Mulching in Your Gardens

By Carol Sitarski, Master Gardener, Cornell University Cooperative Extension

Contrary to belief, mulch has been around for millions of years as the leaves and plants fell to the forest floor and fields where they decayed. Some curious person began watching what happened during this process and realized that the outcome was excellent weed suppression and an enriched soil which grew beautiful plants. The English word mulch probably came from the German word molsch, which means soft, beginning to decay. Farmers were among the first to use mulches to improve their crops. Within the past hundred years home gardeners and landscapers have begun using mulch for easier gardening and within the last fifty years mulch use has grown by leaps and bounds.  Why has this practice become so wide spread now? Two reasons: one is that research has proven the benefits of this practice and the other is the availability of products.

Many different natural and synthetic mulches are available today, but they all provide three basic functions: [1] reduce soil water loss [2] suppress weeds [3] protect against temperature extremes.  Characteristics of good mulch include:

  • cost; they need to be economical, you would be surprised at all the places that need mulch in your landscape, so keeping the price down is important,
  • readily available; this can mean using materials that are at hand (leaves, pine needles) or it can mean a local supplier that has mulch and can deliver in a timely manner,
  • is easy to apply and remove; if it isn’t easy, the chances are slim you will continue to do this year after year,
  • stays in place; (have you ever put down layers of newspaper and before you could spray them with water they are in your neighbor’s lawn?),
  • supplies organic matter to the soil (as mulch decomposes it becomes part of the soil),
  • and is free of noxious weeds, insects and diseases.

Selecting the right type of mulch should be considered for what you are trying to protect. Mulch PictureWinter mulch is put down to protect woody shrubs and plants to insulate against winters cold and help prevent frost upheaval. Straw, pine needles and shredded leaves are all good for this purpose. It is best to put these down in late fall but before the ground freezes. Summer mulch is usually applied when the soil begins to warm, think mid-spring. It is primarily used for water conservation and weed suppression. Two to four inches of mulch is necessary to be effective.

Material Resistance to Compaction Attractiveness Resistance to Blowing Source of Weeds & Disease
Relative value of mulches that break down in one to two seasons:
Compost Good Good Excellent Fair
Hay Good Fair Good Fair
Lawn Clippings Poor Poor Good Fair
Leaf Mold Good Good Excellent Fair
Leaves Unsatisfactory Good Poor Good
Manure (rotted) Good Good Excellent Unsatisfactory
Peat Moss Good Excellent Excellent Good
Straw Excellent Poor Poor Poor
Relative value of some persistent mulches:
Bark Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent
Pine Needles Excellent Good Good Good
Sawdust (coarse) Fair Fair Good Excellent
Shredded Bark Good Excellent Excellent Excellent
Wood Chips Good Good Excellent Excellent
Inorganic mulching materials:
Black Plastic Tears Unsatisfactory Unsatisfactory Excellent
Crushed Rock Excellent Good Excellent Excellent
Geotextile Excellent Unsatisfactory Unsatisfactory Excellent
Gravel Excellent Good Excellent Excellent

 

Sawdust, bark, wood chips and shredded bark will rob the soil of nitrogen unless composted for at least a year. Be sure to add a nitrogen supplement to the soil if these are fresh, such as bone meal.

Low growing ground covers are not technically mulch, however, they can be used as such since they provide the same benefits; such as shading the soil, preventing moisture loss and suppressing weeds. Mulch should not be considered a fertilizer even though some do decay and add to soil value, fertilizer should still be applied to plants that are mulched. Never used mulch before? Included is a link to an online calculator to help you calculate how much mulch your gardens will need.  www.lawndepotinc.com/garden-center/mulch-calculator-2/

Photo: Colleen Cavagna

References:
http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/mulch/mulchland.html

http://extension.missouri.edu/p/g6960

Wednesdays in the Arboretum Program for August 20, 2014

The Basics of Hydrangeas:  Demystifying the Species; and,

Ways to Get Your Workout In While Gardening

Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners in Cattaraugus County will offer  two programs on The Basics of Hydrangeas: Demystifying the Species, by Master Gardener Pat Kerl, and Ways to Get Your Workout In While Gardening, by Master Gardener Jessi Caparco, on Wednesday, August 20 from 7:00 to 8:30 pm at the Nannen Arboretum, behind the Ellicottville Town Center/Cooperative Extension Center, 28 Parkside Drive, Ellicottville, NY 14731.

The programs are part of the Wednesdays in the Arboretum series, this year running on Wednesday nights from July 9-August 20.  The programs will be held rain or shine, and they are free and open to the public.  No pre-registration is required.

For more information on this or other programs in the Wednesdays in the Arboretum series, please contact the Master Gardener Helpline by telephone at (716) 699-2377 x127 or by e-mail at cattaraugusmg@cornell.edu

Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities. Accommodations for persons with disabilities may be requested by calling the Belmont Office at (585) 268-7644 or the Ellicottville Office at (716) 699-2377.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Monthly Vegetable Growers Walk & Talk

August 20, 2014, 6:00 PM at Simon Girod’s Farm 11101 Fitch Farm Rd, Freedom, NY 14065

This month’s crop walk will highlight pest and disease controls, with an emphasis on pro-active management. Cultural practices, as well as topics of interest to the group, will be discussed.

The Discussion Group is made up of new/beginning farmers and experienced grower-mentors located in Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties.  This group is free to join, open to new members, and meets on the 2nd Wednesday of the month. For more information please contact Elizabeth Buck, Cornell Vegetable Program Technician at 607-425-3494 email: emb273@cornell.edu or Lynn Bliven, Agriculture Issue Leader 585-268-7644 ext. 18 email lao3@cornell.edu.

Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities. Accommodations for persons with disabilities may be request by calling the Belmont Office at (585) 268-7644 or Ellicottville Office at (716) 699-2377.

Free Fall pH Clinics with Cornell Cooperative Extension

Did you know, the best time to test your soil and adjust its pH level is NOW, in the fall, NOT in the spring! Any amendments you add to your soil can take up to 6 months to work their magic (i.e., lime or sulfur).

Cornell University Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners are hosting fall pH clinics starting Aug. 23rd.

Your soil pH number is linked to how vigorously your plants will grow. Most gardens flourish in the range of 6.0-7.0, slightly acidic to neutral. If you are lucky enough to be within this range, you won’t have to add lime or sulfur to your soils. Many soils in Allegany County range from the mid to high 5.0’s (slightly acidic); the parent materials our soil is made from influences this number. This means soils that have not had amendments, (such as compost, leaves, lawn clippings, etc.), routinely added may require an addition of lime to meet the minimal neutral pH.

pH also affects what nutrients the plant can take up in its’ roots. When pH is high (over 7.0) iron, manganese, copper and zinc in the soil become unavailable to plants. Conversely, when pH is low (below 6.0) calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium become unavailable. The nutrient may still be in the soil, however it is bound up in the soil due to the pH and the plant cannot use it.

Have your soil tested for free to see if you need to add lime or sulfur to adjust the pH and see your garden respond next year! Limit of 2 soil samples per person.

Master Gardeners are hosting pH Clinics this fall where you can have your soil tested for free!

Aug. 23rd        9 am – 1 pm         Angelica – Farmers Market           MG’s David Chamberlain, Debbie MacCrea

Aug. 30th      10 am – 2 pm      Cuba – Cuba Feeds                         MG Charlie Jurenko

Sept. 11th      11 am – 1 pm       Belmont – Farmers Market          MG’s Carol Sitarski, Brenda Starr

Sept. 20th      10 am – 12 pm     Scio – Riverside Sales & Service MG’s Susan Duke

Sept. 27th      11 am – 1 pm       Alfred – Tinkertown Hardware    MG’s Mary Lu Wells, Mary Harris, Linna Roemer

For more information, contact Colleen Cavagna, at Cornell University Cooperative Extension, 585-268-7644 ext. 12 or cc746@cornell.edu.

Instructions for Taking a Soil Sample for the pH Clinic

  1. First determine how many samples to take. You need a separate sample from your flower beds and a different sample from your lawn; you wouldn’t mix all of these areas together.
  2. Each soil sample is comprised of 5 to 10 individual samples obtained by walking back and forth diagonally across the area and randomly choosing where to place your shovel.
  3. Use a trowel or shovel to dig a small hole to the desired depth (6-8”). Remove a slice of soil from the entire side of the hole you made and place this in a clean plastic container after removing any grass, stones, or roots.
  4. Repeat this procedure at each of the 5 to 10 random spots and place the soil from these spots in the same container.
  5. Mix the soil thoroughly in the bucket; wearing clean gloves will reduce contamination of the soil sample.
  6. Next remove 1 cup of soil from your container and place this in a plastic bag; a Ziploc bag works fine. If the soil sample is overly moist, allow it to dry a few days. Secure the bag. This is your soil sample for that area.
  7. Mark the outside of the bag with some type of identification (i.e. #1, #2, or “A”, “B”, or “East”, “West”, Upper Garden, Perennial Flowerbed, etc.).  Keep the identification simple and something you will remember.

Repeat this entire procedure for each additional garden, landscape bed, lawn, etc. for up to two free samples.

Wednesdays in the Arboretum Program for August 13, 2014

A Taste of Hawk Creek: Live Raptors and Mammals
and Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Chickens

 Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardeners in Cattaraugus County will offer a program on Hawk Creek Nature Sanctuary:  Live Raptors and Mammals by Master Gardener Jay Newman, and Fresh Eggs Daily: Raising Chickens, by Marilyn Siperek, on Wednesday, August 13 from 7:00 to 8:30 pm at the Nannen Arboretum, behind the Ellicottville Town Center/Cooperative Extension Center, 28 Parkside Drive, Ellicottville, NY 14731.

The program is part of the Wednesdays in the Arboretum series, this year running on Wednesday nights from July 9-August 20.  The program will be held rain or shine, and it is free and open to the public.  No pre-registration is required.

For more information on this or other programs in the Wednesdays in the Arboretum series, please contact the Master Gardener Helpline by telephone at (716) 699-2377 x127 or by e-mail at cattaraugusmg@cornell.edu