In the Garden

Q: I recently saw a TV-news article stating that the National Wildlife Federation recommends using leaves as mulch in our gardens. It looks a bit untidy. Do leaves used as mulch really do that much good?

A: As long as you avoid leaves that are diseased, or ones raked from the road, which can harbor oil and other substances harmful to plants, leaves make one of the best garden mulches available. Applied 3 or 4 inches deep, leaves offer the same benefits as other organic materials, such as helping to suppress weeds, protecting roots from cold and preventing the constant winter rains from leaching out nutrients and compacting the soil surface.

A huge added benefit, however, is that leaves attract hoards of beneficial organisms whose purpose in life is to break the leaves down, turning them into highly valuable plant nutrients. At the same time, leaf mulch also attracts gazillions of worms who, in turn, act as Mother Nature’s tillers.

Worms aerate and enrich the soil by burrowing into the sublayers. Each day they eat their own weight in soil and decaying matter while at the same time producing incredible amounts of highly nutritious worm castings.

Finally, using leaves as mulch doesn’t have to make your garden untidy looking. Simply spread the leaves on your lawn and mow the living tweetle out of them until they are well shredded; then relocate to your beds. Shredded leaves look equally attractive as any fine mulch, even if applied over existing compost or wood chips.

So spread those leaves in your garden and take advantage of nature’s free labor force dedicated to enriching and improving your garden soil.

Q: How do you protect plants from cold weather like we recently experienced?

A: When it comes to protecting tender plants from freezing weather, it usually takes only one cold snap to remind you of the harm caused by plunging temperatures. The first line of defense is to apply a protective layer of mulch over the roots. Many semi-hardy plants will survive if the roots don’t freeze, even if the top is frozen.

Next, be prepared to cover semi-tender plants anytime unusually cold weather is imminent. A relatively new product that I’ve used successfully for the last few winters is called Frost Protek, available online from Charley’s Greenhouse in Mount Vernon (charleysgreenhouse.com). Made of polypropylene, Frost Protek is a breathable cover that allows light to come through to the plant, yet purportedly can increase temperatures around the plant by up to 8 degrees.

Frost Protek comes in several sizes, including one big enough to cover a 6-foot-tall shrub. They contain drawstrings and cord-locks, making them easy to secure around the plant. Used carefully, they’re tough enough to reuse year after year.

When the product first came out, the manufacturer claimed you could leave it on your plants all winter long. I tried that, and although most everything I covered survived, some of the plants looked like boxers that stayed in the ring way too long. Perhaps that’s why the current recommendation is to cover plants only during cold snaps and to remove the covers as soon as possible after temperatures moderate.

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com.“Gardening With Ciscoe” airs weekly on KING 5; check local listings.