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Avoid Making These Three Common Mulching Mistakes

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Mulching with plastic can cook plant roots

Now is the time to start thinking about transplanting your seedlings from pots to garden. But before you do, here are some tips on how to avoid making some common mulching mistakes with your garden this Spring.

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If you are not mulching your garden, then you are making your life harder with constant weeding, spending more money on keeping your plants hydrated, and not adequately controlling your plant root soil temperature. However, if you are mulching—but doing it incorrectly—you can cause harm to your plants in spite of your good intentions.

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Here is a summary of some recent tips from the National Gardening Association Editors Learning Library on how you should approach your garden mulching this year:

Garden Mulching Tips

Tip #1: Go organic with your mulch—Choosing an organic mulch with anything that is biodegradable like newspaper, lawn clippings, hay, leaves and wood chips is beneficial not only to the environment, but provides nutrients to the soil, improves soil structure, and is beneficial to the microorganisms that are supporting plant root health.

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The only caveat to using sawdust or wood chips is that some extra nitrogen added to the soil is recommended since the microorganisms munching away at the wood particles will use up some of your soils natural nitrogen stores during the breaking down of the wood matter. In addition, if you do use wood-based mulch, be sure to avoid products that come from Black Walnut trees as they contain a natural poison called juglone that prevents some vegetable plants from growing.

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Tip #2: Don’t Cook or Chill Your Vegetables in the Garden—One of the biggest benefits of mulching your garden is that it helps both raise and lower the temperature of the soil depending on the time of the year.

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Some growers prefer to add black plastic sheeting as mulch early in the season to give the plants a little boost with some extra heat during the early part of the growing season. However, if the black plastic sheeting is not removed or at least covered over with a layer of organic mulch when daily temps rise, the soil can become hot enough to literally cook the roots.

On the other hand, putting too much organic mulch around your plants too early in the season will also keep the soil temperatures too low and wind up slowing down plant growth until the warmer days kick in.

The recommendation here is that depending on your gardening zone, adjust your mulching needs to best benefit growth. If conditions are still on the chilly side, hold off on the organic mulch until the days grow warmer and let the sun do its job on warming your soil. Then add mulch as needed to keep the soil cooler and hydrated. However, if temps are too cold early in the season, then consider a temporary overcoat for the soil using black plastic and remove as soon as the days remain considerably warmer.

Tip #3: Mulch as to Your Plant’s Needs—Not all plants need to be mulched to the same degree. Some plants, like tomatoes, have a broad, dense leafy foliage that will block the sunlight and result in less weed growth as well as shade the soil and prevent excessive water loss. Therefore, only a couple of inches of mulch will be enough depending on how your summers are.

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Other plants, however, provide less natural protection and definitely require additional mulching to keep the soil cool and moist. Examples of this include any staked and trellised plants that are more exposed to sun and wind and thereby lose more water through their leaves than do plants that are less exposed overall to the elements. In this case a good 5-6 inches of mulch layering may be best.

If you have any mulching preferences or methods that worked for you, tell us about them in the comments section below.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Reference: “Mulching Tomatoes” from the National Gardening Association Editors Learning Library.