How to Choose the Best Mulch for your Garden
- By: Cheli Scott
- Date: Dec 01 2022
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How to choose the best mulch for your garden
If you have been researching how to grow plants in your yard, you might be wondering how to choose the best mulch for your garden. There are many different types of mulch available, but depending on your unique situation one might be more useful to you than another. Not only is it more attractive, there are a number of benefits of mulch.
There are many different kinds of mulch to choose from, starting with stone mulch that doesn’t break down at all, all the way to grass clippings which break down rather quickly.
You may find you need different types of mulch for different uses in your garden. For example wood chips break down slowly and make a good mulch layer for walkways, while leaf mulch material can be used for a garden bed.
Why use mulch on your vegetable garden soil?
Mulch has many benefits when used in your garden. It is a great way to prevent weeds, retain moisture, control erosion, and it looks nice.
Before you plant, weed your garden thoroughly and then lay down a layer of mulch. The barrier will prevent weeds from popping up, allowing your chosen plants to thrive. Mulch also prevents moisture from evaporating, keeping your plants happy.
Mulch can also provide a nice aesthetic. It makes your garden look neat and can come in a variety of colors to match your home.
One of the most important aspects of choosing mulch is the source. Never use mulch treated with pesticides or herbicides in your garden. They can leech these toxic chemicals into the soil and contaminate your hard work.
The University of Florida recommends you steer away from Cyprus mulch as well, which is taken from trees from delicate wetlands.
Types of mulch
There are a number of types of mulch available at your local garden center. We’ve listed below the most popular ones and their pros and cons.
Stone or gravel
Stone or gravel can be used as mulch, however it is not ideal for a garden bed. Stone is best used for walkways or low water plants that are stationary like cactuses because it dries out the soil underneath and holds heat. This may be desirable in a cold weather environment, but is not so for most common plants you would want to grow in your garden.
Stone mulch also makes attractive ground cover in replacement of grass. Additionally, it doesn’t break down, so it can be problematic and difficult to remove in places it shouldn’t be.
Just because it doesn’t break down, doesn’t mean stone mulch has no maintenance. You will have to add additional gravel as it settles and you may want to hose it down occasionally.
While rubber mulch made from recycled tires doesn’t break down, it’s not recommended for use in gardens. It tends to retain heat and provides no extra nutrition to the soil.
There is also a concern that rubber mulch leaches toxic chemicals into the environment, so you certainly don’t want to use it anywhere you plan to grow plants for consumption.
Like gravel, rubber mulch absorbs heat, making it bad for most plants. It is also not as effective at weed control as other mulches.
Utility much is an inexpensive or even free mulch that is given away by some utility companies. This mulch is made from shredded trees that were cut because they were too close to power lines or other utility machinery.
While it is inexpensive, utility mulch comes with problems. It often contains weed seeds and different kinds of materials that were caught in the mulching process. However, that shouldn’t turn you off to it entirely. Utility mulch is a useful solution for walkways and driveways.
Mixed hardwood mulch
A common natural mulch found at garden centers is hardwood mulch. It is an attractive mulch that is often found dyed red or black. Hardwood mulch retains soil moisture well and eventually decomposes, adding nutrients to your garden. It settles much slower than fallen leaves and can last for up to three years.
One attractive choice for your home is pine needle mulch. Pine needles break down and tend to settle quite quickly. The acidify the soil as they break down and are good for acid loving plants like camellias and azaleas.
Pine straw is also much more inexpensive than other types of mulch. While it will not work in every circumstance, if you have plants that enjoy the extra acid pine straw provides it could be a great choice for your garden.
Grass clippings break down easily, so they are not a long lasting solution, but one way they beat out other mulches is in nutritional value. Grass clippings return 25% of the nutrients needed for growing back to the soil.
They are also incredibly cheap because they are free! You can lay down a thin layer of grass clippings over your garden or lawn to give it a nutritional boost. Don’t lay down a thick layer because grass has a tendency to smell badly when it rots.
Fallen leaves from your yard can also be used as an attractive mulch. They give a natural look to your landscape and they cost nothing. Some large leaves may need to be processed into shredded leaf mulch to be useful. Leaves break down quickly and will need to be replaced often, but will add lots of nutrients to your garden.
Hay is grass that has been cut and dried, so it makes a great mulch because it is full of nutrients. It breaks down easily, but does not mold which makes it an attractive ground cover and good for your vegetable garden. Hay does a good job of protecting seedlings and is suggested for starter plants.
Weed seeds and other problems with mulch
Mulch is great for your garden, but there are some things to look out for when choosing a mulch. Some blends will include weed seeds that will encourage weed growth in your garden. This is the case with mulches like utility mulch and sometimes grass clippings.
Pine mulch doesn’t do a great job of preventing weeds because of it’s light composition. There is plenty of room for air and sunlight to reach the soil below and allow some kinds of weeds to grow.
Compaction and matting is also another thing you want to look out for. Spreading a layer of mulch that is too thick can cause problems. If mulch is over wet and compacted it may rot before it can be useful to your garden. Be sure to rake your mulch occasionally to allow for light to reach the soil surface beneath.
A two to three inch layer will suffice for most mulches and mulches that break down easily like grass clippings and leaves should be placed even thinner. A layer too thick will absorb too much moisture before it can make it to your vegetable garden.
Tips for working with mulch
There are a few things you can do to give you the best mulch experience.
One, start with a good layer of mulch, but don’t go overboard. Too thick a layer will absorb all of the moisture needed for plants. Two to three inches is adequate for most mulches.
Avoid piling mulch up around the base of your trees or plants. Mulch piled around the stems of plants holds moisture against them and will cause rotting over time. Leave space between the mulch and the base of the plants roots for the best results.
Before mulching, be sure to weed thoroughly. Usually this can be done with a garden hoe or you can pull them up yourself by hand. It’s unwise to use herbicides, especially in a vegetable garden because the chemicals are dangerous if consumed.
Even after your mulch is laid, you need to continue to control weeds so they aren’t able to spread and take over.
Find your tree’s dripline
If you are mulching around trees, you need to locate your trees dripline to determine how far out your mulch needs to go. This is the where the water runs off of the trees leaves and falls onto the ground.
Find the longest branches on your tree and use a string to measure from the tips of those branches to the tree trunk. This will tell you where you need to place your mulch and will probably be somewhere between two to six feet.
When to mulch
If you are planting seedlings, you will want to lay down your mulch after the plant has already germinated. If you are putting in starter plants, you can lay down the mulch and then stick the plants through it.
Be sure the plants are planted in the soil surface below, not the mulch and no not allow mulch to become piled up around the stems.
Edging may seem like a superfluous step, but keeping your mulch contained is important as it begins to erode over time. Typically you want to do this before you lay out your mulch. You can use timbers, stones, or other attractive edging materials to keep your mulch in place and off of your lawn or sidewalk.
In order to keep mulch fluffy and avoid compaction, you will occasionally need to rake it to aerate it. This only needs to be done a few times per season, but will prevent compaction and fungus from developing. This is especially important for vegetable gardens and to prevent diseases.
As mulch begins to settle, you will need to add more to refresh it. Be sure you rake the layer beneath before adding additional mulch and don’t add too much. Just refill it until it reaches the original layer. If you like, you can lay a thin layer down more often if your mulch tends to change colors and you want to keep up a certain appearance.
Enjoy your garden!
Now that you know what do about your mulch, you can enjoy the fruits of your labor with a neat, healthy garden. Mulch is a great DIY project that you can include your whole family in.
If you don’t want to do the work yourself, consider hiring an experienced landscaper like the ones at bhild.com. Call us today, or fill out our form here for a free estimate on lawn services!