People often ask us, “If you could only give one gardening tip to a new gardener, what would it be?”

Frankly, this is an impossible question to answer because gardening is a holistic, not a reductionistic, endeavor. There aren’t any magic pills, foliar sprays or wizard spells that you can apply to make everything “work.” The reality is that your garden is an ecosystem, and like any other ecosystem, all the parts are integrally connected, like gears in a watch.

However, non-answers are not what the questioner is searching for, so we always try to provide an actionable response to the “one tip” question. Drumroll…Here it comes…Wait for it…mulch.

“Huh? Mulch? Why?” You might be asking…

Why Mulch Your Garden?

Soil is a living system that serves an essential foundational function in our planetary system (and garden), akin to your skin. Scrape off the skin on your arm and a scab will soon form to start the healing process. Plow the “skin” of the earth, and weeds (nature’s scabs) will soon appear to start healing the open wound on the earth’s living skin (the soil surface).

Yet repeatedly plowing and leaving your soil exposed to the elements is how we’ve been taught to garden and farm.

What if you could design your garden in such a way that you didn’t have to plow, fertilize, water or pick weeds? After all, those are the activities that make traditional gardening (and farming) time, cost and labor-intensive, right? Well, let us introduce you to one of our best gardening friends that can do almost all that work for you: mulch.

Nope, mulch is not a magic pill, but we’ve found that applying 6″ of wood chip mulch on top of our garden beds in the spring and again in the fall produces results that are almost as good as magic (Note: we “top-dress” the mulch on to the surface of our garden, we NEVER plow it in for reasons we’ll explain below).

Mulch can also be free. We simply called a few nearby tree service companies and asked them if they could drop off their ground wood chips anytime they have some available. As it turns out, they’d rather deliver wood chips to us for free than have to pay a drop-charge at our local landfill—everybody wins!

The Data – What Does Mulch Do In Your Garden?

How does mulch work in your garden? If you want to read a full, detailed meta review of the scientific studies about mulch conducted by Washington State University and published in The Journal of Environmental Horticultureclick here…Or just keep reading below for a summary of their findings:

The proven benefits of top-dressing your garden with mulch: 

  • Improved soil moisture
  • Reduced soil erosion and compaction
  • Maintain optimal soil temperatures (wow, up to 50 degrees F in some extreme environments!)
  • Increased soil nutrition
  • Reduced salt and pesticide contamination
  • Increased binding of heavy metals
  • Improved plant establishment and growth by: a) Improving seed germination and seedling survival, b) enhancing root establishment and transplant survival, c) increasing overall plant growth performance;
  • Reduced disease
  • Reduced weeds
  • Reduce watershed pollution
  • Reduced pesticide needs
  • Aesthetic improvement (*as the researchers stated, it’s much harder to quantify this benefit, but let’s face it: rows of exposed plowed dirt are ugly; mulched beds with edible plants makes a much more attractive landscape)
  • Substantial cost savings (less inputs, higher plant survival rates, less plant maintenance, larger crop yields, etc = big $savings)

Any Problems With Mulches?

Short answer: no. But in case you get the same questions we do from people who can’t believe how good mulch is for your garden, it’s also important to note that contrary to popular belief, researchers found that top-dressing your garden beds with mulch does NOT:

  • cause soil acidification (even when using highly acidic pine bark and pine leaves – by the time, the microbes convert these materials into soil, the acidity is neutralized)
  • cause soil nitrogen deficiency (if you till mulch into your soil, it will cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency, so be sure to only place mulch on top of your soil rather than plowing it in, e.g. let the soil organisms be your “plow” and bring the nutrition into the soil for you)
  • cause disease transference in instances where diseased trees were made into mulch
  • attract termites (in fact, researchers found that mulch reduced termite populations, and, in one study, even increased their mortality rates)

Lesson: Start Mulching Your Garden Now!

Our favorite mulch is free mulch in the form of wood chips. Tree service companies in your area likely have an abundance of it, and might be willing to drop it at your home for free or for a small drop charge.

The absolute ideal mulch contains all parts of the tree: leaves, branches, bark, and core wood. This course medium allows for maximum water penetration and retention, an ideal balance of “greens” and “browns” (nitrogen and carbon) plus it doesn’t blow away or compact during heavy winds or storms. However, we don’t shy away from fallen leaves or grass clippings as long as we know they came from lawns that have not been treated with pesticide and herbicide applications. Green living mulches (cover crops) are also excellent, although you will likely have to pay for seeds and won’t be able to plant much in your beds while the cover crops are growing.

Key Takeaway: Use whatever mulch is ideal for you and start mulching today!

*An abridged version of this tip also appears in the Collection Etc article 23 Spring Gardening Tips and Tricks From the Experts

Happy Growing!

Aaron @ GrowJourney

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