In Good Thyme

"Last year at this time I dutifully performed the usual November garden chores: cut back shriveled foliage, pulled out spent annuals, evicted weeds that had been hiding beneath the skirts of the summer garden. I mounded small, protective piles of fallen leaves over the crowns of perennials and moved container plants out of the path of relentless winter winds. I fertilized the little lawn in the English garden, and cleaned and oiled my trusty old trowel.I completed all the mundane tasks on the garden checklist with the exception of one, and when spring came, I sorely regretted my omission. In the past, I'd always been a mulchin' mama: I tucked in each bed and border for the winter with a cozy blanket of compost and shredded leaves or bark. Last year, I DID mulch the small vegetable and herb bed, and I DID pile leaves over some tender perennials, but somehow, never got around to the rest of the garden. As a result, I spent much of the growing season dealing with those exasperating little pop weeds. Chickweed, too, appeared in what had been a pristine perennial bed. And finding poison nightshade twining through a miniature rhodie was my rude awakening. By neglecting to mulch one winter, I had created a breeding ground for opportunistic weeds.Mulching is an important weapon in the war against weeds. Mulch can be applied year round, but covering winter's bare soil makes it wonderfully difficult for weed seeds to germinate and grow. Mulch also puts a protective barrier between soil and the torrents that wash away soil nutrients each rainy season.There are many types of mulches, ranging from cardboard to compost. As a general rule, organic mulches are the home gardener's best bet. I like compost, because you can make your own and it's free. It also improves the soil as it breaks down over the winter. Another free source is right outside your back door at this time of year. Fallen leaves are an excellent mulch, but avoid plants such as big leaf maple, whose prodigious leaves are slow to decompose, and walnut, which when broken down or worked into the soil, can inhibit the growth of some desirable plants and seeds. If all you've got are big-leaf maple or other large leaves, run the lawn mower over them, and you'll have a yummy leaf hash. Every so often, get out and stir up your leaf mulch to allow water and air to pass through to the soil. The Island County dump (oops, I mean Solid Waste Disposal) has chipped wood mulch free for the taking; bring your pickup and a tarp. Be careful of mulch made from old pallets and recycled lumber, however. Do you know for sure whether the pallets were constructed with pressure treated lumber? If so, you don't want to use this mulch around edibles. Another source of organic mulch is tree services that cut and chip. And of course, there's that by-product of the logging industry, shredded bark or bark nuggets. You see them in plastic sacks piled like sandbags around hardware stores and supermarkets, and in huge mounds around back of the farm supply retailers. I like the neat look and fresh scent of small, fine-textured bark shavings in the winter garden. But it isn't perfect. It contributes to the soil's acidity (which could be good or bad, depending on what you're trying to grow in your garden); it doesn't break down readily, it can leach nitrogen from the soil, and it's not free!Master Gardeners get lots of questions on the use of sawdust as mulch. Frankly, friends, it's not a good idea, unless it's been composted for many years. Fresh sawdust can cause plant damage or death because it ties up nitrogen as it decomposes. Nitrogen deficiency from sawdust decomposition can last from two to four years. If you must use it, combine it with a good amount of well-rotted manure or apply extra nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. Whichever organic mulch you choose, be sure not to apply it more than four inches deep. A thick layer can produce acids that may harm your plants and restrict the flow of air and water. And don't ever pile mulch right up to the trunks of trees and shrubs. Give them the breathing space they need. Mulch is good for your back, too. You do a lot less bending and stooping to pull weeds when you're a mulchin' mama...or daddy.----------------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service. If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail "

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