Mulching 101: When, Why & How to Mulch Your Garden
Us organic gardeners love to talk about mulch, and for a good reason! The mindful use of mulch has a direct beneficial impact on soil health, and in turn, the vitality of your plants. It can also save you water, time, money, and effort. Plus, mulching is an excellent way to use materials you have lying around your yard that may otherwise end up in the landfill. If you’re not using mulch in your garden yet, it’s time to get on it!
Read along to learn all about using mulch in your garden (or general yard space). This article will discuss what mulch is, the benefits that it can provide, the best time of year to add mulch to the garden, and how to apply it. We’ll also explore several natural mulch choices like compost, bark or straw, as well as synthetic materials such as landscape fabric.
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What is Mulch?
Mulch is a general term for any material placed on the surface of soil. More often than not, natural organic materials are used for mulch, such as straw, leaves, compost, or wood chips. However, synthetic mulch products like plastic sheeting or weed mat fabric are also commonly used. Or, sometimes a combination of both!
Some mulch materials are thick and chunky while others are more fine; many are temporary in nature while some are more permanent. Garden mulch may be used for one or many reasons, such as to reduce evaporation or to suppress weeds.
Why Mulch Your Garden?
There are numerous benefits to using mulch in your garden! Barren, exposed soil is prone to erosion and runoff of water and/or nutrients. It is also an easy target for fast evaporation. In contrast, applying a nice layer of mulch on top of bare soil will simultaneously enhance the soil’s ability to retain moisture, protect plants, and nurture the living soil food web below.
Benefits of mulch:
- A well-mulched garden will need less water, both in frequency and volume. That saves time and money, too!
- Natural mulch materials like compost, straw, or fine bark slowly break down and eventually become incorporated into the soil, which provides fresh organic matter and nutrients.
- This cycling of nutrients combined with improved moisture content directly contributes to enhanced beneficial microorganism and worm activity. That leads to overall improved soil fertility!
- Mulching can suppress the growth of weeds – sparing your back and time. It also reduces dust and erosion.
- Fresh mulch adds a tidy, appealing look to a garden space.
- Mulch insulates the soil, protecting plant roots from temperature swings. Plants are less stressed when they have steady temperatures and even moisture levels, and this helps them grow more vigorously.
- Repurposing natural organic materials found around your yard as mulch can reduce waste. If you have a large property with many trees to prune, a wood-chipper would be an awesome investment! Even some man-made products can be up-cycled into mulch, such as using cardboard to smother weeds in garden pathways.
- Finally, mulch layers create habitat for beneficial insects. Take ladybugs for example. These awesome aphid predators like to overwinter in leaf piles or similar debris. However, pest insects may also hide in mulch as well. So, this is both a benefit as well as a potential drawback.
How to Apply Mulch: Best Practices
The general rule of thumb is to spread mulch about two to four inches thick over the soil surface. When mulch is too thick, it can be counterproductive and prevent water from reaching the soil. On the flip side, too thin a layer of mulch may not adequately stop weed growth or prevent evaporation as intended. After mulching, you could water it in to help it settle in place (though it isn’t required).
In our raised garden beds, we aim to provide about 2 inches of compost mulch. Elsewhere, our gravel and bark mulch is 3 to four inches deep in some places. Keep in mind the depth recommendation can vary slightly – depending on the type of mulch used, the area that it is being applied to, and what type of plants are growing there. For instance, some folks use even deeper layers of straw mulch since it is very light, starts out quite fluffy, and compacts over time.
Preparing the surface
You may need to do some groundwork before mulching (though not always). If weed suppression is your goal and weeds are already present, it is best to thoroughly weed the area before applying mulch. Or, if you’re dealing with incredibly invasive and persistent weeds in open areas such as pathways, consider laying down a layer of cardboard or longer-lasting synthetic material like geo-textile weed barrier fabric first. Then, spread a more natural and attractive-looking mulch material on top.
When to avoid mulch (or go light on it)
Avoid piling mulch right up against the stems of plants or tree trunks. Constant contact with moist mulch could cause tender plant stalks to rot. It may also make plants more susceptible to attack by slugs or other pests hiding in the mulch. This is especially true for freshly planted young seedlings. Therefore, we usually keep our garden mulch pulled back by at least a couple inches around the base of plants in our raised garden beds (or at least until they mature and become more hardy). For trees, it is best to maintain about a 1-foot open ring of space around the tree trunk, or 4 to 6 inches from each side.
If you’re growing bulbs or perennials that die back in the winter, lightly pull back any deep mulch layers in the springtime to promote faster growth. Also, just as mulch does a great job at smothering emerging weeds, keep in mind that it can do the same to your sprouting seeds. Therefore, you would not want to direct-sow a bunch of veggie seeds in a garden bed and then heavily mulch over it. Wait to apply thick mulch until after everything has had a chance to sprout and grow a few inches tall.
When to Apply Mulch
The best time of year to apply mulch is in early to mid-spring, and again in the fall.
Mulching the garden in spring gives everything a fresh look and helps prepare the soil for the growing season ahead. Getting ahead of the emerging spring weeds is ideal, thwarting their efforts to pop up as the soil warms. If you also like to add slow-release granular fertilizer to your garden in the spring, I suggest sprinkling that over the soil surface first. Then, spread your new mulch and water everything in. In a veggie bed, wait to heavily mulch until after any directly-sown seeds have sprouted. However, a thin layer of mulch can help prevent the top soil from drying out and aid in seed germination.
In the fall, a fresh layer of mulch prepares your landscape for the cold winter months ahead. A thick, warm, fuzzy blanket of mulch will insulate the soil and protect plant roots from freezing cold and snow. It will also prevent soil from washing away with excessive rain. As the organic mulch materials sit, mellow, and decompose over winter, they release nutrients and nourish the soil food web in preparation for spring.
I should mention that not all mulch will need to be refreshed that often. Mulch that decomposes slower may only need to be replenished once per year, or less. Or, if it has slightly compacted or only partially broken down, consider adding only a light 1-inch layer instead of a full new 2 or 3 inches.
Types of Garden Mulch
As you look around our garden, there is virtually no exposed soil to be found. Every “open” area is covered with mulch – be it gravel, bark, compost, or even living mulch provided by sprawling plants. Mulch can (and should!) be applied to a wide variety of garden spaces. For example, in vegetable beds, established perennial areas, herb or flower beds, pathways, around shrubs or under trees, and even in potted plants. However, you may want to use different types of mulch for distinct areas!
See a list of popular garden mulch options below.
Common materials used for mulch:
- Straw or hay. Opt for seed-free straw or hay. Otherwise, it can sprout and create even more “weeds” in your garden. Note that some straw or hay may be sprayed with herbicides. Inquire to your local supplier about their cultivation practices, or purchase organic straw.
- Bark, including chunky bark, fine bark, or shredded bark. You can buy bagged bark products, or order bulk bark from a landscape supply company. Another option is to call up your local tree-trimmer to see if they have any wood chips to spare! I highly suggest using natural bark, not treated or dyed bark products. Note: There is a common misconception that bark or other wood products ‘rob’ nitrogen from the soil. While it is true that it does draw up some nitrogen, it is small and temporary. I am not personally concerned about it. As long as you’re routinely replenishing soil with mild fertilizer and compost (especially for hungry vegetable garden beds), the mulch eventually breaks down to feed the soil anyways.
- Compost (and manure) – either homemade compost, bagged or bulk compost, or composted manures. The fine texture and nutrient density of compost makes it a wonderful mulch option for vegetable garden beds, though not quite as long-lasting for broader areas. Keep in mind that fresh animal manure is not the same as well-aged composted manures. Fresh manure can be too rich in nitrogen and potentially harm plants.
- Leaves or shredded leaves (leaf mold). Dense leaf layers do an excellent job at smothering weeds. However, full size leaves may create a mat over the soil that doesn’t allow sufficient water and air exchange to the soil. Therefore, it is best to use shredded leaves as mulch. An easy way to shred leaves is to go over them with your lawn mower. Then, it’s all collected and chopped up into the perfect small pieces for mulch.
- Rock or Gravel. Pea gravel, river rock, crushed granite… There are many choices when it comes to landscaping with rock. Rock isn’t a great option inside garden beds. However, it is awesome for other open spaces, pathways, between garden beds, or in xeriscaping! It’s durable and looks sharp.
- Other green or dried plant matter. Plant matter such as cut cover crops, pine needles, or dry grass clippings also make excellent garden mulch. We don’t have access to pine needles or grass, but love to collect various plant materials from around the garden for mulch. Especially nutrient-rich plants like comfrey, yarrow, borage leaves, and fava bean stalks or leaves. Chop them into smaller pieces before spreading over the soil surface.
- Paper products. Cardboard and newspaper can create an effective ‘sheet mulch’ layer, spread on the soil surface alone or with other natural mulch materials piled on top. Cardboard is ideal for large spaces, under new raised beds, or in pathways. You can use newspaper directly in garden beds around plants – ideally covered in a layer of topsoil or other material to keep it damp and from blowing away.
- Synthetic ground cover. There are several types of man-made mulch products available, such as black plastic sheeting or woven geotextile weed barrier fabric. While they will not break down and contribute to soil fertility like organic garden mulch, synthetic products are more durable – and sometimes more effective. That is, if you choose high quality ones that don’t readily rip and tear, like some do! Also seek out materials that are readily permeable to water. Otherwise, plastic sheeting can cause pooling or drainage issues. We use commercial-duty weed barrier fabric below our raised beds and gravel pathway areas. It does a great job at preventing the noxious crabgrass and weeds that were once present from invading.
What type of garden mulch should I use?
The kind of mulch material you choose depends on your individual needs, space, style, budget, and the availability of materials in your area. Furthermore, every type of mulch comes with a unique set of pros and cons. So much so, that needed a designated article of its own! Please see “The Pros and Cons of 8 Types of Garden Mulch” to dig deeper into the unique benefits and also potential drawbacks they each offer.
In general, chunky durable mulch materials like gravel or large bark are best suited for general landscaping around shrubs and trees or pathways. On the other hand, finer organic materials such as compost, straw, shredded leaves, and dainty bark or wood chips make ideal mulch for vegetable garden beds. There, plants are rotated frequently, and you can replenish the mulch once or twice per year as it breaks down and becomes part of the soil biomass. If you use thicker mulch materials in veggie beds, simply plan to push it aside and or work around it when replanting the beds.
Our mulching style
I know you’re probably curious, so here is a quick rundown of the kinds of garden mulch we use and where. In our raised garden beds, we use a combination of homemade compost, quality organic bagged compost, and also a bagged “soil building conditioner”. The latter is like a very fine woody mulch that has mild slow-release amendments included. Unfortunately, we can’t produce quite enough homemade compost to top all 15 raised beds twice per year! We find the bagged products at our local garden centers.
The rock you see around our garden beds and pathways is 3/8” green rock (another local product). It has jagged edges and therefore compacts and locks in place nicely, rather than sinking and moving when walked on (like pea gravel does). We mulch our pollinator perennials, trees, and other shrubs with small to medium redwood or fir bark. In the backyard where the chickens free range, we spread a combination of shredded redwood bark and small bark. (Caution: The natural oil found in cedar is mildly toxic to chickens).
And that’s the low down and dirty on garden mulch!
All in all, mulching is an easy way to save water, beautify your space, and keep your soil and plants healthy. I personally find a freshly mulched space incredibly satisfying. If you are new to mulching, I hope this article made you feel pumped to join in! Please let me know if you have any questions, and spread the mulch love by sharing this article! Also, keep an eye out for an upcoming article that will dig deeper into benefits and potential drawbacks of various mulch types. Thank you for reading!
Don’t miss these related articles:
- Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home (6 Ways!)
- How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed – Build the Perfect Organic Soil
- What is No Till Gardening? The Benefits Explained
- How to Amend and Fertilize Garden Soil Between Seasons
- Seed Starting 101: How to Sow Seeds Indoors
- How to Build a Raised Garden Bed
- How to Kill or Remove Grass, and Grow Food Not Lawns!
It’s nice that you pointed out how mulching is an easy way to save water, beautify your space, and keep your soil and plants healthy. I was reading a gardening guide last night and I saw that one of its chapters was completely dedicated to the topic of mulching. From what I’ve read from the guide, it seems there is also daycare playground mulch now too, which sounds very useful.