Thankfully, cooler temperatures have finally made it to the Florida Panhandle, but it took until the middle of October. The last two months surely taught us lessons about helping our gardens beat the heat. One strategy to help plants cope with extreme heat or drought is mulching.
Many of us either have or can easily find, piles of wood chip mulch from fallen trees, thanks to the hurricane. This material will come in handy now, as fall and winter mulching is a great gardening practice with many benefits.
Think of mulch as a blanket for plants. By acting as a cover to the root system, mulch can perform as both a cooling factor during warm months and can help warm the root system during cooler weather, as well as assist in retaining moisture. This is important, as regulated soil moisture will accept rain or irrigation water much easier than crusty, dry soil. Water will simply runoff and can cause erosion in dry soil conditions. Mulch is a great weed barrier and is also aesthetically pleasing in the landscape by helping define borders and gives depth. A 3-4” thick layer of mulch, in a 2-3’ diameter, is typically a sufficient amount of mulch for landscape plants and fruit trees.
There are two types of mulch material that you’ll find in our area, organic or inert. Components of organic mulch include compost, bark, leaves grass clippings, straw, wood chips and even saw dust. Straw, wood chips and saw dust contain very little nitrogen, however. If mulching with these materials, it’s a good idea to add some nitrogen fertilizer. One or two cups of a complete fertilizer like 10-10-10 should help you avoid nutrient issues. Organic mulch will need to be replenished yearly to some degree, as it breaks down into a soil amending compost. This breakdown into compost will improve soil water holding capacity and fertility.
Inert mulch can be made of shells, gravel, pebbles, plastic and rubber. However, inert options are not as easy to use in controlling moisture and temperature levels and of course provides no nutrient value. With Inert mulch, you should always fertilize the area first, especially vegetable gardening. Use approximately two pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for every 100 square feet of vegetable garden. This may not seem like much fertilizer, but since plastic mulch reduces the amount of fertilizer that leaches out of the root zone of your plants, you can apply less fertilizer to begin with. That’s a big reason why UF/IFAS researchers recommend plastic mulch to commercial vegetable and ornamental producers in Florida, but organic mulches are more appropriate for most home garden settings.
Mulching may be one of the most valuable and cost-effective garden practices. Mulch helps control weeds, conserves moisture, moderates soil temperatures, improves soil fertility and last, but not least, adds to the beauty of the landscape.
For more information contact your local county extension office.
Information for this article provided by Dr. Robert Black and Dr. Gary W. Knox of UF/IFAS Extension. More information can be found at this website: http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/planting/mulch.html
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.