Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
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Well, we’ve had our first frost and the plants are retreating into their shells, so to speak, to weather our cold winter. While plants that grow here generally are pretty hardy and designed to withstand our cold winters, we can make the winter easier on them by providing a blanket of mulch.
Mulch is any material that provides protection and improves the soil when applied to the soil surface. Even snow can be considered a mulch because it protects your plants from freezing in the cold air, it keeps the ground from freezing, and it waters your plants when the snow melts. That is why we often recommend leaving your most delicate shrubs unpruned for the winter so that the branches can capture some of this snow.
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
■ 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. They decompose throughout time. Although they do help bring some nutrients to the 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 is 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.
When should mulch be applied? It depends on what benefits you want from mulch. Mulch applied in the fall to protect fall transplants will keep soil temperatures above freezing longer into the fall, which gives the plants more time to generate root growth. Spring mulch often is used to reduce frost heave and delay too early spring growth of early blooming bulbs such as crocus and squill.
To obtain the most benefits, Yampa Valley gardeners should mulch in the fall to protect the roots of plants when the weather turns frosty and again in the spring after the soil has warmed and begun to dry from snow melt. Except where plastic or fabric is used alone or with chips or stones, mulch should be applied at a depth of three to four inches.
Some mulches, particularly straw and loose leaves, may harbor rodents. So do not place this type of mulch any closer than six inches to the base of woody plants. The rodents may nest in it and chew the bark of your plant, killing it.
Mulching is one of the best things you can do to maintain healthy plants in your garden. It’s something that occurs naturally in nature when fallen leaves, needles, twigs, pieces of bark, spent flower blossoms, fallen fruit and other organic material drops from plants. So help your plants make it through the winter by applying a blanket of mulch to your garden now before the snow comes.
Deb Babcock is a volunteer Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Questions and topic suggestions for this column may be submitted directly to the CSU Extension office at 970-879-0825.