I am not a basketball fan, but I am a huge – read HUGE!!! – mulch fan. And March for me, means mulch. Now, when I say mulch, I specifically mean shredded hardwood. Some people mulch with straw, old hay, compost, leaves, grass clippings, chop and drop cover crops… And that’s all awesome stuff for adding organic matter to your soil and holding in moisture. But here, on our hilly, windy property, other mulches simply don’t stay in place unless they are also covered with a thick layer of hardwood mulch.
We usually use a method called sheet mulching to protect and nourish our soil. For new planting areas, we start with a layer of cardboard, then we cover it with 4″ straw, followed by 4″ composted manure, and then we top it all off with 4-6″ hardwood mulch. For existing planting areas that have previously been sheet mulched, we usually do the same process, except we skip the cardboard and we use lighter layers. We also avoid applying any of these things on top of plants and instead just pile it around the plants.
This method builds soil incredibly fast. But one thing I learned the hard way, is that the hardwood should always be on top until it decomposes into fine grained soil looking stuff. I made the mistake of mixing partially decomposed hardwood in with other compost once. It made for a beautiful loamy mix, but nothing – and I mean nothing – grew in it until the second year when the hardwood had fully decomposed. (Then it was the bomb!)
I learned later that hardwood mulch tilled in can bind the nitrogen in the soil making it impossible for plants to access this necessary growing ingredient. Once the wood decomposes into something that looks like soil, then you can mix it with no concerns.
It’s also a good idea to do your sheet mulching just before you are expecting heavy rain. Otherwise, you need to water all your layers before you put down your hardwood mulch. The hardwood mulch holds water in, but also keeps shallow water from reaching the layers beneath. It is kind of like a sponge that catches the water and holds it. When it has more than it can hold, then it starts to seep to the layers below. But, if you only get a light rain then everything below stays dry.
Finally, I have found terminates in mulch before. So, I recommend following the general advice and keeping mulch a few feet away from your house. You can kill the termites in your mulch with a direct application of undiluted 5% vinegar if you have them.
The other awesome thing about hardwood mulch is that you can inoculate it with mushroom spawn that is both beneficial to your garden and to your dinner table. We’ve bought winecap spawn (king straphoria) and they work pretty well. But we had a bunch of volunteer blewits. I broke up the blewit clusters and spread them around and now they show up everywhere we have mulch. They smell wonderful and everything seems to grow better around them. They are also edible (just make sure they are really blewits) but I’ve been so busy spreading them that I haven’t cooked any yet.
I could go on and on about the benefits of mulch, but after moving it all day long, I am now thoroughly exhausted and ready for bed. So, the last benefit of mulch that I’ll offer you tonight is that after a deeply satisfying day of doing good for your soil, you’re guaranteed a good night’s rest.