The best time-saving measure a gardener can take is applying mulch. This goes for every garden, from vegetable garden to flower bed. Mulched gardens are healthier, more weed free, and more drought-resistant then un-mulched gardens, so you’ll spend less time watering, weeding, and fighting pest problems.
Mulches are materials placed over the soil surface to maintain moisture and improve soil conditions. Mulching is one of the most beneficial things a gardener can do for the health of a garden. Also when properly applied, mulch can give landscapes a handsome, well-groomed appearance.
Benefits of Proper Mulching
- Helps maintain soil moisture. Evaporation is reduced, and the need for watering can be minimized.
- Helps control weeds. A 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch will reduce the germination and growth of weeds.
- Mulch serves as nature’s insulating blanket. Mulch keeps soils warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
- Many types of mulch can improve soil aeration, structure (aggregation of soil particles), and drainage over time.
- Organic mulches improve soil fertility.
- A layer of mulch can inhibit certain plant diseases.
- Mulching around trees helps facilitate maintenance and can reduce the likelihood of damage from “weed whackers” or the dreaded “lawn mower blight.”
- Mulch can give planting beds a uniform, well-cared-for look.
Mulches are available commercially in many forms. The two major types of mulch are inorganic and organic. Inorganic mulches include various types of stone, lava rock, pulverized rubber, geo-textile fabrics, and other materials. Inorganic mulches do not decompose and do not need to be replenished often. On the other hand, they do not improve soil structure, add organic materials, or provide nutrients, some inorganic mulches like pulverized rubber have in recent studies been linked to chemical contamination and are not advised for food production and gardens. For these reasons, organic and biological gardeners only use organic mulches.
Organic mulches include wood chips, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, cocoa hulls, leaves, compost mixes, straw, and a variety of other products usually derived from plants. Organic mulches decompose in the landscape at different rates depending on the material and climate. Those that decompose faster must be replenished more often. Because the decomposition process improves soil quality and fertility, many gardeners consider that characteristic a positive one, despite the added maintenance.
There are two cardinal rules for using organic mulches to combat weeds. First, be sure to lay the mulch down on soil that is already weeded, and second, lay down a thick enough layer to discourage new weeds from coming up through it. It can take a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch to completely discourage weeds, although a 2- to 3-inch layer is usually enough in shady spots where weeds aren’t as troublesome as they are in full sun.
Organic Mulching Tips
Nothing, unfortunately, is perfect. When using organic mulches, keep in mind the following facts:
- As low-nitrogen organic mulches such as wood chips and sawdust decay, nitrogen is temporarily depleted from the soil. Fertilize first with a high-nitrogen product such as blood meal or fish meal to boost soil nitrogen levels.
- An organic mulch retains moisture, which can slow soil warming; in spring, pull mulch away from perennials and bulbs for faster growth.
- A wet mulch piled against the stems of flowers and vegetables can cause them to rot; keep mulch about 1 inch away from crowns and stems.
- Mulch piled up against woody stems of shrubs and trees can cause them to rot and encourages rodents, such as voles and mice, to nest in the mulch. Keep deep mulch pulled back about 6 to 12 inches from trunks.
- In damp climates, organic mulches can harbor slugs and snails, which will munch on nearby plants; don’t spread mulch near slug-susceptible plants.
- Organic mulches are usually more or less acidic, depending on their content; mix some lime with the mulch beneath plants that prefer neutral or slightly alkaline soil.