Organic mulches a must
Clink, clink, clink... I remember this sound from my childhood. It was the sound of the garden hoe making its way down the rows of vegetables. The clinking was because of the rock infested soil that we had in northwest Arkansas. My parents paid my siblings and I twenty-five cents for every five gallon bucket of rocks we picked out of the garden. Hopefully that begins to explain the massive amount of rocks that we had. The clay soils of Oklahoma aren't sounding too bad now, are they?
That familiar clinking sound came back to me recently as my husband and I were working out in the garden last weekend. We had decided to move around some beds in the vegetable garden, and this was going to change the look of things quite a bit. Everything was going as planned until we reached the area by the gate. There is a downspout right in this same area and the ground is lower so the gate can open and close easily. Therefore every time it rained we were left with a big mud hole under the gate and in the surrounding area.
Being the brilliant individual that I am--I said, "Let's just put some river rock down back there and that will solve all of our problems." The rocks have served the purpose pretty well over the last two years. They have at least kept the mud at bay during the wet seasons. But now, those very nice river rocks were coming back to haunt me.
A new vegetable bed was planned to go in the exact same place where we had extended our rock area out from the gate. So now we had soil filled with small one inch rocks where we wanted a nice fluffy vegetable bed. The only way to get these rocks out was by hand. And there I sat for the next hour or so, picking rocks out of the soil and throwing them back over towards the gate; clink, clink, clink...
The reason this is so annoying is because I always recommend other people to use only organic mulches in the landscape that will break down over time. And there I was paying the price for breaking my own rules. But I was so certain at the time that the location of those rocks would be a permanent decision and I wouldn't regret deliberately putting rocks in my garden. The whole situation kind of sounds like the guy who gets a girl's name tattooed on his arm and then later decides she may not be 'the one.'
Organic mulches are always the best answer in the landscape. Just to clarify, I don't mean organic in the sense that no pesticides were used in its production; but organic meaning that it will degrade over time in the landscape. Some examples of inorganic mulches to keep out of the landscape are shredded rubber mulch, rocks and I have even seen colored pieces of broken glass being sold.
The idea that really sells these synthetic mulches is the low maintenance aspect. They don't degrade, and therefore they shouldn't need to be replaced each year like organic mulch. This is a total myth. As traffic works over the area and rains come and go, the mulch eventually is filled up with soil from runoff or it slowly works its way down into the soil. This leaves behind soil that is filled with inorganic material and a homeowner that is adding more inorganic material to cover the mess that was made.
Plans almost always change, especially in a young garden. It often takes a few different tries to discover the best route to take or the best design for an area. Do yourself a favor and stick to using materials that will degrade in the soil in case the garden needs to be rearranged in the future.
Materials like rubber and rocks also conduct heat very effectively. They absorb the heat and transfer it into the soil. The goal of mulching is to keep moisture in the soil and keep the soil temperature cooler, not bake it to a crisp. Plants have a more difficult time surviving when their roots are being cooked. There are lots of reasons to keep inorganic materials out of the garden soil. I know that my motivation will always be to avoid the memory of the rock-filled Arkansas dirt.