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Reeves: Mulches For Enhanced, Low-Cost, Low-Maintenance Landscapes

By Randy Reeves
Oct. 1, 2017 at 4 a.m.


The quality of food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe — in fact the wellbeing of all plant and animal life — is determined by the quality of our topsoil. The earth's crucial thin layer of soil must be protected, maintained, built and nourished. A mulch cover of various materials on soil enables, conserves and enhances our precious soil.

Natural mulch consists of dead leaves, twigs, fallen branches and other plant debris which accumulate on the earth's surface. Bacteria, fungi and other living organisms use these raw organic materials for food, a process we know as decay. In the natural scheme of things, decay is Nature's way of returning to the earth the raw materials borrowed by previous generations of plants.

Organic mulches not only conserve moisture, they also feed plants, earth worms, microbes and other beneficial soil life by composting at the moist earth surface. More species and tonnage of life occurs below than above the soil surface. All soil life needs energy. They cannot collect energy directly as green plants do, but the feed on energy released from decaying mulch which is their preferred food source.

As microbes digest organic materials they give off a sticky substance that glues soil particles into a crumb-like structure. Carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange necessary for healthy root growth and proliferation of beneficial soil life is enhanced. Better control of soil pathogens results.

Crumb-like or crumbly soil structure also allows water to soak in better. Water that soaks in is held on the humus and clay particles for future plant use. Water amounts higher than the field capacity of a soil is filtered by organic matter as it flows downward to feed aquifers that supply drinking water. Soils which have lost crumb structure need mulch cover to re-build.

People can adapt natural mulching to cropping practices and to production and landscape-use of ornamental plants by using available living or dead organic matter and inorganic materials. Public interest in mulch is aroused for two reasons: labor savings and plant advantages. Native materials collected in your area are the best mulch. It is neither economical nor environmentally feasible to ship in barks, woodchips or some other fancy material from a distant source when usually there are nearby materials being wasted.

Unfortunately, mulching does not perform instant miracles, but it encourages better plant growth and development, and makes all landscape maintenance operations easier. These benefits accrue whether plants are growing in the coolest or hottest climates or in the wettest or driest weather.

Mulch is any material placed on the soil surface to conserve moisture, lower soil temperatures around plant roots, prevent erosion and reduce weed growth. Mulches can be derived from either organic or inorganic materials.

Mulch insulates and protects soil from drying and hard-baking effects caused by evaporation of water from soil exposed to hot sun and winds. Mulched soils are cooler than non-mulched soils and have less fluctuation in soil temperature. Optimum soil temperatures and less moisture evaporation from the soil surface enables plants to grow evenly. Plant roots find a more favorable environment near the soil surface where air content and nutrient levels are conducive to good plant growth.

Mulches break the force of rain and irrigation water thereby preventing erosion, soil compaction and crusting. Mulched soils absorb water faster. Mulches prevent splashing of mud and certain plant disease organisms onto plants and flowers during rain or overhead irrigation. The mulch covering excludes light which prevents germination of many weed seeds. Fewer weeds provide less competition for available moisture and nutrients. Using mulches to control weeds is safer than applying herbicides or cultivating which can damage tender, newly formed roots. Mulches also add attractive features to landscape.

Research and common sense have shown that a high organic content favors soil microbes which de-toxify pesticides after they are used and also furnishes energy needed by the microbes to make high analysis fertilizers available to plants without the fertilizer itself becoming toxic. This is another great benefit of using organic mulches. Decaying organic mulch on soil keeps both plants and beneficial soil life species.

Plant Sale

Just a reminder that the annual Gregg County Master Gardener Fall Plant Sale will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Gregg County Extension Office here in Longview. The office is located at 405 E. Marshall Ave. Please park in the rear parking lot and enter the building through the west end door.

All of the plants, with the exception of the Earthkind roses that will be offered for sale, have been raised and grown by our Master Gardeners here in the Gregg County area. All plants will sell for $5 each and the roses will sell for $10.

— Randy Reeves is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent for Gregg County. Join him on his horticultural blog site with the Longview News-Journal, "Talk Across the Fence," at www.news-journal.com/blogs/reader/2015/may/14/talk-across-the-fence.

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