Flash in the Pan 

Much ado about mulching

Now is the ideal time to be in the garden. The weather is mild, the birds and flowers are out and the gardeners are eager and vigorous, like their plants. This is when big plans are made, when people make proclamations of hubris like, “This will be the year my garden’s gonna rock like never before.”

Unfortunately, as spring changes to summer, a sad thing happens. Like new love becoming old hat, the excitement wanes, the honeymoon ends and many gardeners lose interest. Maybe it’s because the alternative options are too tempting: floatable rivers, climbable mountains, more hot chicks at the farmers’ market than in your garden (not mine)…It’s summertime, the living is easy, the fish are jumping, and for whatever reason the weeds are high.

All of a sudden, the quack grass that snuck into the onions—undetected due to their close resemblance—are taller than the onions themselves. Elsewhere, the intruders you ignored when they were wee weeds have quickly overtaken your cucumbers, which you forgot to harvest because you couldn’t see them behind the weeds, where they lie still, split and rotting on the ground.

And didn’t you plant peppers?

Maybe, you make a heroic effort to dig out your garden. Hopefully, it’s not too late. In June, it’s not too late. In July, your garden will probably bounce back, but it won’t catch up to where it would have been. This will not be “the year.”

In August, you’ll at least get some weeds before they’ve all gone to seed. And you’ll be doing important prevention work for next year by intercepting weed seeds before they find your dirt.

But if you’re really on the ball, weeding won’t even be necessary. With strategic application of mulch, the weeds won’t even show up.

Mulch is a generic term for “soil covering material.” The ideal mulch will prevent weeds from growing through it, while not inhibiting the growth of your crop and still allowing air and moisture to penetrate the soil.

Ron Engeland, who wrote the definitive book Growing Great Garlic, claims to “…mulch with the dedication of a champion chess player, and the fervent sincerity of a young priest.”

Based in part on what I learned in Ron’s book, I too have come to mulch with a passion. After first observing the benefits of mulch on garlic, I’ve subsequently used it on onions, strawberries, corn, Brussels sprouts…almost anything I don’t feel like weeding, including garden paths, flower beds and fruit trees.

My favorite mulch, hands-down, is straw, because it’s cheap, easy to work with, and it looks really nice on the garden. The biggest problem with straw is when straw isn’t straw, but hay, which has seeds. Putting hay on your garden amounts to seeding it with grass. But a thick mat of honest straw will smother weeds, keep moisture where it belongs, regulate soil temperature and create an active microbial environment on the soil surface, which will increase the soil’s fertility. Mulching strawberries with straw—what a concept!—will keep the berries away from slugs, off the dirt and out of rot’s way, while allowing for dirt-free in-garden strawberry feasting.

This time of year it can be tough to find straw, but grass clippings make a good substitute. If you can’t get enough clippings from your own lawn, cruise the alleyways in your neighborhood. There are plenty of generous souls who go to the trouble of packaging their valuable clippings in conveniently identifiable round plastic bags. Just watch out for clippings in yards where dogs roam, for obvious reasons, and for signs of contamination. It’s always a good idea to knock on the door and ask first, and when you do, ask if they use chemicals on their lawn, or if their house has lead paint, or if there is toxic waste buried in the yard. Be prepared to back away politely.

Garden stores also sell ready-made mulches. They can be a bit spendy, depending on the size of the area you want to cover. But you can easily justify the expense by putting a price on your labor and calculating how much time weeding in the hot sun you’ll save, when you could be jumping in the river. Confirm that the mulch is appropriate for vegetable gardens, as opposed to ornamentals.

The occasional weed that makes it through your mulch will be easily pulled, because the moist soil beneath the mulch will generously relinquish the roots of the offending plant.

But before you go out there like a fervent young priest and mulch everything in sight, remember there are certain things that shouldn’t be mulched. Tomatoes, for example, like their roots to dry out between waterings. Fruit trees need a little mulch-free space near the trunk. Salad greens can be planted so thickly that they act as their own mulch, carpeting the ground.

If you have questions about what to mulch, please write me and ask. You might even get your name in the paper—see below!

Ask Chef Boy Ari: To prune or not to prune

Lots of mail in the inbox these days. Questions about marinating wild game, defending a morel patch on public land, fruit leather recipes for edible underwear…Often, as I’m responding to your questions, I feel sorry for the non-askers who’re missing out on my responses to some very good questions.

So we’ve created this extra space to cater to your curiosity. I’ll take my best shot at answering your questions, and if anyone thinks I’m out to lunch, I probably am, so please correct me. Since I seem to have claimed the entire food chain as my domain, you have a lot of leeway here. So don’t hold back.

And every once in a while I’ll post food news here, like notice of upcoming events, gossip, etc. So if you know something that ought to be public, or if you want to otherwise help keep my finger on the pulse of Missoula’s belly, do tell.

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,
What’s the best way to keep my in-town fruit trees healthy and producing well, and still stay organic? Can you recommend an insecticidal soap? Also, when is the best time for a tree to be pruned, fall or spring?
—Fruity on Fourth Street

A:Dear Fruity,
Your letter arrived while I was at Ace, buying some Safer brand insecticidal soap to spray on my plum trees, which, I discovered to my horror, have aphids. Dish soap works too, I’m told, but it isn’t organic. With “potassium salts of fatty acids” listed as its active ingredient, Safer is recommended for trees, shrubs, vegetables and berries, and the label says you can use it right up to harvest day, even on lettuce.

As for pruning, some trees are better pruned in fall, others in spring—but spring is usually best. Whatever you’ve got, Fruity, don’t prune it now; it’s too late. Focus on keeping your trees healthy as they are.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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