What Is Mulch And How To Use It Properly In Your Garden

If you have a garden, many people would say you’re a lucky one. There are so many ideas to upgrade your garden with gravel, or even if you have a small garden with no grass. For example, you can create brilliant garden furniture from pallets or simply, make a garden mirror and change your outdoor space.  

A small flower with bark mulch

However, having a garden isn’t just enjoying your free time sitting on your garden sofa sets. You need to do more things to maintain it in good shape, especially if you have a lawn, vegetable garden, trees, and flower plants. You need to know how to plant trees the right way, water your plants, know about weeds and generally, how to keep your garden healthier than ever. What’s more, a gardener should know what mulch is and how to use it properly in the garden. But, if you don’t have a clue about mulch or need more information about it, then keep reading because we’re about to share with you all the needed information a good gardener needs to know about mulching

What is mulch

Mulch is a material laid over the soil as a covering over the soil surface of your vegetable or flower garden, your garden beds and trees. It’s used for many reasons. Some of the most common ones are: 

Wood chip mulch around a plant

There’s a wide variety of mulches you can use, organic and inorganic. Organic mulch, or biodegradable mulch, is made from dead plants, chopped leaves, straw, compost, sawdust, shredded bark, wood chippings, pine needles and grass clippings. On the other hand, inorganic one consists of rocks or gravel and plastic sheeting, geotextiles (landscape fabric) or rubber mulch

Both types of mulch prevent weeds from growing. However, their main difference lies in the fact that by spreading an organic mulch type, you’ll have to replace it at some point, in addition to the inorganic one that you won’t need to do so. Let’s see some details about the different types of mulch.

Types of organic mulch

Mulching with pine tree bark mulch

  1. Bark or wood chips: Bark mulch, or else known as wood chips, consists of shredded pieces of tree bark. It’s dry and thick and lasts longer than other biodegradable mulches. Due to its slow decomposition, it’s the perfect type to add in areas where you won’t dig a lot, like flower beds, trees or shrubs. 
  2. Grass clippings: This mulch type contains green plant debris with high water content. Like most biodegradable mulches, grass clippings decompose very quickly and have an unpleasant odour. Spread them on the driveway or any other hard surface and place them between clear plastic. They only need a few hours under the sun to turn into a crispy material to work with.
  3. Chopped leaves: It’s probably the most inexpensive mulch type as they’re free. Spread some shredded leaves in the spring before plants and weed seeds spread out, and leaf mulch will blend into the soil in no time. What’s more, chopped leaves are perfect for your vegetable garden. Spread a layer around your vegetable plants in early fall, and they’ll start decomposing over the winter. 
  4. Straw and hay: This mulch type is ideal for a vegetable garden. It can prevent soil diseases from spreading on the lower plant leaves and woody plants, keeps the moisture in the soil; plus it adds organic matter to the soil when decomposes. Also, straw decomposes slower than other organic materials, ending up lasting the whole growing season. What’s more, it’s the perfect natural home for spiders and other insects that will benefit your garden by keeping pests in control.

Types of synthetic and inorganic mulch

A strawberry sprouts covered with synthetic mulch

  • Black plastic sheeting and landscape fabric: These are perfect mulch for shrubs and trees as they don’t require frequent fertilisation or digging. However, they get very hot in the summer leading to killing the soil’s nutrients, the plant roots and microbes. Thus, whenever you apply such mulch, make sure to make holes in the fabric to let water pass. In case you notice any puddles on the plastic fabric, it means there isn’t adequate drainage. The landscape fabric shouldn’t trouble you for that reason, as it is a porous material. Just be sure it isn’t blocked. 
  • Gravel and stone: Gravel and stone are perfect for cases you need good drainage or garden beds with plants that need extra heat. However, the stone is hard to handle, so be sure before using it. As a plus, gravel can be used to upgrade your front garden as well. 

What’s the difference between mulch and compost 

Having plants and vegetables in your garden, you’ll know that just fertilising and watering isn’t enough. You also need to mulch and add compost. But do you know what the difference between mulch and compost is? The sure thing is that both are essential for a healthy garden. 

A compost bin made of pallets, filled with food waste

As we already said, mulch is a material you cover your soil with to control weed growth and spread, enhance moisture retention and protect your plants from extreme soil temperature changes. On the other hand, composting helps the soil below the surface. In simple terms, compost is the process of converting food and garden waste into food for plants, improving soil’s properties and adding extra nutrients to promote plant growth. You can keep a garden compost bin in your outdoor space or make your own.

Benefits of mulching 

Besides making your garden more attractive, mulching has a couple of extra benefits in your garden if it’s applied the right way. 

  1. It retains moisture in the soil and protects it from erosion.
  2. In case the soil is poor in nutrients, biodegradable mulch can boost it when decomposed.
  3. It can protect roots from ice, snow, and cold temperatures during winter. 
  4. It can control weeding.
  5. Mulching can protect plants from herbicides, weed killers and lawnmowers

When to mulch

The best time of year to apply mulch is from mid to late spring, as annual weeds haven’t germinated and spread yet. It will help the soil get warm and any remaining frost to melt. Spread a 5-10cm layer of mulch between your plants and seedlings to protect them and maintain the soil’s moisture. 

A woman gardener mulching with bark mulch

You can also mulch in autumn when most plants are dying and protect your perennial ones, like strawberries, from winter frost. Smaller plants, like garlic, you’ll have to cover them completely, whilst bigger plants, like roses, you’ll need to spread mulch around the roots.

How to use mulch

When it comes to using mulch, there are different steps you need to follow depending on the mulch material you have chosen. Ask for more information in the garden centre to tell you more details about the material you should purchase depending on your needs.

As a rule of thumb, though, mulching is easy and simple. Spread the mulch material at 2.5-5cm in depth. However, depending on the reasons why you use it, the depth varies.  For example, if you use it for weed control, you need to spread it at least 7.5cm in depth.

The steps to properly mulch your garden are:

  1. Use a garden fork to remove perennial weeds, and with your hand, remove the annual ones.
  2. Level the ground you want to mulch. 
  3. Prior to mulching, water the soil thoroughly to ensure that there will be enough moisture for the mulch to keep. 

Tips to mulch properly

A gardener applying mulch around plants

  1. Be sure you choose the right mulch type depending on your needs.
  2. If you choose to apply biodegradable mulch, replace it every couple of years as it decomposes.
  3. Avoid heaping mulch around the trees as it can lead to bark rot and disease problems. Spread the mulch a couple of centimetres from the base of the tree and in 7.5-10cm depth. 
  4. Don’t spread too much mulch. A thick layer of mulch can prevent roots from growing in the right depth, and they will be prone to death. A thin layer of material will help new plants grow.
  5. In areas where no digging is necessary, like flower beds or around trees, opt to use woody or bark mulches. If you have a vegetable garden, choose straw which is lighter and easier to work with. 
  6. Kill weeds around the plants before applying mulch. There are different ways to kill weeds. You can get weed killers, but you can also use bleach or vinegar.
  7. If you want to apply fertiliser, there’s no need to remove the mulch. Fertilisers can be applied over it. 

Close up of wood chips mulch

Mulching shouldn’t trouble you at all. It’s very simple. Determine the reasons why you need to mulch your garden and then choose the right type. Remove the weeds from the area you want to mulch first, and then apply it. Your plants will thank you for that!

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