There have been a few questions about perennial flower garden bed or soil preparation and maintenance. In short, “how do we do this?”
And like all things in my garden-world, there is a simple way and a tough way to do this kind of thing. I’ve never understood why gardeners go through all the hard-way exercises when Mother Nature does most of the work for you if you’ll let her. My best guess on this is beginning gardeners think the experts who do all these strange things must be right so they copy them.
Here’s my take. I like easy gardening that works. Many of the way-more-work techniques work faster or slightly better. But I’m an 80:20 kind of gardening guy. I know 20% of the work produces 80% of the results so I’m happy to identify the 20% and focus on doing that well.
The Hard Way
You can take soil tests and adjust the soil pH and fertility based on those tests. This is often recommended by garden writers with more time on their hands than is safe for their readers. You add whatever nutrients the test recommends and you add copious amounts of organic matter into the soil before planting. You create a super soil.
Or, The Easier Way
You can dig and cultivate the soil around plants and add copious amounts of compost every spring. Or, even middling amounts of compost.
Or, The Really Easy Way.
You mulch the perennial flower garden bed. Period. Oh sure, you can apply compost if you have extra but that decomposing mulch is going to work wonders for you.
Gardening isn’t rocket science (unless you like the fiddling around). And if you simply create an environment that supports a “natural” kind of growing system, the plants will take care of themselves (for the most part).
Yeah, it sounds simple but here’s the deal for those of you who care about such things.
An organic mulch composed of old bark, leaves or other material that breaks down replicates what Mother Nature does. it provides a layer of decomposing organic matter at the soil line that supports a massive number of micro-organisms. Do not use inorganic material such as stone or rubber. My own bias is that I also don’t like dyed mulches (they contain dye – a chemical and they don’t look at all natural).
These micro-organisms are responsible for modifying that organic matter and turning it into useable plant food for your perennials.
They are responsible for balancing the soil pH and maintaining it within the limits created by the underlying rock material that made the soil in the first place.
They are responsible for more “things under the sun” than we normally think of – things like eating bad fungi and bacteria that want to attack your plant but get eaten by nematodes in the soil.
Mulch allows roots and worms and other larger soil creatures to loosen up the soil and keep it well aerated the way you want it to be.
Somebody is going to ask so yes, you can simply toss a bit of compost on top of this mulch in the spring or if you’re really bent on feeding the plants, you can toss some organic feed or spray fish emulsion over top of the mulch.
So you mulch your perennial flower garden bed – top it up every fall and maintain a 3-4 inch layer. (Pull back the mulch away from plant crowns so the excess moisture there doesn’t rot the crown and kill the plant over the winter).
You create paths and don’t walk on the soil unless necessary
I remember talking to an orchid expert who was doing research on wild orchid populations in North America and talking about how just putting one foot down next to an orchid would reduce the flowering compared to one that wasn’t walked near. A single step compacted the soil enough so the natural micro-organism chain was disturbed in that specific region for this sensitive plant.
I’m not saying regular garden plants are that sensitive (they aren’t for the most part) but mulch will loosen up the soil and the only thing that will reduce that is if you walk on it.
That pretty much takes care of ongoing soil work. Mulch and don’t walk on the bed any more than necessary.
Initial bed preparation
There are any number of ways to get a garden bed started. From double digging, to tilling to not-a-darn-thing but laying on the mulch.
You need to eliminate weeds before you mulch – that’s the only trick to ongoing maintenance. Dig ’em, spray ’em with vinegar or smother them with newspaper or cardboard – but do kill ’em.
In my latest beds, I tilled up the big bed (here’s my roto-tiller review) but hand dug the smaller beds. Then I mulched and am on weed prevention detail now as I plant and maintain.
For ongoing maintenance however, it’s the mulch, don’t walk and weed routine.
I like it when things are simple. And this is the simplest way I know to keep a perennial flower garden bed healthy and productive for many years – with the smallest amount of work.