Mulch is a 2- to 4-inch layer of material that overlays the top of your garden soil. It is typically used in the spring. Mulch is frequently added as needed throughout the planting season. It should thoroughly cover loose soil but never come into contact with plant stems or tree trunks.
Mulch is a layer of organic or inorganic material laid on top of the soil in a garden or across your landscape to protect it. It’s used to preserve moisture in the soil, keep weeds at bay, and make the garden bed more visually pleasing.
This article will discuss the many types of mulch, where and when to use them, and compare organic and synthetic options.
Let’s get this party started!
What is mulch?
Mulch is any material on the soil’s surface to help reduce weeds, maintain soil temperatures, and increase soil moisture and garden beauty.
Mulch is a great gardening tool since it helps to block sunlight and prevent weed plants from growing through the soil.
- Using landscape cloth over soil and overlaying it with a layer of mulch helps block out sunlight and prevents weed development.
- Spraying weeds with vinegar combined with a tiny bit of dish soap is a safe, all-natural, and low-cost alternative to most herbicides on weeds that have already started to grow through the mulch.
- Defining the area with deep boundaries can deter weed roots from growing beneath the mulch. It also saves time, money, and energy that would otherwise be spent picking weeds.
20 benefits of using mulch in your garden
Why do you need mulch in the first place? These are just a few benefits of using the “marvelous wonder of mulch” in your garden.
- Increases the amount of organic matter in your soil. This improves the health of your garden and makes it more resistant to pests and diseases. (This reduces the cost of pest management.)
- Provides valuable slow-release nutrients and protects plants from vitamin loss. (This saves money on fertilizer.)
- Aids in the retention of moisture in the soil for a longer period. Mulch protects the soil from evaporation by sheltering it from the sun. It also lowers water run-off during rain and irrigation. This cuts down on the amount of water required. (This saves money.)
- Protects sensitive seedlings from direct sunlight. (A miniature umbrella.)
- Saves time on watering. (This saves both time and money.)
- It is a great insulator because it regulates soil temperature. Keeps roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter. (This reduces plant stress.)
- Acts as a natural barrier to prevent weeds from sprouting and competing for resources with plants. How? By obstructing sunlight. Getting rid of the few weeds will be easier. (This saves you time.)
- Boosts biological activity in your soil. How? By providing food for beneficial microorganisms and earthworms.
- Enhances soil conditions. It aids in the binding of sandy soils and the opening of clay soils.
- It saves you time and energy when it comes to cultivating the soil.
- Prevents nutrient leakage from the soil.
- Acts as a ‘blanket’ to shield plants from frost damage.
- Creates a clean surface for products such as fruit and nuts to fall and be harvested.
- As it decomposes, it improves soil drainage and structure.
- Offers support around plants, particularly young seedlings.
- Waste materials are recycled. Organic mulches, such as grass clippings and leaves, are one example.
- Keeps plants safe from mud splashes during watering or rain.
- Prevents soil erosion and compaction caused by foot activity on pathways and play areas.
- Enhances the visual appeal of your garden.
- It can serve as a habitat for plant-friendly insects.
Avoid using too much mulch, as this can result in a layer that does not break down or allow for root growth. Water and nutrients may be unable to access the roots if the soil becomes too compacted. This is readily avoided by removing as much of the old mulch as possible and then putting a new layer each year. Keep your mulch roughly 3 inches deep and away from the trunks of trees and shrubs.
Disadvantages of mulching
Although mulch has numerous advantages, it can also be harmful to the garden in some cases:
- Too much mulch (more than 3 inches deep) can bury and choke plants, preventing water and oxygen from reaching the roots. A 2 to 3-inch layer of mulch is sufficient.
- If mulch is placed around the trunks of trees and shrubs, it can lead to rotting bark. Mulch should be kept 6 to 12 inches from the base of woody plants. There will be no more “volcano” mulching around trees! Keeping mulch away from the trunk deters wood-boring insects, mouse nibbling, and rot.
- Mulch around plant stems is ideal for slugs, snails, burrowing rodents, and other pests. To keep slugs and snails at bay, sprinkle diatomaceous earth or wood ashes around the base of your prized plants.
- If not applied properly, mulch can roast your plants in the middle of summer. (For more information, see the section below.)
- Light-colored wood-based mulches such as sawdust or new wood chips can take nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. To counteract the effect, add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the mulch, such as alfalfa meal, soybean meal, or cottonseed meal.
Types of mulch
Mulch comes in a few different varieties that are classified as synthetic or organic. Let’s go over each one:
Synthetic mulch is a fantastic choice for individuals who don’t want to or can’t keep up with the maintenance required by organic mulch or like the aesthetic of synthetic material in their gardens. Although they preserve moisture in the soil, these mulches do not deliver nutrients to your beds.
- Gravel or rocks
- Tire shreds or black plastic
- Landscape fabrics
Organic mulches disintegrate over time and give additional nutrients to your plant beds. They are usually considerably easier to refill than synthetic mulches because they are biodegradable.
- Homemade compost
- Compost manure
- Lawn clippings or fallen leaves
A look at synthetic mulches and their uses
In this section, we’ll go through the above-mentioned synthetic mulch choices in further depth.
Black plastic mulch
In the spring, black plastic mulch helps warm the soil, decreases water loss, and is convenient. In limited growing seasons, this can make a large difference. However, it is more difficult to water and degrades when exposed to sunshine. If the soil beneath the plastic is not shaded by leaves or covered with additional mulch in the heat of summer, it becomes quite hot.
Silver plastic mulch
Silver plastic mulch is good for warming soil in the spring, but it does not manage weeds; transparent plastic makes the soil even hotter in the summer, and plants can be injured if the plastic is not shaded.
Weeds are suffocated by landscape fabric, allowing air, fertilizer, and water to pass through and into the soil. They have been treated to resist decomposition and aid in retaining soil moisture. It is important to secure the cloth so that perennial weeds do not push it up.
Mulch made of gravel or stones can be more visually pleasing than plastic or tire shreds. However, it may be more difficult to transfer if you decide to redesign your garden bed. Not only are they natural-looking and beautiful to look at, but they’re also ideal for plants that prefer a little more warmth (such as Mediterranean gardens) or gardens that require a lot of drainages.
Keep in mind that some weeds may sneak between the cracks if you use larger stones. This mulch alternative may necessitate minimal upkeep once every few weeks.
A Look at Organic Mulches and Their Uses
In this section, we’ll go through the above-mentioned synthetic mulch choices in further depth.
Composted Manure and Homemade Compost
Compost is a fantastic addition to gardening, whether it is prefabricated or prepared for oneself. You may use it as a top layer of mulch to cover and nurture your garden as it grows by pouring a thin layer of compost in the plant holes for added nutrients.
Homemade compost can be formed from leftover or unused vegetables, fruits, leaves, grass clippings, potato skins, and so on — but avoid adding meat to your compost because it attracts grubs and other unpleasant creatures.
Hay is usually used as a mulch in vegetable and fruit gardens. It keeps plant-eating pests away, stops walkways from becoming muddy, and decomposes slowly (so you don’t have to refill it frequently).
The EZ-Straw Seeding Mulch is our favorite hay mulch. It is finely ground, decomposes fully into the soil over time, and can be placed directly on top of seeds to help speed up germination, shield the seeds from birds, and keep them from blowing away if they sit atop the soil.
Woodchips are the most popular and visually appealing mulch option for flower gardens, under trees, and in areas along pathways. At your local garden center, you can buy beautiful mulch in various hues such as black, red, or natural wood tone.
Because woodchips decompose slowly, you will need to reapply the mulch the next growing season. Because you’ll have to dig and work around them yearly, they’re not suitable for vegetable or annual flower gardens.
Leaves and lawn clippings
Lawn clippings and leaves are a great source of mulch that is both healthy and readily available. Though you should leave some grass clippings on your lawn to fertilize it, gathering any grass that has made its way onto sidewalks or the road will benefit your garden beds.
Mix any fallen leaves in your yard with the lawn clippings for added nutrition. This mulch is ideal for edible plant areas and will provide nutrients as it degrades.
In recent years, the newspaper has become a major fad among gardeners. It’s inexpensive, the dyes are becoming more organic, and it works wonders for gardening! If you choose this mulching method, use 4-6 layers of newspaper, soak it, and set it on top of the soil.
For a more appealing appearance, place the newspaper behind a thin layer of gravel or woodchips, similar to how you would use plastic or cloth for your garden beds.
Another common option is cocoa shells. They have a wonderful color and a chocolate aroma. Please keep your pets a safe distance away from them. Cocoa shells are the seed covers for cocoa beans used to make chocolate. Chocolate is toxic to dogs and cats.
Pine needles that pile under your evergreens are a mulch that you may already have on hand. They’re great mulch for acid-loving plants like blueberries and azaleas. They lower the pH of the soil as they decompose, making it more acidic.
Comfrey, a perennial herb, has a long taproot that allows it to absorb nutrients and minerals that shallow-rooted plants cannot. Comfrey leaves can be used as mulch, slowly breaking down and enriching the soil.
Different colors of mulch
Browns and reddish browns are natural colors of organic mulch. However, the colors decrease as the mulch weathers. Mulch with extra color provides more design options as well as longer-lasting color.
This mulch, which comes in brown, black, and red, can be used to create eye-catching mixes in your garden. Consider your plants’ leaves and blossoms and the color of your home. Here are some ideas for using mulch colors.
- Brown mulch complements many plant colors and makes an excellent backdrop for green foliage. It fits into the surroundings and has a natural appearance. Depending on the hue of brown, it can even resemble soil.
- Black mulch can also mimic the natural appearance of some types of soil. It presents a striking contrast with white flowers and might complement a contemporary or modern-styled home. Black mulch absorbs more heat than other colors, which may be a benefit or drawback depending on your climate and plants.
- Red mulch adds an eye-catching, unexpected element to your garden. It contrasts with the green of your grass or the leaves of your bedding plants, shrubs, and trees. It’s also effective against lighter-colored plants.
In addition to prepackaged mulch in brown, black, and red, DIY mulch dyes can be used to create custom mulch colors.
While varied hues of mulch can add beauty to your landscaping, the color can transfer to your hands, clothes, or surfaces such as concrete or decking when the mulch is new and moist. Wear gloves when spreading mulch; do not store or stack it on sidewalks, driveways, or decks.
Keep in mind that color selections aren’t limited to organic mulch. Colors of inorganic mulch include red brick nuggets and lava rock, white marble and brown, dark red, and even green rubber mulch.
Mulching’s Influence on soil pH
The pH of your soil has a significant impact on plant health. Given that landscape mulch has the potential to alter soil pH, it’s logical that people are concerned about how mulch affects soil pH.
For example, spreading fresh pine needles and oak leaves may result in more acidic soil. While oak leaves are acidic when new, the overall outcome is an alkaline reaction.
Furthermore, it is often assumed that decomposing pine needles reduce soil pH to a minor extent. And any acidification potential occurs only for uncomposted pine needles, as the act of composting neutralizes them.
Some people assume that landscape mulch has little or no effect on soil pH. However, if you want to be on the safe side, assess your soil’s pH levels and avoid applying the same mulch type year after year.
When it comes to finding the best mulch, you have the option of using organic or synthetic materials. Both are great for retaining moisture and nutrients in the soil, but natural mulches are considerably healthier for the earth and your gardens, in our opinion.
We recommend ornamental mulch if you’re seeking a visually appealing option. We recommend hay or grass clippings for edible garden beds since they decompose and offer valuable nutrients to the soil.
We recommend landscaping fabric with a thin layer of woodchips or gravel on top for mulch around trees and walkways.
Whatever mulch you choose, you can be confident that it will help maintain your garden lush and attractive!
Good luck with your gardening!