Although many people know to mulch their gardens in the springtime, most don’t give mulch another thought throughout the growing season, but there is one other time you really should think about making a second application of mulch and that is right now.
You apply mulch in the fall for some of the same reasons that you do in the spring. It helps to retain water, which this year will be critical for your plants survival. It improves the appearance of a sun weary yard. This will be especially important if you are considering selling your home over the winter months. Weeds will also be fewer than in an unmulched garden.
However, an application of mulch in the fall does far more important things for your garden than just make it look nice. Mulch applied in the fall acts as an insulator for your soil and provides a barrier between the soil and the air, lessening the chance of transplant shock in newly planted trees and shrubs. If you are planning on installing new trees, shrubs, or perennials, an application of mulch can make their difference in their survival through the winter because it works by protecting roots from great fluctuations and swings in temperature. Most importantly, it helps to retain moisture which these plants will need in order to survive and thrive next spring.
Even after they are established, in many regions, this freezing and thawing cycle can be damaging to your plants. In some cases, as with stone fruits in the spring, this could also mean the difference between having a crop to harvest or not, depending if the tree senses that it’s time to start growing and blooming should the weather warm too quickly too early in the season. Mulch will help to even this temperature variation out.
Applying mulch in the fall adds organic matter to the soil which will decompose over the winter months, particularly if we have a nice, wet winter. This will work to add nutrients to your garden in preparation for planting in the spring and can be especially beneficial if you have very poor soil that you are trying to improve. Mulch will also help to prevent weeds from germinating and taking over during the fallow winter season.
You should apply mulch to annual beds before the first frost arrives. Even though the plants will not survive the winter, starting in the spring with a clean, well mulched bed will save time then and make the job easier. Roses, evergreens, trees, and shrubs should be mulched after the first few hard frosts. This gives those plants time to adjust to the changing air temperatures as they go dormant, but is still done in time to keep their roots warm.
There are several good mulch choices for our area. The traditional mulch is bark- either chipped or shredded. This is suitable for use in beds, or around trees and shrubs. It generally stays put through our winter winds, is long lasting and fairly easy to spread. It also looks good and will improve the appearance of your garden.
Wood chips, shavings, Back to Earth, or Nutri-Mulch are other good choices. Both Nutri-Mulch and the very familiar Back to Earth will not only act as a mulch, but will also add nutrients to your soil.
If you have an abundance of leaves in your yard, then you can use those too. They are lightweight and will decompose faster than wood or bark but may also blow away so keep that in mind when choosing your location if you don’t want to be raking them back into place all winter.
Straw and hay can also be used but a few words of caution on these materials. Straw is lightweight and a good insulator but will also blow around and isn’t particularly attractive. Hay will contain more weed seeds, of course, so keep that in mind should you choose that as a mulch.
One of my favorite tricks for winter insulation is to recycle our Christmas tree. Cut off the boughs and place them around your plants that you wish to protect in your garden. They are easy to remove in the spring and add a nice, green touch to your garden through the dreary winter months!
Think of mulch as an insurance policy for winter for your plants. Although many people hate the mulching job, cooler weather is definitely a nicer time to be outside while doing this and it gives you one more chance to enjoy the great autumn weather in our area!