As temperatures are rapidly declining, many home gardeners will soon begin to put their vegetable beds to rest for the winter months by pulling the remnants of their warm season vegetables. They may also be planting some cool season flowers in the flower beds beneath the front porch for a little touch of color during the fall and early winter. In either case, you should elect to mulch your beds as a part of the winter preparation process.

Mulch is a generic term used to describe any organic material that has large particles and is used to cover the soil surface. Mulch can be leaves, bark, wood chips, or straw. Mulching is always a good practice, whether you are planting vegetables, flowers, or trees and shrubs. The primary reasons for mulching are to prevent erosion, increase soil moisture retention, and to increase root zone warmth. Mulches can provide additional nutrition to the soil in time as they degrade and undergo a series of natural chemical processes. They will also be able to add physical and chemical structure to your soil in time as they degrade.

Oftentimes, individuals select a mulch-based solely on cost. They may consider the color of the mulch if they are wanting to present a certain "look" in their flower beds, but the average person will say, "Any mulch will do, as long as it is cheap." I agree, mostly, but sometimes the most inexpensive mulch can create additional issues. So, there are a few considerations to be had when selecting mulch.

Firstly, consider the source of the material. You can use fallen leaves that have been raked from your yard or purchase several different materials from a garden center. Wholesale landscape suppliers provide access to large quantities of sterile wood chips. A free wood chip material from a local firewood or utility company may sound like a terrific deal, but it may not be.

This material may introduce harmful plant pathogens into your garden. You can still acquire and use this material, but you should ask questions and take the time to properly sterilize and store this material. It often comes in bulk, and if you don't intend on using it right away, you will need to store it. Store it on a tarp or concrete, if possible, and cover it with an additional tarp in the event of inclement weather.

Secondly, consider the type of mulch and its properties. If you have poor soils and wish to increase the soil's health more quickly, pick a material that is already composted or something that quickly breaks down, such as baled pine needles or wheat straw.

Finally, consider the price. If the mulch materials in question satisfies the first two considerations, then decide based on price. Bagged mulches that are available at large, chain garden centers will often be discounted if they are damaged, so do not be afraid to grab the bag with a hole in it and point it out at check-out.

Mulching is an essential horticultural practice and should not be overlooked. It is simply one of the best things that you can do for your garden plants and soil. If you have any questions regarding mulching, please call the Cherokee County OSU Extension office at 918-456-6163.

Garrett Ford is an agriculture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.

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