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A giant ragweed popped up in the middle of the red bee balm in my garden. Terry Yockey / columnist

On Earth Day I gave a live webinar on “Climate Resilient Gardens, Understanding and Adapting to Climate Change in Minnesota” with Anne Wildenborg, Chair of the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby.  I had no idea back in April how challenging the climate would prove to be this season. 

We discussed the different impacts of climate change on our gardens and landscapes, of course, precipitation and temperature changes play a big part. Wildfires, drought and flooding are prime examples of how drastic climate changes impact our environment and we discussed how gardeners can mitigate some of these and other adverse climate changes.

In extremely hot summers like this one mulching is very important to keep what moisture there is in the soil from evaporating at a rapid rate. Unfortunately jumping worms, a new invasive species to Minnesota, has been found in our area and the minute cocoons (eggs) of the jumping worm have been discovered hiding in a variety of mulches including some packaged shredded wood and compost.

I’m optimistic that they will find the answer to ridding our gardens and landscapes of this new pest, but in the meantime I made the decision to scavenge mulch from my own yard and gardens. At least if I do get jumping worms, I will know I did the best I could to avoid it. 

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I chopped the ragweed up and used it as mulch over wet newspaper where I am cultivating stringy sedum as a living mulch. Terry Yockey / Columnist

 

I will say that scavenging so far has been a very successful experiment. Garden cleanup in the spring was a breeze and my gardens have never looked better even with the weeks of 90 degree heat. I was a little worried about carry-over diseases, but I was careful not to leave any diseased plant debris in the garden and so far so good. 

Here are some of the ways that I changed how I mulch and manage my gardens without bringing in outside materials:

Leave the stems

Last fall I left all the plants standing in the garden. To be honest, this was before I decided to make my own mulch, but instead, I left the stalks as shelter for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects that winter over in plant debris and dried stems. (See the Bee Lab factsheet link in the references box.) 

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Fresh and dried oregano clippings used as mulch around newly planted lemon grass in my kitchen garden. Terry Yockey/columnist

 

In late spring of this year I started cutting the stems leaving stalks from 8 to 24 inches tall in the garden for the pollinators. Instead of disposing of the stalk tops, I used my pruners to cut them into smaller pieces and then just spread them around my perennials for mulch. 

The dried stems still standing were soon camouflaged by new growth as were the chopped up stems I used as mulch. 

Garden recycling 

If you are reading this in a hard copy newspaper, don’t throw it away when you are done. Newspaper is my favorite way to squelch creeping annual weeds like chickweed that get out of hand and can’t be used for compost or mulch (spoiler alert!). 

Instead of spending hours trying to pull them out and get all the roots, I just spread some organic fertilizer around the area and then cover it with wet newspaper. On top, I was using wood mulch to hold down the newspaper, but now I use whatever I have handy. 

After a few weeks, I go in and start planting. It’s easy to just dig a hole through the newspaper and plant a groundcover that will soon blanket the decomposing newspaper and become living mulch that will smother future weeds. 

Keep clippings

Surprisingly, I am not referring to lawn clippings. Leave the grass clippings on the turf and out of the garden. If you are not using pesticides on your lawn chances are you have white clover or other pollinator-friendly plants coming up with your grass. That’s good! 

However, white clover in your gardens is not so good and clover seeds prolifically. If you do use herbicides, you don’t want those clippings in your gardens either.

Do keep clippings from shrubs and other plants to use as mulch. I have oregano that I prune constantly to keep it from going to seed and also growing too tall and smothering my tomato plant. All those oregano clippings are an endless supply of fragrant mulch for the other herbs and vegetables in the garden. 

Weed mulch

I’ve never composted weeds because I was too worried about bringing the seeds back into my garden if the compost pile isn’t hot enough to kill them. I discovered long ago that no matter how many weeds I pulled, I was going to have to start over the next year. Weeds are just going to happen. So this year, I decided to make them work for me in the garden. 

Weeds “suck up” a lot of nutrients from the soil which is why ignoring them isn’t the best for your gardens. Here’s where I changed my paradigm…if they don’t go to seed, why can’t I use them to mulch or compost in place around my plants? Give some of those nutrients back to the soil from whence they came. 

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Pulling the weeds, checking them for seeds or disease and then putting them right back around the plants that they were trying to overwhelm. 

Take that, weeds!

 

References 

Terry Yockey of Welch is a Goodhue County Master Gardener.

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