Thank You Very Mulch! Everything You Need To Know About Mulching

Properly using a good mulch in your garden space can make it look better, improve the health of the plants, and stop you from spending all of your time weeding. What is the proper way to use it? What even IS a good mulch? Glad you asked! I’ve been experimenting on and researching this topic for a long time, so let’s catch you up.

Why You Should

With all of the things you have to build, make, mix, buy, and haul, why should you worry about covering up the soil in your landscape? Well, because it makes absolutely everything easier. Soil health, plant health, water retention, pest problems, and moisture problems all could be easily improved by applying the right amount of mulch to your yard.

Soil erosion can be a source of frustration in a garden. Even if you do your best to avoid it by installing a drip irrigation system, a heavy rain can wash away all of that carefully conditioned dirt that you worked so hard on. Wind and even snow can also contribute to this predicament. A good mulch can keep all of it where it needs to be. In your garden beds!

Another soil issue that can be solved by mulch is retaining and replenishing nutrients. Even with a consistent feeding schedule, it can be hard to keep a steady supply of nutrients for your plants. Without some type of ground cover the elements can wash or bake all of that good stuff out of there. An organic mulch can even add to the nutrient content as it decays. 

Mulch is such a great protective barrier that it helps the dirt retain water and temperature. This way you’re conserving water and your plant’s roots don’t get fried. In the winter, it can keep your perennials’ roots warm enough to protect them from freezing. 

How

Mulch is only helpful if you apply it correctly. Too early, and you can accidentally murder a bunch of seedlings. I wait until the plants have matured a little before I lay the mulch for the season. Usually around the end of April, beginning of August, and end of November for my area. 

Each type of mulch has its own thickness requirement, but in general, apply a three inch layer all over your garden beds. However, you don’t want to give pests and bad microorganisms a hiding place close to your plants. So, leave a few inches around the base of them bare. If you are sheet mulching, be sure to secure it with rocks, dirt, or decorative mulch to keep it from blowing away. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Inorganic Mulches

Inorganic mulches are more permanent/reusable in the garden landscape. They don’t decay or break down nearly as quickly as organic mulches. Also, they are not as flammable or prone to being moved out of place by water or wind. Unfortunately, they can heat up the ground too much, don’t replenish soil nutrients, can be less effective at weed control, and the wrong ones can leach chemicals you don’t want into the soil.

Inorganic Particulate Mulches

Inorganic particulate mulches are pretty permanent. They are heavy and difficult to apply, but once you have them down, they are there for the long haul. These mulches can be relatively inexpensive and you only have to lay about 1-2 inches of material for it to look great.

  • Gravel- Decorative and permanent, but difficult to move and does not control weeds as well as other mulches. Great for herb gardens and succulents.
  • Pebbles and river rock- Decorative and permanent, but difficult to move and does not control weeds as well as other mulches. Great for herb gardens and succulents.
  • Decomposed granite- Decorative, but lightweight enough to get washed out. Typically used over landscape fabric in desert gardens.

Inorganic Sheet Mulches

Inorganic sheet mulches can be less permanent and reusable than the inorganic particulate mulches. They can trap too much heat and (with the exception of landscape fabric) don’t allow water and air to reach the soil. It is important to wet the ground thoroughly before laying sheet mulches. Only one layer of this material is needed.

  • Plastic sheeting- Great for warming up the soil in early spring. However, it can get too hot by summer. The black kind is considered best because weeds will still grow under clear plastic. Prevents water and airflow and isn’t very decorative.
  • Landscape fabric- Allows water and airflow (yay!). Keeps the ground warm, great at preventing weeds. This mulch is not at all decorative without a decorative mulch layered on top of it. 
  • Aluminum foil- Best for shady beds because it reflects the sunlight, shining it onto the plants. Unlike plastic and fabric, foil keeps the soil cool, making it helpful in the summer heat. Not a great weed preventative, but does discourage pests.
Photo by Faith Crabtree on Unsplash

Organic Mulches

Organic mulches are more single use than their inorganic counterparts. They decompose and become part of the soil by the end of the season. Because of this, they are great soil conditioners. Conversely, they are not very heavy, so they can get washed or blown out of place or just go sliding down a hill (ask me how I know). Also, if you are buying bags of mulch from a store, it can get pretty pricey.

Organic Particulate Mulches

Organic particulate mulches break down the fastest, meaning that they condition the soil the most, but that also means that they need to be replaced more frequently. They are also prone to being moved around by the elements. With the exception of hay and straw (which requires a depth of around 6 inches), you need 3 inches of these mulches on the ground for them to be effective, but not smothering.

  • Bark- Lasts for a long time and is very decorative. Can attract pests. 
  • Nut shells and hulls- Usually available from local food processing plants or specialized mulch suppliers. Decorative, long lasting, and nutrient rich. They can attract rodents. 
  • Compost– Time consuming to create, but excellent source of plant food. 
  • Grass clippings- Easily obtainable, great for soil conditioning. Can get hot and spread weed seeds. 
  • Straw and hay- Requires a 6 inch layer to be effective, so it’s good that these mulches are so easy to find in large quantities. Weed seeds are a problem and they are not very decorative.
  • Leaves, pine needles, and leaf mold- These mulches are great because they are all over the place, earthworms love them, and using them is a really sustainable way to deal with garden waste. If you chop them up or compost them into leaf mold, even better! Just be careful about how much acidity they bring to the garden.
  • Sawdust and woodchips- If not composted, these materials can deplete the soil of its nitrogen, so it is necessary to amend it. They are not very decorative, but they do add to the soil texture after the turn over at the end of the season. Sawdust can pack down into a waterproof layer if you’re not careful.
  • Seaweed- Of course, because of the salt content, it is very important to let this material get rinsed by several rains. Seaweed is slow to decompose. It allows air and water through, but it is not very decorative.
  • Shredded paper- Not at all decorative and can be slightly alkaline. Great for people who are interested in sustainability. Helpful with soil conditioning. A depth of 4-6 inches is ideal. Use only paper that is not shiny. Examples of good mulch material include newspapers and letters. Items such as magazines and shiny sales fliers are not suitable.

Organic Sheet Mulches

Organic sheet mulches are pretty easy to apply and are a great way to deal with all of those amazon boxes and newspapers that keep piling up. They are pretty good at weed and ground temperature control. However, they do not look very attractive as far as landscaping. Thoroughly wet the ground before applying, then rewater after mulch has been laid so that it forms to the terrain.

  • Newspaper- Layer newspapers about 5-6 pages deep, secure in place with rocks or any other decorative weight. Easily acquired and a good way to reuse paper waste. Requires a pretty large amount of material.
  • Cardboard- A single layer is all that is needed with this mulch. It is readily available and great for the soil. I use a surprising number of boxes for each bed. Just break down your boxes, remove any tape or shiny paper from them, cut to fit, place in beds, and secure with rocks or soil.

Conclusion

Mulch can make a huge difference in the appearance and health of your landscape. The right one can make your garden look neat and beautiful. It can also improve the soil, retain water, and control the soil’s temperature. There are so many different materials to choose from that finding the perfect one for your garden takes a little planning, but is easy to accomplish. I hope that this post makes it easier.

References

Check these books and websites out for a lot more information.

The National Gardening Association. Gardening The Complete Guide to Growing America’s Favorite Fruits & Vegetables. Consumers Union, 1986, P. 65-68.

Holmes, Roger. Grant, Greg. Texas Home Landscaping. Creative Homeowner, 2016, P. 203-204

Pleasant, Barbara. Easy Garden Projects For All Seasons. Taylor Publishing Company, P. 117-119

Roth, Susan A. Better Homes and Gardens New Complete Guide to Gardening. Meredith Corporation, 1997, P. 522-525.

Gay, Larry. “Mulch From the Ocean”. Organic Gardening, 1985, P. 39-40.

Spencer, Cheryl. “Inorganic Mulch: How to Choose the Best One For Your Garden”. Simply Smart Gardening, https://simplysmartgardening.com/inorganic-mulch/, Accessed 16 July, 2023

Sweetser, Robin. “Learn How to Mulch Your Garden in Fall, Winter, and Spring”. Almanac, 15 June, 2022, https://www.almanac.com/types-mulch-advantages-and-disadvantages-mulching, Accessed 16 July, 2023.

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