Ask any gardener to list the most important things their garden needs and they’ll most likely say mulch is at the top of that list. This layer of material applied to the surface of the soil plays a crucial role in the health and aesthetics of vegetable gardens, flower beds, and herb patches.
If you’re not using some form of this incredible material in your garden then your plants could be missing out on the many benefits mulch provides.
So today, we’ll be talking about everything you need to know about mulch and mulching to help you out.
Let’s get started!
Why is Mulch Used in the Garden?
Mulch refers to a wide range of materials that are applied to the surface of your top soil in order to improve the growing conditions for plants in a garden and can help with soil moisture. It’s typically applied around trees, paths, planting beds, slopes, and production areas for flower gardens and vegetable crops.
It’s used in the garden for a wide range of reasons including:
- Inhibiting the growth of weeds
- Reducing evaporation of water from the soil
- Regulating and maintaining optimal soil temperature (in hot climates roots can actually burn under the soil from temps as well as freeze in colder climates)
- Adding organic matter and minerals to the soil as it breaks down and gives back to the earth.
- Preventing excessive erosion especially during heavy rain fall
- Reducing the occurrence of soil compaction in areas of the garden with heavy foot traffic
- Giving the garden a more finished and aesthetically-pleasing look
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Different Types of Mulch
There are two general types of mulch: organic and inorganic.
Organic mulch is made of materials that can decay and decompose over time. As it breaks down, it can improve soil structure, soil fertility, aeration, soil quality, and drainage. Also as it breaks down, it needs to be replenished.
The most common materials used as organic mulch include:
Wood Chips, Nuggets, and Bark Mulch
These are often the byproducts of lumber and paper making. They are sold in gardening stores, your local garden center, and home improvement stores as aged and dried wood pieces.
Hardwood mulch can be used around trees and perennials while softwood mulch is best suited for large trees and shrubs.
You can also make your own wood chip mulch by chopping branches and wood pieces with a wood chipper or shredder. Bark chippings are a popular choice if you don’t want grass suppression. There are many kinds of bark mulch, tree bark and pine bark are a couple.
Note, however, that fresh tree mulch can leech nitrogen from the soil so it’s best to use it on walkways and not directly on garden soil. Take the time to dry and age DIY wood chip mulch before using it in garden beds and vegetable garden.
Newspaper or Cardboard
Another inexpensive way to apply mulch in your garden is by using shredded black and white newspaper and undyed cardboard (I use that in my garden – I never have a shortage of boxes. I use this shredder to shred boxes).
Both of these materials are excellent heavy weed suppressants and can be combined with other organic mulch materials like leaves.
Straw is a light mulch that decomposes easily and more slowly which makes it a great choice for flower and vegetable gardens.
Not only does it prevent seeds from washing away but it also helps conserve moisture retention in the soil which is helpful for seed germination. It’s also great for keeping rodents and birds away from your vegetable patch.
When shopping for straw mulch, pick one that is made from wheat, barley, oat straw, or pine straw also known as pine needles. Hay can contain seeds that can grow in weeds which can damage your garden.
Grass Clippings and Shredded Leaves
One of the most cost-effective materials for organic mulching is shredded leaves and lawn clippings. The former is best used for garden beds, around trees, and on shrubs while the latter can be used in thin layers for vegetable gardens.
When using tree leaves or grass for mulching, it’s best to avoid using a thick mulch layer or clippings from lawns treated with herbicides or insecticides as this can leech into the soil.
Rubber mulch comes in many different colors and can be an eco-friendly way to keep your lawn and flower bed healthy. Adding an extra layer of landscape fabric underneath this coating prevents the mulch from completely sinking into the soil while creating a protective layer and barrier against heavy weeds. This way you’ll have fewer weeds.
Spread an even 2 to 4 inch layer of mulch and smooth it out, covering the total area. Tamp the mulch lightly in play areas or walkways to create a firm, stable surface.
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Composted Animal Manure
Well-composted animal manure is a nutrient-rich mulch that can be beneficial especially for garden vegetables.
Steer clear of fresh manure as it can burn plant roots. Avoid dog, cat, and pig manure as well since it can introduce disease-causing organisms into your garden.
Mulch can also come from inorganic materials that don’t decompose. They are often used decoratively as well as for weed control and soil temperature management.
The most common materials used as inorganic mulch include:
Rock or Crusher Dust
Materials like lava rock, crushed gravel, marble chips, and pea gravel are best used for walkways and pathways. However, they shouldn’t be used around trees, shrubs, and other plants since they can cause heat stress due to sun reflection and ground heating.
Landscape Plastic or Fabric
Polyethylene sheeting can be used as a short-term way to control weeds, especially during the growing season. If you’re going to use it for fruits and vegetables in your garden, make sure that these healthy plants get adequate moisture.
Landscape fabric, on the other hand, can also help suppress weeds while allowing air and water to reach your plants. It’s best to use it along with a layer of organic mulch.
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Mulch Application Tips
Apply mulch where it is most needed.
Although mulch can be used anywhere in your garden, there are places where it is more necessary than others. For example, mulching is best added to new plantings to help conserve moisture and prevent weed growth. Light-weight mulch is also helpful for protecting low-growing and tender plants from frost injury in the winter.
Know when and how often to mulch.
The best time to apply mulch to new plantings is right after planting them, while for established plants, it’s best to apply mulch in early spring.
If you’re using organic mulch, remember that some materials decompose faster than others like grass clippings and leaf litter so you need to replenish it most often.
For inorganic mulches, you need to do the opposite. As your plants grow and occupy more space, you need less mulch.
Prepare the garden areas for mulching.
Before applying mulch to any garden, it’s important to do a little prep work. Remove weeds and trim trees and bushes in your yard. Rake away dead leaves, weeds, and trimmings and smooth out all the surfaces to be mulched.
Apply enough mulch.
The texture and density of your mulching material should always determine the application and desired depth of the mulch. Fine-textured mulch should be less than 3 inches of mulch deep since this can suffocate plant roots if applied excessively.
Meanwhile coarser mulch can be applied up to 4 inches on the soil surface. On the other hand, grass clippings and shredded leaves should be less than two inches to prevent matting and restricting water and air supply to plant roots.
Mulching, like applying fertilizer and watering, is an important process when it comes to tending to your garden.
Do you apply mulch in your garden beds? Share with us your favorite kind in the comments below.
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Alice Carroll says
Thanks for the tip about how I should first remove weeds when planning to get mulch applied on my soil. I plan to get mulch delivery services soon because there are times when I have some free time on the weekends for gardening. Perhaps I should step things up and really work on changing up the landscaping out there.
Have you heard of Chip Drop? It’s free mulch dropped at your house for free.
You should check it out – it’s usually contractors working in your area and they are happy to dump mulch they chipped up at your house rather than driving all the way to the dump and paying to drop it.
Check it out and happy gardening!