Shredded leaves can be a good mulching option but should be long dead before applying them to a garden bed. (Photo courtesy Rachel Rhodes)

Gardening in the spring begins with lots of optimism and ambition
Then, a stretch of unfit weather, a busy week with school or work and just like that, you’re behind schedule and, some years, getting caught up again just doesn’t happen.
One option to consider in better balancing the workload is shifting the mulching duties to fall.
Whatever time of year you do it, applying a layer of mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, regulate soil temperature and, of course, reduce weeds.
For Rachel Rhodes, Master Gardener coordinator for University of Maryland Extension Queen Anne’s County, “there’s no right or wrong answer” on when the best time is to mulch, as long as it’s done properly.
The sweet spot for organic mulch thickness is about three inches, Rhodes said, in order to maximize benefits, allowing the mulch medium to break down over time but still protect the soil.
For establishing a new bed, Rhodes said she prefers fall. Rather than till the area up, she recommends giving the space a thorough string trimming and then lay down cardboard over it and mulch on top. A herbicide application is another option to get the conversion started.
“It’s definitely going to reduce your workload because you won’t have as many weeds. You shouldn’t need to do much in the spring as well,” Rhodes said.
“But, there’s always a chance of over mulching,” she added, which can mean adding too much at once or too often. A layer too thick can keep moisture from getting to plant roots if conditions are right for fungal growth.
The slimy mold can act as a moisture repellent.
Heavy mulch isn’t just a concern in flower beds. A sight that makes horticulturalists like Rhodes cringe is the “mulch volcano” around landscaped trees.
Heaping mulch around the tree’s trunk will eat away at the bark and introduce bacteria to the tree.
Prolonged ‘volcanoing’ also can lead to roots growing out of the soil and into the mulch, putting the tree owner in a tough spot.
“You either have to keep it up or cut down the tree at some point,” Rhodes said.
There are lots of good options for a mulch. Shredded pine or hardwoods are popular but pine needles and pine cones are a good option for those who have a lot of long needle evergreens growing nearby. Shredded leaves also work as long as the material is brown an decomposing.
Sources to avoid are freshly ground wood or sawdust.
“It needs to sit a little bit before you use it,” Rhodes said.
Whatever the source, still shoot for a thickness between two and three inches. Then, when spring comes around again, hopefully only minor weeding will be needed, and you have more time for whatever life throws at you.
For the vegetable garden, Rhodes suggests a different path for fall care. Planting a cover crop can improve the soil over time, curb erosion and trap moisture and nutrients from escaping.
Typical mulches used in flower beds will draw nitrogen away from vegetable plants and give insects a place for safe harbor through the winter.
Cover crops of clover or rye, on the other hand, will add nitrogen to the soil.