Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two Four Time

This is it, the traditional May two four planting weekend in this part of the world, but if you don’t get around to planting because of other exciting two four stuff, don’t worry. There’s plenty of time left for planting.

Once upon a time, most annuals were sold in tiny cell packs and it created an urgency to get them into the garden early to ensure they started growing, even though they wouldn’t budge until the soil warmed up. Now, with a trend towards larger, more mature plants in individual pots, timing is less critical.

Whether you plant this weekend or wait until early June, there is one thing that will help your flowers and vegetables when they have to face blazing hot summer days, and that’s mulch. In nature, there’s always mulch on the surface of the soil, usually in the form of a leafy layer.

Plants expect to be surrounded by mulch; bare soil is not normal. Covering soil conserves moisture, keeps down weeds, and if organic, it slowly adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of materials as mulch: leaves, manure, mushroom compost, wood chips, straw, shredded bark, and cocoa bean husks.

Anything that covers the soil surface while allowing moisture to penetrate does the trick. I’ll even use clippings from evergreen shrubs, and I always make use of my ornamental grasses crop. It does a fine job in the veggie garden. As they break down, they all help feed the soil, which is so important.

Wood chips or shredded bark are popular, especially on flower beds in front yard gardens. A few bags may be all you need, but if you’re a heavy user, consider ordering in bulk. When spreading mulch from four to eight centimetres deep, which is usually sufficient, a big bag will go a long way.

There has been a concern that as wood based mulches break down, they can deplete the nitrogen in the soil, but this only occurs in the uppermost layer and isn’t as much of a problem as was once believed. If you use wood chip mulches every year on the same flower beds, it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle a little blood meal or alfalfa pellets on the surface to counteract the effect.

As mulch slowly decomposes, nutrients and organic matter are absorbed, feeding the organisms in the soil. This is a natural process, but it is far more complex than it appears, especially to anyone who dismisses soil as dirt — dirt is what you get on your pants after sitting in soil.

Soil is not inert brown stuff, devoid of life, although it may well be if it’s been regularly doused with chemical fertilizers. It is teaming with an incredible number of life forms, each of which has a role to play. Worms and soil insects are easy to spot, but it’s what we don’t see that’s tremendously important:  microscopic insects, fungi, bacteria (good and bad) all play a role. They form symbiotic relationships with each other and with the roots of plants and trees, processing organic matter and minerals, converting them into nutrients in a form that plants can use.

Healthy soil is essential, the source of the life above ground that we can see. As you plant like crazy over the next few weeks, give a thought to what’s going on below — and spread the mulch.


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