How to Mulch Your Garden? Mulch is the ultimate time-saver in the garden, whether you prefer flower beds or vegetable gardens. And while mulching itself can be a pain, it reaps a lot of rewards: when done properly, mulch shortens the time it takes to fight water, weeds, and pests. All in all, this ensures healthier fruits, vegetables and flowers.
For a more fertile garden, make sure you choose the best mulch for the job. Although most types of mulch repel pests and weeds, some meet the needs of certain plants, trees, or other plants. Before discarding an old mulch, read on to find the perfect type for your garden, as well as tips and tricks on how to properly distribute it.
Different types of mulch for your garden
There are two basic types of mulch: organic and inorganic. Organic mulching includes past living material such as chopped leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, wood shavings, bark cutlets, sawdust, pine needles and even paper. Inorganic mulches include black plastic and geotextiles (landscape fabrics).
Both types of mulch keep weeds out, but organic mulches also improve the soil when they decompose. Inorganic mulches do not decompose and enrich the soil, but that does not necessarily mean that they are not a wise option for your garden. A typical example: Black plastic, a popular type of inorganic mulch, warms the floor and radiates warmth at night, which means that heat-loving vegetables such as eggplants and cherry tomatoes remain cozy and strong.
Here are the six most common types of mulch to choose from:
Wood shavings or shredded leaves
You can buy sacks of decorative wood shavings or cutlets of bark at a local garden center to mulch your flower garden and the edges of the shrubs. For a cheaper option, contact your local arborist or energy provider to find out if additional wood shavings are available. Or if you’re really planning ahead, cut your Christmas tree instead of throwing it on the curb.
If you have trees on your property, shredding the fallen leaves creates a nutritious mulch at no additional cost. You don’t need a special machine either: a lawn mower with an excavator collects leaves and cuts them to the perfect size for mulching.
Spread a wood chip or chopped leaf mulch all over your property, but it looks best in flower beds, shrub edges, and garden paths. Of course it is right at home in a forest or shade garden. Remember that wood shavings are not a good choice for vegetable and annual flower beds, as they get in the way of digging the beds every year.
Grass clippings are another readily available mulch, although it is a good idea to keep part of the clippings for use as a natural lawn fertilizer. If you still have grass clippings, use them as nitrogen-rich mulch in vegetable gardens.
Give your compost a different purpose: if you have more left over, use it as mulch. It will enrich the soil and make plants happy, but keep in mind that when mulch is dry, it is not a hospitable place for plant roots. That means you may want to reserve your compost so that it spreads around the plants as a thin layer and cover it with another mulch like chopped leaves. This keeps the compost moist and biologically active and offers maximum benefits for your vegetables, fruits or flowers.
Straw or hay
If you are planting a vegetable garden, you should cover it with straw, salt hay, or weed-free hay. Not only does it look clean and crisp, this type of mulch also stores soil moisture, prevents weeds, and adds organic matter to the soil when it decays. Just make sure you choose weed and seed free hay, and don’t stack it around stems of vegetable or fruit tree trunks to avoid damage from snails and rodents.
Mulching a vegetable garden with black plastic sheeting can work wonders. When it is firmly distributed on a smooth floor surface, black plastic transfers the heat of the sun to the floor below and creates a microclimate that is about three degrees warmer than an unpulched garden. Since the plastic film stays warm and dry, it protects the fruits of vine plants such as strawberries, melons and cucumbers from rotting. And of course, the mulch prevents weeds from growing and retains the soil moisture.
Infrared-permeable plastics (IRT) cost more than normal black plastics, but can lead to even higher yields. These plastics heat the ground just like clear plastic, but they also control weeds just as effectively as black plastic. In raised bed gardens, place a sheet of plastic over the entire bed. Bury it around the edges or weigh down the plastic with stones. Then punch holes in it with a planter and fill them with plants or seeds. Since water cannot penetrate plastic, you cannot rely on rainwater to properly moisturize your plants. Instead, place soaking hoses or drip hoses on the surface of the floor before laying down the plastic.
Be careful not to use mulch under shrubs, especially since plastic destroys the long-term health of the shrubs. Since water and air cannot penetrate the plastic, roots grow very close to the ground surface – sometimes directly under the plastic – and look for moisture and oxygen. The flat roots suffer from a lack of oxygen and moisture and extreme temperature changes. Over time, the plants sink and die.
Geotextiles, also called landscape fabrics, let air and water into the ground underneath and prevent weeds from rising. However, there are some disadvantages: When exposed to light, geotextiles deteriorate over time. To extend the lifespan, cover them with a second mulch (they’re ugly, so you’d still want it).
Keep geotextiles away from shrubs, much like plastic mulch. Shrub roots and weeds grow into the landscape fabric, which means you have to tear the landscape fabric apart when you remove it.
How to mulch properly
There are two basic rules for using mulch to control weeds. First put the mulch on already weedy ground and secondly a layer thick enough to keep new weeds from getting through them.
A 4-inch layer of mulch will discourage weeds, although a 2-inch layer is usually sufficient in shady areas. If you know a garden bed is filled with weed seeds or perennial roots, try a double mulching technique to prevent weed explosion. To do this, set up the plants, water them well, distribute the newspaper and put mulch on them.
Mulching, which also stores moisture (like wood chips), can slow down the heating of the soil. In spring, pull the mulch away from perennials and onions for faster growth. A damp mulch stacked against the stems of flowers and vegetables can cause them to rot. Keep the mulch about an inch from crowns and stems.
Mulch stacking against woody stems of shrubs and trees can also cause rot and encourage rodents (such as voles and mice) to nest there. Keep the deep mulch pulled back about 6 to 12 inches from the logs.