Now that the hot and dry weather appears to have left us, it’s time to have a post mortem in the garden. The one message that has come out loud and clear is that if we mulch our garden soil, then precious plants have a much better chance of surviving the predicted repeats of this year’s summer sizzle
The word mulch is a strange one. Like the riddle of the Snark, it means nothing specific and yet it means everything. The dictionary definition of the word mulch is a layer of material applied to the surface of the soil. It doesn’t define what – it could be pebbles, shingle, compost, bark chips, straw or even cardboard or old carpet.
Whether your soil is light and sandy or heavier clay, mulching is king. You can use the product of your own compost bin, but for the reasons that I will explain, I always use well- rotted stable manure. It’s an excellent material which does four important things.
By covering all of the spaces between your plants this well-rotted stable manure will suppress weeds. As you are applying a fairly thick layer – at least 2.5cm/1in – this will help to stop the soil drying out, while also keeping the soil at an even temperature. This wonderful organic matter, which incidentally doesn’t stink at all, will re-mineralise your soil and improve its structure. So, if you started out with a light sandy soil it will help to hold on to moisture for longer; if you have a heavy clay then this magic material will help to break it up.
If this was a human beauty product achieving so much, it would cost a fortune! Garden centres will normally sell it for around £5 for a 70 litre bag, or at a ‘come and buy me’ price of around three bags for £12.
There’s no need to dig it in, merely spread it on top of the soil and allow the soil animals to do their stuff by pulling it down. For the sake of hygiene, I would recommend using a pair of gloves fit for the purpose – either disposable, or an old pair of Marigolds that you keep for a repeat performance in the spring.
If I needed any proof that this one simple act was worth the effort, out of all the local gardens that I visited during the beastly hot weather, it was those that had mulched their flower beds that fared best. Of course, plants still needed water, but where mulch had been applied, the plants were much better off as soil moisture wasn’t escaping like a leaky bucket – and autumn is a good time to mulch.
Valerie McBride-Munro is a chartered horticulturist offering a plant problem-solving service.
Find more gardening articles by Valerie on our Homes & Gardens page.