NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 6, 2013

Tim's Tips: Mulching can save your plants

Tim's Tips
Tim Lamprey

---- — If you remember back to this past spring, there were many plants that died over the winter. In some cases, plants were badly damaged.

The winter of 2012 and 2013 killed many plants, but not from too much snow or from too much wind. The problem was the freeze-and-thaw cycle.

Every late fall or early winter, the ground freezes as the temperatures drop. When the ground freezes, any plant in the ground is slightly lifted out of the ground by the freezing of the soil. This lifting of the plant causes some of the root system to be damaged.

In the spring, the ground thaws and the plant settles back into the soil. The moisture in the soil allows the roots to regrow, and the plant is none the worse for the experience.

Last fall and winter, the ground froze and thawed on a regular basis. Each time the ground froze, the roots of the plants were damaged. Come the spring, many plants had little of their root systems left from all the alternating freezing and thawing of the soil. The plants may have been OK except for the fact that it was a dry spring and the plants didn’t have the moisture in the soil to help in the development of a new root system.

The question is: How could you have prevented the damage to your plants?

The answer: Mulch your plants in the fall.

When you put mulch on the soil around the plants, the mulch acts just like insulation. Once the ground freezes, the mulch helps keep the soil frozen if we get a freeze-and-thaw pattern. Mulching your plants is something you should be doing every fall. For many years, you may have gotten away with not doing it, but last winter was the year that many people paid the price in the loss of many plants.

Some people want to use the leaves that they have to mulch the plants. The problem with leaves is that once they get wet, they pack down and you lose the insulating nature.

My recommendation would be to use bark mulch. The bark mulch can be placed around the base of the plant to cover the soil. A 3-inch layer will do the trick.

Alternatively, you can use straw to do the same thing. If you use straw, make sure that it is straw and not hay. Much of the hay will contain weed seed that can cause weeds to grow in your gardens next spring.

There are several companies that are packaging chopped hay that is heat-treated to kill any weed seed. The hay is finely chopped, so come the spring, you can spread it out and apply your bark mulch over it. The hay will disintegrate into the soil.

Mulching in the fall is critical in allowing your plants to survive the winter. Your plants will also benefit from water being applied to the soil.

Most plants will take up water in the fall so that the plant can lose water to the winter wind. Mother Nature has not cooperated this fall in providing the water the plants need. It’s up to you to keep up with the watering until the ground freezes.

Well, that’s all for this week. I’ll talk to you again next week.

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Tim Lamprey is the owner of Harbor Garden Center on Route 1 in Salisbury. His website is www.harborgardens.com. Do you have questions for Tim? Send them to ndn@newburyportnews.com, and he will answer them in upcoming columns.