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Choosing the right mulch and battling moss

Tuesday - 5/31/2011, 3:07pm  ET

Of mulch and men: What should you use?

Bill in Fairfax (who also identifies himself as a fan from my days as editor of Organic Gardening magazine back in the 1990s. Thanks, Bill!) writes: "I've read your warnings about wood mulches and that ground-up-rubber slop, and wonder if there's anything easily accessible and particularly good for mulching an herb bed filled with tarragon, chives, parsley, thyme, rosemary and sage.

Bill, I really like using a mulch of shredded fall leaves in beds like this with no disease-prone plants. Earthworms love to live under leaf litter, so they'll flock to the area to aerate the soil and feed your plants for free. Plan to collect and shred lots of leaves this fall to put this miracle to work for you next season.

Right now, your best choices are compost, pine straw or any of the nut, seed and hull mulches. You should be able to find some of those at a big independent garden center. Unfortunately, a walk through the garden center of one of the big box stores (Dome Heepo) yesterday reaffirmed my observations of years past that these places just don't seem to carry many -- if any -- non-harmful mulches.

What about pine needles?

Tom in Huntingtown writes: "I'm considering alternatives to wood mulch. I've thought about pine needles in the past but was concerned about their high acidity. I've heard that they're great for azaleas and the like-but how do other plants, like daylily, coneflower and butterfly bush handle pine needles as mulch? Is it better to use compost in perennial beds?"

Tom, in a three-university study (Ohio State, Iowa State, and the University of Kentucky) two inches of yard waste compost outperformed all other mulches, and it provided all the food its plants required. But pine needles are great, especially when allowed to dry into pine straw, which is the most popular mulch in many parts of the middle and deep South. And they don't make soil acidic the way peat moss would.

Listener confirms: Maryland's compost is king!

Dana in King George writes: "My wife Kathy and I are great fans of your advice, and so this season we decided to use the Leaf Gro compost from Maryland you always talk about as our garden mulch. It is a GREAT product; our perennials and vegetables have never looked or smelled better. I don't have a question; I just wanted to say thanks; our neighbors all wanted to know what fertilizer we used because of our massive blooms and fruits. Others need to take your advice and use it; they will not be disappointed."

Well, thank you D & K. I know it can be a huge leap of faith to switch from the trashy wood mulch that's so pervasive today. But as you discovered, once you give well-made yard waste compost a try, you'll never go back to those chipped-up pallets from China spray-painted some God-awful color never seen in Nature!

When do you harvest your garlic?

Anne-Marie in Chevy Chase (and some guy named Jim who says he works in a 'glass-enclosed nerve center') write: "We took your advice and planted garlic late last summer. How do we know when it's ready for harvest?"

First, you want to make sure you cut off the scapes, those little bulges that appeared at the tops of the stalks a few weeks ago. Leaving them up there will steal energy from the plant and give you a smaller harvest. (They also make a weedy mess if left to produce their little garlic-grass spawning seed.)

Then, watch for the bottom leaves to turn brown. When about a third of the lower leaves have browned -- usually mid-to-late June in these parts -- pull up a test plant. (Choose one that's among the most browned.) If it's nice and fat and covered with a nice full paper wrapper, harvest it all and let it cure in a cool dry spot out of the sun for about a week. Then, hang it in a cool dry place out of direct sun and plan to save the biggest cloves for replanting in September.

If your test plant looks like a big leek, the crop isn't ready. But don't toss that 'leek!' Bring it inside, clean it off, chop it up, use it to flavor a nice garlick-y dish and test another plant in about a week.

DON'T leave your garlic in the ground too long, though. If you don't harvest it on time, the cloves will split their protective wrappers and turn yellow and useless.

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