There are two types of jobs in the garden: those that require a great deal of careful thought in either the planning or the execution, and those that require little or no brain power at all. Mulching is the latter kind, which one might categorise as ‘drudgery’ or ‘simple pleasure’ depending on your mood, the state of your back muscles, and the prevailing weather. Personally I place mulching in the simple pleasure category: a perfect job for the end of the year when one’s brain is saying ‘no more’; a somewhat mindless task that feels virtuous, requires no decision making, and has a pleasing aesthetic result. You can listen to music or an instructive podcast while mulching, or ruminate on higher thoughts.
For those who have never indulged in the pleasant occupation of mulching a garden and are wondering what on earth I am talking about, mulching is the application of organic matter to the surface of the soil in order to protect the soil from erosion, raise the temperature of the soil, and aid water retention. It replaces the organic matter lost through digging, and is taken down by earthworms to act as a food source for the soil microbiome, ultimately providing nutrients to the roots of your plants. Adding organic matter to the soil will help to break up a heavy clay soil, and equally help to bind a sandy, dry soil. It also buries weed seeds, and certain mulches can make life harder for slugs.
In the wild, nutrients are returned to the soil through a combination of leaf-fall, dying plant material, animal excrement, and animal carcasses (both large animals and tiny insects). However, in our gardens we tend to harvest or tidy up and remove fallen leaves, plant material and animal waste. The ecosystem of the average garden is greatly limited and impoverished in the name of tidiness, and therefore we are obliged to add back to the soil what we take away.
There are various good organic mulches that can be used: farmyard or horse manure is ideal, but it must be well rotted. Others include green waste from the council, finely shredded bark, garden compost, leaf mould, shredded seaweed, composted bracken or sheep’s wool, and commercial products such as Strulch. It pains me to say that plastic sheeting and weed control membranes such as Mypex also come under the category of mulch, though the onomatopoeia is a damp squib when applied to these rustling, unnatural and most unsquelchy of items. Though sheeting can protect large areas from soil erosion, they clearly do not supply nutrients to the soil, and are frankly far less satisfying to apply or gaze at — and what is gardening for if not for satisfaction and gazing?
I am lucky in being able to source small quantities of horse manure from Emily, my grandmother’s horse. It’s always well rotted, but contains a lot of nettle seeds, and I can’t bring back enough for the whole garden. So as an early Christmas gift to myself, I ordered eight sacks of organic enriched manure from Garden Solutions, a local company that sells a variety of mulches and soil enrichers (their website is here). It duly appeared in my front garden as though delivered by Santa Claus, and the following Saturday I leaped eagerly from bed and got to work. First using a hand cultivator to gently break up the soil surface and dislodge any weeds, I then applied double handfuls of the lovely mulch and spread it over the surface of the soil in between the plants, about two inches thick. There is no simpler pleasure than the handling of dark, rich organic matter in one’s bare hands, especially if the sun is shining and it’s almost Christmas.
It is said that a clay soil should be mulched in spring, and a sandy soil should be mulched in autumn, but in fact a mulch can be applied to any soil at any time of year. The reason I apply mine in December is a combination of factors. The bulbs are all in, but have not come up yet and so do not get in the way. Rather, they come up through the mulch about a month later. Take my word for it that trying to apply a mulch around bulbs that have already sprouted is a challenge, especially where those dratted flopping allium leaves are concerned. In December there is not a lot else to do in the garden anyway, the bare soil exposed by plant die-back looks bare and vulnerable to heavy rains, and a clean, dark mulch is the perfect foil for the virginal white flowers of my beloved snowdrops and Helleborus niger.
The soil in our front garden is dry and poor due to the proximity of the street trees and also due to the privet hedge, which is the main reason that I redesigned the front garden with its path around the edges. This is how the garden looked before I mulched it:
And below is the garden after mulching and a tidy-up. As you can see, the soil is now much darker, which will help with heat retention. And if you can just about see the hellebores below the Sorbus cashmiriana you might get an idea of how nice they look against the darkness of the mulch.
Now that the brick maze is finished, I am looking forward to writing a post all about the design and execution. In fact, this would have been the post you’d be reading now, except I’m writing this from Derbyshire and all my ‘before’ photos are on a hard drive 300 miles away in Edinburgh, so it will have to wait. Meanwhile, I am off outside to feed Emily her breakfast, with a mind to many more satisfying manure-spreading operations in Decembers for years to come.