Mulch, a protective layer of material spread over the soil surface, contributes to plant growth. It conserves moisture, insulates the roots against temperature extremes, keeps the soil from crusting over, and suppresses weeds. Mulch also prevents rainfall and irrigation water from splashing disease organisms up from the soil surface onto the plants.
Trees planted in a lawn can benefit from a ring of mulch. The mulch reduces competition from the surrounding turf, and also protects trees from two of their worst enemies—lawn mowers and string trimmers. Wounds inflicted by these two yard machines offer disease organisms easy entry way.
Mulches act as barriers to some pests. Organic mulch, such as ground bark, straw, homemade compost, leaf mold, even grass clippings, if they are weed-free, improves the soil as it breaks down. Many gardeners mix in the mulch after each growing season, but even if the material is left on the surface, it will gradually break down and work its way into the soil.
Apply mulch when plants have reached about 4 to 6 inches tall. Remove any weeds from the soil, then lay the mulch 2 to 4 inches thick around the plants, leaving a small bare space around each stem. Very light mulches can be applied up to 6 inches thick around trees and shrubs, but avoid putting mulch against woody stems as it can rot the plant and attract pests that gnaw on bark. As the mulch becomes compacted or decomposes, add more to keep its thickness uniform.
Most plants can suffer damage when transplanted from one location to another. Annuals, perennials, bulbs, and vegetables, as well as trees, shrubs are particularly affected. Suspect transplant shock when leaves drop suddenly from plants shortly after they are moved to new conditions. If the roots are damaged, the plant will wilt until it has had time to develop a new root system. If plants are immature when moved, they may simply take time to acclimate to their new conditions.
To help prevent transplant shock, gradually acclimate plants to new locations. Harden out plants in spring in a cold frame or by setting them out only during the day for a week or so. Prepare planting holes in advance, so that the plants do not sit exposed or in containers for too long. Provide adequate water and fertilizer. If temperatures are low outdoors, provide protection with mulches or other covers. When transplanting trees, shrubs, and container-grown bedding plants, be sure to loosen the roots carefully and spread them out.
The measure of a plant’s resistance to climatic and environmental conditions is called hardiness. Hardiness is popularly understood to mean only cold tolerance of a plant. Every plant has a genetically determined resistance to a specific resistance degree of cold. This is the most important factor, but other factors figure in as well. Next in importance is soil type. It affects drainage or water retention. Both heavy and high clay content soils do not drain freely, and excessively light soils have poor water retention. Both of these conditions will adversely influence cold weather survival.
Choosing a Site
If you have your heart set on growing a specific plant, check to see what growing conditions it requires. Vegetables will need at least 6 hours of sun exposure a day. The same goes for most flowering plants, however there are still many to choose from for a partially shaded site. If you want to start a garden where there is mostly shade, your choices are going to be more limited, but not prohibitive. Also take into consideration when the sun hits your site. Afternoon sun will be hotter and more drying than morning sun. Many plants turn their faces toward the sun, so if your view of the garden is from a west window, your flowers may face away from you in the afternoon. Evaluate other elements of exposure such as high, drying winds or heavy foot traffic.
Preparing the Bed
This is no one’s favorite garden chore, but there’s no way around it. Your chosen site will probably have grass on it or at least weeds. These must be cleared somehow, before you can plant anything. Tilling without removing the grass or weeds is best done in the fall, so that the grass will have a chance to begin decomposing during the winter. Even so, you will probably see new grass and weeds emerging in the spring. It’s better to either remove the existing vegetation completely or to smother it.
A sharp flat-edged spade can be used to slice out the sod. If you have poor soil and need to amend it with organic matter or other nutrients, removing the sod may be your best bet, so that you are able to till in the amendments. Removing sod can be heavy work and you wind up loosing good top soil along with the sod. Starting with good soil means you won’t have to add a lot of artificial fertilizer to your garden. If you’ve fed the soil with amendments, the soil will feed your plants.