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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Mulching - from Dave Robson

Posted by John Fulton -

Mulching is a sure-fire way to eliminate many summer gardening chores, states David Robson, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, Springfield Center.

The primary benefit of mulching is to reduce soil water loss or evaporation. This means more water is available to the plants, which means less wilting problems.

Typical soils can lose a quarter to half inch of water per day when temperatures are above 90 F. Since most plant roots are in the top 8 inches of the soil profile, plants suffer greater wilting stress when temperatures are high.

Mulching also keeps the soil cooler during warm spells. Mulches act like insulation, preventing hot air from reaching the root system. Roots grow better when soil temperatures are in the 60s and 70s; proper mulching can maintain this desired level when air temperatures approach 100 F.

Weed control is another added benefit of mulching, adds Robson. Most weeds need sunlight after germination to grow. Mulching limits sunlight reaching newly germinated seedlings. Fewer weeds mean less competition with plants for water and nutrients.

Vegetable gardeners should realize that mulching limits some diseases, especially fruit rots. Most disease organisms are transferred to plants or their fruits by raindrops splashing on the soil and bouncing back up. Mulching deflects water droplets from "bouncing" back and infecting the plants. Produce commonly in direct contact with the soil—such as cucumber, melons and even tomatoes—are less likely to be infected by disease organisms when mulched. Mulching also increases the ease of harvesting, especially after heavy rains or irrigation.

Proper mulching consists of no more than 2 to 4 inches of an organic material such as wood chips or composted leaves and grass clippings. If you use cocoa bean hulls, which can lead to problems with dogs if they eat it, limit yourself to 1 inch. Heavy applications of cocoa bean hulls tend to mold.

Deeper levels of mulch may inhibit water and air penetration into the soil or tend to compact. Shallow mulching reduces the benefits of weed control, cooler soil temperatures and water retention.

Ornamental plants such as flowers, shrubs and trees benefit from 4 to 6 inches of mulching. However, make sure to keep mulching material an inch away from tree and shrub trunks to minimize insect and disease damage.

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