Ask the Chuckster: Winter mulching

Friday, 18 December 2015

Ask the Chuckster: Winter mulching

by Chuck Marsh

This month I address questions about preparing our plant allies for winter. At home I'm putting away the final autumn fruit harvest by making fruit vinegar from my overripe fruit.

How can I help my trees make it through these hard winters?

Mulching plants in for the winter prevents winter injury and promotes a healthy soil ecology, which encourages healthy root development and improves soil nutrient availability. Proper sanitation can reduce disease cycles by breaking insect and fungal lifecycles. And a little winter protection can help cold-sensitive plants get through a colder winter.

What plants should I mulch?

Your orchard trees and shrubs, as well as vines. Cane fruits won’t need as much mulch. One of the reasons that mulch is healthy, is that it insulates and holds moisture. Most fruiting plants were at one time edge species that grew on the edge of forests in fungally dominated soil. Mulching helps to recreate that soil environment by offering habitat for the necessary organisms.

How should I apply the mulch?

Mulch around your trees and shrubs with about 2-3 inches of mulch. You don’t want to mulch too thick or it can starve the plant of oxygen. Leave about 6-8 inches around the stem unmulched to keep the wood borers out in the summer.

What should I use?

I prefer material that breaks down slower, such as shredded pinewood or hardwood mulch. However, if the mulch is too woody it can create a nitrogen deficiency, robbing the soil of the microbes that move up into the mulch to digest it. Yellow leaves while the plant is actively growing can be caused by nitrogen deficiency. In this case, fertilize with blood meal or alfalfa meal or Chilean nitrate to offset this condition.

Autumn leaves can also be a good mulch. Concentrate them around your shrub beds and fruit trees, keeping them away from the trunks. If you broadcast lime and/or spray compost tea on them, the leaves will decompose through the winter, returning their nutrients to the soil and breaking the lifecycle of any pathogens on the leaves.

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