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Winter Garden Care in a Mediterranean Climate: Why Mulching is Better than Hoeing - by Jonathan Yaakobi

In Mediterranean and other mild winter climates, the ground during the winter is usually soft enough to permit hoeing and other forms of cultivating. In fact hoeing the soil used to be the universally accepted method of breaking up the top surface that especially in heavy, clay soils, tends to cake after a rainfall. It was also thought to be the natural and best method of dealing with annual weeds, by killing most weed seedlings. In both cases though, spreading an organic mulch is preferable to hoeing.

Before seeing why this is the case, let’s remind ourselves of the benefits of hoeing. Primarily, breaking up the caked, top layer significantly increases the percentage of oxygen that penetrates the soil, a fact that results in the far quicker and more satisfactory growth of new plants. While root development will be enhanced amongst trees and shrubs, herbaceous plants, especially winter annuals, often “take off” after hoeing.

Weed Control

With regards to weed control however, the benefits of hoeing are offset by the increased rate of germination that is effected by the exposure of weed seeds to light, no matter how brief the duration. Therefore, while the act of hoeing may deal with existing weeds quite reasonably, it will also cause more weeds to sprout during the coming months.

Soil Erosion

The beauty of mulching with a suitable organic material is that the positive results of hoeing are retained, while avoiding its negative consequences. However, the most important role of a mulch is to protect the topsoil from the erosive affects of rain and wind. Turning the soil periodically does not protect it from erosion.

A layer of organic mulch such as shredded bark or decorative wood chippings, may not prevent existing weeds from growing through it, but if spread to a depth of about 10cm (4in) will prevent seeds from germinating that are on or near the soil’s surface. Furthermore, most seeds that land on the mulch will not germinate, while germination rates can be irritatingly high with inorganic mulching material such as ornamental pebbles. It is no exaggeration to say that organic mulch is the most effective, eco-friendly, and labor-saving method of suppressing annual weeds available to the gardener today.

A Healthy Soil

Indirectly, mulching also improves the oxygen levels in the soil, by providing raw material for earthworms and other organisms essential to the soil’s health and balance. Earthworms, by virtue of their burrowing up and down through the soil, are far more efficient as aerators than a gardener and his hoe. In addition, their secretions enhance the soil’s crumbly structure that is so crucial to the plants physiological processes and resistance to disease.

In short, spreading a layer of organic mulch may involve considerable initial expense. This is surely balanced not only by its immense benefits to the soil and therefore to the garden plants, but also compared to hoeing, in immeasurable savings in time and labor.

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