Mulching is one of the most important things you can do for your garden! Covering your garden with organic matter of any kind may seem like a lot of work, however it actually is an important lazy garden living technique, which will save you weeding, fertilizing, and preparing your garden bed next spring!
A mulch of organic matter of any kind will help feed and protect the microbes that live in the soil. Imagine being a microbe stuck outside all winter. A blanket of mulch would surely be appreciated. During warmer periods of the winter, the microbes can feed on the nutrients from the decomposing materials, and because the soil stays just a wee bit warmer decomposition happens over a longer period of time then it does in unmulched soil. The nutrients from the decomposing organic matter are held in the bodies of the microbes until the weather really warms, when the microbes speed up their life cycle, and release the nutrients into the soil in response to signals from actively growing plant roots. Mulch also helps to break the physical force of the rain. I have seen experiments where runoff was collected from three different planters. One had bare soil, one had mulch, and one had plant cover. The one that was bare had a tremendous amount of visible particulate matter in the run off. This means both soil and nutrients are being lost every time the garden is watered, or rained upon. All that hard work to build soil can be lost quite quickly in uncovered soil. The planter with mulch on it had some runoff, but not nearly as bad as the bare soil. Of course the best situation was plant cover. Plants hold soil in place, and also take up nutrients in their cells that otherwise would be lost to runoff. Even leaving weeds is better than leaving soil bare, as they will prevent soil and nutrients washing away. You can always cover the weeds with cardboard later, and turn them into compost. Now that is a real lazy garden living idea! I really love this idea, and that will be the subject of my next blog!
If you are overwintering any vegetables in your garden, mulch is especially important. Mulch can help insulate the soil, preventing the freezing and thawing cycles that can damage plant roots. It helps keep plants in dormancy by keeping the soil an even temperature. On sunny winter days uncovered dark soil heats up and plants can come out of dormancy. When they do this the first thing they do is to start taking up water. It often happens that our sunniest days are followed by our clearest and coldest nights, that often drop below freezing. When this happens, the water that the plants have taken up freezes, and the plant cells that contained that water are likely to burst. Burst cells become ready food for bacteria and fungi, who then get established and produce the visible symptoms that we call rotting. The plants do not have enough nutritional reserves in winter to fight off infection, so many plants are lost.
So what can you mulch with? I like to stay away from plastics in my garden, although they keep weeds down, it doesn't allow the soil to breathe, and can kill soil microbes, who are the hardest working allies you can find. I prefer to mulch with organic materials, and in the fall there are plenty around!
Whenever I go for a walk I bring a bag with me. That way I can gather some leaves, or a bit of seaweed each time I go, making it much easier than getting huge loads only once in a while. I gather leaves, and I also gather seaweed. Gathering seaweed should be done in a knowledgable fashion. Microscopic sea creatures attach themselves to seaweed for a part of their life cycle. When seaweed is gathered at the low tide line, chances are we are robbing these creatures of a chance to re enter the sea, and complete their life cycle. The correct way to gather seaweed is after a full moon, or a new moon, or a huge storm. The tides tend to be the biggest then, and the seaweed that is high up on the very high tide line after these moons, or large storms will not be heading back to sea so the sea creatures attached have no chance of getting back.
I never rinse my seaweed. The sea minerals that are found in seawater buffer the effects of the sodium chloride, and actually are beneficial to the soil. So, in lazy garden living style, just dump your bag or bucket of seaweed on top of your soil, or into your compost. The microbes will do the remainder of the job of delivering all those yummy plant nutrients to the garden.