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Skaggs: Use much mulch for successful gardening
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The ranks of those delving into vegetable gardening are growing daily.

When it comes to garden chores, few jobs in the vegetable garden are as rewarding as mulching. Time spent applying mulch to peppers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and other vegetables will mean extra dividends at harvest time.

Mulch prevents loss of moisture from the soil, suppresses weed growth, reduces fertilizer leaching, cools the soil and keeps vegetables off the ground. Fruit rots sometimes occurs when vegetables touch the ground.

Mulching offers several advantages:

Serves as a barrier between the plant and soil.

Reduces labor since less cultivation is required; emerging weeds perish under a mulch barrier.

Conserves water by reducing evaporation of soil moisture, in turn lowering the soil temperature.

Provides easier water absorption than that of bare soil.

Improves root growth by preventing drastic fluctuations in soil temperature.

Increases the organic-matter content and the water-holding capacity of the soil when organic mulch is tilled into the soil at the end of the growing season.

Makes the garden neater and reduces the incidence of mud-splashed flowers and vegetables after heavy rains.

Mulch should be easily obtained, inexpensive and simple to apply. Availability and cost may vary widely. Mulching materials may be available from materials in your own yard such as leaves, bought from garden centers and obtained from tree service firms. A suggested depth is 3 to 4 inches, bearing in mind that too little will give limited weed control and too much will prevent air from reaching roots.

When using wood bark mulch, small pieces of bark are preferred over large chunks. Bark mulches vary, but most are attractive, durable and suitable for vegetable plantings. In particular, shredded mulch stays in place well and blocks weeds nicely. If not well-aged, bark mulch may have a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, thereby requiring prior application of nitrogen fertilizer.

An especially good mulch, compost has fertilizer value and soil-like appearance. It is also a good organic amendment for tilling into the soil after the growing season ends.

Leaves are free, readily available in many areas, release some nutrients upon decomposition and spread easily. However, they have a tendency to form a soggy, impenetrable mat. This problem can be overcome by mixing leaves with fluffy materials, such as hay or straw, or by shredding the leaves.

Many gardeners swear by newspaper mulch. It is readily available and economical, but somewhat difficult to apply. The high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio may necessitate the prior application of nitrogen fertilizer. A good use for newspaper is as an under-mulch - place two to three sheets under a thin layer of an attractive wood or straw mulch for added weed prevention.

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County extension coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.

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