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Rotten ideas that will help your plants
2:20pm Friday 27th April 2012 in In The Garden
Mulching is such a useful process and so simple. You spread a layer of something or other on top of your soil, around your plants, and it stops the weeds coming up and keeps the existing moisture in.
It also reduces soil temperature, which will therefore reduce water loss, and makes beds and borders look somehow tidier, creating a neat carpet under which to display your plants.
But there are many mulches from which to choose – from organic manures and garden compost to bark chippings, straw and leaf mould.
From a nutritional point of view, you need to go for bio-degradable mulches. You can’t beat a well-rotted farmyard manure, which is rich in nutrients, so it’s perfect for hungry feeders such as roses and fruit bushes. Just make sure that it is well rotted because fresh manure releases ammonia which will scorch plants and may kill them. If you find fresh manure at a cheap price, it will need stacking for at least six months to rot down before use.
If you don’t want to buy farmyard manure, think about making your own compost, but be warned – you need to follow certain guidelines to make rich, effective compost which is balanced.
Don’t fill a compost bin with mainly grass clippings or you’ll end up with a soggy mess. Use a mixture of household waste including vegetable peelings, egg shells, torn up newspaper and tea leaves or coffee grounds, along with dead plants, rootballs or used potting compost and autumn leaves. Don’t add any cooked foods or meats and avoid perennial weeds and diseased plants.
Another homemade mulch is leaf mould, made from autumn leaves you rake up, which can then be stored in dustbin liners with holes for drainage. It will take a year to break down but you should end up with a dark, sweet-smelling material which you can add to your beds and borders.
The best quality leaf mould is produced from the leaves of oak, beech or hornbeam. Thick leaves such as sycamore, walnut, horse chestnut and sweet chestnut need to be shredded before adding to the pile.
If you’re patient, you can use well-rotted leaf mould which is more than two years old as seed-sowing compost, or mixed equally with sharp sand, garden compost and good-quality soil as potting compost.
Other choice mulches include garden compost, spent mushroom compost, cocoa shells, wood chippings, processed conifer bark, straw for strawberries and seaweed.
Bark, a by-product from the timber industry, is available in various forms and colours. Composted bark is better and is widely available in garden centres and doesn’t go soggy in really wet weather.
Wood chips, a cheaper option, while effective as a mulch, take nitrogen from the soil and may slow plant growth, so you may have to add a little more nitrogenous fertiliser to the soil if you use them.
‘Spent’ mushroom compost is also widely available and as it contains chalk it is useful on acid soils that are low in organic matter.
It’s brilliant used in the vegetable garden, but should be avoided where ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons, camellias, azaleas and heathers are being grown, as these plants need acidic growing conditions and are chalk-hating.
Mushroom compost is also not recommended for neutral, alkaline or chalky soils, which would be made excessively alkaline.
And on the subject of peat, without getting into a heated debate on the conservation issue - don’t use it to mulch the soil because it dries out, blows around and doesn’t contain many nutrients.