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Two methods for mulching perennials

Dwarf apples with paper mulchA couple of our experiments this spring have focused on trying out new methods of mulching around our perennials, and I thought it was time to give you an update on my successes and failures. I've never been entirely pleased with my mulch campaign in our berry and high-density tree rows because I never have enough of my favorite mulch --- rotted wood chips --- to go around. For the last couple of years, I've instead mulched these guys with bedding from our chicken coops, but that material rots down pretty fast, is really too nitrogen-rich for woody perennials, and would be better used in the vegetable garden. Time to try something new!

Disintegrating paper mulch

First of all, the roll of paper mulch we tried around our high-density apples has now been marked down as an official failure. Don't get me wrong --- the paper held back weeds very well (as long as the beds started out weed free). But the paper only lasted about six weeks before it developed big holes, even where no pets walked across the garden beds. With a price tag equivalent to covering this area with a healthy layer of straw (a mulch that would have lasted much longer while adding a lot more organic matter to the soil), I don't think we'll be trying rolls of paper again.

Mulching with cardboard

On the other hand, I'm falling more and more in love with using plain old flattened cardboard boxes around our woody perennials. I'd never laid down cardboard with nothing on top before, so I've been surprised by how well the cardboard stands up to the weather while also making the soil underneath loose, damp, and happy. For example, the apple row in the foreground of the photo above was treated to a layer of cardboard last fall, which has since rotted enough that I had to double up the layers around the fruit trees. But that left happy, bare soil behind where tree roots haven't yet colonized the soil, so I scattered on some buckwheat and I suspect we'll be good to go for quite a while. One layer of cardboard lasting perhaps all year is a pretty good deal!

Mulching with weeds

The straw-like substance on top of the cardboard in my previous photo is simply garden weeds that I had piled up nearby. Cardboard does require some sort of object on top to weigh it down, so my new method involves a quick weed of the biggest plants in the area I'm planning to mulch with cardboard, followed by a layer of cardboard topped off with a sprinkling of the weeds just pulled. The cardboard barrier prevents weed roots from recolonizing the soil, and the dying weeds hold the cardboard down until it melds with the soil. Just don't do this with creeping plants (certain grasses, ground ivy, etc.), or you'll end up with a weed problem on top of your mulch.

I suspect my slapdash cardboard mulches wouldn't fly in a city garden. But if you live out in the country (and have a city person to collect cardboard boxes from the side of the road for you --- thanks, Mom!), I highly recommend that you give this perennial mulching option a shot.

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