Mulch will dress up your yard for winter


A big part of cultivating a sustainable way of life is reducing what you use and finding ways to reuse what you already have.

One way to do that is to pay attention to what comes from offsite into your lawn and garden and what leaves it. Chances are good that you may be buying and bringing in things you don't need or already have and that you're getting rid of stuff you could put to good use elsewhere.

Leaf mulch is a good example. As leaves begin to fall, many homeowners in the city rake them or otherwise bag them up and set them by the curb for pickup. This makes me happy because, while I have quite a bit of leaf mulch of my own, much of what falls from surrounding trees is pine needles, and I can always use more.

I like to try to keep everything from my own plot onsite, and that means much of my effort involves moving stuff around more than getting rid of it. Leaves aren't too picky about where they fall, and they end up in lawn areas, on driveways and walkways, decks, roofs - everywhere, it seems, but in the neatly defined beds where I want to plant. Instead of bagging up leaf mulch, rake it or blow it into your beds and let it contribute to the process of protecting the soil, helping it retain moisture and building its value to your plants.

Two to three inches of leaf mulch is plenty; you don't want it too deep or the leaves will mat and set up an oxygen-poor environment. If you can, chop up the leaves coarsely so they have less tendency to blow away but not so finely that they impede the taking up of water.

If you get serious enough about mulch to invest in a shredder, you probably enjoy a wooded lot and have regular access to pruned and fallen sticks and branches that can make good mulch, as well. Pine needles make outstanding mulch around plants that enjoy a little more acidic soil, such as azaleas, hydrangeas and blueberries.

A few caveats

While mulching is a big part of protecting your plants - especially newly planted ones - and building and protecting your soil, there are a few pitfalls to avoid.

  •  Don't apply mulch all the way up to the plant. Leave a few inches between the mulch and the stem of woody plants to protect the plants from prolonged moisture.
  •  Don't mulch all the way up to structures. Again, leave a few inches between the mulch and the foundation to protect from excess moisture and to prevent termites from having a bridge over treatments applied to the soil.
  •  Don't build a mound of mulch around trees. Mulch applied too deeply can smother tree roots, which need oxygen. Roots generally expand outward from the trunk about as far as the leaf canopy, and trees can benefit from a two- to three-inch layer of mulch in a circle where the leaves fall. Pine needles can be a little deeper as they allow air to flow more freely.
  •  Don't pile up leaf mulch and leave it too long. "Sour mulch" - you'll know it by the smell - can damage plants if left too long without turning, which allows oxygen to feed beneficial organisms that break down organic materials into nutrients. Fortunately, sour mulch can be aerated - turned - and used safely after about three days.


Much more information on this and many other lawn and garden care topics can be found at Clemson University's Home and Garden Information Center website. To read more on mulch, visit this link: