5 Garden Mulching Tips

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.

Mulch helps hold moisture in the soil

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.

Mulch keeps weeds in check

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 modulates soil temperatures

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.

Some mulches improve soil structure

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 healthy soil.

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.

mulching tips

Mulching Tips:

  1. One of the best all-around mulches is compost. If you have a large enough compost pile, using this soil-building material to top-dress your beds will allow you to feed and mulch at the same time.
  2. If you have an abundance of trees, you have an abundance of leaves, which you can save for the next growing season. Don’t use whole leaves, though, because they’ll mat. Chop them up with a shredder or run the lawn mower over them several times. It’s a good idea to leave them outside to weather for several months. Leaves contain growth-inhibiting phenols that should be allowed to leach away before they’re used.
  3. Material such as hay and straw is often for sale by the bale at farms and garden centers. Wheat straw has a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, so it locks up nitrogen in the soil. Oat straw contains more nitrogen and therefore breaks down more quickly. Hay has twice as much nitrogen as straw but is also likely to contain weed seeds, so it’s best used on the compost pile, not as mulch. Rain-spoiled hay is sometimes offered for sale at bargain prices.
  4. Tree-trimming crews who work for the phone company or electric utility company often can be persuaded to dump wood chips on your property as they clear around phone and electric wires.
  5. If you have a short supply of an aesthetically pleasing mulch, such as wood chips, and an abundance of less attractive material, such as newspapers, lay down the newspapers first and cover them with the chips. The newspapers do all the work but the eye sees only the neat layer of chips.

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