If it's almost too cold to spend any length of time in the garden, you know it's time.

If it's almost too cold to spend any length of time in the garden, you know it's time.

Adding mulch to a garden stabilizes soil temperatures and adds nutrients back into the soil. Applied properly, it also suppresses weeds, retains moisture and makes garden bed plants stand out.

Although there are a variety of mulches, I prefer my free, readily available homegrown oak leaves.

My garden has very little grass so when it's time to mulch, I basically leave oak leaves where they drop. Oak leaves don't pack down so they provide good insulation without smothering.

When I had grass, I would mow over dry leaves, then rake them into flower beds, under bushes and around trees, leaving a small trench around tree trunks to naturally capture rain water.

If I can still see dried oak leaves in spring, I use the dry leaves as a guide to make sure they are covered with seasoned wood chips.

By the time we have our last frost in May, most of the leaves have been absorbed. Those still around get escorted to a composter.

I also like to mulch with straw, especially around my day neutral strawberries and herbs.

If you use river rock or gravel with a weed-suppressing cloth, make sure it's an area you don't plan to change in the foreseeable future. It's hard to remove that kind of mulch once it's spread. Perennial bulbs sometimes can't get through the cloth, and rock deprives soil of light and nutrients so I would not use it unless it's a safety issue.

If you have an area with weeds, remove weeds by hand before applying mulch. Mulch will help suppress weeds and any new ones that sprout will be easier to pull.

One of the best ways to remove weeds from a sidewalk or driveway is to pour plain hot water on them. I first pull the larger weeds, then add hot water to any remaining weeds.

Use weed-killing chemicals only as a last resort. Although they may seem to be a labor-saver, improper application can hurt surrounding plants and affect bees and other pollinators.

To find out what decades of using leaf mulch had done to my garden, I had a spring soil test made through Phelps County Extension Office. The test showed my soil pH at 7, almost neutral, which confirms that leaf mold does not unnecessarily acidify soil.
And to think some people burn their oak leaves!

– Charlotte Ekker Wiggins shares her garden-inspired handmade gift ideas at www.gardeningcharlotte.com