All About Mulch

Discover these useful mulching techniques to nourish soil and make your gardening work easier.

| November/December 2016

  • Mulching
    Compost is among the most beneficial mulches, helping to reduce weeds and nourish soil.
    Photo by iStock
  • Raised Beds
    Mulching insulates soil, keeping it cool in hot weather and warm when it's cold out.
    Photo by iStock

  • Mulching
  • Raised Beds

Often called “the mother of mulch,” Ruth Stout, garden expert and author of The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, never watered or weeded and seldom fertilized her garden — all thanks to her use of mulches. Mulch is a covering spread around plants to control weeds and hold moisture in the soil, creating an insulating layer between the soil and the sun or cold wind. Mulch may be composed of organic materials such as compost or decayed leaves, or it might be synthetic, such as black plastic or fabric. Using mulch well can make your garden easier to maintain, help protect crops and extend the growing season. But sometimes mulch is not advised. Read on to learn how to use mulch to make your garden healthier and easier to grow. 

The Many Benefits of Mulch

An early proponent of the technique, Stout believed nearly all garden beds should be under constant mulch, and all organic matter that rots is fair game. “Mulching keeps the ground cooler than it would be otherwise, prevents the soil from baking and keeps weeds from growing,” she wrote in her book. “My way is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both sides of my vegetable and flower beds all year long. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more.”

The practice serves many purposes and saves time; in addition to preserving soil moisture and preventing weed seeds from germinating by blocking sunlight, mulching usually improves soil’s texture and can even reduce disease. Some gardeners find that mulching can double the length of time between waterings. 

Mulch also acts as insulation, keeping soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter. For example, clematis thrives when its roots are kept cool in summer with mulch. Alternatively, mulch can keep soil a few degrees warmer and prevent plants that are not quite winter-hardy from dying in cold weather. Mulch attracts beneficial earthworms; prevents the loss of topsoil to erosion; improves soil structure and fertility; keeps plants and their fruits clean; provides a place to walk; and makes garden beds more attractive.

Which Mulch to Choose

There are many types of mulch — both organic and synthetic. Organic mulches include autumn leaves (best piled in fall and applied to the garden next spring, after they have begun to decompose); grass clippings (don’t use clippings from chemically treated lawns); hay; sawdust (if not applied too densely); yard trimmings; pulled weeds; pine needles; cardboard; and newspaper. Compost makes a wonderful mulch if you have a large supply. It not only improves soil structure, but provides an excellent source of plant nutrients. Pine needles increase the acidity of the soil, so they work best around acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons and blueberries. When using newspaper, only use text pages (black ink), as color dyes may be harmful to soil life. 

Randel Agrella, seed production manager at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, defines mulch as anything that covers the soil, restricting evaporation and inhibiting weed growth. He recommends using organic mulches such as sawdust, wood chips, hay, leaves and grass clippings. In his own garden, Agrella mulches with pulled weeds, laid on the soil with roots exposed to prevent re-rooting. 

But sometimes he uses non-organic mulches, such as plastic weed barrier or landscape fabric, which can be useful if you’re aiming to warm up the soil faster than organic mulches can. “Applying black plastic can warm up the soil faster than organic mulch on bare soil. It is often used to get an early crop going, or in cases where the soil needs to be warmer than it would naturally get, as for growing melons or sweet potatoes in cool-season conditions.”

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