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Gardens for Humanity: The gifts of mulch

Nature’s mulch is the accumulation of dead plant matter left undisturbed through the seasons. (Courtesy)

Nature’s mulch is the accumulation of dead plant matter left undisturbed through the seasons. (Courtesy)

When I want to write about the garden, the first thing I do is go outside and walk in it. After so many years we have an intimate relationship. Our garden willingly shares so many gifts! The best way for me as a gardener to give back is to provide ample mulch. Mulch is the key that unlocks garden treasures.

Some may say that my garden is not “tidy.” However, I take my gardening cues from nature and do what it tells me is most beneficial. When hiking in the high desert I observe thriving plant communities that even survive long periods of drought. In their natural life cycle plants drop dead leaves, which accumulate in their understory providing protection, food, and holding moisture for all the lives above and below the ground.

Nature’s mulch is the accumulation of dead plant matter left undisturbed through the seasons. We can contribute to this by adding leaves, compost, manures, wood chips, even shredded cardboard. Our role as gardener can be to imitate and work with the natural life cycles of plants. There are six gifts of mulch that contribute to healthy gardens.

1 Covering bare soil: Mulch keeps the ground cool and moist in the summer and warm in the winter providing food and shelter. This protects all the lives in the soil that are recycling essential materials and nutrients. When we think of a living soil it helps to think of its needs as similar to our own – a protected, comfortable, nurturing, and safe environment.

2 Habitat for small animals and microorganisms: These hardy workers break down the mulch turning it into food for plants. They include countless amounts of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, other tiny creatures, and some larger ones. Mulch contributes to a healthy soil ecosystem that brings nutrients directly to the roots of plants.

3 Water saver: After being away more than a week during a dry spell this winter with all water turned off, I came home and checked my garden. Sticking my finger under the layers of mulch, I found that the soil was damp and fluffy with busy earthworms. Covering the ground and beds in mulch reduces the need to water in every season. It protects from harsh sun and from chill dry wind.

4 Weed suppressant: Weeds are opportunists that take advantage of bare disturbed dirt. Their job is to restore soil by sending roots down and bringing nutrients to the surface, creating shade, and starting the decomposition cycle. Weeds are the first wave of plant succession in building soil. A rich soil covered in mulch is not inviting to weeds. Looking under trees in a wooded area we see very few weeds growing in the accumulated organic matter.

5 A nursery for seedlings: Compacted earth, at the mercy of relentless and extremes of hot and cold, does not promote germination and survival of seedlings. When I look under accumulated leaves from last year’s plants I see many sprouts. First emerge the wildflowers and seedlings of perennials. As the weather warms new ones come up from under the mulch. I always welcome some volunteers that add wide diversity to my garden.

6 An attractive ground cover: A landscape covered with plants and mulch is an inviting habitat and a cool island even on scorching days. Bare and rock-covered landscapes are not inviting to visit and spend time. They are heat islands absorbing unyielding harsh summer sun, heating our house and living space day and night. Mulch turns landscapes into an inviting habitat for people and other creatures, and enriches our outdoor experience.

Whether you choose to grow ornamentals or food, mulch nourishes a thriving habitat rich in biodiversity. If the food we grow has healthy food it provides us superior flavor and nutrition. Instead of putting last year’s leaves in the dumpster, they can be a valuable asset to your garden as they turn into a carpet of mulch.

Visit to connect and share with others in our plant-loving community!

Richard Sidy is president of Gardens for Humanity, a founding member of the Sustainability Alliance and a member of the Verde Valley Food Policy Council. To reach him, email

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