The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Mulch ado about something

By Justin Newcombe

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Justin Newcombe extols the many virtues of mulching your garden, resulting in a happy, healthy and low maintenance patch.

Justin Newcombe enriches his garden with straw, leaf and tree mulch. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Justin Newcombe enriches his garden with straw, leaf and tree mulch. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Mulch, what a name eh? It sounds like something out of a Dr Seuss book. One mulch, two mulch, three mulch, four, mulch made of bull kelp, mulch made of straw. Actually, mulch is a great name - earthy, honest and dependable, although I do concede it sounds a little grumpy.

Mulches are many and varied - cardboard, newspaper, seaweed, lawn clippings, dried leaves, straw, hay, bark, tree mulch, carpet or a combination of these, as well as ornamental mulches such as rubber and even crushed glass.

The big reasons for mulching are water conservation, weed suppression and soil health. As well as an improvement in plant health there is a noticeable reduction in maintenance.

Mulching adds to your arsenal of recycling tools. The most obvious example is mulching with your lawn clippings. Spread these out on two or three layers of wet newspaper, under trees and shrubs.

Be sure not to pile the clippings up around the trunks as this ring-barks the tree, killing it.

My number one reason for mulching is moisture retention. Mulch keeps the soil from drying out and protects your valuable loam from getting sunburnt. The sun depletes nutrients in bare soil very quickly, which is bad news for your plants.

Mulch is the first step to building healthy soil.

The mulch layer is a fuel for your soil life, which include earth worms, centipedes, wood lice, bacteria, fungi and algae. These organisms act as a digester, devouring the mulch material into a final, inert state called humus. The same process occurs on the forest floor.

Avoid applying fresh green woody mulches straight on to your garden - set them aside for six months first.

Fresh woody material requires loads of nitrogen to begin the breaking down process and the best place to get that nitrogen is from the soil. Your plants also need nitrogen and the battle will be fierce, with your plants losing out.

The best all-round mulch is pea straw. It grows quick and dries fast, so is still relatively high in nitrogen, meaning it doesn't rob nitrogen away from the soil.

We muck out our chook straw and mulch with that. The manure is packed with nitrogen and breaks the straw down, quickly forming humus and accelerating plant growth.

Another mulch I use a lot is seaweed, especially around trees which are about to flower. Tree mulch is good for paths, tracks and orchards.

If you want to create a garden, try putting cardboard boxes straight over grass or weeds and pile on the tree mulch. Wait six months and plant - no weeding, no digging, no fussing.

That brings me to the final benefit of mulch - maintenance. I've given up on weeding. I usually just go over the top with cardboard and mulch.

Considering all the benefits you get as well as keeping all the weeds at bay, mulching is a no-brainer.

3 of the best: Garden websites

1. Claire's Allotment on You Tube
Super info from a super gardener. Friendly Claire, a super watch.

2. edible.co.nz
Even if you don't buy their stuff, the website is a gift that keeps on giving.

3. Janice Marriott, Edible Garden
Smart, short and sharp. Like having your face slapped, in a good way.

- NZ Herald

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