Fall mulching is an option that should be considered by more gardeners.
I mulch my vegetable garden, perennial gardens and open areas for annuals primarily with the large volume of chopped leaves I produce in fall. A thick mulch of fall leaves will attract more soil organisms, which will improve your soil, and reduce the number of weed seeds that germinate. It’s the process of decomposition more than the product of compost that improves soil. This is important for all gardens, but I have the impression that many vegetable gardens and annual garden areas remain bare in winter.
Fall clean-up practices have changed in recent years. Previous traditions included removing every scrap of plant matter from the garden after the first freeze, fearing that they would promote disease. Newer, more environmentally-conscious practices encourage leaving as much as possible for over-wintering critters. Whole leaves that dry and curl are especially welcoming for this purpose, as well as hollow plant stems like those seen on coneflowers and brown-eye susans. These stems are easy to identify because they will remain standing after a freeze.
Leaving some whole leaves in the garden will provide homes for over-wintering beneficial insects. More than 97% of insects are either beneficial or benign, so it’s important to support them to enable a healthy garden environment. I also include twigs in my mulch, which regularly fall into our yard from the mature trees.
Any disease-prone stems and foliage should be removed, including peonies; bee balm (monarda) and phlox, and bearded iris. Spent hosta leaves look quite unattractive, and could offer homes for slugs in spring. When you cut the stems, leave a couple of inches, so you can see the plant locations in spring. I often repeat the phrase, “if it stands up (after freezing), leave it”.
Gardeners may choose to remove more plant material for neatness in their front yard garden, which is most visible to the public. Most backyards are seldom seen by visitors in winter. Plant stems with some dried leaves are more attractive when covered in snow than empty spaces.
A few plants will survive the winter better if their root system is covered by 2 inches to 3 inches of much. Many varieties of Coral Bells (Huchera) have shallow roots that often get heaved out of the ground over winter. Mulch will reduce this possibility. Plants that were put in the ground this year will also have more shallow roots, and will benefit from mulch. Grafted roses need thick mulch, right up to the graft union.
Use of a winter mulch will reduce weeds, prevent soil erosion, and reduce plant damage. Damage often occurs during freeze/thaw cycles, not at the coldest temperatures. Mulched root systems will be less likely to defrost during a thaw, avoiding damage by re-freezing.
Julie Brocklehurst-Woods has been a Master Gardener Volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Livingston County since 2002. She enjoys helping all gardeners become successful gardeners, especially helping people identify tools and strategies to prioritize and simplify their gardening tasks. She will answer gardening questions by email: JulieBW48@gmail.com.
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