A recommendation for more responsible water uses in the home garden, A series.

Mulches and top dressings are long overdue aggressive promotion. The use of mulches and top dressings are an important way to cut down on the amount of water needed to keep your fruit trees and other plants healthy and productive. As well as developing good water use practices in your home garden.

The use of mulch and top dressings which began as the simple practice of spreading manure over a field, has become an important practice in agriculture developing over the last 250 years. The benefits being first realized by the worlds strawberry growers who use rotted straw to cover the rows in between plants to cut down on weeding. They soon realized the extra benefits of reduced fruit rot with less contact with the soil and pests were less of a problem. Not to mention the improvement of the quality of the berry.

In farming the use of mulches became popular in the mid 1800’s with the planting of new fruit trees. Often, when later spring plantings were necessary, mulch was applied to help the trees grow successfully in the spring and early summers dry heat. Partially rotted straw, coarse manure, damaged hay, or corn husks were used and placed out 3 feet from the trunk to a recommended 6 inches deep. This was then applied around the base of the tree. This not only help the trees get established but often delayed the need for early irrigation at all.

By covering up the surface of the soil with mulch you cut down on the amount of evaporation taking place at the surface. The root zone stays cool by covering and shading the primary surface feeder roots of the tree. By cutting down the amount of surface evaporation in turn will cut down how quickly the moisture leaves the root zone and extends the length of time between watering.

In more recent times a clear realization of the complete benefits of mulch have grown to include how with continued use, it improves the soil around the plant, there by eventually cutting down the need for excessive use of fertilizers. Mulch is simple to apply and simple to maintain, a simple remedy to several age-old problems requiring a simple fix………Mulch.

When selecting mulch make sure that it consists of material with larger particle sizes to allow for water and oxygen penetration. The mulch should be at least 3 to 4 inches deep and spread to 3 feet outside of the canopy of the tree. Reapply each year to keep these parameters maintained. With consistent application you should see overall soil improvement within about 3 to 4 years.

Look into getting mulch at your local nursery or try the city where you live. Many cities have recycled programs that create mulch and sell it back, typically for a reasonable price. Local nurseries will carry bagged bark in various sizes or other bagged products designed for the purpose of mulching. Other common mulches are wood chips, quite often available from trees services, straw or hay available from local farms or feed stores. Also, a good mulch is stable bedding if you have horse stables close by check them out.

Don’t forget that you can make your own mulch; there are many different systems for composting available to the home gardener. Look at web sites and find the one right for you. Though leaves and grass clippings are often recommended for mulch I find that alone they tend to mate and impede water penetration and oxygen to the root system. These are materials that are ideal in your compost bin. Often when using compost for mulch it is good to use the bulkier particles and save the humus for soil improvement in other plantings.

To make your mulch look pretty you can use top dressing like, bark (small ¼ pathway preferred) Straw, Alfalfa, Coco bean hulls, or bag goods called top dressing and wood chips. Most are available at your local nursery.
Mulch is good for the environment. By using mulch, you help cut down on the waste going into landfills. With the growing concern for nitrates in the water, the use of mulches prepares us for the future when high nitrogen fertilizers might not be encouraged or available. And finally, and maybe most important is that the need for water conservation is already here. Our ability to go on enjoying the taste of a great home-grown apple, peach or plum requires responsible preparation and planning now.

ED Laivo