August 22nd, 2012

Nitrogen-Depleting Mulch

Right after I finished mulching my rose garden with free wood chips I got from a tree service, I read that wood chips suck all the nitrogen out of the soil. Should I fertilize now?

blog-dougAs soon as you spread mulch, there’s a population boom of bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes that work to decompose organic matter. These beneficial organisms consume some of the nitrogen present in the soil. The nitrogen loss is temporary, however, because the nitrogen is once again available to plants when the microbes die.

But in the meantime, the thin layer of soil that is in direct contact with the mulch will relinquish some of its fertility. The depletion of nutrients does not extend deep into the soil, so it won’t likely affect anything other than the shallowest-rooted annuals.

The benefits of organic mulch outweigh the possibility of a temporary nitrogen shortage. Mulch conserves moisture and contributes to a healthy root zone. It also helps to suppress weeds. As mulch decomposes, the nutrients held within it—including a small amount of nitrogen—are released.

For roses and other plants with high nutrient needs, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for nitrogen deficiency, whether you’ve mulched with wood chips or not. Plants lacking nitrogen grow slowly and exhibit pale or yellow-green leaves; in extreme cases, growth may be stunted.

To preclude the chance of nitrogen deficiency, many gardeners make a habit of distributing a small dose of slow-release nitrogen fertilizer every spring to roses, perennials, edible crops, and other heavy feeders. Good organic sources include alfalfa meal (about 5 percent nitrogen by weight), fish meal or fish emulsion (5 percent), blood meal (12 percent), and feather meal (15 percent). Compost and worm castings also contain small amounts of nitrogen.  —Doug Hall

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