Round Robin: Using Mulch and Compost

Notes from regional herb gardeners: Rob Proctor says he doesn't mulch--and he knows how much mulch you need too.

| August/September 1997

Denver, Colorado—During the question-and-answer period following one of my recent lectures, a woman asked me what I used for mulch. My reply, “I don’t mulch,” was greeted with as much outrage as if I’d announced that I perform the ritual sacrifice of kittens. “But you have to mulch!” she cried.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she sputtered, “it’s ... it’s good for your plants.”

“Don’t my plants look healthy?” I countered.

The woman looked as if she suspected that I was in league with the devil. I went on to explain why I don’t mulch. Organic mulches such as bark nuggets or wood chips are gradually decomposed by soil microorganisms that take nitrogen from the soil to fuel the process—at the expense of surrounding plants. I once saw a garden that was mulched with 6 inches of wood shavings. Its owner couldn’t understand why the plants hadn’t grown an inch in three years. I suggested that he remove the mulch and apply fertilizer to his nitrogen-starved perennials. The results were dramatic.

I’m also staunchly opposed to using weed-barrier fabric or, worse, black plastic covered with big hunks of bark. Within a few years, these barriers are full of weeds that drift in with dust on top of the fabric or plastic.

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