Living and Mulching in Three-quarter Time

Sunday, October 28, 2012

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL

FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

As published in the Miami Herald

It is time to face facts. Our soils are shallow and made up of mostly nutrient poor rock or sand. We have a monsoonal climate with a rainy summer and dry winter; summers bring the threat of tropical cyclones and winters, the occasional killing frost. But remember it is paradise, if you change your stride and garden to a slightly different beat - mulching. 

Mulching is the best way to improve your poor soil. All plant debris, including leaves, twigs and branches can be cut into small pieces and placed within the mulch pile. Nothing should leave your home garden.  Instead of losing this energy- and nutrient-rich organic matter and filling local landfills, plant material is recycled for use as mulch in the vegetable garden or around other plants. 

As a seasoned home gardener you have no doubt heard the party line; mulch is the cure for everything from poor tree growth, insect control and the health of Florida Bay. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but these mulch-mongers are right. Mulch really is essential for home gardening in South Florida. A consistent mulching program will allow you to convert your home landscape into an organic system. An organic system relying on mulches is nature’s way and it will change your entire gardening demeanor. 

Don’t take my word for it, go down to the local garden center and price out fertilizers. Not the cheap ones that will burn up your trees when applied, but the good ones that will give good results. As gas prices have gone up, so too have the price of fertilizers. Sometimes you wonder if it is actually gold in those plastic fertilizer bags. It will take a number of years for your home landscape to fully embrace the organic system. You have to wait for the soils to recover from years of abuse, but the current economic realities may just hasten the process. 

A hand saw, pair of hand loppers, a machete and hand pruning shears are all that is needed to embark on your new path. Twigs, leaves and branches removed from your trees can be cut up in place, and if you prefer a more tidy approach a special mulching and composting area can be created. Let that membership at the local gym lapse, for making your own mulch will give you a great workout. It is also the best time to get your thinking done. 

Mulch piles composed of twigs, branches and leaves do not smell bad. On the hottest and rainiest months your mulch pile will have an organic aroma, sweet and slightly alcoholic. It is always a good idea to water the mulch pile during the driest of weather. This will help the plant material break down faster into a product readily usable by your plants. 

Another common wisdom about mulch piles is that they harbor all of the most vile and dangerous creatures of the wild. Most of us live in rather “tamed” locations, so it is highly unlikely that your well groomed mulch piles will harbor bears or panthers. Pythons perhaps, but they will prefer to live underneath your home or shed. Actually the mulch pile will serve as a home for lizards and frogs, mice and possums. There will also be several harmless snakes around trying to eat some of these creatures. If you leave them all alone, a peaceful coexistence can be achieved.  

 You can also bring shredded plant mulch into your home garden, and this is a good complement to your own work. However, be careful of introducing unwanted weeds in shredded mulch that has not been allowed to compost properly. If purchased, costs can also be considerable and many of these commercial mulches can come with dyes and other chemical additives.

 Weathered mulch can be applied at a 6- to 8-inch depth, but you must retain a 3-in distance from the trunks of the trees. The mulch will break down at an alarming rate here in South Florida, and it is simply amazing to witness the breakdown of all of this plant material in a single growing season.

 Mulching will allow you to achieve the gardening success that you have always wanted. It is not magic, but rather, nature at work. All of the plants within your landscape have evolved to take up nutrients from organic matter, provided from your decaying plant debris. It will be a bit awkward at first, but soon you will be moving effortlessly to the beat of nature and your mulch will be changing your home landscape for the better. Mulch on!