Mulch is a gardener’s best friend, whether you are growing plants indoors or creating a full outdoor garden. Most people who have even simply dabbled in any kind of growing will have at least heard of mulch before, but that doesn’t mean that they know exactly what it is or how it works. Here is a quick rundown of everything you should know about using mulch in your garden.
What is it?
Mulch is a blanket term for any material that gets laid over the soil, usually as a covering. There is a vast range of different types of mulch that you can use, and almost any organic material can serve at mulch in one way or another. Common types include wood (either strips of bark, shredded wood, or woodchips), grass clippings, newspapers, leaves, and even straw, among others. Organic mulches like this will decompose and slowly improve the soil beneath them, adding more nutrients in the process.
Artificial mulches are also a common option, although they are created in a different way. These can include stone and gravel, black plastic, and even landscape fabric. They don’t add anything to the soil as they decompose, but they also last a long longer, meaning that they can be useful for specific purposes unrelated to the soil’s quality.
What is it for?
Organic mulch and inorganic mulch both have one goal in common: to help the soil retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing. A good amount of mulch, especially mulch that was already moist rather than bone-dry, can help a plant retain water for longer by ensuring that the soil doesn’t dry out as fast. Since weeds are often a surface-level hassle, mulch can smother them and prevent them from growing properly, often killing them early on.
As mentioned earlier, organic mulches can also be used to feed plants by adding more nutrients to the soil. For example, as hay mulch decomposes, it will add that organic material to the soil for plants to use as food. Inorganic mulches can’t do this, and some might even hurt the plant if they are allowed to fully decompose, but they are a better solution for keeping weeds dead and moisture high.
Which should I use?
There is a long list of potential mulch types you might end up using, but some are better than others in specific situations. Some of the options you might consider include:
Grass clippings can be one of the most varied options – some are good, some are bad. Certain grass types decompose rapidly and can end up being very smelly, while others are more like straw and won’t vanish quickly. However, they are good for remote areas where weed suppression is important, and anybody with a garden will have an almost limitless supply of them.
Bark can be harder to get hold of since it requires that you strip it off a tree (or log), or otherwise buy it in a pre-made form. It works well around areas where you don’t need to plant anything new for a while: they last a long time, but they don’t mix into the soil well, so it can be annoying to have to move them every time you try to grow something new. For established gardens, though, they are one of the best options in most situations.
Newspaper with organic dye can be a good way of suppressing weeds and controlling the temperature of the soil, as well as helping to smother grass if you want to make an area into bare dirt. Ideally, you should use them in layers of between four and eight sheets, then moisten them once they are in place. Covering them with a second type of organic mulch can improve their weed protection capabilities even further.
Straw, and by extension hay, are quite popular for gardens full of vegetables. They are able to prevent soil-related diseases from harming your plants as often, and can also be a good way of keeping paths from getting as muddy after wet weather. As a side note, straw can often be a good home for beneficial creatures such as spiders and insects, keeping the pest population lower. Given that you can easily rake it back up or squish it into the soil, it doesn’t take much effort to dispose of.
Shredded leaves are one of the most popular mulch types overall. You can get them almost anywhere, use them in any garden and generally blend in well, especially in areas full of trees. If they are not shredded, however, they can mat together and actually repel water – useful in some instances, but not in most. It may be worth investing in a good leaf mulcher if you have an abundance of leaves in your garden.
Plastic can get very hot in summer, which might harm your plants if you don’t keep them moist, but it can also be perfect for killing weeds and managing how much water reached your garden. In extremely wet areas, plastic sheets with good drainage can dramatically cut down on over-watering, and they will last a long time compared to most other options.
Stone and Gravel
Stone is hard to remove, but if used correctly, it can manage heat and water really well while also looking amazing. While stones can get hot, they are not as heat-sensitive as plastic, and they also are not going to be as smothering to the plants you are really trying to grow. Using gravel can make it easier to move the mulch later on, and only a handful of rock types will ever decompose in your lifetime.