For those of us who are now raking leaves and fussing about keeping our lawns clean, it’s interesting to step back and see “lawn debris” as having a purpose. I suspect Mother Nature actually has a plan in laying down her leafy blanket before winter arrives. For example, the layers of leaves create an insulating blanket for winter over the small seedlings of the forests. When warm weather returns, these leaves break down to enrich the soil. We can emulate nature by mulching our plants and help protect them for the coming winter.
Various Roles of Mulch
Mulch has other important roles besides insulation, however. A heavy layer of mulch conserves moisture in the garden to help plants survive hot and dry summers. Mulch is also a tremendous aid in smothering weeds. When gardening, I much prefer to concentrate on vegetables than spending time and energy weeding. Continual mulching also improves the soil’s structure and fertility. We are rewarded with more nutritious and tasty produce when there’s mulch to provide constant nutrition for plants.
Another benefit of mulch is to keep vegetables off damp soil and thereby prevent produce like cucumbers and tomatoes from getting dirty and even moldy. Additional mulching before winter prevents roots and bulbs from freezing and the soil from heaving and disturbing roots.
What Materials to Use
Mulching, like composting, is a basic practice of organic gardeners. We might think of “organic gardening” only as gardening without chemicals. Just as importantly, however, organic means using “carbon compounds,” or materials from animals and vegetables for mulch and fertilizers. Therefore, mulching is usually done with materials like grass clippings, shredded leaves, hay, straw, compost, sawdust, shredded corn cobs or newspaper. Some people also use polyethylene products for mulch. I don’t use those because they’re made from petroleum, and I also dislike the waste they create. I’d rather use materials that break down and enrich the soil and therefore don’t need me to clean them up!