It’s the beginning of March now, and while nearly all of us are tired of looking at the snow, some of us are planning what we will plant in our yards and gardens. I've just re-upped for a CSA share with Eden Farms, and while it's too cold (so cold!) to put up my greenhouse yet, the seed and plant catalogs have started to arrive, and I can’t help but dream of new green shoots coming from fertile spring soil. I know I have a lot of work to do when all of this finally melts, though, because winter hit before I had time to mulch the vegetable garden or my flower beds. My usual rabbit manure supplier disappeared from Craigslist, and I had plans to get some horse manure one Saturday morning in November, but then it snowed, and I didn't want to drive in it, and, well, it all seems laughable now, 110 inches of snow later. I wish I could go back and kick my November self in gear now.
Mulch tackles a number of important jobs in the garden. Besides keeping weeds down, it maintains soil temperature better and more evenly, keeping the summer’s warmth in longer - as well as the winter’s chill. Mulch helps to control erosion from wind and rain and keeps moisture from evaporating, giving plants more time to soak up rain. As it decomposes, it enriches the soil, adding its nutrients and modifying its composition, making it more chemically and physically complex and better for plant growth. A well mulched yard or garden also looks much neater and is easier to work in.
So when is the proper time to mulch your flower or garden beds? Mulching in fall is a great idea to protect your plants from icy winds and bitter cold, but when spring comes, you’ll want to rake that mulch back until your seedlings sprout and grow a bit. This will allow the ground around your plants to warm up and will allow the rain to drain better and keep from waterlogging your soil, especially this year when we have up to 5 inches of rain in frozen form ready to be absorbed. Once the ground has warmed and dried up a bit, then it will be time to rake the mulch back and add more. How much mulch is enough? The USDA recommends a total of 2-4 inches of bark or wood mulch, spread evenly over the entire area being covered. If more quickly decomposing matter is used - such as leaves or compost - they advise using 3-4 inches. Measure your garden carefully to determine the volume of compost that you will need using this depth. It's early in the season, but some outlets, like Kamps are already offering discounts on landscaping products, including mulch.
If you didn’t mulch this last fall, don’t worry. That thick layer of snow we’ve had all winter has served as a kind of mulch protecting and insulating your plants. It will likely be a wet spring, but your perennials will eventually peek up out of the soil and then spread their leaves and bask in May’s sunshine - as will the rest of us.