Fancy Nancy On Mulching

Autumn's Mulching Madness

Nancy Szerlag Head Gardener
By Nancy Szerlag / Special to The Detroit News

Fall is the time of year when we mulch mavens go wild. For us, raking and shredding leaves is more than a fall ritual, it’s a labor of love.

Those gorgeous leaves of red, gold and brown are mulched into my lawn with a mulching mower, shredded with a leaf vac and layered upon the garden beds, heaped into the compost bin and bagged up and stored away for use during the growing season.

As a true mulch maven, I take my cues from Mother Nature and always keep a layer of organic matter covering the soil to protect and nourish it.

Over time, and it doesn’t take long, bare earth forms a crust that keeps water and oxygen from penetrating into the soil. Because plants need oxygen and water to live, I want to make sure the soil surface stays soft and open to these vital elements.

In winter, water that fails to penetrate the soil often collects and freezes around the crowns of our perennials and shrubs, causing heaving and winterkill.

But keeping a layer of organic mulch on the garden year around does more than just protect the soil from crusting, it also provides food for earthworms and other beneficial soil dwellers and they, in turn, churn out humic acid. This stuff is pure magic. Humic acid improves the soil’s structure, increases the efficiency of fertilizers, converts nutrients locked in the soil to a usable form, retards the buildup of soil-borne diseases and stimulates microbial activity.

That’s a huge bang for the buck when you consider those gorgeous leaves are free.

In summer, mulch helps hold moisture in the garden and keeps weeds from sprouting. It also helps keep the roots cool when the temperature heats up.

But shredded leaves aren’t the only mulch I use in my garden. I use crushed stone or pea gravel to mulch around plants such as Agastaches and Penstemons. They are prone to crown rot and prefer to grow in lean soil. If I have time during the fall, I rake back the stone and dust the surface of the soil with a light coating of shredded leaves. If not, I scatter handfuls of crumbled leaves over the stone and let them work their way down to the soil’s surface.

In the big vegetable garden, we do the Ruth Stout style of mulching and keep the soil covered with several inches of straw. Earthworms and other decomposers chew away on it during the warm season, so we add additional straw during the spring.

In three years, we have used more than 40 bales of straw on that 50-by-50 foot patch. In fall, we pull back the straw and spread a layer of leaves on the surface of the soil and then replace the straw. We all need a change in the menu now and then.

In addition to a layer of leaves, we use pine bark and wood chips to mulch trees and shrubs. In winter, mulch also helps mitigate the effects of short-term dips in temperature. I take care to keep the mulch layer around trees and shrubs to no more than 3 to 4 inches. I use my index finger to check the depth. It measures exactly 4 inches from the tip to the knuckle.

Some folks use bagged aged pine bark to mulch their gardens. It’s great stuff, but pricey. My gardening pal used to buy inexpensive large chunks of pine bark in bags and run it through our chipper/shredder a couple of times. But now that I live in the country, I need a lot of mulch and that takes time, so this year I purchased shredded hardwood fines in bulk. I can also use it as a soil amendment when planting and renovating my gardens.

The most economical way to buy this product is to go direct to the source, so I contacted Owen Tree Service of Attica, (800) 724-6680,, arborists who specialize in the pruning, care and removal of trees throughout southeastern Michigan, to get a load of mulch. Owen Tree Service uses a huge 600 horsepower tub grinder to process their coarse- chipped mixed woods into fine grade mulch. Their certified playground/wheelchair mulch is a coarser-grade product milled for use in playground areas. It meets the stated requirements for size, compaction, impact and wheelchair accessibility. Owen Tree’s shredded hardwood mulch, the product I choose, is twice-ground and aged to a dark brown. This is perfect organic matter to use as mulch around newly planted and established trees and shrubs as it returns nutrients back to the soil as it decomposes. It’s just what I was looking for because I can also use it as a soil amendment when planting in the garden.

Delivery is available in quantities of 10 yards or more. Granted, 10 yards is a lot of mulch, but chances are your neighbors would like to share part of the load, so plan a block party and call it Fall Mulch Madness. Some folks like the look of the colored chunk mulch sold in bulk by landscapers and garden centers. Made from wood taken from recycled pallets, it’s spray painted in a variety of colors. After a year or so, the color washes out and it must be topped off or resprayed to keep it looking fresh. This recycled pallet wood takes eons to break down into the soil, so if you decide to use it, put a layer shredded leaves under mulch every year to feed the plants and soil critters.

If you want your lawn and garden to thrive, become a mulch maven and take the oath: Let there be no bare soil. Either mulch it or plant it.

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