It's about that time for me to be thinking of transplanting all my tomato and pepper seedlings. May 20 is our frost free date, so we are pretty much in the clear from frost. However, just because frost is not a threat cold night time temperatures still are for these heat loving plants. We've just had a series of 80+ degree days but all that is about to change as a cold front is moving in bringing cooler weather and 40 degree nights as well.
Not to daunted however, I am planning on "cheating" the cold temperatures by using a black mulch on the garden for my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Even if daytime temperatures are nice, these plants like warm soil as well. Black mulch does the trick. I will lay the mulch down a good week ahead of planting as I am also trying to avoid surprise spring hailstorms. I have found that giving the tomatoes the best soil conditions to start in predicts their outcome more than getting them in too early and watch them struggle to thrive.
Why mulch? This is a great question...why should we even bother doing this in the first place? Mulching certainly has its advantages that make it definitely worth considering. There are many options when it comes to mulch, like straw, hay, coffee grounds, and other organic materials. While we use a mix of these materials ( I have sawdust on the paths in the photo above), I want to look especially at this one particular kind.
1. It Warms Up the Soil. Like I mentioned previously, mulch...specifically black, will warm up your soil temperature providing you with an earlier harvest - anywhere from 7-14 days earlier! (1) Let's face it. These Mediterranean plants LOVE the heat and black mulch is a huge help for our summers in Northeast Ohio. Especially during a cool, wet summer...the mulch helps to give the plants the extra warmth they need to be nice and productive. Straw, hay and other types of light colored mulch actually cool the soil so you'll want to consider this when choosing a mulch that matches your plants growing conditions.
2. The Mulch is Moisture Retentive. I like to use landscape fabric for our mulch as it is water and air permeable yet holds in the moisture too. This is a huge plus for a dry summer or if your area is in drought. It's another great measure to protect your all important seedlings to make sure you enjoy a premium bounty of fruit.
3. It Serves as an Excellent Weed Control. It's more work to put down the mulch, but it saves LOTS of time later by not having to weed your plants. There will be a few weeds that poke through the plant holes, but unless you are fighting an especially aggressive weed, black mulch really cuts down on this issue. I would actually mulch my plants for this reason alone because it's such a huge timesaver in the garden.
Other Benefits of Black Mulch:
1. Minimizes nutrient leaching by shedding excessive rainfall.
2. Helps keep the edible portion of vegetable crops clean, especially pumpkin and other fruiting vegetables.
3. Helps to prevent the transference of soil borne diseases from being splashed up onto the plant.
I have found black mulch to be invaluable in our home garden AND our Community Garden. We've grown tomatoes with and without it and the mulch makes a huge difference in what the fruit looks like and how much we get. It's a true garden help.
There are a few disadvantages mostly dealing with the cost of the materials and the time to lay it down. I often find my fabric, if heavy duty, will last more than one season. Otherwise, we pay about $15-$20 for a roll that covers most of our small garden space. We use other more economical mulches that we have around the yard for other areas of the garden and save money that way.
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