story by claire schuchman gardening nature's way... spring in the garden Part three Of a fOur-Part SerieS Background: Sweet-smelling viburnum he first hint of spring is almost imperceptible. The light sparkles with refracted color. The air is saturated with a fresh scent. The days are longer; sunlight streams in the window and wakes me in the morning. Flocks of newly arrived robins swoop in to eat the leftover berries on a holly tree. Daffodils are pushing through the leaf litter, snow drops have bloomed, and crocuses are next. The leaf buds are plump on the trees, forsythia is about to burst forth, Korean spice viburnum (viburnum carlessi) floods the air with its intoxicating cloven scent. Then, one day, it happens--the garden comes alive and the promise of beautiful blooms, warmer weather and spending time outside is upon us. The garden is finished resting, and when it calls, we respond. Spring is the time to add some more old leaves to last fall's leaf mould pile and turn it one more time so it heats up and kills any diseases before using the finished product as a mulch in the garden. When mulching, it is important to keep some principles in mind. Mulch for the health of the garden, not just to make it look pretty. The reason you mulch is to protect the soil, conserve moisture, balance temperature shifts and add nutrients for the plants. Anything used as mulch must eventually be able to be worked into the soil. So, no shredded rubber tires, landscape cloth (especially plastic) or white rocks that despite a good effort can never be completely removed. The worms and micro organisms have been working deep in the soil all winter to create a healthy balance; now they're ready to work near the surface. Cooperate with them, and your work is cut in half. don't haBitually uSe a tiller A tiller disrupts the intricate structure the worms and bio organisms have worked so hard to create. Even the freeze-thaw cycle has been aiding the creation of good soil structure by breaking apart clumps of clay on the soil surface. Rototilling not only disrupts this healthy 38 mtl march 2010 process but also brings weed seeds to the surface, creating more work weeding and mulching. If your soil needs to be opened up, use a pitchfork, pushing the tines deeply into the soil and gently rocking the handle back and forth to create openings that will allow air water and nutrients to penetrate. Then cover the area with compost to attract beneficials This simple task is a miracle worker in compacted dry soil under a tree, on a slope or in a heavily trafficked area. don't overMulch Three inches is too much. The mulch you put down last spring should be gone because it was used by the worms and micro organisms. So if you have mulch left from last year, adjust your method and use less. But, what kind of mulch to use? Ask yourself, "What does the garden need?" Is it weed suppression, soil amendment, or both? Unless the garden is overwhelmed with weeds, I make soil amendment the top priority the first year I'm there. After that, if all is well, I use a simple rotation of hardwood bark mulch one year and a compost product such as mushroom manure the next. This accomplishes several goals. The hardwood bark mulch supresses weeds but may not break down completely in one year. The compost product is a good soil amendment and helps break down left over bark mulch. uSe leaf Mould where needed I make this myself from the fallen leaves of the previous fall and use it in the woodland garden in my back yard. It looks natural, and the worms love it, thus replenishing the forest floor. What happens if mulch is allowed to build up year after year? Possibly the worst offense is to cover trees' root flare. The root flare is not meant to be covered with soil, grass, flowers or mulch; it is meant to be seen and is beautiful to behold. If the root flare is covered, the damp mulch will make the bark deteriorate, leaving the tree susceptible to diseases. (It's a little like having a wet sock on your foot for a really long time!) In the winter, rodents have been known to tunnel through the mulch