Do Not Let Winters Damage your Garden Soil (Fall-Winter Mulching)
Updated: Oct 27
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Summary of the blog: Thanks for stopping by to read the post on Fall-Winter Mulching. In this blogpost we cover – What is Winter Mulching, what are the benefits of mulching in the fall for the winters and the types of mulch you can use to protect your veggie garden beds in winter.
Click below to download our Freebie to learn some of the Great Leaves to Use for a Winter Mulch.
The information we've included in the freebie will help you understand which leaves work best for veggie gardens as mulches.
Fall is here, and if you love gardening and being outdoors, then you've probably heard of mulches. We often think of mulches as something used under trees or in perennial beds, but can mulches protect the soil in the winter?
YES. Mulches are a great way to insulate your plants and protect the soil of your vegetable garden over the winter.. With many more benefits attached, winter mulches come in a variety of types. So, if you're looking for a way to protect your garden beds which are attractive and low maintenance, winter mulches can be an excellent option.
What is winter mulching?
Mulching for the winter is the practice of covering your garden beds with materials, preferably organic in the fall to protect the soil over the winter. Mulching in different seasons provides different benefits and mulching in the fall for the winter helps to protect soil in the winter for many different reasons. Let's look at some of these!
Benefits of Fall-Winter Mulching your Garden Beds –
Protect your perennials –
Perennials are plants that grow back each year if protected well. These plants can be vulnerable to fluctuating freezing and thawing. If we have a random warm spell in the winter, this can send the plants the wrong signals and stimulate growth. But, once this warm spell ends and winter chills return, the tender growth is not able to withstand these cold conditions. Thus, your plants need to have down jackets of their own and winter mulching acts just like that! The mulch also insulates from deep freezing cold periods, reducing the amount the soil will freeze, which could kill the plant roots of these perennial plants.
Increase soil insulation –
The cold winters are harsh for your garden soil too. Layering up your soil with a protective material helps in retaining warmth during extremely cold temperatures, especially if you live in an area where the snow cover doesn't last for long (snow also provides a protective shield in areas deeply covered during winters). Keeping the soil warmer means that you may be able to get out into your garden bed earlier in the spring to plant, although it's important to either remove the mulch or mix it in as we want the spring sun to warm up our black soil!
Reduces soil erosion –
Soil erosion is the loss of the top fertile layers of soil. In our gardens, it would often be lost and eroded by water (rain), wind and snow. It can wreak havoc on the top layer of the soil even in your raised garden bed. It has been estimated that 36 bn tons of soil is eroded per year! But you can contain it timely by adding a thick layer of mulch which has the added bonus of protecting soil nutrients from leaching away.
Retain moisture –
If you live in a drier climate, cold winter winds can leave you and your garden bed patchy and dry. These dry winds lead to wicking the moisture away from the soil which leads to excess evaporation, resulting in loss of moisture. Thus, a layer of mulch between the ground and the drying wind is a surefire way to trap the moisture in the soil over the winter and have a more pliable soil in the spring.
Add nutrients –
Adding a layer of organic mulch like leaves or straw in the fall means that in the spring when things are warming up, our soil organisms will be able to start decomposing this material which will release the nutrients from these materials into the soil. However, its important to note that this material needs to be finely chopped or low in lignin and woody material (remember to download our freebie where we will describe what lignin is and why this matters when choosing a leaf mulch). If we have used bulky, woody materials, these soil organisms will actually take nutrients from the soil as they are working so hard to decompose these tough materials. If you have chunky leaves or wood chips, you may want to remove them from your bed in the spring, and put that material through your home composter before mixing it into your soil.
Feeds soil organisms –
There are billions of soil organisms in a single tablespoon of soil and so many more large pals like our earthworms and centipedes, all of whom contribute to a healthy soil ecosystem that benefits our plants and vegetables. Adding a winter mulch can provide shelter, warmth, and good food for beneficial microorganisms like earthworms, centipedes, and millipedes during winter while they help in keeping the soil aerated and make nutrients more accessible to the roots.
So at this point, you might be asking, which mulch is good for my garden?
The answer is many as it depends on your needs and what’s available to you. So let's take a look at a few of our favourite types and what they do for our soil!
Types of Mulches – For the Winter
Leaves as mulch–
As we are into autumn, many gardeners are in the midst of continuous raking and dumping of fall leaves. However, when we do this, we are throwing away protective golden insulation for our garden soil! Leaves are a protective powerhouse when it comes to dressing up the top layer of your garden bed soil. If we use leaves as a winter leaf mulch, we will help keep weeds at bay, improve drainage, insulate and protect the soil from freeze-thaw, erosion and leaching of nutrients and will also add extra organic matter as they decompose in the spring. A garden gold. Isn't it?
But here are a few things to keep in mind remember to shred the leaves using a lawn mower before adding 2-3'' of leaf mulch to your garden beds because a thick layer of non-shredded leaves can block the air circulation and retain more water than needed. Secondly, avoid using leaves of diseased plants as these diseases will overwinter in the soil. Thirdly, check our Freebie “Great Leaves to Use in the Winter” as not all leaves are created equal in terms of what they do for our garden soil!
Straw as a mulch –
Just like other mulches, straw is great at holding moisture and preventing evaporation. It acts as a blanket and insulates the soil during extreme temperatures. It's a natural resource that breaks down over time and suppresses weed growth by blocking access to light.
When using straw as a mulch, remember – when you select straw for your garden, make sure it's free of any chemicals or pesticides — this will help keep the soil in your garden healthier and more sustainable. As we don’t want to inadvertently kill our soil organisms with residual pesticides and fungicides. Something to note, many people confuse straw with hay, but they are different. While hay may have seed attached to it and may lead to weed growth, straw is the dead part, so pick cautiously. Additionally, on extremely windy days, you may want to cover it with a tarp because the straw is lightweight and can be blown away.
Woodchips as a mulch –
Woodchips are one of the most common mulching materials because you can easily source them from your local nurseries and a lot of times at no charge from your local tree trimming service or utility services company. But beyond costs, they act as an effective mulch which keeps the moisture intact, decomposes into the soil and suppresses weed growth. Thereby providing you with nutrient-rich soil for the next year.
But with woodchips, take note – add it only as the top-dressing to your soil because the carbon-rich woodchips when mixed with soil may end up tying-up nitrogen to itself and leaving less for your plants. In the spring you may want to remove the mulch and add it to perennial fruit trees and bushes. Perennial plants typically have much deeper roots so they like the increased water retention and insulation the mulch provides but they don’t have to worry about the nitrogen being tied up in the lower layers of the soil where their roots live. Another important consideration when choosing to use wood chips is to make sure you are sourcing wood that is from chemical and treatment-free trees.
Cardboard as a mulch –
When garden coaching, we have been asked by a few of our gardeners, if I don’t have time or I miss the window for leaves and straw, can I use cardboard as a mulch? If you have some undyed cardboard boxes lying at home, you can put them to productive use. Or even if you don't, cardboard isn't an expensive choice.
When it comes to using cardboard as mulch, there are a few considerations. Avoid using dyed cardboard as the toxic chemicals will get mixed with soil when it breaks down into it, make sure to remove any taping it might have on it for the same reasons. Secondly, you want to make it rough and uneven (layering pieces, cutting holes etc.) otherwise it can lie too flat on the soil because if that gets soaked, air may not be able to enter the soil.
Tarp the garden bed –
Covering your garden bed with natural canvas tarps or black plastic sheets will do more for your raised beds than you think. The tarp shelters your soil from harsh winters and at the same time it suppresses weeds, it also prevents the leaching of nutrients. The black plastic tarp also inadvertently adds nutrients to the soil by initially absorbing heat which allows weed seeds to germinate but then later, the weeds die underneath because of a lack of light, and moisture. These dead weeds eventually decompose into the soil, adding some nutrients back into your soil. However, use it only if you want to do something quick and you are already a late runner in protecting your garden beds as other types of mulch mentioned above are more beneficial as they provide more nutrients and organic matter back into the soil.
This brings us to the end –
As you can see the answer to the question “which mulch is good for my garden” has many answers depending on what’s available and your garden's needs. We hope this post helped you to make the right decision for yourself! Maintaining your garden with winter mulch is a great way to limit the amount of time, energy, and materials you dedicate to it every season. Whatever type of mulch you choose, mulching this fall for the winter is excellent at protecting the soil and our perennial or winter vegetables and should not be forgotten in our fall garden care regimen. And at DirtMagicians we love hearing from you. So let us know which mulching technique you chose – join our Facebook group and let us know what you thought and if you have any questions!
Also, don’t forget we have a free gift for you to download – where we share with you which leaves are best for mulching (because all leaves don't grow the same!).
Click below to download Best Leaves for Mulching freebie.
Sayonara for now! Happy growing ϑ