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Using Mulches in the Landscape
by Don Janssen, UNL Extension Educator
Maybe you can't fool Mother Nature -- but you can imitate her.
Think of a pine forest, carpeted in fallen pine needles. Or a stand of hardwoods and the fallen leaves that muffle and cushion your footsteps.
In the forest, this layer of organic materials is called duff. In the garden and landscape, it's mulch. The major difference is that mulch doesn't just happen in the garden -- you have to put it there.
Gardeners can use both organic and inorganic materials for mulch. Both have their pros and cons.
Gardeners usually use mulch to inhibit weed growth and conserve soil moisture. Mulch prevents weed growth by cutting off light to the soil. It conserves soil moisture by slowing the evaporation of water from the soil. As a result, plants are less likely to be stressed by dry weather and need watering less often.
Organic mulches can be tilled into the soil at the end of the gardening season. As they decompose, they add organic matter to the soil, improve soil structure and release nutrients. Inorganic mulches, such as black plastic, are not biodegradable and so must be taken up at the end of the gardening season.
The best mulch for any particular gardening situation depends on the crop and the objective.
Early in the season, you can use plastic mulch to warm the soil so that early-planted seeds and transplants get off to a quick start. Clear plastic will heat the soil as well as black plastic, but it doesn't control weeds the way black plastic does because it lets the sunlight through to emerging weed seedling.
An organic mulch spread after plants are in or seeds have germinated, or over plastic through which crops are planted will keep weeds from staging a garden take-over.
Mulching for weed control is most successful against small annual weeds. For best control, mulch before weeds emerge.
Mulches aren't as successful in controlling quackgrass and other perennial grasses. They may work their way up through even several inches of organic mulch. Black plastic may control them by cutting off the light they need to produce food. The heat and moisture that build up under plastic in hot weather may also help kill the weeds.
By keeping the soil moist and cool, organic mulches can also make a slug problem worse by providing slugs with a cool, damp place to hide during the heat of the day. Putting slug baits under the mulch may give some control.
On heavy clay soils, plastic mulch, especially, may hold water in too well. Plants may suffer from having too much water and not enough air around their roots. To prevent this waterlogging, apply only organic mulches. You can also build raised beds and apply mulch over them to avoid waterlogging.
On the plus side, mulches keep the fruits of melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and other crops off the ground and free of mud spatters and so free of ground stains and rots. Using organic mulch around vining crops such as squash and melons eliminates the need to cultivate around them to control weeds. As these crops sprawl, this becomes all but impossible.
How much mulch is enough? Three or four inches of organic mulch or one thickness of 1 1/2 mil plastic will do the job. Around low-growing crops such as lettuce and radishes, 1 1/2 to 2 inches of organic mulch is the maximum. Around taller plants, start with an inch when they're seedlings or freshly set transplants, and increase it to at least 3 inches as they grow taller.
PHOTO Credit: Vicki Jedlicka, UNL Extension in Lancaster County
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office
Contact Information University of Nebraska-Lincoln
in Lancaster County
Web site: lancaster.unl.edu
444 Cherrycreek Road, Suite A, Lincoln, NE 68528 | 402-441-7180