Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/10/06)

Mulch merits a good word. As the plain friend of the high country gardener, it doesn’t have a rose’s beauty, a gardenia’s aroma, or a tomato’s taste. It can’t whistle like the pines. It doesn’t even feel good on bare feet like cool, soft, damp grass on a hot summer’s afternoon. Mulch’s problem is akin to that of a garage floor. Few people notice it. No one ever says of a garage floor or mulch, “Look at that beauty!’” “What a gorgeous color!” “Just smell the aroma!” “It’s to die for!”

However, mulch is worth its weight in gold. Not only does it keep the soil warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot, it also keeps the soil moist and suppresses weeds. And under special circumstances it can even steep tea.

Mulch isn’t even second banana to all the first bananas and luminaries in the garden’s show. Nurseries pile it in big plastic bags out by the parking lot along with the steer manure. It’s never sold alongside elegant delphiniums or massed pansies. It’s stuck out by the gutter just like a garbage can. It needs a good word.

Although the word mulch sounds organic, it is more than that. Versatile mulch can morph into rocks, plastic, wood and bark chips, anything that will cover the soil to protect it. Some people like to live in a rock pile, mulching their whole yards with rocks to save on water and keep down the weeds. Strawberry fields are mulched with plastic. The problem with rocks and plastic in the yard is that they reflect and hold the heat. A landscape of rocks is the thermal equivalent of living in a granite canyon on a hot day down in the Valley of the Sun.

More versatile mulches are chips, sawdust, vintage manure, duff, bark, pine needles, leaves, and compost. Plastic and rocks are very useful in special circumstances, but they do not add nutrients to the soil as do the other mulches. They simply cover the joint.

Weeds are the trial of every gardener. Suppressing weeds is a biggy, and mulch is the best available weed suppresser. Chips, bark, pile needles, and sawdust take a long time to turn into nutrient rich mulch, but they cover the ground well. Moldering duff and leaves decompose and release their nutrients faster. Vintage manure and compost are winners in the decomposition race, but compost is the richest. Every time vintage manure and compost are watered, they gradually steep a nutritious tea, not fit for human consumption, which seeps into the earth enriching it with natural nutrients.

Pine bark, chips, and sawdust may carry the bark beetle insects and should be sterilized in a sealed black trash bag for a couple of weeks before spreading them as mulch. Poisoning the earth with weed killers is an example of the dictum that human beings are the only animals who foul their own nests. Steer, chicken, and horse manures are best used when they’re at least four years old or composted. The weed seeds will be killed and the animal waste won’t be “hot” or harsh.

As a triple threat, any mulch will suppress weeds, warm or cool the soil, and save on water. However, mulch of vintage manure or compost is a quintuple threat. It suppresses the weeds, cools or warms the soil, supplies nutrients, saves on water, and enriches the soil with organic matter. By the way, aged elephant dung hands down is the best. So go for it!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006

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