Don’t you love the word ‘mulch’. It’s that satisfying combination of mud and squelch. For us earthy gardeners, a mulch is one of the best ways to take care of your precious soil.
What is a mulch? It’s an added layer which lies on top of the soil to feed it or protect it. Or both. Mulches can be made from light-excluding fabric, which will keep down the weeds. Or they can be a thick layer of organic material, such as compost, straw, grass cuttings or even gravel. These will feed the soil or lock in precious moisture.
Perhaps the best example is home-made compost mulch. As it lies on top of the soil all this rich organic matter will be pulled down by the worms and other soil life below. They will help break down the compost into nutrients for the plant roots to take up.
You can add this compost mulch any time of the year when the soil is bare. But it’s probably best done in early Spring, before sowing and planting.
So here are some other ideas for mulches, which you can do right now:
Pack thick handfuls of grass cuttings around the stems of perennial shrubs, after watering them. This summer mulch will not only conserve moisture round the plant roots, but as the grass rots down it will release nitrogen, which in turn helps with green growth.
Use small-sized gravel to cover the top of soil in pots and containers. Again, it helps keep the moisture in, but it will also deter snails crawling over to munch on young stems
Are you creating a path in your growing patch? If it’s hard surface i.e. brick or gravel, you’ll need a mulch to prevent weeds coming through. Thick layers of hard-core, firmly pressed down, plus a light-excluding membrane, will help prevent you forever being on hands and knees pulling up weeds.
And finally, here’s a mulching tip to help you clear a patch of tough perennial weeds – such as bindweed and brambles. It’s a kind of no-dig technique, and is especially helpful if you have inherited an overgrown allotment. First slash away any green weed growth. You can add this to the compost heap, taking care you aren’t including any root system. Then cover the remaining stumps/growth with a thick layer of homemade compost at least 25–30 cms in depth.
Finally pin a membrane firmly over the whole area to cover it. I find flattened cardboard works perfectly here, but be sure to weight it down. Now wait for 6–12 months for the weeds to die in the dark, and for the soil organisms to mix the bulky compost into the soil. This gives a wonderful crumbly texture which makes easy work of pulling root systems out in future.
I’ve also cleared a herbaceous border riddled with ground elder this way. I carefully lifted out the plants I wanted to keep (this is best down in autumn) and put them in pots, after scrupulous combing through their roots to get rid of the pernicious ground elder rhizomes. Then used the combination mulch of membrane and compost throughout the winter, so that by late spring I could replant my precious plants in a gorgeous, rich chocolate cake-like soil.
Go on, enjoy your mulch!
The Grow Your Own Wicked Leeks series is written by Garden Organic, the national charity for organic growing. Each month we bring you timely advice on what to do in your organic patch, whether you’re an experienced grower or just starting out. Share your own tips and gardening photos on social media under #GYOWickedLeeks.