Mulching is one of the purest and most beneficial practices you can use in a garden. Leaving soil exposed to the elements can cause topsoil erosion and promote weed growth. Mulch protects the ground, providing a protective material layer on top of the soil. Organic mulches include grass clippings, straw, bark chips, and similar materials that will break down over time. Inorganic contains items such as stones, brick chips, and plastic. Both organic and inorganic mulches have numerous benefits.
What is Mulch?
Mulch is a term used to describe any material placed on the soil’s surface. These materials can be organic or inorganic. I prefer to use organic mulches for the added benefits they provide the garden.
Ask any successful gardener, and they will tell you that mulch is one of the best-kept secrets. Mulch covers and enriches the soil. Exposed soil is unhealthy soil. Simply applying a layer of mulch on top of your soil drastically increases the soil’s food web. Check out some of the benefits of mulching your garden.
- Protects your soil from eroding
- Reduces your dirt compaction from heavy rain showers
- Retain moisture, reducing the number of times you need to water.
- Regulates soil temperature by insulating the soil
- Preventative for the growth of weeds
- Keeps produce clean
- Keeps your feet from getting dirty by allowing access to the garden even when moist
- Provides a “finished” look to the garden
- Create a habitat for beneficial insects.
The condition of the soil will improve with organic mulch. These mulches slowly decompose, providing organic matter that helps keep the ground loose. This process of decomposing enhances the soil quality, leading to better water infiltration and stellar root growth. It all begins with the roots.
Organic matter helps keep all members of the soil foodweb fed and happy. The microclimate created by the mulch is the ideal environment for earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms within the food web.
Specific landscapes require inorganic mulch, but they lack the soil-improving properties offered by organic mulches.
Most of the time, you can find mulch materials in your yard. So, before spending money on bagged mulch, look around and see what you have, or check out the free options.
- Compost. Compost makes a beautiful mulch if you have a plentiful supply. Compost improves the soil structure and provides an excellent source of plant nutrients.
- Leaves. Collect, chop, and store them. They can be stored and added to compost piles or used to make Leaf Mold throughout the year.
- Wood Chips– When you do your annual tree trimming, save the waste. Run this through a chipper, and you have wood chip mulch. Have a large garden and need large quantities? You can usually receive them for free from a tree trimming company. Fresh wood chips rob Nitrogen from the soil. To avoid this issue, compost before applying and do not mix wood chips into the soil. Best to chop and compost before spreading. Did you know that most tree-trimming companies will give this to you for free?
- Grass Clippings. Spread them out immediately and allow them to dry before applying them to plants. That will help to avoid heating and rotting. Try to avoid using cuttings from lawns treated with herbicides. They are a godsend in the vegetable garden and are not particularly attractive for a flower bed due to their color and texture. The fineness of the surface helps them spread quickly and evenly, even around small plants. The size also speeds up the decomposition time.
- Newspaper. Save your newspapers because when used as a mulch, this works exceptionally well to control weeds. Apply sheets of newspaper and cover lightly with organic mulch material to anchor and prevent blowing away. A windy day can be a problem. Use only newspaper text pages (black ink); color dyes may harm soil microflora and fauna if composted and used.
- Hay/Straw. Works well in the vegetable garden, although they may harbor weed seeds. ** My preferred form of mulch **
- Pine needles increase the soil’s acidity, so they work best around acid-loving plants, such as blueberries.
- Bagged Mulch. Bark chips and composted bark mulch are available and already bagged at garden centers. These make a neat finish to the garden bed and will eventually improve the condition of the soil. These may last for one to three years or more, depending on the size of the chips or how well-composted the bark mulch is. Bulk may be cheaper if you need large volumes and have a way to haul it. Bagged mulch is often easier to handle, especially for smaller projects. Most bagged mulch comes in 3-cubic feet bags. Please inspect the mulch before purchasing. Some companies have been accused of shredding all types of wood, including pallets, and calling it mulch. Tip: Look for native mulches made from local trees.
How To Apply Mulch
I recommend placing a 2-4-inch-thick layer of organic material on top of the soil’s surface. Do not make your mulch layer too thick. Thick layers of mulch can prevent water from reaching the soil.
Different applications call for different amounts of mulch. I always keep two to three inches of mulch on top of my raised beds. The pathways throughout my garden have a minimum of four inches of compost year-round.
Before you apply mulch, think about your end goal. Are you mulching to improve soil health or to suppress weeds? If mulching is for the latter, it is best to remove weeds before applying the mulch. If mulching pathways or expansive spaces, give yourself some extra protection. Before applying the mulch, lay down a few layers of cardboard or weed barrier/landscape fabric. Then place the mulch on top.
Do not pile mulch up against the stem of plants or trunks of trees. Mulch retains moisture, so if left in contact with the plants, you can cause the stems to rot. For trees, keep mulch around 12” away from the tree trunk. Do not directly sow seeds and then cover the bed with mulch unitl after the seedlings sprout. Mulch will smother the ground and stop seedlings from sprouting.
- When spreading mulch around trees, keep the mulch an inch or two away from the trunk. A couple of inches of mulch is adequate.
- Do not apply mulch directly in contact with plants. Leave an inch or so of space next to plants to help prevent diseases from flourishing from excessive humidity.
- Remove weeds before spreading mulch.
- Bark mulch and wood chips are sometimes used with landscape fabric. The fabric or plastic is laid on top of the soil and then covered with a layer of bark chips. A caution to this practice: while the plastic or fabric may initially provide additional protection against weeds, as the mulch breaks down, weeds will start to grow in the mulch. The barrier between the soil and the mulch also prevents any improvement in the soil condition and makes planting other plants more difficult.
When To Apply Mulch
Application time depends on what you hope to achieve by mulching. Mulches provide an insulating barrier between the soil and the air and moderate the soil temperature. In the summer, mulched soil will be cooler than un-mulched soil; in the winter, the mulched soil may not freeze as deeply. However, since mulch acts as an insulating layer, mulched soils tend to warm up more slowly in the spring and cool down more slowly in the fall than un-mulched soils.
If you are using mulches in your vegetable garden, it is best to apply them after the soil has warmed up in the spring. Cool, wet soils tend to slow seed germination and increase the decay of seeds and seedlings. If adding additional layers of mulch to existing perennial beds, wait until the earth has warmed thoroughly.
Mulches used to help moderate winter temperatures can be applied late in the fall after frozen ground but before the coldest temperatures arrive. Applying mulches before the frozen ground may attract rodents looking for a friendly site for the winter. Delaying applications of mulch should prevent this problem.
Mulches used to protect plants over winter should be loose material such as straw, hay, or pine needles. This will help insulate the plants without compacting them under the weight of snow and ice. One of the benefits of winter applications of mulch is the reduction in the freezing and thawing of the soil in the late winter and early spring. These repeated cycles of freezing at night and thawing in the sun’s warmth cause many small or shallow-rooted plants to be heaved out of the soil. This leaves their root systems exposed and results in injury or death. Mulching helps prevent rapid fluctuations in soil temperature and reduces the chances of heaving.
Now I hope you understand the benefits of mulching and how it can help you JUST GROW IT. Let me know if you have any questions.
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