The health of our soil is often something taken for granted, but this autumn Head Gardener Amy is here with some helpful hints and tips to keep your flowerbeds flourishing!
October is a great time for taking stock of the growing year and looking at what has done well in the garden and what to try differently next year. One of my favourite things to do at this time of year is to apply a good layer of mulch to the garden beds and borders. This is a chance to really give something back to the garden after all it has given us over the season, to restore the nutrient balance in the soil and to nourish and encourage the soil fauna.
People often ask what is the best type of mulch to use as there are so many different kinds available, and each offers its own benefits depending on its properties. I believe the best kind is one that mimics the natural environment, for example leaf mould or wood chip which you would find on the woodland floor. These are the natural food source for many species of mycorrhizal fungi, which will breakdown the material over time whilst making physical connections with the plant roots. Myco means mushroom and rhizal means root; ‘root-fungi’. The fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plants, making nutrients available to the plant and dramatically increasing the surface area of the roots which helps them find water at a greater distance.
In return the fungi will receive sugars from the host plant. These wonderful fungi will also help to protect plants from pest and disease and promote healthier growth, and if you are lucky, you will be rewarded with the awesome spectacle of seeing their fruiting bodies in the autumn! Using natural material will also encourage earthworm activity which is great for your soil, improving the structure and drainage, whilst also supporting the earthworm population. Remember, caring for nature is always going to help promote a healthy garden!
There are various ways of sourcing leaf mould and wood chip. If you are able to make your own that is ideal, although it’s not easy for everyone to do. You can get wood chip from local arborists, and if you can leave it to rot down a little bit before applying a couple of inches to your soil surface. If it’s completely fresh, you can still put it down, but just only an inch or so. You can collect leaves from your garden and put them in a pile to rot down for use the next year, and this will form a wonderful crumbly nutrient rich mulch what your plants will love. Homemade compost from your compost bin is the next best thing and always a wonderful and satisfying thing to put back into your garden.
Many people go directly to the horse manure option when choosing mulch for the garden. This can be a really good mulch and soil conditioner when growing vegetables, but is not a good mulch to use around shrubs and borders, as the high nitrogen content can actually damage mycorrhizal fungi and even kill them off. Manure can also contain wormers, which are said to damage your soil fauna.
People also like to choose bark because of the ornamental effect it provides, and it can be good for holding in moisture and keeping weeds down. However, it won’t add a lot of nutrients to your soil, it can take quite a long time to breakdown, and is expensive.
On another note, now is the time to think about harvesting rose hips, hawthorn berries and crab apples to make jellies and preserves, which make amazing Christmas presents full of healthy phytochemicals! Just remember to leave some for the wildlife to enjoy too!
Enjoy the fruits and vegetables of your labour and here’s hoping your homegrown haul will be just as bountiful next year.