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Mulching Garden Soils

Mulching Garden Soils

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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Oklahoma State University
F-6005
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Fact Sheetsare also available on our website at:
http://www.osuextra.com
Steven H. Dobbs
Extension Consumer HorticulturistMulching Oklahoma garden soils may be one o the mostvaluable cultural practices o gardening.The use o organic materials or mulches can providemany benecial eects. These include: the control o annualgrasses and weeds; the elimination o the need or cultiva-tion and the resulting damage to plant roots; the reduction omoisture evaporation; the increase o water absorption andretention; the decrease in runo and soil erosion; and theregulation o soil temperature. Other benets are: cleaner, moreeasily harvested crops; the reduction o ruit rot; and easiermovement through the garden during very wet periods.Surace mulches will provide conditions or plant roots todevelop throughout the surace inches o the soil to absorbwater, nutrients, and oxygen. Luxuriant stem, lea, fower, andruit growth ollows the development o vigorous, extensiveroot growth.Most Oklahoma soils are high in mineral content, but lowin organic matter. The use o organic mulches in the homegarden and their incorporation into the soil at the close oeach gardening season provides an opportunity to increasesoil organic matter content, improve the physical condition othe soil, and add some nutrients.
Mulching Materials
Many materials are available or mulching. The selectiono a particular material depends upon the cost, availability, theseason o the year, and the crop to be mulched.Since one o the more important actors in successulhome gardening is the maintenance o an adequate level oorganic matter in the soil, this act sheet will consider primarilythose materials that produce this result.Suitable organic mulch materials should decomposewithin a season and should not contain undesirable quantitieso viable seeds and harmul disease organisms or pests.The material should be easily applied and remain inplace. It should not pack down and should be eective or atleast one season. Finally the mulch should be incorporatedwith the soil or urther decomposition. It is a good practiceto incorporate or compost garden reuse at the close o thegardening season. This eliminates protective quarters orinsects to use in winter months.
Application of the Mulch
Growing Season Mulches
A mulch is requently applied soon ater the emergenceo the crop seedlings or ollowing transplanting.A delay in application o the mulch may be desirable i thesoil has not warmed suciently during the spring season.In the event o excessive soil moisture, crop plant rootsmay develop in the mulch layer where aeration is more avor-able or root growth at that time.The depth o a mulch layer will be infuenced by the textureo the mulch material since a primary objective is to prevent orgreatly reduce the germination and growth o annual weedsand grasses.The amount used might vary rom 1 inch or sawdust,peat moss, cotton seed hulls, ground corncobs, compost, orsimilar density materials to 4 to 8 inches or straw, hay, cornstalks, or other coarse materials.Another actor in determining the amount and type omulch material used, is the need to provide protection to oli-age, fowers, and ruits rom soil-borne disease organisms thatcould splash upon the plant. Also, to prevent the developmento ruit rots or lea diseases.Many o the more permanent plants o the yard and gar-den may also be mulched to maintain a continuous soil coverunder and around the plants. This might include trees andshrubs as well as hardy perennial fower, ruit, and vegetableplants.Some plants that benet rom summer mulching include:tomato, pepper, eggplant, okra, green beans, cucumbers,cantaloupe, squash, broccoli, cabbage, caulifower, brus-sel sprouts, sweet corn, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries,blackberries, dewberries, boysenberries, blueberries, andtree ruits. Also, chrysanthemums, columbine, roses, azaleas,asters, lilies, daylilies, perennial phlox, peonies, and manykinds o annual fowers benet.Generally, the semi-arid plants and most wild fowers, whengrown in higher rainall regions, should not be mulched.Sweet potatoes do not benet rom summer mulchingexcept in very sandy soils and in dry seasons.
Winter Season Mulches
The principal reasons or winter mulching are to providemore uniorm soil moisture and to protect the plant rom severetemperatures during cold weather.Winter mulches generally are applied around and overthe tops o low growing plants ater the plants are in a dormantor inactive stage o growth. This usually occurs in very lateDecember.The amount o mulch applied is infuenced by the severityo winter cold, the amount o drying winds, and winter rainall.
Mulching Garden Soils
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service 
 
6005-2Oten one will apply a cover, but not totally screen out plantsunder the mulch. Loose mulch materials are more suitable(straw, pine needles, loose hay).As growth begins to develop, the young leaves will havea very light green color due to the reduction o sunlight underthe mulch. Remove enough o the mulch to allow or normalplant growth. With chrysanthemums this might require removalo at least
3
 / 
4
o the mulch while with strawberries removal o
1
 / 
2
o the mulch might be adequate.Oten the cause o death in non-mulched plants is theresult o low temperature combined with excessive drying othe soil.
How to Use Sawdust As a Mulch
Where sawdust is available it is commonly used as asummer mulch. The material, preerably partially decomposed,may be applied to a depth o 1 to 1
1
 / 
2
inches. This wouldrequire about 5 bushels o sawdust or a 10 t. x 10 t. plot.This amount o sawdust would, i dry, weigh approximately50 pounds.Beore application, mix one pound o actual nitrogen per5 bushels o sawdust to aid in urther decomposition (1 lb.actual nitrogen would be 3 Ibs. o ammonium nitrate or 5 Ibs.o ammonium sulate).I no nitrogen were mixed with the sawdust some o thenitrogen in the soil would be used or sawdust decompositionater mulching. The result would be nitrogen starvation o themulched crop. Such plants would have yellowish-green oliageand limited growth.Strawberry runner plants may readily root down throughsuch a layer o sawdust while it provides excellent control omost annual grasses and weeds. This amount o mulch wouldperhaps be equal to adding between 6 to 10 inches o ad-ditional irrigation water on non-mulched strawberry plants.Using organic materials as mulches may cause an in-crease in certain garden pests. The mulch provides an excellentenvironment or sowbugs (or pillbugs) to grow. Some treatmentto reduce this pest may be needed. Recommendations orthis are provided in Fact Sheet F-7313 “Home Garden InsectControl.”
Polyethylene Film and Other SheetForms of Mulching
The use o air-tight sheets o plastic are less desirable asmulching materials because o the lack o air movement intothe soil surace during periods o soil drying. However, thismay be oset by specic advantages o the practice. Whenattempting to garden in an area inested with perennial weedsor grasses the use o chemicals to control them may makegardening in that area undesirable or several months.An alternative weed control program is cultivation o thearea, and application o the needed ertilizers. Then cover thesurace with black polyethylene, set plants or plant seeds in thesoil through slits in the lm. The result o this system will be thedestruction o the perennial grasses or weeds i the coveringremains over the soil throughout the growing season. Theremay be small amounts o grass or weed growth through theslit openings and these plants may require physical removalat the close o the gardening season.Also available to the home gardener are commercialabric weed barrier products. Weed barriers are manuacturedgeotextile materials that provide a protective barrier primarilyor weed control in the landscape. Fabric weed barriers areair and water permeable in most cases. However, on slopeswater tends to run along the abric surace without readilypenetrating the material. In most cases gardeners use adecorative mulch on top o the abric barrier to restrain thewater rom run-o and add aesthetic appeal. Nutsedge andother similar weeds have been known to grow through theabric barrier.The commercial vegetable industry has had degradableplastic lm available during the past ew years to reduce theirdependency o cleanup and disposal. Such lms are now avail-able or home gardens. Photodegradable lms disintegrateunder the exposure o ultraviolet light in a time-released man-ner that usually lasts through one growing season. However,remnants o the plastic can remain ater a growing season.Soil and oliage that may cover the plastic also blocks theUltra Violet light, thus preventing complete breakdown.
Figure 1. Mid-Summer Temperature Differences betweenNon-Mulched and Mulched Plots Measured 1 Inch Deepin the Soil.Figure 2. Mid-Summer Temperature Differences betweenNon-Mulched and Mulched Plots Measured 3 Inches Deepin the Soil.
 
6005-3The use o aluminum oils or laminates may provide simi-lar eects. Also, certain kinds o insects (lea hopper, spidermites, and aphids) may be repelled depending on the intensityo refected light to the under side o the plant oliage.Table 1 provides inormation on mulch materials and someo their characteristics. 
Does the Mulch Will the Mulch Will the Mulch AvailableCrust, Pack, Control Remain Eective Blaze (re) NutrientsMaterials or Seal Grass and Weed or a Season Possibility Present RemarksPeat Moss 2 2 2 2 4 May be blown ormoved by windor rainSawdust 2 2 2 2 5 -10-12 lbs/bushelBagasse 2 2 2 2 5 May be blownby windCotton seed hulls 4 2 2 2 2 *Usually remainswhere placedStraw 1 2 2 5 3 Presprout seed bywetting balesLeaves (b) 3 3 2 3 3 *May be blown bywindCotton burrs 2 2 2 2 2 *Don’t use burrsrom chemicallydeoliated plantsLawn clippings 5 3 4 5 2 Compost - don’t useresh as a mulchHay - prairie 1 3 2 4 3 *Usually better ichoppedHay- legume 2 3 2 3 2 May become veryhot during earlydecayCompost 1 2 2 1 1 Also used as a rowcover in seedplantingWood chips 1 3 1 2 5 Excellent permanentmulchBark
b
1 2 1 2 5 Excellent permanentmulchWood shavings
b
1 2 1 5 5 *Lea mold 1 2 2 2 3 *Gravel pebbles 3 4 1 1 5 Frequently used overpoly ethyleneAluminum oil 5 1 1 1 5 May aid in insectcontrolBlack polyethylene 5 1 1 2 5 Will destroy perennialgrasses and weedsFabric weed barriers 5 1 1 4 5 Will not absorb waterreadily on slopesPine Straw 4 2 2 1 4 Shred beoreincorporating intosoilShredded newspaper 2 3 3 2 5 Wet to keep in placePhotodegradable lm 5 1 2 2 5 Soil covered portionswill not decompose
(a) 1 = excellent, 5 = poor(b) Black walnut sawdust, bark, and leaves is very toxic to some kinds o plants.• Add 1 pound actual nitrogen per 50 pounds o dry organic matter to provide or decomposition.
Yard Trash - A Valuable Resource
Yard trash such as lawn clippings, leaves, pine needlesare an inexpensive and valuable resource or your vegetablegarden and landscape. Try recycling yard trash instead osending it to the landll. Yard trash can be transported to yourcompost pile (see Fact Sheet F-6014 “Making a Compost Pile”and used later or mulch and/or soil conditioning.
Table 1. Some Mulch Materials and their Characteristics
a

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