Talking about raking leaves and using them in my garden brings me to the general subject of mulches. Mulches are a gardeners best friend. They help to moderate the soil temperature in the winter and summer by providing an insulating blanket, conserve water by slowing down evaporation, and reduce weeds by preventing light from reaching the weed seeds and also by being a barrier to weeds.
Moderating soil temperatures in the wintertime helps to prevent heaving of plants with the alternate freeze and thaw spells we tend to have in the southeast. When the ground freezes plants can be pushed out of place-especially shallow rooted plants like heucheras (coral bells). Once the thaw comes (and it will here during the winter) you can push the plant back into place but the damage may already be done in the form of root loss. The plant will need a period to recover which will certainly slow down growth in the spring. Mulch will insulate the ground and hopefully keep it frozen or at least prevent a deep freeze of soil and slow down the big thaw when it comes. This benefit is exactly what plants need in the winter and may prevent plant heaving. Plus, a bed of mulch is just what my garden needs to sleep warmly during the wintertime! Knowing the gardens are tucked in for the winter gives me such a feeling of peace-strange, I know. I guess it is the fact I don't have anything else to do until late January-February timeframe when the bulbs start poking their noses up out of the ground, and the hellebores begin their very long period of bloom.
Moderating soil temperatures involves mulch shading the soil, which will help to keep the soil cool. If the soil stays just a little cooler with the mulch then water loss is lessened and plants do not suffer as much stress from the heat and sun of our summers.
Conserving water is especially crucial with the recent droughts. I am not a person who can see into the future, but I anticipate we gardeners all across the country are going to have to adjust our way of thinking away from water loving plants toward plants that are able to take care of themselves and survive droughts if need be. It is very possible next year may be a great year for gardening, then again we have the possibility of another year like 2007. I for one do not want to be outside watering for hours at a time as I have better things to do (believe it or not!). Mulches help to slow down evaporation by providing a layer between the soil and the air. Mulches also serve to slow down what rain water we do receive and can actually catch the rain and gently direct it into the soil beneath them. Mulches help prevent soil erosion by providing a soft, usually porous layer for rainwater to fall upon.
Lastly, mulches help prevent weeds. I have never seen a mulch which could totally prevent weed growth, but mulches will slow down weeds. Another benefit of organic mulches is that the soil beneath them becomes more friable and workable. So whatever weeds do manage to grow are quite easy to hand pull.
I am a big fan of organic mulches like compost, leaves (shredded is the best way to use these), pine needles, hay, and even grass clippings. Organic mulches are free, readily available and will improve the soil tilth over time. Many gardeners have clay soil which can be as hard as a brick in the summer and as mucky as sewage in the wintertime. Organic mulches help to combat those two problems by increasing soil aggregates and improving the drainage and workability. Organic mulches do not add a great deal in the area of fertilizers so the fertility of soils will still need to be managed.
I do not like inorganic mulches like black plastic, rocks, and shredded tires. Inorganic mulches do not allow the soil to breathe and if you do plant ornamentals in them, the roots may grow above, through or under the inorganic mulch. My home had five foot tall compacta hollies (thought it was boxwood but it is actually compacta) which had been mulched with black plastic and covered with shredded bark. When my oldest son, Brian and I dug those hollies out the roots were growing all through the mulch ABOVE the plastic and in the six inches of mulch left there over the years. Weeds were also growing well in the mulch above the plastic. What a mess! And this example only includes hollies, imagine what would have happened if something like irises or daylillies were planted among the black plastic. When the perennials spread the plastic will get in the way and will cause a maintenance headache.
Aesthetically mulches look good. They can add so much to your landscaping and the selection of mulches should be based on the gardener's preference and level of maintenance he or she is willing to perform on the garden. Inorganic mulches have a tendency to spread themselves around the yard (especially rocks) and will need to be tidied up frequently. (What a pain to mow over all those errant rocks) On the other hand, organic mulches require renewal every year or two depending on the type you use. I use pine needles around my house. I collect the pine needles for free from my one pine tree out front, and from Fort Campbell. I generally use leaves everywhere else but add a layer of straw and newspapers to the vegetable garden after planting the summer garden in April-May. Every now and then I take a trip to Bi-County to buy a truck load of shredded wood mulch for $10 for use in new gardens. I never ever use chipped and/or shredded wood near my house for fear of termites. I don't think it is a good idea to even use the "treated" stuff around your house. Pine needles are a better choice. Pine needles only need to be renewed every other year in my yard and I think that is a great deal! Of course, I always hate it on those years the pine needles have to be redone-like this year.
The first picture shows my front garden with a pine needle mulch after one year in the wintertime, and the second picture shows a back garden with a leaf mulch in the summer. The last picture is of this years results after raking pine needles from Fort Campbell. I love the look and think it matches the house nicely. It seems like I have so many pine needles and leaves in the winter then come summer the mulches seem to disappear. I ask myself every year "Where do they go?" It is just Mother Nature working her magic recycling the organic mulches back into the earth and the process is so gradual that I don't even notice the loss of the mulch until it is all gone. Most people have some pine needles and leaves and if you don't, you might have a neighbor willing to share.
Today is a raking day and I am going to rake and bag some pine needles from some fellow freecyclers. Now all of you freecyclers know exactly what I do with pine needles and thanks for offering your extra ones!
in the garden....