A Guide to Mulching

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Homeowners know a beautiful yard doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of tender care — and sweat — to grow a thick, green lawn surrounded by brightly colored flowerbeds. Mother Nature is ready to lend a hand in preserving lawns and gardens, especially with mulch from cut grass, dead leaves, and fallen trees.

If you can’t compost it yourself, there are a few things to consider when selecting mulch from garden stores: cost, durability, texture, color, nutrients, and most importantly, origin. Knowing where the wood came from and how it was cultivated helps to determine if it is free of pests and disease.

Grass Mulch

Natural mulch is the best way to go, especially when cutting the lawn. When mowing the lawn, bagging clippings not inconvenient, but depriving your lawn of a natural source of nutrients.  According to Wikilawn, the grass clippings from mowing provide nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. Be sure that whatever lawn mower you buy comes with a mulching blade.

When mulching clippings, some worry about thatch, a carpet-like layer of vegetation that builds up between the soil and actively-growing grass blades. Leaving the grass clippings after mowing does NOT increase the likelihood that your lawn will develop thatch. If the thatch is already present, that’s a different issue.

There are times when bagging the grass clippings is a better idea. Remove them if the lawn is full of diseases like rust, dollar spot, or leaf spot. 

Grass clippings and dead leaves are great for mulching around shrubs, vegetables, flowers, and trees. They help the soil stay moist and warm, but there are some rules to keep in mind. Use 1 or 2 inches of dry clippings; wet grass will clump together and prevent oxygen and moisture from getting to the soil. You also don’t want to apply grass clippings if the lawn was recently treated with herbicides for weeds, dandelions, and crabgrass.

Just like synthetic fertilizers, mulched grass clippings and foliage provide nitrogen and potassium, and the best part is … it won’t cost you a thing.

Wood Mulch

The next time you check out your local garden store, consider these types of mulch for flower and shrubbery beds.

  • Pine bark from evergreen trees has a deep brown color.
  • Cypress is cut from wood and bark. It’s used in flooring, furniture, lumber, fencing, and other woodworking projects. Mulch is cut from cypress tree scraps.
  • Eucalyptus mulch from Florida and South Carolina. The trees are grown specifically for the scented mulch they produce.
  • Melaleuca mulch comes from invasive tree species. The product is treated so that unwanted seeds die and won’t germinate in a garden or flowerbed. 
  • Scrap lumber from recycled pallets, wood framing, and other projects are turned into mulch when the sources are too small for anything else. 
  • Fallen leaves that decompose quickly make a great mulch since it’s a source of nutrients. Pine straw which comes from fir trees also works. The pine needles “knit” together to create a covering. The mulch is often given away by utility companies after trees are cut back from power lines.

Wood Chips

Bags of chips and shreds are typically available at garden stores, nurseries. The mixes stem from various softwood and hardwood species and contain high carbon and nitrogen. 

Wood chips can lose their color over time, fading from brown to gray. Do not try to enhance the color by adding more mulch each season. Too many wood chips can suffocate shallow roots. and cankers may develop around the trunks and roots of shrubs and trees.  It is best to replace mulch in the landscape every two or three years.        

Stone Mulch

Gravel, stones, volcanic rock or tiny pebbles may be used as mulch for small landscapes but doing so prevents the soil from absorbing nutrients or natural organic compounds. When using stony mulch, first lay a woven ground cloth over the dirt to keep the small grit and gravel from soaking into sandy soils. A good thing about this kind of mulch is that it’s durable. It can withstand inclement weather and won’t get tossed about by high winds. But you’ll want to rake it to remove any debris.  Mineral mulches are suitable for walkways, shrub beds, and rock gardens.

When Mulching …

  • Provide 1-3 inches in a layer of wood chips around trees, plants, and shrubs. A cubic yard of mulch should spread over 324 square feet if you are only laying a 1-inch cover. 
  • Mulched areas around trees should be 8 feet around.
  • Clean up the old chips by raking them out of the bed. Matted, rotting wood chips can attract pests, molds, and disease. They usually don’t smell very good, either! 

The Ideal Mulch

The ideal mulch is cost-effective, easy to apply and remove, stays in place, and provides organic nutrients to the soil. Mulch that protects against insects, diseases, and noxious weeds is a huge plus!

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