Alys Fowler

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Alys Fowler @AlysFowler

Get mulching. Plus what else to do this week

Ifilled my pock­ets with shiny black peb­bles I’d col­lected from the beach. They felt won­der­ful to dip into, cool and smooth, al­most as good as dip­ping your fin­gers in a sack of broad bean seeds. Of course, once I was home, the shiny black peb­bles looked a lit­tle strange in my house, so far from the sea. So I put them around a house plant as mulch. This is more than an aes­thetic ges­ture: non–or­ganic mulches help keep com­post gnats away. If not their in­tended lot in life, it at least gave those peb­bles a pur­pose.

The shin­gle on the beach held an­other les­son: dig down a cou­ple of inches, and the hot bak­ing sur­face quickly turns cool and damp, al­low­ing horned pop­pies and sea kale to send their tap­roots deeper still to find fresh wa­ter and grow, de­spite their shift­ing sub­strate and harsh con­di­tion. The shin­gle acts as a perfect mulch, do­ing just what a mulch should do: pro­tect­ing roots from the va­garies of tem­per­a­ture and mois­ture swings.

All gar­den soils, and so plants, ben­e­fit from mulch. You can mulch at any time of the year, but do­ing so in au­tumn makes a lot of sense. The soil is warm, so you’ll trap in that heat and mois­ture. (Mulching on dry soil doesn’t work, be­cause it acts as a bar­rier to rain.) It will help keep win­ter weeds at bay, pro­tect roots from frost and help pre­vent soil from wash­ing away in storms and harsh wind.

Mulches come in a va­ri­ety of hues. There are per­ma­nent mulches such as shin­gle, gravel, slate chips and even shred­ded plas­tic (God only knows why that was an in­ven­tion). As th­ese aren’t go­ing any­where, it’s best to think a lit­tle be­fore you lay them down. Lay­ing down gravel is fun, rak­ing it back again is not. Shin­gle, gravel and other light coloured mulches work best in dry, Mediter­raneanstyle gar­dens, where they look the part. Not so un­der a wood­land gar­den.

Per­ma­nent mulches will keep weeds at bay and lock in mois­ture. Biodegrad­able ones, such as bark chip­pings, home­made com­post, shred­ded trees, straw and leaf mould do a lit­tle more, in that they feed the soil on top of their weed-su­press­ing and mois­ture-lock­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Th­ese sorts of mulches are best for wood­land gar­dens, bor­ders and around longer-term food crops, such as cour­gettes, straw­ber­ries, fruit bushes and as­para­gus.

Mulch should be ap­plied in the spa­ces be­tween plants and around the base of shrubs and trees. You wouldn’t much like a lot of food dumped on your head, so don’t do it to your plants. Make sure you don’t smother the crown of peren­ni­als, and don’t mulch right the way up to the stem of trees and shrubs: there needs to be a moat of space be­tween the mulch and the base of the tree or shrub, be­cause wet mulch can rot the stem. How thickly you mulch de­pends on how much you have to mulch with: even a 1cm layer will im­prove soil struc­ture, though you need at least 8-10cm to su­press weeds.

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