Want a surefire way to improve your garden and landscape plantings and save yourself hours of work? Try mulching. Good mulches do have a softening effect, cushioning plants against the vagaries of the environment. And although they won’t eliminate all your gardening chores, they do make life easier for you, too.
During dry spells, mulched plantings often pull through while their unprotected counterparts bite the dust. Mulches help protect the soil from the evaporative effects of sun and wind, thereby keeping the soil from crusting over. Well-mulched soils tend to be loose and crumbly rather than hard-packed. Mulch also helps prevent heavy rains from pelting the soil and leaching out nutrients and helps curb soil erosion.
Weeds have no place in the well-tended landscape. Besides being aesthetically unpleasing, they compete with other plants for moisture and nutrients. Mulch prevents many weeds from growing at all, and whatever weeds make it through a layer of mulch tend to be weak and spindly and easy to pull.
Mulch is also valuable to help keep the soil cool in the heat of summer and warm when it begins to get cold outside. A good layer of mulch can help extend your growing season by a few weeks, and though it won’t keep your ground from freezing, it will help protect the roots of your perennial plantings.
Organic mulches begin to decompose after they’ve been set out, and this breakdown helps improve soil tilth. You can further this process by working organic mulch into the soil at the end of the growing season. Don’t worry that decaying mulch will tie up available nitrogen – the percentage of nitrogen that might be lost is minuscule and the loss won’t affect
The best kind of mulch to use depends on the primary effect you want to achieve. The material should be cheap, readily available, and attractive. If you’re looking to improve soil structure, contribute nutrients, and activate soil microorganisms, use an organic mulch such as compost, shredded bark, straw, chopped leaves, pine needles, or grass clippings. On the other hand, for total weed kill, black plastic is hard to beat. You can even lay it down in the fall and, come spring, you’ll have a fairly workable, weed-free bed to plant. Organic mulches and newspapers can be left on the soil and worked into it as they decompose. Plastic and foil mulches should be removed at the end of the growing season; they’re generally too full of holes to be reusable.