One of my favorite topics to talk about is mulch. Mulch is such a useful thing in the garden as it helps so much with soil health and helps with growing healthy plants. It is also nice how it saves me water, money, and also helps me be lazier. I throw it down and the deep mulch keeps unwanted plants from growing.
What is Mulch?
Mulch is a word for any material that blankets over the surface of the soil. My garden employs a lot of natural mulches like leaves, straw, compost, wood chips, or spent mushroom substrate. Other gardeners might like to use non-natural mulch products like plastic sheeting
Mulch is either intended to be a seasonal thing that will decompose over the season and need to be replenished or it is a permanent addition. The main goal of garden mulch is to help hold moisture, reduce weeds, improve soil conditions in some way, and improve the growing conditions for plants.
Why Use Mulch In Your Garden?
People like to use mulch because it is so beneficial. Topsoil is a precious thing when it comes to a gardener and one of the best ways to protect and nourish topsoil is to help reduce the things that damage soil health. Soil that is exposed to the elements is vulnerable to erosion, loss of nutrients, dries out quickly, and otherwise has conditions that do not tend to the health of the soil of soil organisms.
Just throwing on a few layers of mulch will keep bare soil protected from all of the above as it will help soil stay moist, it will protect from water runoff, and otherwise help build the living aspects of the soil.
Benefits of Mulch
When your garden has a good mulch layer down you can rest easier that the soil is improving and being protected. With natural mulch like compost, straw, yard leaves, or woodchips they break down over time and all the nutrients held in them directly go into the soil.
All this mulch feeds the worms and beneficial insects and microbes. The worms also like the blanket layer of mulch that holds in moisture. Worm activity is always to be desired in a garden as they benefit the soil so much.
The other big benefit of mulch is weed suppression. You will have to bend over less to pull out rogue plants or grass you don’t want in your garden as a good mulch layer will keep them from getting started in the first place.
A nice thing in the height of summer is the ability of mulch to help shield roots from the wild temperature swings. Plants are not as stressed out when temperatures and moisture levels hold steady despite the environment swings.
The other nice thing about mulching is it can be done so absurdly cheaply. In my own case I tend to acquire yard leaves that I do a partial shred of and add those to my garden. I’ve also been known to add grass clippings. When I lived in zone 7 I knew someone with a wood chipper who would happily process all the yard waste I had from my woodlot so I also had free woodchips pretty often.
If you ship in a lot of items you can also clear off any tape and mulch in clean cardboard. Cardboard layers with some weight on top are my preferred way to stamp down and kill off a grass area when starting a new planting spot.
How to Apply Mulch
There are no hard and fast rules to mulch. I have the usual mulching procedure where I try to have about four to 6 inches of mulch over the soil with shredded down leaves and paper. If the mulch is too thick it will make it harder for the water to get down to the soil bed though I use soaker hoses anyway on a timer during growing season.
If you are not using a water delivery method that goes right to target the roots then too thick of a mulch layer can be a setback. Though using too little mulch then you have too thin of a layer that does not suppress weeds, doesn’t help with erosion, doesn’t hold in a moisture layer, and isn’t adequately enhancing the garden space as well as it could.
My usual planting beds have around 4 inches of usually leaf compost. For the decorative bed there is a gravel bed to either side to keep the side weeding down. When figuring out how much mulch works for you then keep in mind the material you are using. Woodchips are pretty straightforward, you made need deeper layers of leaves or straw since they compress and compact over time.
Preparing the Planting Site
If you are setting a new garden bed area you made need to work over the site. If you have weeds at the site you will either want to weed the area a bit or if you are trying to work on a no-dig or no-till garden you want to apply some thick cardboard layers.
When to Avoid Mulch
While mulch is great at the base of stems or trees you want to avoid piling it right up against the plants. Having all that contact with mulch could cause rot or disease to the plants as the mulch holds in moisture and decomposes. Sometimes you also end up with pests in your mulch alongside your beneficial guests.
If you have fresh planted seedlings they especially need to be kept clear around the actual stem. You can fill in around the plant a bit later when the plants are more mature. When you mulch around trees it is best to leave an open ring and try to focus more on mulching the outer root space.
If you try to directly sow seeds it is best not to mulch over it. Mulch suppresses weed seedlings and will do the same thing to your desired plants. You want to mulch after your sprouts are out and decently established with a few inches of growth.
When to Apply Mulch
My favorite time to mulch is primarily in the fall season. I load up on all of the yard leaves, shred any scrap paper and cardboard, and get my winter garden prime for rest and rebuilding.
A spring mulch can make the space look fresh as well and helps prepare things for the rest of the growing season. My main goal is to always be ahead of the weeds.
Though fall is the real game changer because the thick mulch layer insulates the soil and keeps soil in place. The mulch will spend a bit of the warm periods decomposing over the few fall months and will pick up again when spring season starts up again.
During the decomposition times all the nutrients locked up in the mulch will keep feeding the food web in the soil.
If I’m using yard leaves, then I replenish the mulch pretty often. When using woodchips I might only replenish the mulch once a year.
Types of Garden Mulch
When it comes to mulch you have a good variety to choose from of the non synthetic variety. Some examples:
- Straw or hay– You want your hay to be seed-free and you want to get organic straw unless you are okay with the possibility of there being herbicides present. I’m not okay with with this and I like to use straw for mushroom farming, I need everything as clean as can be.
- Bark– It is pretty easy to get bags of bark products and have heard of many people ordering from a landscape supply company. I never bought bark myself as I used my a back woodlot and would use a woodchipper when I had to do a yearly clean of fallen branches or small trees.
- Compost (or finished manure) – I primarily produce my own compost in my yard. It isn’t a preferred top mulch for me but some people like to keep things simple with piling on more compost. When using manure you want it to be “finished” as fresh manure can burn new plants.
- Leaves or shredded leaves– Leaves are my preferred way for smothering weeds out of my planting beds. I like to shred my leaves to a smaller size because larger leaves often compact down in such a way where it isn’t hard to have air exchange issues or issues with watering. I usually do a couple passes with my bag mower and collect the shredded leaves for later use.
- Rock or Gravel. Pea gravel, river rock– The big box stores have quite a variety when it comes to landscaping rock. Rock isn’t what you want to use in anything where you want things to grow unless you are farming cactus. It is a durable material and it is my preferred cover for where I have walkways and pathing.
- Green or dried plant matter– Plant matter such as cover crops or dry grass clippings are also good mulch. I used to collect extra plant material from around the garden. I had a small comfrey patch I liked to use just for mulch and compost. You want nutrient rich plant matter that can be cut up and tossed in the garden.
- Paper products, Cardboard– Cardboard is A nice cover for large spaces and is very useful to be used under new raised beds. Thinks like shredded printer paper or newspaper are also heavily used to be used directly in garden beds or around garden beds.
What type of garden mulch should I use?
I would say the type of mulch you go with would depend on your individual situation and things like your style and budget. If you work somewhere with a lot of waste shredded paper, you might want to use that. If you have ready access to leaves or woodchips then you may go to use those.
But when it comes to garden beds for planting you want to go with the finer mulches. Things like compost, straw, shredded leaves, or very fine woodchips.
The kind of mulch material you choose depends on your individual needs, space, style, budget, and the availability of materials in your area.
That concludes the details of mulch in the garden. Mulch is a great way to cut down on water use, make your planting space cleaner and beautified, and helps keep your planting space healthy.
I personally find mulching to be a very enjoyable activity and when I want to plant I just rake it out of the way if need be. I hope this article has inspired you to give mulch a try. Thanks for stopping to read!