Basic Soil Prep and Protection

Spring is right around the corner! As the weather warms and your itch to get back outside can no longer be scratched, consider amending your soil and mulching as one of your first outdoor chores.

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General mulch - landscape applications:

Mulch protects soil, retains moisture, prevents weed germination and as it decomposes, increases valuable organic matter in soils. The best mulch for an organic program is the decaying plant material on your property; leaves, twigs, spent plants, buds, bark, flowers and other plant debris. These materials should be shredded well allowing it break down faster. As it decomposes, soil organisms will use it as a food source improving the health of your plants naturally.

Organic debris shouldn't leave your property. It should be used as mulch or composted on-site. There are several commercially available mulches on the market and if wood mulch is your preference, without a doubt, local, shredded tree trimmings are best. A mix of both soft and hardwoods, including green leaf debris is a fantastic mulch choice that breaks down beautifully and greatly improves your soil. Contact a local arborist about scheduling a delivery of this beneficial material. Plan on paying roughly $80 for a large truck load, but if they’re working in your neighborhood, some may be willing to drop a load free of charge.

Another popular choice is Grade A, Shredded, Cedar Bark Mulch. This fragrant mulch is long-lasting, durable and provides a good protective ground cover without needing frequent replacement. The dark brown color of this mulch highlights plant color beautifully. BEWARE - Wood chip mulch is high in carbon and cellulose and requires nitrogen to decompose. Nitrogen is a widely used marconutrient in soil and for plant growth. Never mix or till wood/wood mulch into your soil as it will bind up the soil’s nitrogen making that area an awful spot for healthy plants over the next season or two.

Never use colored or dyed mulch.

The wood material used in colored or dyed mulch is typically questionable. Additionally, it often contains broad-spectrum fungicides and algaecides that kill fungal and algal organisms indiscriminately. While this product is created for use in landscapes, it can be detrimental to plant growth. Manufactures use synthetic pesticides to slow the decay of the poor quality material, in an effort to make ‘the color last longer’. What they don’t tell you, is the type of material and toxicity of the pesticides. Generally, pesticides should never come in contact with your skin and in an organic system, our goal is promote and support the living soil food web, not work against it which is exactly what this mulch does. Furthermore, the colorant used in wood mulches stains driveways, sidewalks, and your skin and bleaches away quickly. If you choose to use colored mulch, always wear protective gloves, pants and a long sleeve shirt to prevent contact with your skin. I also recommend asking the retailer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) to make certain you know what you’re coming in contact with and incorporating into your landscape.

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Vegetable Garden mulch:

Again, the decaying plant material on your property; leaves, twigs, spent plants, buds, bark, flowers and other plant debris is choice mulching material for the garden. Be sure that any plant material used as mulch is shredded well and was not exhibiting disease. Straw is also a good choice for veggie gardens. First, make sure the straw wasn’t treated with synthetic agrochemicals. Clean, chemical free material is paramount.

Remember one bale goes a long way. A single bale may be enough to cover the average home vegetable garden. Lay a 3 to 6 inch layer throughout. While not totally necessary, some people prefer to leave space between the mulch and seedlings/transplants to prevent disease. Straw decomposes fairly quickly so adding another layer mid-season might be necessary.

Pro tip - or my opinion based on experience and knowledge… - In my landscape and gardens, I prefer complete coverage by plants where possible, then local shredded tree trimmings in my paths and straw/unfinished compost (landscape debris) as the mulch in my growing beds.

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Compost can and should be made at home but is also available commercially for purchase. To create compost, the time of year is not a factor. Any time is a good time. Great additions to the compost pile include both green and brown organic materials such as - grass clippings, coffee grounds, egg shells, tree trimmings, leaves, veggie food scraps, bark, sawdust, weeds and animal manures. Always mix the ingredients well.  

Ingredients should be a mix of coarse and fine-textured materials which help promote air circulation through the pile. Oxygen is a crucial component. When adding new ingredients, always cover them with decomposing material. Be sure to turn the pile with a pitchfork roughly every other week, or as time allows to speed up the process.

Another critical component is moisture. A compost pile should be moist - not wet. Think, squeezed-out sponge. This stimulates the living organisms that create compost and promotes faster breakdown of the organic materials. NOTE: If your compost pile ever has a bad odor, you’ve done something wrong. In most cases, bad smelling compost piles are caused by excessive wetness. Add brown, carbon rich materials such as dry leaves, straw, sawdust or shredded paper, then turn and mix the pile well.

Your compost is ready to incorporate into soil when the ingredients are no longer identifiable. This wonderful smelling material has a texture that is soft and crumbly and is dark brown in color. Most people say that finished compost looks like great garden soil. Rough, unfinished compost (organic debris) can be used as topdressing mulch around all plantings as long as it’s shredded, and any plants used were not exhibiting disease.

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Did you know that breathing fresh air, walking barefoot in nature and not wearing gloves when gardening makes you healthier? It’s true! So take off the gloves, kick off those shoes and get down and dirty.

- Luke Snow

Healthy, living soil is the foundation of life. Learn from Dr. Zach Bush about how human interaction with soil improves our health.