Time to think about MULCH!
Especially toward the end of April! Pull back or don’t apply mulch to keep your soil warmer while you are starting seedlings and transplants. When the weather gets warm and the soil starts drying out quickly, apply your mulch!
Compost and mulch often get mixed up. Compost is incorporated into the soil and sometimes used as mulch, hence the confusion. Mulch is always put on the surface, not incorporated into your soil. For it to be an effective weed suppressant, it needs to be a bare minimum of 2″ deep, preferably as much as 6 ” deep. It depends on the texture of your mulch and whether it lets light through or not, and how much you have available. We want no light on the soil so light germinating weed seeds won’t germinate! Mulch cuts down on water splash, keep your plants and their ground-laying fruits clean and fungi diseases from getting on your plants’ leaves. Mulch keeps plant roots happy with cool moist soil, shades the soil but not your do-business photosynthesizing plants’ leaves! Mulch prevents erosion of soil away from your plant, and from hillsides.
Whatever you use as mulch, especially when you are growing veggies, choose ones that will feed your soil! Eventually, organic mulch does decompose. That’s why seed free straw, barks, chop and drop healthy plant cuttings, downed leaves, are all good. Put down a couple inches of well aged manure. When you water it will be like making manure tea feeding the soil underneath. But it’s better, if you are laying down manures, compost or worm castings, to dig them in a bit because if left on the surface they off gas Nitrogen, the very ingredient you intended them to add! At which point, when you dig them in, they are not mulch, but an amendment. So, though compost may be used as mulch, on the surface, you don’t get your best mileage out of it when you use it that way. Redwood mulches, pine needles make your soil slightly acidic. Strawberries like that. I use the cones to drape berries over, keep ’em off the ground, less slug bites! Redwood and needles are pretty. Shredded redwood is expensive, especially if you put down the 3″ or more it takes to prevent light going through it.
Yes, larger pieces decompose more slowly, and use up Nitrogen as they decompose. This is not so good in a veggie garden since it uses N the veggies need. Same problem when we do continuous sheet composting/lasagna gardening. The process takes N from the soil; our plants may not thrive the first year or so until a soil base is established unless you use a good bit of compost in your planting holes.
We do use wood chips in our pathways at Pilgrim Terrace. We want large pieces there so they will take longer to decompose. Local tree companies that can be trusted bring unsprayed, undiseased chips, when they have them. They deliver to us to save dump fees. It there is any chance you will be planting there sometime in the future, also choose the type of tree you prefer. Oaks have tannins, eucalyptus and tea trees have aromatic oils that inhibit plant growth. Check to see if any commercially packaged mulches are dyed. Not likely here except perhaps in the big box stores? If you are using manures, check if animals have been fed hormones, eat pesticide sprayed hays, or pesticides have been sprayed on the manures to reduce flies.
Short rooted plants like beans and strawberries really do well with mulch. Plants that have soil fungi problems, like tomatoes, it’s better not to use it, and water minimally. Drier soil has less fungi. Cucumbers have short roots and soil fungi problems – best to pick resistant/tolerant varieties. More on Mulch!