In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
November, 2012
Regional Report

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A bountiful summer garden is ample reward for my summertime labor.

A Perfect Autumn Day

I sometimes daydream about having a perfect garden. One where every plant is in bloom, all grow in perfect unison, and except for visits from beneficial pollinators, not a leaf or flower-munching insect dares to step foot within its boundaries. My perfect garden would be a riot of color from spring through fall and barely need any attention at all. In fact, it would thrive on admiration alone. I have yet to achieve that perfect garden, but that doesn't stop me from dreaming about it.

Now that fall has arrived, I've redirected my daydreams to the perfect autumn day. In this scenario there's a huge maple tree in the backyard that, after weeks of being dressed in blazing fall colors, thoughtfully drops bushels of dried leaves in mounding drifts directly beneath its branches. I daydream about this because to me, a lawnmower plus fallen leaves equals mulch, and mulch is a first step towards having that perfect garden.

My autumn scenario is more likely to appear than that perfect garden, because my neighbor has the beautiful tree I describe. But he doesn't mind at all if I clean up those fallen leaves. In fact, he thinks I'm doing him a favor. Let him think what he wants -- I shred the leaves with the lawnmower, bag them up, and take them home, making me one step closer to achieving that perfect garden.

The Importance of Mulch
A three-inch layer of mulch helps moderate soil temperatures, suppresses weeds, and slows water evaporation. When temperature fluctuations and moisture loss are reduced, plants can glide through the winter months with less injury.

Mulch Materials
Any mulch derived from living organisms is termed "organic." Shredded leaves, straw, wood chips, pine bark, and loose pine needles will all break down into humus, improving soil structure and providing nutrients along the way. Inorganic mulches, such as gravel or black plastic, will moderate soil temperatures and suppress weeds, but will not improve the soil. I covet my neighbors maple leaves because they help improve the soil in my garden.

How to Apply
I use maple leaves and pine needles because they're so readily available to me and because they're slow to decompose. After cleaning debris from the perennial beds and removing any weeds, I apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch over the soil, taking care not to pack it against plant stems or tree trunks. I tuck it around the crowns of low-growing plants, allowing some space for air circulation. Mulch placed too near a crown may hold in excess moisture and cause the crown to rot. Likewise with woody stems and tree trunks. Creating mulch volcanoes around tree trunks is not a healthy practice; wet mulch can rot bark and become a haven for insects. Instead, I spread a layer of mulch over the root system, keeping it 3-4 inches away from the trunk and root crown of the tree.

When to Apply Mulch
There are two schools of thought about when to apply mulch. Some insist mulching should be done before the ground freezes, and others insist it should be done after the ground freezes. I'm not sure it matters much, as long as mulch is applied. But when in doubt, it's not a bad idea to follow nature's lead; leaves usually drop in the late fall, just before the ground freezes. That's when I mulch my garden.

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