, no weeds, no diseases." "I can fertilize less or not at all." "I have fewer grub worms, no chinch bugs." The one thing they all say is, "I water less." Most tell me they water about half as much as they did before mulching.

Lawns are our biggest water consumers, making them the most important place to practice water conservation.

An experience a friend of mine had illustrates the immediate water saving of compost mulch on a lawn. When Jim moved to San Antonio, he spread Dillo Dirt (sludge that has been composted with yard waste by the city of Austin) over the lawn of his new home. At the same time, Jim's neighbor was out spreading topsoil and fertilizer. When the neighbor learned Jim had spread sludge, he wasn't too happy. Time went by; the hot, dry season came, and Jim's lawn continued to look great. The neighbor's lawn and all the other surrounding lawns began to show late summer stress. Jim happened to meet the neighbor outside one day and mentioned that his lawn looked better. The neighbor replied, "Your lawn looks great, and my water bill is killing me just to keep my lawn alive!" The neighbor told Jim that his water bill had been in excess of $200 per month for the past two months. Jim was slightly embarrassed to tell him that his own water bill was $38 and $42 for the same two dry months.

The two yards were the same size. Jim has a wife and two young daughters. Four people were using water in their home; only the neighbor and his wife were using water at their house. Jim watered every 10 days, while the neighbor watered daily. Both lawns have the same species of lawn grass.

The neighbor's yard probably had no crumb structure, no humus, no beneficial soil life, or root colonizing microbes. The grass probably had fewer roots, which grew shallower, and the grass was more susceptible to insects and diseases.

Jim's yard probably has all the benefits and good things provided by mulching and decaying organic matter I have mentioned earlier. But there is more. Science now tells us that the carbon in humus-decayed organic matter in the soil can attract moisture from the air on humid days, and the mycorrhizal fungi can collect it and supply the roots of the plants. Also, as the microbes break down organic matter, they release carbon dioxide (CO2), which is slightly heavier than air. The CO2 tends to stay low near the grass before it finally defuses into the air. The green leaves of all plants feed from CO2. They take out the carbon and release the oxygen, which we need. When there is an abundance of CO2 for the leaves to feed from, they utilize water a lot more efficiently.

Conserving moisture, slowing flood waters, slowing global warming, lessening the need for pesticides, healthier plants, smothering weeds, saving money, recycling materials considered waste-and on and on. And we still have not yet discovered all the benefits of mulching.

In order for mulch to perform all these miracles, it must continually be decaying at the surface of the earth, so we must continually be adding new layers on the top.

If we just practice what we now know about mulching, we could cut the pumpage from our aquifers and reservoirs by one half or more. Our lawns would always be green and our springs would always flow.

 

The Garden-Ville Method - Lessons in Nature

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last updated:  March 6, 2004