Selecting Garden Mulch

Most gardeners know that applying mulch around the landscape can provide numerous benefits to your garden plants. Not only can this be an attractive addition to the garden, but adding mulch can significantly reduce the amount of time you spend on routine maintenance. By blocking out light, mulch suffocates weeds; thus, knocking out your weeding chores. Mulch retains moisture as well, limiting the need for constant watering. During periods of heavy rain, mulch can help prevent soil erosion by keeping the soil firmly in place rather than allowing it to wash away. In this same respect, mulch aids in the prevention of soil splashing onto plants. Mulch helps to keep your plants cool during those hot spells and insulates plants in the cold months of winter. Best of all, organic mulches, such as bark or pine needles, can also improve the soil. As these types of mulches begin to break down, nutrients are slowly added to the soil, encouraging healthier plant growth and even beneficial insects, like earthworms.

There are, however, downsides to mulches. Fortunately, the good far outweighs the bad. Unwanted garden pests, such as slugs or snails, can sometime hide beneath mulch. Eventually, these creatures will make their way to your plants, where they may cause considerable damage. Moisture-loving diseases can also be spawned by some types of organic mulch, especially when it’s placed too close to the plants. Therefore, it is always better to keep all types of mulch at least 6 inches from the plant itself. Another downside to mulch is color. Light-colored mulches are not as effective in warming the soil; however, dark-colored mulching, such as black plastic, has a tendency to get too hot, resulting in possible burning of the plants’ roots.

When you are choosing mulch for your garden, it is generally dependent on the type of garden you have as well as its surroundings. Your mulch should not only complement the garden design but also the surrounding landscape and hardscape (home exterior, walkways, patios, etc.). You should also consider how your mulch will be used in the garden. For instance, if you have a sloped area in your gardening area, you might want to consider using some shredded bark here. Not only will it look attractive but will also help in preventing soil from washing out. If you’re looking for something strictly for visual impact, consider attractive mulch such as bark chips, cocoa hulls, or pebbles. In areas that will not be easily viewed by others, choose mulching types like newspaper, grass clippings, or plastic.

Determine the size of the area you want to cover well before you obtain your mulch. Different areas might consist of different types of mulching material so the amount you need will vary. You should also note the availability of particular mulches within your area. For instance, some types of mulch, such as oyster shells, may be limited to only certain places. Therefore, you may incur additional costs for these types of mulches if you want to have them shipped to your area.

Generally, organic mulches are preferred. These types of mulches break down over a period of time, adding nutrients to the soil. The only downside to organic mulches is the fact that they must be replenished each year, usually in the spring. They can also retain too much moisture in climates more prone to rain. Excessive moisture can cause plants to rot and encourage insects such as slugs, neither of which anyone wants. Therefore, if you live in an area with excessive moisture, choose mulch better suited for your climate, such as gravel. Organic mulches include a variety of options, with the most common being bark or wood chips. Other forms of organic mulch include shredded leaves, grass clippings, hay or straw, pine needles, rotted manure or compost, sawdust, newspaper, and cocoa hulls. Most organic mulches should be applied after plants are well established (4-6 inches tall).

Shredded leaves are by far the easiest and most recommended form of mulch. A layer of around 2-3 inches is sufficient for weed control. Apply to trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables. Leaves decompose quickly, improving the soil, and are easy to obtain relatively cheap, even free for those with abundance. They are also attractive and well suited for naturalized or wooded areas. Grass clippings are another great source of organic matter. Place a 2-inch layer around your vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs for adequate weed control. However, be aware of its downsides; too thick of a layer can result in mold as well as too much heat, which can damage your plants. You can also use grass clipping in the compost pile. Hay and straw are other alternatives. Approximately 6 inches of hay or straw can provide good weed control; however, these materials decompose quickly and must be replenished continually to keep down weeds. Try to avoid any hay that contains weed seed. Alfalfa hay is best, supplying nitrogen to the soil as it breaks down. Hay is readily available in rural areas, but city dwellers may not be able to obtain it easily. However, straw can be purchased at most garden centers, unfortunately, it can get quite costly. Both types of mulches work well for vegetable and fruit plantings.

Rotted manure and compost is sometimes used as mulch as well. About 2-3 inches of either one should work for weed control. However, these could actually encourage some weed seed growth; therefore, it may be best to use as fertilizer mixed into the soil as they are great sources of organic matter. Pine needles look right at home in natural settings around trees, shrubs, and flowers. They are readily available in garden centers and not too expensive. The only downsides to using pine needles are its potential to become a fire hazard in severe drought as well as its acidic qualities. Bark makes extremely attractive mulch, especially around trees and shrubs. It also looks nice on paths or walkways. Apply at least 2-3 inches for weed control. Shredded bark breaks down faster than bark chips and works well on problem areas such as slopes. Bark can normally be found at garden centers and other landscaping retailers. Wood chips can be used as well, though this may not be as attractive. Wood chips can be obtained for free or low cost from tree-pruning professionals. Sawdust is another option but is usually best left for pathways. Often this type of mulch is more expensive but readily available from sawmills. All forms of bark and wood deplete nitrogen from the soil as they are loaded with carbon. They should also be renewed each year.

Newspaper might seem an unusual form of mulch, but it works anywhere in the garden and is great for controlling weeds. However, don’t use the glossy sections as these may contain harmful agents. Newspaper may not look attractive on its own so use another form of mulch on top, such as straw in non-visible areas or cocoa hulls for visual appeal. Laying mulch on top will also prevent the paper from blowing away. Cocoa hull are very attractive. They can retain up to 2 Ã?½ times their weight in water, making them ideal for use as mulch. However, these, too, have downsides. Cocoa hulls may be prone to mold and can attract rodents. You should also check beforehand to make sure that the hulls have not been treated with any type of pesticide. When dry, cocoa hulls are lightweight and susceptible to blowing away, may require thick layer to prevent this. Another disadvantage may be the limited availability in your particular area.

Inorganic mulches are long lasting but will not add any nutrients to your soil. You can, however, use organic mulch, such as newspaper, and apply non-organic mulch, such as gravel, over top. Organic mulches include stone, gravel, pebbles, plastic sheeting, landscape fabric or felt paper, oyster shells, and even aluminum foil. Some types of inorganic mulches are quite attractive; however, many are not. They can also get expensive.

Stones, gravels, and pebbles are great for use in dry gardens. They are quite attractive, coming in a wide variety of colors, sizes, and forms. Generally, these are best applied over plastic sheeting or landscaping fabric to prevent weeds from popping through. The downside is cost. Many of these can get quite expensive. Plastic sheeting is an effective weed barrier but should be covered with more attractive-looking mulch, such as crushed gravel. Place around flowering plants, trees, and shrubs. You may want to add slits throughout the sheeting, however, to allow water to pass through. The downside to using plastic sheeting, especially black plastic, is the fact that it raises soil temperature; therefore, in areas prone to hot weather, such as in the South, you should cover it with lighter-colored mulch. Landscape fabric is great just about anywhere. You can leave it as is or apply attractive mulch on top. Landscape fabric is effective for controlling weeds; yet, allows for both air and water to pass through easily. Its only downside includes deterioration from prolonged sun exposure, if left uncovered. Occasionally, aggressive weeds have been known to pop through as well. Felt paper is much the same as landscape fabric with one exception; it does not allow air or water to pass through. Consider poking holes throughout if this is your mulching choice. Also apply light-colored mulch on top as this can get extremely hot.

Oyster shells are another possibility for use as mulch. Oyster shells and even seashells can be quite attractive as mulch. Both are lightweight and when obtained in bulk, can cover a wide area. However, these are usually limited to coastal areas and may be expensive to obtain in other sites. Gardeners, on occasion, have been known to use household items for mulch, as with newspaper. But were you aware that aluminum foil is one such item? This can be used for several years and then recycled. It is good for controlling weeds and reflecting light; however, it does not allow air or water passage.

There are so many benefits to using mulch in the garden, and there are just as many types to choose from. With careful research and planning, however, you can easily find the type of mulch that will suit all of your gardening needs.

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