Weed warrior 

Mulch can save your garden from certain death

Now is the ideal time to be in the garden. The sun is shining, the birds and flowers are out, and the gardeners are eager and vigorous, like their plants. This is when big plans are made, when people make proclamations of hubris, like, "This will be the year my garden's gonna rock like never before."

Unfortunately, as spring changes to summer, a sad thing happens. Like new love becoming old hat, the excitement wanes, the honeymoon ends, and many gardeners lose interest.

All of a sudden, the quack grass that snuck into the onions undetected due to their close resemblance is taller than the onions themselves. Elsewhere, the intruders you ignored when they were wee weeds have quickly overtaken your cucumbers, which you forgot to harvest because you couldn't see them behind the weeds. Now they lie still, split and rotting on the ground.

And didn't you plant peppers somewhere?

Believe it or not, if you're really on the ball at the start of the season, weeding won't be necessary. With strategic application of mulch, the weeds won't even show up.

Mulch is a generic term for "soil-covering material." The ideal mulch will prevent weeds from growing through it, while not inhibiting the growth of your crop and still allowing air and moisture to penetrate the soil.

My favorite mulch, hands-down, is straw, because it's cheap, easy to work with, and looks really nice on the garden. The biggest problem with straw is when straw isn't straw, but hay, which has seeds.

Putting hay on your garden amounts to seeding it with grass. But a thick mat of honest straw will smother weeds, keep moisture where it belongs, regulate soil temperature and create an active microbial environment on the soil's surface, which will increase the soil's fertility.

Mulching strawberries with straw what a concept! will keep the berries away from slugs, off the dirt and out of rot's way, while allowing for dirt-free, in-garden strawberry feasting.

This time of year, it can be tough to find straw, but grass clippings make a good substitute. If you can't get enough clippings from your own lawn, cruise the alleyways in your neighborhood. There are plenty of generous souls who go to the trouble of packaging their valuable clippings in conveniently identifiable round plastic bags. Just watch out for clippings in yards where dogs roam, for obvious reasons, and for signs of contamination.

Garden stores also sell ready-made mulches. They can be a bit costly, depending on the size of the area you want to cover. But you can easily justify the expense by putting a price on your labor and calculating how much time weeding in the hot sun you'll save, when you could be, say, jumping in the river. Confirm that the mulch is appropriate for vegetable gardens, as opposed to ornamentals.

The occasional weed that makes it through your mulch will be easily pulled, because the moist soil beneath the mulch will generously relinquish the roots of the offender.

But before you go out there like a fervent young priest and mulch everything in sight, remember there are certain things that shouldn't be mulched. Tomatoes, for example, like their roots to dry out between waterings. Fruit trees need a little mulch-free space near the trunk. Salad greens can be planted so thickly that they act as their own mulch, carpeting the ground.

If you have questions about what to mulch, please write me and ask. My e-mail address is flash@flashinthepan.net.

Ari Levaux

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