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Franci M. Fullerton Master Gardener
As a kid growing up in farm country in the midwest, the dirt was rich and black, the rain was adequate, and the heat was tolerable. My folks and I planted, weeded, and reaped the benefits of our huge gardens. We had one garden solely dedicated to tomatoes! When I came to Oklahoma, I wondered where my green thumb had gone. I had no idea how to deal with this scorching heat, the long dry spells, and the ever-present Oklahoma winds. I really didn’t understand, at first, how much the wind affected my garden and flowers. I love to garden, so I had to figure out a way to make this work.
I took a master gardening class at the Shawnee Extension Office where I learned how to garden better, particularly in Oklahoma – a class I would encourage everyone to take. When I was growing up, we NEVER ONCE mulched a garden. I soon learned that mulching is a key to “staying alive” in Oklahoma. When we get rain, or when we water our gardens, then here comes the heat and wind to evaporate the water from our soil. A layer of mulch protects the soil from that evaporation and prevents the plants from drying out and becoming stressed. And I’ve learned that it’s true that stressed plants might as well be holding up a little flag for all the pests saying, “Come and Get Me!” When plants get stressed and weakened, they become a target for pests and diseases.
So what is mulch, and where do I get it?
Mulch is any material that we put on bare soil to protect it. Garden fabric coverings, grass clippings, straw, wood chips, and more are adequate mulching materials. These are available at farm stores, nurseries, and gardening outlets. Also, let’s not forget that some local farmers are willing to sell straw. The mulching process mimics the gardening plan of nature to keep down weeds and to preserve moisture as well as to continually renew the soil. This helps prevent topsoil erosion, which, in turn, protects the plants’ roots. Furthermore, mulching provides shade, which lowers the soil’s temperature and helps plants grab ahold of the moisture that so easily would evaporate away, otherwise. It is incredible how quickly bare soil loses water to evaporation! Additionally, cooked, dried out soil loses microorganisms that are key to a healthy garden. A one inch layer of mulch prevents that from happening.
I have found that organic mulches such as straw and/or grass clippings are great forms of mulch for my garden, whether in the ground or in containers, because they are a) inexpensive, b) practically free of weed seeds, and (most importantly), c) effective. Furthermore, they will break down and enrich your soil for the following year. These also conserve fertilizing efforts and cut down on the need for soil additives. Mulching is one of the most effective tools for keeping your garden alive “in the heat of the moment.”
Franci is a master gardener who lives in Pauls Valley and writes a rotational gardening article for The Shawnee News-Star. She can be reached by email at [email protected]
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