Sunday, January 12, 2014

Take Cover - Winter Mulching, Part I

Weather wise the month of January can tease a gardener to work outdoors.  There might be a day or more in a row where the temperatures are in the 50s and it feels so warm that we are tempted to reach for a shovel and turn over some soil.  We’ll do anything to feel needed by our garden, especially when it beckons us outside on a pleasant sunny day.  Patience is key, and just saying no is recommended for the anxious gardener.  In fact you might as well say out loud one hundred times that you will not dig too early or in soils that are too wet or too dry, because in a word, you’ll wreck the soil structure.  If you’re a four season gardener and using cold frames then you’re way ahead of many gardeners and have an excuse to work in the garden under the warmth of the frame. You’re probably out there harvesting cool season veggies right now, lucky you!

So what can we do outside this time of year besides rake blown in leaves or piles that are still around from the fall?  Well a couple of things…this is an excellent time to do some structural pruning on shrubs and trees; we’ll talk about that in a later blog.  The other good thing to do now is to renew your mulch, or add mulch for the first time on top of your vegetable beds. Mulch is defined as any material used to cover the surface of the soil. Previously living material that is decomposing is known as organic matter including fallen leaves, grass, straw and pine needles. The preferred mulch for winter use is organic matter versus inorganic products like plastic or weed fabric.  Mulch protects your beds through the winter, practically guaranteeing an easier preparation and planting process this spring.  

Snow works well as winter mulch

The old school method of turning over the soil each fall and leaving large clods to break down over the winter is not recommended as much anymore.  Most of the time the clods do not break down end up in a freeze/thaw pattern all winter. Snow is excellent winter mulch, but Front Range winters rarely provide a continuous snow covered blanket. Un-mulched soils crack, crust and dry out while the quality top soil blows away leading to erosion. Mulching the vegetable garden will protect your soil all winter and prevent the freeze/thaw cycle from making your soil surface look like fissures on an over baked pan of brownies. 

Dry, cracked, un-mulched winter soil, don't let this happen to you!

The worst part in trying to work and plant in un-mulched soil in the spring is that it feels like working in dirt, not friable soil. More like depleted, thin dirt, the kind you played kick ball on during recess.  First, round up some leaves (chopped is best), straw, Christmas greenery boughs, pine needles or untreated burlap. I keep extra bags of chopped leaves from fall raking to carry me through the winter, but if that’s not an option, check with garden centers or farm stores who may have some straw on hand. Burlap isn’t exactly mulch, but if organic materials like leaves and straw can’t be found then burlap will act as nice cover to prevent further erosion. Use landscape pins, bricks or boards to position the burlap over the beds.  Christmas boughs or pine needles work too, anything to protect your bare naked soil. Crisscross the boughs across the beds or carefully pile on layers of needles, wear gloves and long sleeves.  

Chopped leaves make an excellent winter mulch
Create a thick layer of mulch with your organic materials - 4 to 6 inches. Most likely your vegetable beds are frozen or nearly frozen, so adding mulch now probably won’t attract mice to nest under the mulch and hang out waiting for spring to arrive. If temperatures are over 45 degrees after mulching, drag out your hose and water the newly mulched area so it won’t blow away. Keep the mulched beds moist through the rest of the winter.  And water the rest of your landscape while you’re at it, especially if moisture has been scarce and wind conditions high.

Once the mulch is removed in the spring you will find a very workable soft bed of soil to plant.  Some years when I mulch early in the fall and keep it consistently renewed and thick, the spring soil is almost like butter and it's full of life with earthworms.  Life as a gardener just doesn't get better when it's this ready without much effort.

You can turn or till in the chopped leaves to add always welcome organic matter to the soil.  Wait a couple of weeks to plant so the materials have time to break down.  The pine needles and boughs can be added to the compost pile. Roll up, tie and store the burlap for another use down the road.  
Quality soil should have earthworm activity

Ready to Plant

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