Mulch is an important part of maintaining any outdoor growing space. From your simple vegetable garden beds, to the flower beds surrounding your home, mulch adds a lot more than just aesthetics to your landscaping.
So, what is mulch? Simply put, mulch is a layer of organic or inorganic material that covers the soil between your plants. There are many different kinds of mulch available, and they all have their own unique benefits.
There is no “perfect mulch,” and the best choice will depend on your individual needs and what you have access to. This post will cover the different types of mulches, so you can choose the right mulch for your garden.
Benefits of mulch
- Moisture retention – During times of drought, a thick layer of organic mulch will help your garden soil retain moisture.
- Temperature regulation – Mulch helps to regulate soil temperature. This is beneficial during severe heat spikes, as mulch will help keep the soil surface cool. Similarly, mulch will help insulate your plants during cold air temperatures.
- Weed control – Mulching prevents light from accessing the soil, which in turn, prevents the germination of weed seeds. You will have less weed growth in your garden when using mulch.
- Better soil quality – Over time, organic mulch will help to improve your soil fertility as it breaks down. It also prevents erosion during heavy precipitation.
- Aesthetics – Mulch can improve the appearance of a garden or landscaping.
When to apply mulch
Apply mulch in the garden as soon as new plants are put in the ground. Applying in early spring will help prevent weed seeds from germinating. The best time to apply mulch will depend when your garden plants are going in the ground.
There is no need to remove organic mulch each year. Simply add more and replenish as needed to maintain a consistent layer of 2-3 inches.
Different kinds of mulch available
There are many different mulch types available for gardening and landscaping. There are free mulch options you can use from around the yard if you don’t want to spend a lot of money.
Or, you can visit your local garden center to see what bagged mulch options they have available for purchase. The best thing will depend on your personal preference and gardening needs.
Mulch can be categorized in two different ways: organic and inorganic. You may choose to use organic mulch in your vegetable garden, and inorganic mulches in your landscaping. The key difference is decomposition.
These mulches break down over time and also improve the soil structure as they decompose. They need to be replaced and replenished regularly. Leaf mulch, straw, and compost are a few examples of organic mulch.
Straw is one of our favorite mulches, as it contains less weed seeds than hay and can be applied in a thick layer. Straw also allows for good air circulation around your plants.
When using straw mulch, you’ll want to give it a good soaking of water after application to help it stay put. Dry straw can easily blow away in the wind.
Also, be sure the straw is from a reputable source as it can contain herbicides. These can harm your garden plants, so don’t take the risk if you aren’t sure the straw is clean. If its within your budget, you can also purchase straw mulch that is certified weed-free.
2. Wood chips
Wood chips are a good option for landscaping, but they can also be used in vegetable gardening. They are one of the more attractive options, and only need to be replaced every few years. Wood chips are ideal for use around fruit trees and in vegetable gardens.
To avoid nitrogen depletion, never mix the wood chips into the soil, and be sure to only use them on the surface. Avoid using black walnut mulch on sensitive plants and seedlings.
You can often get arborist wood chips for free. Use ChipDrop to find tree services in your area that will drop off wood chips at your door.
While not the best for suppressing weed growth, compost is a great mulch that will improve the quality of your soil over time. We like to apply a one-inch later of mulch around many of our perennial plants to give a boost of nutrients.
You can also use compost underneath a layer of different mulch. If you don’t make your own compost at home, check to see if your town offers it for free as part of their recycling program.
4. Pine needles / pine straw mulch
After pine needles fall off the tree, they become brown, dry and brittle. These needles are also known as pine straw. It makes a wonderful mulch, as it’s free of seeds and also allows for great air circulation.
Some people believe this mulch will change the pH of their soil to be more acidic, but this is not true. The dried up pine straw will not have an affect on your soil pH.
Because we have so many pine trees around our home, it is one of our favorite mulches to use in the garden. Every year, we find ourselves with a fresh new supply. And, they take awhile to break down and do not compact as easily as other mulch options.
It is recommended to only use pine straw more than 30 feet from your home, as it is considered one of the most flammable mulches.
5. Cardboard boxes
Using cardboard boxes in the garden has become increasingly popular over the years. However, sunlight and water cannot easily penetrate through, and the boxes do not add any nutritional value to the soil.
We prefer to use cardboard in our compost pile. Not to mention, shredded cardboard is not an attractive mulch. It is however a good option for sheet mulching.
6. Grass clippings
If you choose to use grass clippings for mulch in your garden, you’ll want to allow it to dry out for at least 3 days. Avoiding using lawn clippings as mulch if your grass is treated by a landscaping company, or if you use any weed and feed fertilizers.
Using grass clippings on sloped surfaces can also be challenging. After rainfall, it is not uncommon for the grass clipping mulch to form “mats.”
When the trees begin to lose their leaves in the cooler months, you’re left with a lot of free leaf mulch in your yard. Leaves make a great mulch, especially when chopped beforehand with your lawn mower.
Make your own leaf mulch for an easy, cost-effective mulching option. Leaves can also be allowed to break down into leaf mold, a nutrient rich compost-like material for the garden.
These mulches do not break down or improve the soil with decomposition. Because they do not break down, these mulches do not need to be replaced as frequently.
8. Black plastic
Using landscape fabric or black plastic mulch is quite popular with large-scale farming operations. However, it is not the best choice for the home vegetable gardener.
While it is good at suppressing weeds, the black plastic also heats up the temperature of the soil. This can be good for warm weather crops, but not great for cool weather plants like lettuce and brassicas.
It’s also not aesthetically pleasing, and it can cause issues with adequate water reaching your plants roots. This option works well for melons and squashes.
9. Stones, rocks and pebbles
While these do make an attractive mulch, they are not convenient for vegetable beds where harvesting is necessary. Small stones can be used in landscape beds around the home. Stone mulch can be a more expensive option, but it does not break down or need to be replaced as frequently.
There are other types of mulches available for use as well. Rubber mulches, coir mulches and even newspaper are also used in gardening and landscaping.
The type of mulch you decide to use will depend on your unique needs. There is no “perfect mulch” for everyone. It’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each option to make an educated decision.