Mulch provides plants spring protection and so much more

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— Even though the danger of frost doesn't pass until mid-June here in the Yampa Valley, it's pretty tempting to plant things in the garden when we experience a few warm, sunny days.

Then, the infamous Mud Season happens. Gotcha! Snow, sleet, and freezing temperatures turn the garden into a mucky mess, and your new plants into shivering seedlings huddled under a blanket of white stuff.

Actually, that's not too bad for most hardy, cool-season plants as long as the ground doesn't freeze. What you have is snow mulch!

Mulch is any material that provides protection and improves the soil when applied to the soil surface. In the case of snow, it protects your plants from freezing in the cold air; it keeps the ground from freezing; and it waters your plants when it melts.

Other benefits of mulch include:

  • Weed prevention;
  • Moisture conservation in the soil;
  • Soil temperature stabilization;
  • Improved aesthetics of the landscape;
  • Reduction of soil erosion on slopes;
  • Improved air and water movement to the roots;
  • Improved soil structure and nutrient availability; and
  • Protection of shallow-rooted plants from freeze damage.

Mulch also can be used to create trails, garden walkways, play and natural areas within your yard.

There are two types of mulch: organic and inorganic.

Organic mulches are made of natural substances such as bark, wood chips, leaves, pine needles or grass clippings. They attract insects that birds eat and they decompose over time. Although they do help bring some nutrients to your soil, they should not be considered substitutes for fertilizer. Actually, as organic mulches decompose, some of the nitrogen in the soil is diverted from use by the plants, and instead used to break down the mulch. As a result, you may need to add nitrogen to your soil to ensure your plants obtain adequate nutrients.

Inorganic mulches include gravel, pebbles, black plastic and landscape fabric. They do not decompose.

To obtain the most benefits, Yampa Valley gardeners should mulch in the spring after the soil has warmed and begun to dry. Except where plastic or fabric is used alone or with chips or stones, mulch should be applied at a depth of 3 to 4 inches.

Some mulches, particularly straw and loose leaves, may become home to rodents. So do not place this type of mulch any closer than 6 inches from the base of woody plants. The rodents may nest in it and chew the bark of your plant, killing it.

Mulching is something that occurs naturally in nature when leaves, needles, twigs, pieces of bark, spent flower blossoms, fruit and other organic material drops from plants. Mulching also is one of the best things you can do to maintain healthy plants in your garden.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office.

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