Have you ever wondered how people grew fruits and vegetables before commercial fertilizers were available? Before World War II there were almost no commercial fertilizers. After the war, there was an over-abundance of ammonia and phosphorus. These were mostly by-products of the industrial boom that began when the world was preparing for war. Once the war was over and people came home, many of the large industrial plants slowed down they didn’t know what to do with these left-over chemical components. So they began selling them to the farmers, and their crops grew like nothing they had seen before. It wasn’t until some years later that the side effects of this type of feeding would begin to be understood.
What is a Mulch Anyway?
The term Mulch is really a broad term for decomposed manure or plant material. Another word you could use interchangeably is Compost. Generally, I like to think of composting as being the process that produces a mulch. This isn’t a hard and fast rule though, so I wouldn’t get too caught up in the terms.
What Makes a Mulch?
I tend to put mulch into two main categories. The first is a plant-based mulch. This is what you will get from the compost pile in your backyard. It will consist of your garden debris, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and so on. The other category would be a manure-based mulch. This could come from cows, horses, chickens, or even rabbits. Manure-based mulch should come from animals that are herbivores, as carnivore-based manure will be very high in protein and can also tend to have worms, and not the kind of worms you really want to have around.
Why Use a Mulch?
In an ecosystem, the only way a plant gets fed is through mulching. This process happens naturally. The plants take in nutrients from the soil and when they die or shed their leaves, they fall to the ground and begin to decompose. Or another way to think of it, is they begin to compost. The composting process decomposes the materials and turns them back into the nutrients that the plants can use again. In our landscapes and gardens, we clean up the leaves and dead material and tend to throw them away. So those nutrients that will be needed the next year are actually removed from the system. The alternative to this is to compost the materials and reapply them to the soil once they have broken down.
It isn’t just about the nutrients, though. A mulch does so much more for our soils. By adding just a small amount of mulch to our soil, we are able to drastically affect our soils ability to hold moisture. The mulch is also full of beneficial fungus, bacteria, and little animals that aerate the soil, fight off harmful diseases and continue to increase the fertility of the soil.
Mulching/composting can seem a bit overwhelming at times. Getting a compost pile started takes time and space. However, the benefits to adding this into your routine will greatly decrease your need for chemically-based fertilizers. Your soil will hold more moisture, so you can water less, and your fruit and vegetables will be more nutritious and have a longer shelf life.