Garden Mulch Essentials For The Sub-Arctic Garden

Garden Planning, Techniques

The concept of garden mulch is often misunderstood.  A lot of people think of mulch as a wood pulp or layer of hay that you place over your garden.  It sounds expensive, especially if you run a good size garden!  While it can be these things, garden mulch is not limited to these particular products.

Garden mulch is essentially any material that you place over your garden and it offers one of the best investments into your garden that you can possibly make.  Particularly here in the sub-arctic, it could almost be considered essential for many types of plants and is something every northern gardener should consider implementing.

Mulch features many properties, all of which are beneficial to the garden.  First and foremost, it can help with weed control which will save a ton of time in garden maintenance later in the season.  Another benefit is moisture retention, you will not have to water as often and your plants will be happier if they experience any drought conditions.  (Like you being unable to water for a couple of days!  Ooops!)  For us northern gardens, it will also help retain heat and allow the soil to warm up more quickly, which results in happy plants!

Our favorite mulch over the years has become landscape fabric as the application is quite simple and it lasts for many years.  These are offered in rolls of varying widths and lengths to suit your particular garden application.  You simply roll out the fabric and stake it down with garden stakes.  To create a planting space, just cut an “X” into the fabric and plant your veggie or flower, tucking in the edges of the fabric.  For even better results, you could use a heated circular item and “melt” a planting site into the fabric.  (This results in less potential for tearing.)  You can also apply the fabric to walking paths and access areas, which will greatly reduce the overall weeding you have to do.  Both the fabric and stakes are commonly available from your local home improvement store, usually found in the garden section.

The landscape fabric is typically permeable, which allows water to seep through into the soil.  I would generally avoid black plastics.  They work but will also prevent water from passing through which is not ideal for plants as you might imagine.  The fabric is reasonably inexpensive compared to other products and will often be less expensive per square foot for larger rolls.  The rolls do not take much storage space, so buying more than you need in a season will not usually create a storage burden.

There are multiple levels of quality when it comes to landscape fabric.  Cheap stuff will quickly break down, usually within 2-3 years.  Quality landscape fabric will last for a long time as well, typically it is rated for 10 to 25 years, but mileage may vary.  If you want to rotate crops, you can simply pick up and move your rows of fabric and your planting spaces will be all ready marked for you!

Landscape fabric is not ideal everywhere in the garden though.  For smaller plants with high planting densities, you’re likely better off without a mulch or using a loose mulch such as wood chips.  Examples where fabric mulches are troublesome are leeks, green onions, radishes, carrots, beets, potatoes and perhaps other plants that are commonly planted close or where mulch would interfere with harvests.  For these, selecting a planting location with less weed problems will be ideal.

At least for sub arctic growing like we see here, research has shown that mulch is critical to the health and success of many types of plants.  Warm weather plants, notably tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other more challenging veggies will enjoy the quick soil warmth and reward you with better harvests when using mulch.  At a minimum, mulch should be used for these warm weather plants, but it will benefit your entire garden if used elsewhere.  The UAF extension service identifies which will plant varieties will highly benefit from mulch applications in the recommended variety list.

There are other types of mulches that can be used, all of which offer similar properties.  Some of these other mulches include:

  • Certified weed-free straw (weed free is critical!)
  • Grass clippings
  • Raw wood chippings (e.g. bark)
  • Plastic/rubber chips
  • Gravel or stones
  • Newspaper (usually 4-8 sheets)
  • Cardboard
  • Leaves, typically shredded

A benefit of using organic mulches such as straw, paper, grass clippings and wood chips is they will degrade over time and provide essential nutrients to your soil.  This has the additional drawback that it will need to be replenished over time to retain effectiveness, but it’s usually not a big deal.  Some may not be desirable for areas where you’ll be frequently digging (e.g. bark and rubber chips) as you don’t want these products in your root structure.  If you apply compost to the growing areas and fertilize at appropriate intervals, the natural breakdown is not usually a need.

The mulch that you use is entirely up to you, but certainly think about using something in your gardens!  It will save you many hours of time later and will result in happier plants.

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