Mulching Guide: Benefits of Mulch

Jul 20, 2017
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Mulching is a common gardening practice done for a number of good reasons. Using the proper types of mulch and mulching techniques can have wondrous effects on your garden, but mulching incorrectly can do the opposite. Here’s how to get the most out of mulching.

Advantages of Mulching

Mulch has been called the gardener’s friend. It offers three major benefits:

  • Suppression of weeds.
  • Conservation of moisture in the soil.
  • Moderation of soil temperatures, keeping it warmer on cold nights and cooler on hot days.

Additionally, mulch applied in the winter will protect plants from a cycle of freezing and thawing, which can eventually heave them out of the ground. Mulch can also prevent soil compaction and crusting, slow runoff and erosion, and prevent rain from splashing soil that could carry disease onto plants. Organic mulches even break down and feed the soil.

Disadvantages of Mulching

Overmulching can kill plants. With most organic mulches, a layer of 2-4 inches is plenty. The finer the material, the thinner the layer needed.

Unfortunately, mulch provides the perfect place for slugs and snails to hide. Use shallow cups of beer to attract and drown them, or sprinkle wood ashes or diatomaceous earth around the base of precious plants to keep the slugs and snails at bay.

Impervious mulches, like black plastic, don’t let air or water in. Even matted leaves can have that same effect, so shred or chop them up first.

Light colored, wood-based mulches, like sawdust or fresh woodchips, can steal nitrogen from the soil as they break down. Counter this effect by adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as soybean meal, alfalfa, or cottonseed meal, to the mulch. (Learn more about soil amendments.)

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Dry mulches—including sawdust, woodchips, peat moss, and dry straw—can be a fire hazard. Keep them away from buildings to be on the safe side.

Types of Mulch

The ideal mulch should be dense enough to block weed growth but light and open enough to allow water and air to reach the soil. Factors to consider when purchasing mulch are cost, availability, ease of application, and what it looks like in the garden. There are lots of materials of various colors and textures to choose from.

Here are a few of the more popular mulches:

Organic Mulches

  • Shredded or chipped bark. Keep it away from the base of trees and shrubs to prevent wood boring insects and decay from attacking the plants.
  • Shredded leaves and leaf mold eventually break down and feed the soil with beneficial materials.
  • Straw and salt marsh hay are free of weed seeds.
  • Grass clippings should be dried first or spread thinly to keep them from becoming a hot, slimy, stinky mess. Don’t use clippings from grass treated with chemicals.
  • Pine needles are slow to break down, so don’t worry about them adding to soil acidity.
  • Local byproducts, such as spent hops from a brewery, cocoa hulls, ground corncobs, coffee grounds, newspaper, or cardboard. Get creative!

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Don’t be guilty of creating mulch volcanoes like this one around your plants!

Inorganic Mulches

  • Plastic mulch comes in many colors for different purposes. Red mulch increases fruit yield in tomatoes, while blue does the same for potatoes, black heats up the soil, and silver or white reflect light and heat.
  • Crushed stone, gravel, marble, or brick chips provide a permanent mulch around shrubs and trees.
  • Landscape fabric smothers weeds while allowing air and water to pass through.

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To cut down on weeding in our vegetable garden, we use a permeable landscape fabric on many of the beds.

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After a few spring rains, we lay down soaker hoses in each bed and cover them with the fabric.

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Planting holes are cut at different spacings for different crops. Watering is efficient, and maintenance of a large area is made much easier. Once the plants get some size on them, the fabric is covered and does not look so bad! We also use straw, grass clippings, and shredded leaves for crops that like it cooler.

If you have problems with weeds or plant dehydration, follow the above advice and try mulching in your own garden! For more on mulching, read about mulching to control weeds and save water, and check out our guide to composting

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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Fall bulbs/mulching

I have planted some hyacinth and allium bulbs and added a 1-2 inches of bark-based mulch (Scotts Earthgro) over them, as recommended. Will that have to be removed in the Spring or will my plants grow up through it? I was of the understanding that one of the benefits of mulching is weed suppression and removal in the Spring, when weeds appear, seems inconsistent with it.

Mulch for Fall Bulbs

If the mulch has been laid in a thin enough layer, your bulbs should have no problem growing through in the spring. The only danger is if the mulch is too fine or too thick: Those situations would not allow air or water to reach the bulbs. So in the spring, remove enough mulch that weeds can’t grow but your bulbs will still be able to punch through. We hope this helps!

Artificial mulch

What about rubberized mulch? How thick should it be placed around plants? I'm planning on using this for borders around my newly landscaped and seeded lawn.

The idea of using chopped up

Sorry but the idea of using chopped up tires around plants makes me nervous! Bear in mind that it is flammable, toxic, and can leach chemicals and heavy metals that can contaminate ground water. If you must use it, the industry standards say to use no more than 2 inches.

Grass clippings

Why is it a bad idea to use grass clippings from a lawn treated with chemicals? My lawn is fertilized and sprayed for weeds by a local company, will that have an adverse affect on my plants?

Thank you!

The herbicides used on your

The herbicides used on your lawn can linger in the clippings for up to a year and will either kill or inhibit the growth of the plants you mulch with those clippings.

downsides of mulching

A big downside of shredded wood mulch is termites! Never put it by the house!

If termites are an issue in

If termites are an issue in your area, any mulch will provide cover for them. Best to keep all mulch away from the house and keep an eye out for the mud tubes termites build to link the ground with your wood-framed house.

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