One of the most important aspects of an organic garden is mulching. A mulch is a layer of material placed on the soil surface to conserve moisture, hold down weeds and ultimately improve soil structure and soil fertility. Mulching, like composting, is a basic practice of organic gardeners. Remember the forest floor: fertile, moist and seething with activity. Nature hates bare earth and will cover it as quickly as possible to conserve the soil.
Mulching offers several advantages. For example, a mulched plant is not subjected to the extremes of temperature that affect an exposed plant. Mulch keeps the soil warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Mulch applied to the soil during the spring and summer can be turned in the autumn, thereby enriching the garden soil. Also, certain materials used for mulch contain rich minerals. These break down gradually, and work into the soil to feed the roots of plants, soaking into the ground during the first heavy rain. So, mulch fertilises the soil while it remains on the soil surface as well as after it decays.
For the busy gardener, mulching is a boon. Many back-breaking hours of weeding and hoeing are practically eliminated and cultivation is not necessary. Weeds do not have the chance to get a foothold, and the few that do can be pulled up easily. There is no need for cultivation because the mulch helps keep the soil loose.
The mulch also keeps the wind and the hot, drying sun from evaporating soil moisture. A few good soakings during a long growing season will tide the plants over a long, dry spell. Mulched plants will often endure a long dry season with little watering. The soil underneath the mulch remains cool and damp to the touch.
At harvest time, vegetables that sprawl on the ground, such as cucumbers, squash and unstaked tomatoes, keep clean and dry. Mulched rows are also easier to walk on and low growing vegetables are not splashed with mud. Seedlings planted in very moist soil should not be mulched immediately but after the seedlings are established. This practice will help avoid 'damping off — a fungus disease of the young seedlings.
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