Mulch questions

I've been gardening for several years, but new to mulching. Here are my experiences so far:
1. I have a large evergreen shrub that sheds a few leaves at a time all year round. I gathered these leaves up and took some off branches that had been pruned. I don't have a leaf shredder, so I just layered them as is around my strawberries that were newly planted. Within a couple of days all had blown away.
2. I thought peat moss would be a good mulch, so I put it on my flower garden about 1/2 inch deep. It retained water much better than the soil alone did. I also heard that peat moss suppresses the bacterial growth, so maybe I shouldn't use it?
3. I also have a honey locust. After the leaves fell in the fall, I gathered them up, and put them in my flower bed. This definately retained moisture, but I guess that's not what I wanted in the wet spring. Some of my flowers rotted as the came up, others never came up. When I noticed this, I quickly removed the mulch from around the new plants.
It's very dry here in the summer (zone 6, Idaho), so I know I want to mulch, but not sure how to do it. Do I completely remove it in the spring while it's wet, then replace it when it starts getting dryer? Should I keep it away from ther base of the plants? How about winter mulch? Cover the whole plant, then uncover in spring? Just the base of the plants? Don't cover the plants at all?
Any help or comments appreciated.
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IMO, the best mulch is one that adds organic material to the soil, while at the same time assisting with moisture retention and suppressing weeds. To me, this translates to compost, either home-made or commercially prepared. It should have sufficient texture and size to allow air and water to move freely, but small enough to provide suppression of perennial weeds and retard the germination of annual weeds. Apply it to a thickness of 3-4 inches, keeping it away from the base or trunk of any woody plants. There is no problem with mulching over the crown of herbaceous perennials in late fall or winter - the new shoots will grow right through. If you renew the mulch in spring, bring to the base of perennials but not over the top. Peat moss is not an ideal mulch - it provides minimal nutrient value, is too finely textured and either retains too much water or if dried, repels moisture. And it is a non-renewable resource.
Save your leaves in fall and add them to your compost pile. In spring you will have an excellent organic mulch. Or if you prefer, run them over with your lawn mower to break them up and reduce size. These can be used as a mulch for winter, but be careful about them compacting in wet climates - they can rot out small, tender spring growth.
pam - gardengal
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