Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

May 22, 2014
Not utilizing he magic of mulch is gardening the hard way

We had a great time at the Gardener’s Get Together at Stockton Miners Café this last Saturday. This time around, we talked about onion and carrot cultivation. We got a real treat when Chef Clay Campbell conducted an impromptu onion cutting demonstration, and showed us all how to dice onions without tears, and without the onion falling apart. A really sharp knife greatly reduces the scent of the onion while processing, so there is hardly any tears. Impressive stuff. Join us on June 28th for the next get together.

Be sure to mark your calendars for Wednesday, May 28, as Walt Barlow will be conducting a free public class called “All About Tomatoes.” It will run from 7-8 p.m. at the USU Extension Building. Walt heads up the Benson Gristmill Farmer’s Market and is a long time gardener, so he knows his stuff. Join me, will you?

Mulch is a must for any serious gardener that is committed to getting great results in the ornamental or edible garden. Mulch emulates the well adapted and mature growing spaces we find in nature. Anyone that grows their gardens without utilizing mulch is going about it the hard way. While there are plastic, paper, cardboard and rubber products, let’s focus on wood chip mulches.

First, let’s talk about ornamental gardens. The benefits of a good layer of mulch are diverse. When three inches or more of mulch is applied around the base of shrubs or in flower beds, the effect is quite stunning. Dark earthy colors placed under vegetation create contrast and richness to the yardscape. But the benefits go well beyond cosmetic. A adequate layer of mulch will reduce wind erosion because the ragged wood chips tend to lock to each other and resist blowing away. The layer also acts as a thermal blanket, slowing down shifts in temperature. This means that it will take longer on a hot summer day for the soil to heat up, and the soil will stay warmer overnight. Plants like that. Remember, early in the season, to keep back the mulch from the base of veggies to allow the soil to warm up. Add more mulch later in warmer weather.

Moisture is also more consistent under a mulch layer. Water is held longer at the root zones of the plant. Less water is needed, and fertilizer that is applied will stay longer at the root zone because not as much water is moving through it, taking the fertilizer deeper in the soil substrate and away from the roots that need it.

There’re fewer weeds too, simply because available light is greatly reduced for seeds and seedlings under the mulch cover. However, even though mulching won’t eliminate weeds, they will be easier to pull as the soil will be softer and release the weeds easily. The mulch itself will have enough fine organic material in it that, over time, wind-blown weed seed will settle in and take root. A gentle stirring with a rake will take care of most of that.

In large planting beds, you can choose to place weed block or not. There are pros and cons for using “weed block.” On the pro-side, it will take longer for deep-rooted weeds to appear. Persistent weeds, like binder weed, will be suppressed longer. There will be less maintenance initially for the first two to three years. The minuses of weed block include keeping the edges really tacked down for the long term, having to preplan irrigation and planting places (unless you don’t mind irrigation tubing running on the surface — I personally don’t like it, but it may not bother you.), and having to repair damaged weed block as it gets older. If you mulch six inches deep or more, you can control a lot of weeds with moderate ongoing cultivation without using weed block. As for binder weed, that’s a contest of continuing to pull the tops off until the root mass is depleted of nutrients and it can’t bounce back for another sprouting. Gardening is not a “do it once and forget it” proposition. It requires ongoing attention and moderate effort, and that’s also true with mulching and weed control.

Many confuse compost and mulch. Compost is a fine material that is formed from smaller pieces of organic materials such as grass clippings, hedge trimmings, wood chips, leaves, shredded paper, coffee grounds, and manure. It’s typically screened and worked into the top two inches of the soil.

Chip mulch is coarsely ground or partially decayed organic material. Many municipal waste management facilities offer it by recycling wood materials that come to the facility. Pallets, tree trimmings, lumber from demolished buildings or waste from new construction are all candidates for mulch creation. These items are processed through large chipping and shredding machines that remove steel fasteners and scrap magnetically. The chips are then put in large piles and moistened. The microbes take over from there, and the heating process begins. Some facilities cover the piles with tarps, others leave them open to the air. All turn the piles regularly and add water to keep the pile aerated and the process of decomposition going.

Having sufficient mass is very important to retain the heat being generated and to reduce moisture loss. The decaying process is aerobic, and like any good compost pile, emits a faint earthly smell. It’s very pleasant, much like the scent of the forest. The color of the wood chip mulch is a result of both natural processes and non-toxic mineral dyes.

Regarding edible gardens, the types of coarse mulches described above won’t work as well with tender new plants because they are too coarse and cause issues with the workability of the soil both for this season’s succession planting as well as for next season. I use finer mulches with food crops. Great veggie mulches include grass clippings (a great source of nitrogen), chopped straw, bedding chips from the chicken coop (after they have rotted a bit to reduce the nitrogen levels in the chicken manure), and moderately screened composts. All of these, when applied three inches thick or more, will greatly reduce weed pressure, hold moisture, moderate soil temperatures, keep your vegetables and berries cleaner, increase soil fertility and improve soil structure. Besides all these benefits, these finer materials are easily tilled in the top few inches of the garden plot, and are ready to go for the next season.

Pop up the visual appeal of your yardscape and the success of your vegetable harvest with mulches this year.


Jay Cooper can be contacted at, or you can visit his website at for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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