Chips ahoy: The right way to mulch your beds this fall

Chips ahoy: The right way to mulch your beds this fall

You probably already know why it’s a good idea to spread mulch on your beds: In addition to keeping them tidy and helping to minimize weeds, a quality mulch also protects and feeds your soil.

But notice I said “quality.” The uniform orange or deep-brown mulches often seen decorating the grounds of gas stations and shopping malls are nothing more than dyed, chipped up wooden pallets. Pallets are often fumigated to prevent the spread of disease organisms when used in international shipping, and the mulches that result may contain older wood that has been pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate, a known carcinogen. Far too often, what passes for mulch is actually a toxic substance that is highly detrimental to soil health.

There really is no better mulch for perennial beds than composted hardwood chips. They contain ample organic matter to feed soil microorganisms and maintain soil moisture, and they’re already well on their way towards decomposition, which means that they will help to build your soil. And, perhaps best of all, composted wood chips can often be obtained for free from local arborists.

Fall is the ideal time to mulch your beds; the mulch acts as an insulating layer that helps protect plants through the winter, and it’s the ideal time to tend to other tidying activities such as cutting down spent plant material, weeding, and leaf removal.

As you lay down mulch, be careful to avoid piling it around the trunks of trees. You want to avoid creating mulch “volcanoes,” which encourage the development of fungal diseases. Instead, be sure to keep the trunk flare free from mulch, while providing deeper cover further out over the root zone. Lastly, remember that wood chip mulch is really only suitable for perennial plantings. Annual beds, such as vegetable gardens, should be mulched with material that will more readily break down, such as straw, shredded leaf mold, or the best option, cover crop.

Fall-planted potatoes?

I recently received an interesting article on fall-planted potatoes. Typically, potatoes are planted in early spring (St. Patrick’s Day usually feels appropriate), but this method suggests digging deep and wide furrows of about 8 to 10″, lining them with rich organic matter (think grass clippings, home-
made compost, leaf mold, straw, etc.), planting seed potatoes at a spacing of 12″ apart, laying an additional thick layer of organic matter over the potatoes, and then covering with soil.

The biological activity in the organic matter keeps the spuds from freezing, and the resulting harvest is ready far earlier than a spring-planted crop. Supposedly, the plants are much hardier and disease-resistant. I’m planning to give it a whirl this season with a handful of homegrown Yukon Gold potatoes leftover from this summer’s harvest.

Guinevere Higgins is owner of Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest, which provides consultation, design, and installations for home-scale edible gardens. When she’s not gardening, she works in fundraising for the Center for a New American Dream.


Roses are red: Love nature? Can’t get enough couplets and sonnets? Check out Music and Poetry in the Natural World, an event hosted by the Ivy Creek Foundation and local artists, on Sunday, October 19. It’s free for all ages, and will begin at 2pm in the Ivy Creek Natural Center’s education building.

Rollin’ on the river: It’s that time of year again. The Rivanna Conservation Society and Blue Ridge Mountain Sports (BRMS) have teamed up for the annual Rivanna River Sojourn, a journey down everyone’s favorite river. BRMS will provide transportation, guides, safety instructions, and gear, and lunch is included. For more information and to register, visit

Fun guys: On Saturday, October 18, Sharondale Farm in Keswick will host a workshop on growing gourmet and medicinal mushrooms like oyster, garden giant, shiitake, almond portobello, and reishi. Each participant will go home with an oyster mushroom growing bag. Check out for more information.

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