Most gardeners know the value of using mulch to conserve moisture by limiting the amount of evaporation and minimizing the number of weeds around your perennial plants. We all usually add mulching to the to-do list in the spring. That is when mulch is available by the bagful or truckload in the garden centers. But have you considered mulching in the fall?
There are lots of reasons why mulching in the fall is preferable. The leaves are falling, and the fall colors are spectacular. Your flowering shrubs have lots of berries to feed the migratory birds on their journey or to sustain the birds that stay in your location.
7 Reasons Why You Should Mulch Your Garden This Fall
There are many reasons to mulch your garden in the fall that go beyond just aesthetics. These seven reasons for fall mulching will benefit your plants and gardens, including:
- Stop Leaf Damage.
Leaves are falling and, if not removed, they can damage your lawn. That means you have free mulch! Simply mow the dry leaves with your mulching mower and use the chopped up leaves around your perennials. They can also be added to the compost bin if you have more than you need for mulch.
- Get a Head Start on Spring Chores.
Before you add mulch, apply a good organic weed and grass killer to any weeds that are currently growing. Follow with a two- to three-inch layer of mulch. Next spring, there should be minimal weeds to deal with and the fall mulching will make removing any weeds that much easier.
- Preserve Perennials.
Some perennials are more easily stressed than others. A good layer of mulch will protect the surface roots. If you use a finer mulch like leaf mulch, it will break down more quickly than bark chips or other larger mulch. The mulch will improve the soil and provide nutrients to the plants it surrounds over the winter.
- Stabilize Soil Temperature.
The most dangerous temperature change for your plants is not a freezing temperature – it is fluctuating temperatures. This is especially true for roses, including your stunning climbing roses. There are always days in the winter that are unusually warm. If the ground is exposed, there is a chance that it will start to thaw, only to refreeze when the warm spell is over.
This freeze-thaw cycle can cause the plant to heave out of the soil. If the soil thaws enough, the plant may be stimulated to start growing in the false spring. Either consequence can result in killing your plants. By adding a good layer of mulch, the soil temperature will be kept stable, and the plants will remain dormant.
- Prevent Soil Erosion.
Winter winds can cause a significant loss of soil. There is no plant material or foliage to protect the soil. If you have prevailing winds during the winter, consider planting a windbreak.
A hedge of flowering shrubs will not only add beauty to the landscape, but minimize the damage wind causes. Adding mulch to your gardens will prevent soil erosion and add nutrients to the soil.
- Protect Your Evergreens.
Evergreens seem very hardy, but they can be damaged and dry out, especially in the winter. Continue watering your shrubs throughout the fall. When they become dormant for the winter, they will be well hydrated. Keep that moisture in the soil with a good three- to four-inch layer of mulch around the shrub.
Treat any weeds with organic weed and grass killer to minimize the competition for water. If your evergreens are exposed to strong winds in the winter, it would be beneficial to add a windscreen. This could be a windscreen of planting flowering shrubs, or you can use a screen of burlap.
- Contribute to the Soil’s Ecosystem.
Mulching your gardens not only benefits your plants, but the entire soil ecosystem. That includes earthworms and soil microbes. Not only does the mulch protect them, but it provides nutrients they need to survive. You can’t have healthy plants unless you have healthy soil.
What Other Types of Mulch Are There?
There are two other types of mulch, besides organic mulch, that you can consider, including:
- Living Mulch — Another name for this is a cover crop. Living mulch is generally used in a larger area, usually the vegetable garden. This is not a crop that will be harvested. A living mulch can be crops such as winter rye or clover.
After the garden has been harvested and cleaned of any debris in the fall, the soil is worked up either by hand or with a rototiller. Then, the cover crop seed is broadcast rather thickly over the ground.
This seed will germinate in the fall and start to grow during the late fall and early winter. It may go dormant during the winter, but will grow again with the early spring. A week or two before planting the spring garden, mow the cover crop with a mulching mower and work the cover crop material into the soil.
The main purpose of the cover crop is to protect the soil from erosion during the winter and to add organic matter to the garden in spring.
- Inorganic Mulch — There are some areas of your landscape where inorganic mulch may be an alternative to consider. This includes stones, rubber mulch, lava rock and pea gravel. The advantage is these substances do not break down so they will not need reapplying.
Because all of these substances have spaces between them, weeds can grow through. That means first you will have to line the area with a weed barrier and then cover with the material you choose.
Weeds can also grow through organic mulch, but the finer mulch, like leaf mulch and shredded bark, will bond together to form a mat that is difficult for any weed to push through. For the same reason, inorganic mulch will not be as efficient at preventing evaporation of the moisture in the soil.
A note about rubber mulch: Rubber mulch (usually made from recycled tires) has gained popularity as a mulch in high traffic areas like under playground equipment; however, it is being recommended that it not be used in your home landscape. That is because the toxins found in the rubber may leach into the soil.
Adding mulch in the fall is often preferable to the spring. It is a great time to tidy up and decorate the garden beds with the mulch of your choice. The weather is often nice and cool outdoors, making working on your yard and landscape so much easier and enjoyable.