Why We Mulch

With the coming of winter and the dying back of the perennials we chose to capitalize on the relative openness of our beds and re-mulch them. Last month I had stopped and talked to a father/son tree trimming service (AJ’s Tree Trimming) that was cleaning the neighborhood up after a wind storm and in addition the load of chips on their truck, he gave me his card and the promise of ‘a load of chips’ whenever I wanted them for $25. This seemed like a sweet deal so I called them up last week.

The chips were set to be delivered on Tuesday. But Tuesday came and went with no chips. So did Wed. And Thursday. I had given up, but then on Friday I came home to a pile of chips 3′ deep and larger than the Forester. Not bad for $25! So we spread them on the front beds. Then the side beds. Then all the trees along the ‘back 40’, under all the raspberries, and the grape trellis. And we still had 1/2 the pile to go.

So today I looked at our wood chip paths, which were getting a little threadbare and weedy after 2 years, and decided to spruce them up a little. My thought was to pull up the weeds, spread new chips, and dig down the paths in the places where they had grown higher than the beds. I ended up scraping the paths clean of old mulch and reaping an unforeseen harvest in the process. You read about the benefits of mulch in virtually all gardening books-less weeds, and more constant soil temperature and moisture levels. Typically somewhere in there the author will mention that natural mulches also help build the soil, but it is typically an after thought. I can see why-the other benefits are more readily at hand. After you mulch there is obviously an immediate reduction in new weeds, and the plants take much longer to wilt. How often do we go into an established bed and tear down thru the mulch to see what’s going on? I never have. So that is why today’s little path maintenance project was so illuminating. In 18 months, 5″ of mulch turns into 2″ of compost with a thin 1/2″ veneer of chips on top! The picture at right is one load of ‘path’-it is now about 75% finish compost, and if not for all the quack grass rhizomes it would be ready for the winter garden-instead I split my compost bin and mixed it in to cook the weeds. Now here is the irony. While I have been working primarily on the front perennial beds, and the edible garden beds in back, I have still given the rear flower beds some attention-green manures lat winter, and compost this spring. But check out the quality of the soil in the beds (brown/gray on right) vs the path cleanings-rich black earth in picture on the left.

The paths actually have better soil than the ‘prepared’ beds!

2 Paths diverged….

This is after 2 yrs of work!

So in addition to granting me pleasant, mud free access to my beds for virtually free, my wood chip paths will also now generate about a third of my yearly compost. Without turning, running to get coffee grounds every week, or feeding the worm bin every other day. This is a good gig!

So when you are looking at mulching your beds and are debating going from 3″ up to 4-6″, think of this: I was getting 1 cu ft of compost for every 4 sq ft of mulched path. That is allot of compost for very little work! Thinking of the mulch bill? Remember my friend AJ. Chances are
there is an AJ in your neighborhood too-check your yellow pages for small mom and pop sounding tree trimming services. A few calls will find you one that doesn’t want their chips and would be happy to dump them on your driveway for the price of the trip. I got 5 cu yards of chips for $25.

Plus, these chips are uber cool. Why? No corporate fingerprints! All chips are sourced within 25 miles of my house, have no dyes added, no plastic bag waste, and I get to support a local small business. Big Fan! AJ’s chips are fresh, meaning the pile is full of leaves and some of the smaller branches aren’t chipped. For mulching the beds the fresh organic matter is a bonus and I don’t mind pulling out some branches for $5/yrd. The green leaves are composted down within days and the larger chips shine thru soon after so aesthetics aren’t hampered much. Next year I will just keep piling new chips on top in another layer of 3-4″ to replace the 3″ layer that is now humus. Thusly I keep a constant 6″ layer on top to prevent weeds and keep in moisture, and generate virtually all the fertilizer the beds need-all thru locally sourced mulch. Stick your hand down into the leaf litter on a healthy forest floor and you will have a good idea of the soil under a continuously deep mulched organic garden-rich deep loam teeming with life. Organic gardeners don’t grow plants, we grow dirt. And the easiest way to do that? Mulch!

I love mulch!!

PS A special thanks to Ol’ Red, my stalwart wheel barrow, featured prominently in these photos. I’d be lost without him!

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