A mulch is a layer of material placed on the soil around the plants.
This is a basic practice in organic gardening and in nature. Mulch
will protect the soil from extremes in temperature, which are hard
on plants. In the hot summer you can go out in the garden, lift
the mulch and find worms working close to the surface, whereas in
unprotected soil they go down deep when the weather is very hot
or cold. As mulch breaks down it enriches the soil by adding organic
A good mulch reduces weeding, if piled deeply enough so the weeds
can't grow through. Those weeds that do manage to grow are easy
to pull, because their roots are shallow underneath the mulch. It
will also help to maintain soil moisture, both retarding evaporation
and by catching and holding the available moisture. A mulch will
help to keep your fruits, vegetables and herbs clean by covering
the soil which prevents mud from splashing up.
Straw and hay are the best to use if you can get them. Often farmers
have moldy or rain damaged bales that they will sell cheap or better
yet, give away. Straw has the advantage of being weed free, while
hay often has weed seeds which can grow. If this happens, turn the
mulch over, this will usually smother the weeds. Hay or straw in
bails will peel off in flakes of compacted material, just spread
these flakes close together without pulling apart. The thick, compacted
material will be more difficult for weeds to grow through.
Grass clipping can be used if they have not been sprayed with any
weed and feed type product. They do get slimy however, and it helps
to mix the clippings with coarser materials. Weeds are also be used
as mulch, unless they have already formed seeds or are of the type
that will regrow from the plant or leaf such as purslane. Leaves
are a good mulch as they break down slowly. If you have problems
with them compacting, try shredding them or mixing them with hay.
Sawdust, wood shavings or bark dust are other mulch materials often
available in Central Oregon. They are great for pathways, a six
inch layer will smother weeds effectively. Use caution with wood
products directly around your plants, however. Wood products are
very low in nitrogen, and since it takes nitrogen for them to break
down, they can steal it from the soil and deprive your plants. You
may want to spread cottonseed, bloodmeal or compost under the shavings.
Watch your plants closely, if they show signs of nitrogen deficiency
(yellowing of leaves), feed them extra.
Pine needles are frequently available and can be used also for
mulching. They break down slowly and get a little slippery, but
are good for paths particularly. They are also good for ground that
you want to acidify, this often being the case with alkaline soils.
Studies indicate that they do not leach harmful substances in damaging
Newspapers can be spread out and weighted for use as mulch also,
but do not use colored inks or slick paper, just regular newsprint.
I have even seen old carpeting and tar paper used in the garden
to good effect. Sheet plastic creates a real barrier to weeds when
placed under mulches like bark dust. When spread over weedy areas,
the weeds die under the plastic, clearing areas for cultivations
with a minimum of effort. Black plastic is particularly effective
for this as the heat builds up under the black color and will with
luck destroy weed seeds also.
Stones and gravel are another type of mulch. Large stones give
thermal mass and hold heat during the night. Gravel has the obvious
limitation of not breaking down, so it is not appropriate to use
where you want to dig the soil under again.
Some people garden under a heavy, year around mulch. Pushing it
aside only when they want to plant. Ruth Stout is a fascinating
gardener that has written several books about using the year around
mulch system. The year around mulch method may not be as successful
on low lying damp soils, as it can encourage damp off and crown
rot of perennials. In a sandy soil, and with rich soil to begin
with, this system may be worth exploring.
Seasonal mulch can be put down immediately upon seeding if the
ground is already warm. In early spring, you may need to wait until
the soil warms up before spreading mulch. When transplanting seedlings,
I like to lay the mulch around them immediately. Then if frost threatens,
the mulch can be pulled up close for protection.
Tips for judging a good mulch:
- The mulch should have enough weigh so that it will not blow
- The mulch should remain loose enough to allow air circulation
down to the soil surface.
- The mulch should be free of toxic chemicals.
- The mulch should be fairly easy to obtain and apply.
Building your soil with organic matter is an extremely important
step in the process of keeping your plants watered. A soil rich
in organic matter will act as a sponge, absorbing the water that
does fall on it. The mulch also has an important water conservation
Keep in mind that too much water can be as detrimental as too little.
Plants and soil organisms need oxygen for their survival; a soil
constantly saturated with water has no oxygen holding capacity.
Too much water will leach the nutrients out of the soil and drain
them away with the water.
The general rule is to water deep and less frequently. This forces
the roots to grow down deep and helps protect against drought. A
lawn or garden with a deep root system will survive longer in drought
conditions than plants with shallow roots encouraged by frequent,
A mistake made frequently in Central Oregon is to start watering
too late in the spring and to stop too early in the fall. If you
are regulated by an irrigation ditch, you may have no choice; but
if it is your option, water throughout the time the ground is not
frozen. Sandy soil dries out even in winter and can leave trees
and perennials in seriously dry condition.
Generalizations about about how many inches of water a week your
garden needs is difficult as it varies with the soil and other conditions.
Dig down to see how deep soil moisture is after watering. It is
often surprising when you think you have watered well, but after
digging down you may find the water is not deep at all. Fruiting
and blooming plants require more water than usual.
Wilting in the heat of the day does not necessarily mean that the
plants need water. Some plants wilt from the heat. Dig down to see
if the soil is really dry.
Experts do not agree as to when the best time to water is; some
say in A.M., others say P.M. The morning hours give time for the
foliage to dry before dark, which can be important if you are having
problems with mildew. P.M. usually has less water evaporation loss.
If you live in town, you will have to water by the regulated hours.
As water becomes increasingly scarce, the equipment you use to
water with becomes more important. Overhead irrigation can loose
as much as 30% of the water due to the wind and evaporation. Drip
irrigation systems or soaker hoses aid in water conservation. Also
helpful is a timer on your hoses.
Organically built up soils will feed the plants, but during peak
growing times you may want to provide an extra boost. You can side
dress two or three times a season with dry fertilizers such as cottonseed,
bone or blood meal. Dig a furrow about three inches deep as close
to the plants as possible. Put the fertilizer in and cover with
soil, water well.
Liquid solutions such as manure and compost tea or fish fertilizers,
are an easy and effective way to feed plants. To make tea, fill
a bucket about half full of compost or manure and cover with water.
Let this set for about a week. Strain the water off and mix with
water until it is about the color of tea. Water your plants with
this about every three weeks.
Foliar feeding can provide a quick fix by helping to correct minor
mineral deficiencies and bolster plants in times of stress. This
is done by spraying a solution of plant food onto the leaves of
the plant. Commercial preparations of concentrated liquid kelp and
seaweeds are excellent for this purpose. Not only will it give your
plants a little snack, but seaweed solutions will improve seed germination,
decrease transplant shock, increase fruit set, and best of all increase
frost resistance. Foliar feeding is most beneficial in midsummer,
as this is the highest stress time for most plants.
The trickiest part of frost protection is figuring out when it
is going to frost. I have gone to bed when it was 55 degrees, and
woke up to frost. This is a very discouraging affair to belatedly
realize that frost has struck and find your beautiful garden frozen
Listening to local weather reports does help sometimes, but not
always. You will need to become your own weather expert. You may
be able to find a neighbor or friend, especially one who has lived
here a while, to help you figure out the climate peculiarities.
There are some special things to watch for. If the time is near
the full moon, prepare for frost watch as the likelihood of frost
is higher at this time. If you have an evening with calm air, no
breeze, a clear sky and an early evening drop in temperature, watch
out. Many a night I have set my alarm for three in the morning to
run out to check the temperature and saved my garden as a result.
Water is one way to protect you garden. If you have the watering
option, you can let an overhead sprinkler run overnight, this can
result in overwatering however. I find it best to turn it on in
the middle of the night, before it has gotten too cold to freeze
the sprinkler. This may result in ice around your plants, but the
process of freezing creates heat and will protect the plants to
about 27 degrees.
Some people have fair luck with watering well the night before,
and the water on the leaves is enough protection. If the worst happens
and you get up to frost, sometimes it helps to sprinkling frozen
plants with water before the sun hits them. Once the sun hits frozen
plants that are tender, the cells burst and it is too late.
Another solution, if you do not have too many tender plants, is
to cover them. I have a large collection of old sheets and clothes
that I save just to cover plants. Old blankets, newspapers if weighted
down, hot caps and milk jugs with the bottom cut out, are just a
few of the many creative choices of materials to choose from.
||about 20 inches
One of the things I like most about gardening in Central Oregon
is the definite winter period. There are about three to five months
out of the year you don't have to do too much. Now you can, of course,
putter at some garden related tasks much of the year, but you can
also just move on to other interests in the winter months.
There are a few late summer and fall chores that can be done. Such
as sowing an overwintering cover crop, like winter rye. I have gotten
rye to germinate even as late as October, when the weather cooperates.
Winter mulch is applied after the ground freezes. Just mulch over
the top of the plants with hay, evergreen boughs or something that
will not mat down. This helps the ground to stay frozen and protects
perennials from heaving. Heaving is when plants actually come up
out of the ground from the action of thawing and freezing, which
exposes the roots to drying out and can be quite harmful.
Leaves can be used as a blanket to cover the garden for winter.
Spread them over the whole garden and by spring they will have almost
disappeared into the soil. Sandy soil can consume vast amounts of
organic matter to good benefit.
Give mulch protection to the perennial vegetables you want to overwinter
such as asparagus, kale, spinach, parsley, onions, garlic and jerusalem