The Garden Patch: Mulch me!

Melvern’s community garden soaks up the noon sun as wheat straw-mulched tomato plants and rows of corn dream of the morning shade of Railroad Bridge.

One of the most overlooked and underrated chores in the garden, whether flowers, vegetables, fruit or whatever you’re growing, is mulching. One of the big advantages of mulching is water retention and another is reduced weeding time. Mulches are best used in summer when the plants need the water the most.

Mulches provide a barrier that helps prevent moisture loss from the soil due to evaporation. They can also help cool the soil which helps control weeds, reduce or lessen soil compaction and keeping the goodies you’re raising cleaner.

Using plastic? This old gardener had the opportunity to work on experiments when he was a freshman in college with polyethylene mulches. Clear plastic doesn’t work well as it acts as a hothouse for the weeds that want to grow underneath it. Black polyethylene works better and is available in various widths. We used to make raised rows, place the black plastic over them, cover the edges with soil to keep the wind from blowing it away, then punching holes through the plastic on the tops of the raised ridges (different sizes for different crops) and planting our crops. The black plastic absorbs heat and warms the soil for an earlier harvest. Later on the foliage from the plants shade the soil reducing heating. Please bear in mind that this mulch works best with warm season crops like tomatoes, melons, peppers and eggplant. Our experience with tomatoes was successful except for the fact that if the plastic came in contact with the fruit, it would usually burn.

Going organic? Materials most often used for this method in gardens include compost, old hay, straw, leaves, shredded newspapers, peat moss and grass clippings. The more coarse the material, the thicker it should be applied (3 – 4 inches) and fine materials can be applied in layers 1 to 2 inches thick. Organic mulches serve as insulating material, reducing soil warming in the spring, so later season use is recommended. I leave mine in place and turn it under when I turn the soil in the fall so that it serves the dual purpose of being the source of organic matter for the soil (it adds “tilth”, a word we used a couple of weeks ago). All organic mulches should be dried before using. This helps control the weed seeds. Also, fresh materials may form mold or slime and repel water if they are still green. Example – I buy the straw that I want to use next spring now so the weeds and seeds can sprout and the weed seed can die off. That being said, old or composted materials work the best and are preferred by experienced gardeners.

WHAT ABOUT WATER? This is Kansas, you know, and it can get hot and dry – so here are 10 ways to improve your water usage:

  1. Water deeply, but no deeper than the root zone of the plant.
  2. Water slowly. Turn down the flow – what runs off waters nothing.
  3. Water infrequently, but thoroughly. Frequent shallow watering causes plant roots to concentrate close to the surface which makes them more subject to damage.
  4. Before watering, loosen the soil surface and use mulches.
  5. Follow directions and your own good judgment for maintaining your irrigation equipment.
  6. Keep the garden well weeded – don’t you hate the weeds bad enough without encouraging them to grow? NO HELP NEEDED!
  7. Space plants closer together to reduce soil water evaporation.
  8. DO NOT water during windy weather!
  9. Save money and help your plants. Water early in the morning when the humidity is high to reduce evaporation. Also, early watering will help evaporate any water from the leaf surface to prevent burning from the sun later in the day.
  10. You all know this one: Locate your garden away from trees or anything else that will compete for water!
  11. This is a freebie! If possible use drip or soaking irrigation. Keep the water OFF the plants! Don’t use a spray if you can avoid it! Did I hear someone say “feed the roots, the rest of the plant will take care of itself?” Same with water!

WHEN DO MY PLANTS NEED WATER THE WORST? Below is a list of periods of critical water needs for different plants in the garden…

  • STAGE……………………………………………………………………….. CROP
  • Germination……………………… Seedlings, especially summer and fall
  • Pod enlargement………………………………. Beans, edible podded peas
  • Head Development……………………… Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Root/Bulb enlargement…………. Carrot, onion, potato, radish, turnip
  • Flowering/early fruit set……………………………………………………………
  • ………………………………… Corn, cucumber, squash, peas, strawberries
  • Early fruit development……………………………. Melons, all fruit crops
  • Uniform all season…………………… Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, all
  • Fruit Crops
  • Maturing period………………………………………………….. All fruit crops

Well, that’s it for another week, folks! Hope you enjoy our little get-togethers and even more I hope it helps with your successful gardening efforts!

Once again, if anyone is interested in Master Gardener training this fall, let us know and we’ll get you the details. See you next time! Next time we visit we’ll talk about soil types and transplanting!

stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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