With nearly 10,000 square feet of flowered gardens, the application of mulch is essential for us. Like much of the USA this month, the intense heat and lack of rain has been a significant problem. Many gardens have suffered as flowers open but quickly fade, not able to withstand the heavy stress that this hot and dry spell has challenged us with.
The Gethsemane Prayer Garden is in many respects no different. The intensely beautiful garden phlox, for example, normally turn to seed after more than a month of profuse flowering. This year, because we don't water most of the garden, the upper portions of the flower clusters have turned brown and have faded after only a few weeks. Other flowers don't show the stress that abruptly, but the lack of rain certainly has affected their longevity. Without the mulch, much of the garden would look discouragingly drained.
While we water the roses on a weekly basis, we rely on the mulch to do its work in the remainder of the garden. The garden is located across the driveway from the church building, so to lug the hoses into the garden and then roll them up afterwards is a significant chore in itself. And we don't have the luxury of being able to leave sprinklers running for long periods of time because none of our volunteers live near the church – someone would have to come back to the church to periodically relocate the sprinkler and then wind up the hose at the end of the day.
A thick layer of mulch is therefore essential for us to maintain the garden's beauty, allowing God to water the garden when He thinks it is ready. Mulch keeps the roots cooler during these hot days, protecting the soil from the hot sun. Mulch also helps slow down the evaporation process: somehow through a process that only God could design, the roots find some water that has been enriched by minerals and other nutrients, and sends it on its way to nourish the parched leaves and petals.
Mulching also dramatically helps cut down on the weeding when done correctly. In our location, we start working the garden in April, cleaning up the large amount of fallen debris from the previous growing season and winter. Early May is typically our time for the mulching process. Before the three inches of mulch can be applied, we do as good of a job as we can to remove even the smallest weeds; otherwise, we see the weeds later only this time as more mature plants. Therefore we weed extensively before mulching – we must have done a better job this year because there really has not been very much weeding necessary.
Spreading the mulch is a very arduous process involving many volunteers. If the mulch can be spread before many of the flowers start to pop their heads above the ground, the process takes considerably less time. Otherwise we have to get on our knees to ensure that the mulch is placed right up to the plant.
We buy hardwood mulch by the truck load, normally 10 yards at a time. This year we spread 30 yards over a little more than half of the garden, and then next year we will alternate the process by applying 20 yards to the remainder of the garden. Each year we do one or the other, primarily for cost and labor saving reasons. In the second year after the mulching, the weed control is much more of a problem as the previous years mulch has started to decompose.
This garden is now in its eighth year which means we have gone through the mulching cycle for several cycles, particularly in the older flower beds. The soil has dramatically improved in these areas because the rotted mulch provides a very nice nutrient base for the plants. This richer soil is also much looser than our native clay soil which means that the roots can extend themselves further in the search for moisture. We do not use a landscaping fabric between the old soil and the mulch – the fabric becomes a barrier that prevents the roots from finding the newer and richer soil.
Newly delivered mulch is typically very hot as it has been rapidly decomposing in the stockyard. If not treated properly, the heat will burn the flowers and trees that it touches. We have the truck dump the mulch on the lawn near the area we will be mulching, and this too can burn the lawn if not treated properly. The trick is to quickly spread the mulch on the lawn, moving it from a four foot pile to a twelve to eighteen-inch high pile. In this way, the heat is quickly dissipated into the air and the mulch quickly returns to a more normal temperature. Then it is ready to be transported into the garden. There may be a small amount of lawn burning but we find it is quickly resolved when the lawn is cut the next time.
So why mulch? To reduce the need for watering, to improve the beauty of the plants, to help with the weed control, and to promote a better soil for the plants to grow in. It simply provides a better environment for the beauty of God's wonderful creation to be exemplified. In flowers it is especially seen how God has placed His wonderful creation, and the mulch enhances that.
In the Gethsemane Prayer Garden, we face challenges such as drought, lack of water nearby, and few if any workers that can devote their time to the regular upkeep of the garden. The mulch compensates by promoting the glory of the garden. It is the same for us.
Please allow me to ask a question: "What is the mulch in your life that will best encourage that creation, allowing the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed despite the adversities and difficulties that challenge you? What will best help promote that beauty?"
End Note: The overall theme for this series of articles is flowers and plants, showing how they point to love. Sometimes I write 'how to' do something, other times the emphasis is a status update, or the article will be about how a plant or flower touched my heart. All of these writings are based on plants from the Gethsemane Prayer Garden in Syracuse, NY. Please consider some of the other blog articles: Index of Articles About the Gethsemane Prayer Garden.