In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
Mulch alliums such as shallots heavily with straw.
Mulch, My Savior
I love mulch! It has saved me (my garden, anyway) from many a dry spell. Even though we had plenty of moisture in the early part of this summer, much of the Midwest was dry through July. I went away for two weeks in late July, just as things began to ripen, so I had to drought-proof the garden before I left.
How I Mulch
I watered the vegetables well and then put down a fresh layer of straw, 4 to 6 inches thick. I even put straw over the areas I'd left fallow for fall crops so the soil wouldn't draw moisture away from the rest of the vegetables.
We always keep a pile of leaves in a back area to decay and make leaf mold for potting soil. I raided this pile for the dry leaves on top, shredded them, and covered the perennial flowers with a fresh layer of mulch.
When we came home, the garden was thriving, and the soil under the mulch was perfectly moist. Even the tomatoes had no cat facing, usually a sign of uneven moisture during ripening. I'm now reaping baskets of healthy produce, and I've planted my fall garden in soft, moist, friable soil.
I have seen gardens do okay without mulch, but they take a lot of work. A mulched garden means a lot less weeding, watering, and general fussing. The soil doesn't erode, and, perhaps most important, the soil temperature and moisture levels stay consistent - just what vegetables need to stay healthy.
What to Use
Mulch materials run the gamut, although straw is great because it is clean, has less weed seeds than hay, and easy to transport. Otherwise, shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings applied lightly, or just about anything else organic you can find will work.
Keep in mind, however, that fresh rather than composted materials usually take extra fertilization to make up for lost nitrogen as the materials decompose.
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