Straw can be used as a winter mulch, but my favorite by far is shredded leaves. The leaves should be shredded to help increase the surface area the soil microbes can be feed on, speeding decomposition. Shredding the leaves also prevents the mulch from compacting into a tight layer that prevents water infiltration.
A 2-3 inch layer of partly decomposed compost or composted manure can be added under the mulch. By the spring this material will be incorporated nicely into the garden soil.
When mulching the garden, make sure not to mulch over any perennials at this time of year. Mulching these too early can cause the plants to die and rot. Winter mulches applied to protect perennials from uneven soil temperatures should not be applied until the ground has frozen. This typically occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While fall cleanup is bittersweet, it is a great way to give the garden a jump-start next season. It is also a great excuse to be outside enjoying the beautiful fall weather!
Anne Lenox Barlow has had experience in the agricultural field as a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.