Spread mulch ingredients in a 3- to 4-inch-deep layer around plants or on garden paths.

Note: Nearly any organic material can be used as a mulch, but some can have an impact on soil pH and fertility. Leaves, for example, can be either acid or alkaline. Margaret has a good supply of pecan leaves on hand, but she knows that they're alkaline, so she mixes in acidic pine needles to balance the pH. Some mulches are high in carbon and low in nitrogen. Sawdust, for example, will use up nitrogen as it decomposes, so it's a good idea to mix it with a nitrogen-rich material such as grass clippings.

Variations: Rose Marie Nichols McCee, president of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany

3" layer of mulch

Don't smother crown with mulch

3" layer of mulch

Don't smother crown with mulch

Stop weeds with mulch! A 3"-thick layer of mulch around your plants keeps the soil too cool for many weed seeds to sprout. It's also a tough barrier for delicate weed seedlings to push through.

Oregoh, collects "mint straw" from local mint-oil producers to use as a mulch in the nursery's herb and vegetable gardens, "it holds down the weeds and improves the tilth of our soil." she says. In Seattle, Barbara Donnette turned to local coffee roasters for free coffee chalf, which is produced in the roasting process. "It's acidic and provides a little bit of nitrogen," she says. Mary Lou Heard, owner of Heard's Country Gardens in Westminster, California, likes to mulch with cocoa shells. They're attractive, nicely scented, and they seem to discourage cats from digging in her garden.

To protect young seedlings from weed competition, change your timing a tad. When you carefully work up a fine seedbed for sowing seeds, you usually bring weed seeds to the surface as well. You also may be cutting perennial weed roots into small pieces that look harmless but are still capable of resprouting. All too often, a crop of weeds springs up more quickly and aggressively than your precious plants.

Rodale garden book editor Fern Bradley outwits weeds by letting them sprout before she plants her seeds. "I welcome weeds to grow in my garden—for a week or two," Fern says. "Then I hoe them down to make way for the seeds I want to grow."

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