Mulch may seem like the most innocuous thing in the world, but when used properly, it can help your garden thrive and provide environmental benefits for both gardener and planet. Mulch is a substance that is placed over the soil in plantings to help retain moisture, reduce watering and potentially improve the soil. Mulches are available from most home improvement stores, bulk distributors and sometimes from the township in which you reside.
Mulch is a substitute for what happens in a natural undisturbed environment. Out in the forest or fields the natural process of decay leaves the ground covered with a few inches of organic matter from previous seasons. In our manicured suburban yards, we use mulch to replicate this natural phenomenon. Mulches are placed around trees, in flower beds and in plantings to beautify and enhance both the appearance and growth of plants.
If you have a particularly large area to mulch, you might want to consider having a gardening supply company in your area deliver your mulch by the cubic yard. A truck will deliver the mulch on your chosen date, and with a wheelbarrow, garden spade and some elbow grease you are on your way to a beautiful, healthy garden. If your plots are more modest, you will do just fine with a trip or two to the local gardening store or home improvement store, where you can pick up what you need.
How Much Mulch Do You Get?
To calculate the amount of mulch you need, figure on needing 2-4 inches of depth for whatever area you are covering. On a plot that is 6 feet by 4 feet, you multiply width, by length by height to figure out your cubic feet; for example, 6 x 4 x .33 = approx. 8 cubic feet of mulch if you choose to go with 3 inches. Remember if you go with bulk mulch that you have 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard, mistakes on this scale can be impressive.
One common mistake is over-mulching. Too much mulch is damaging, especially to trees. The same mulch that helps retain moisture can cause the tree to rot when it exceeds a few inches. Huge mounds of mulch are not good for trees; they attract burrowers and insects and look very odd. This practice has become so common that the term “mulch volcanoes” has infiltrated the landscaping industry. Mulches decompose at differing rates, so before you add mulch to existing beds, check to see if it is needed, and if so, how much. If you end up with too much mulch, pile it under a tarp and save it for another year. It will continue to decompose and will be even better when you do use it.
Before you Mulch
Before you begin your mulching, prepare the area around the tree or in your bed. Remove any weeds and saps. Take some time to define the border of the area; it will make the mulch look neater. If there is some mulch already in the area to be mulched, use a rake to fluff it up. Then spread the mulch to the desired depth, using the rake again to fluff and spread the mulch.
When mulching trees it is important to leave at least an inch of room between the mulch and the trunk of the tree. Spread the mulch over a wide area rather than shooting for depth. Trees prefer the whole root area to be mulched, if possible. The root area will likely extend slightly further than the reach of the branches.
Mulches come in a variety of substances. Although organic mulches are best for soil composition, you can acquire ground cover in a many materials. Lava rock, stone, shredded rubber from old tires and a number of synthetically manufactured fabrics are all available for use in the garden. They provide good ground cover, if use properly, and can be quite attractive. They do not break down, so they don’t need to be replaced as often, but they don’t feed the soil, so many gardeners will avoid them. Perhaps the largest advantage to inorganic mulches is that they don’t tend to move much.
These sorts of ground covers can be bought in bulk or in bags. Rock tends to be rather heavy, so purchase bags in sizes you can manage to move about or have it delivered in bulk and use a wheelbarrow. The choices provided by rock based mulch seem to be unlimited. For areas of the country where water resources are scarce and tightly managed, covering sections of a yard with rock can be a good option towards water conservation. Rock based mulch can be quite beautiful when incorporated into a landscape plan that includes boulders, water features and a few, drought tolerant plants.
Organic mulches come in as many varieties as their non-organic counterparts do. Shredded barks, wood chips, pine needles, compost, leaves and coconut hulls are just some of the available substances. Many townships now pick up Christmas trees and mulch them for use later in the year. Residents are welcome to pick up as much mulch as they desire from a central location for little or no charge. This prevents used Christmas tress from ending up in landfills and helps residents save some money; recycling at its best. Check with your township to see if they have this sort of program, it may save you some money.
Mulches available commercially are sold either in their natural state or in a variety of colors. Dyed mulches tend to be red or brown and all of them lose their color after a number of years. If you desire consistency it is prudent to keep track of the specific type of mulch you placed on your plantings from year to year. Contrary to urban legend, dyed mulches do not attract termites or other insects and do not have any negative effects on plants. Dark brown mulch retains color well and appears fairly natural.
If you possess a compost bin, compost makes excellent mulch. In addition to retaining moisture, compost adds important nutrients to the soil while breaking down. You can throw all sorts of things into your compost bin year round and know that it will continue to help you out next year when you place it around your plants. Pine needles can be bagged in the fall and kept to place around your yard come spring.
If you pick up bags of mulch from a store realize that bags that have sat outside may be quite heavy from absorbing rain. Mulch in this condition may profit from drying for a couple of days before being applied. In either case the mulch will need to be stirred up and fluffed before it is placed on your beds and around your trees, so as to prevent clumps. Never place sour smelling mulch around your plants. If you encounter this problem, return the mulch to the store and pick something else. Sour mulch is toxic to plants and can cause all sorts of problems. While your plants are likely to recover, why take the chance.
Mulching is an integral part of gardening. Mulch adds beauty, retains moisture, and helps reduce weeds in your yard and plots. There are few better ways to improve your landscaping than by applying mulch properly. Hopefully this introduction will give you the confidence to try mulching out yourself.