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Mulching For The Garden

Mulching enriches and protects soil, helping provide a better growing environment.

In your garden

Mulching is one of the simplest and most beneficial practices you can

use in the garden. Mulch is simply a protective layer of a material that

is spread on top of the soil. Mulches can either be organic--such as

grass clippings, straw, bark chips, and similar materials--or inorganic--

such as stones, brick chips, and plastic. Both organic and inorganic

mulches have numerous benefits.


• protects the soil from erosion

• reduces compaction from the impact of heavy rains

• conserves moisture, reducing the need for frequent waterings

• maintains a more even soil temperature

• prevents weed growth

• keeps fruits and vegetables clean

• keeps feet clean, allowing access to garden even when damp

• provides a "finished" look to the garden

Organic mulches also improve the condition of the soil. As these

mulches slowly decompose, they provide organic matter which helps

keep the soil loose. This improves root growth, increases the infiltration

of water, and also improves the water-holding capacity of the soil.

Organic matter is a source of plant nutrients and provides an ideal

environment for earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms.

While inorganic mulches have their place in certain landscapes, they

lack the soil improving properties of organic mulches. Inorganic mulches,

because of their permanence, may be difficult to remove if you decide

to change your garden plans at a later date. Therefore, this tip sheet is

limited to the use of organic mulches.

Mulch materials

You can find mulch materials in your own yard! Lawn clippings make

excellent mulch. While not particularly attractive for a flower bed, they

work wonderfully in the vegetable garden.The fine texture allows them

to be spread easily even around small plants. However, grass clippings

are becoming scarce because of the increased popularity of mulching lawnmowers that provide many of the same benefits of mulching to lawns. Newspaper, as a mulch,works especially well to control weeds. Leaves

are another readily available material to use as mulch. Leaf mold, or the decomposed remains of leaves, gives the forest floor its absorbent spongy structure. Compost makes a wonderful mulch if you have a large supply. Compost not only improves the soil structure but provides an excellent

source of plant nutrients. Bark chips and composted bark mulch are available

at garden centers. These make a neat finish to the garden bed and will eventually improve the condition of the soil. These may last for one to three years or more depending on the size of the chips or how well composed the

bark mulch is. Smaller chips tend to be easier to spread, especially

around small plants. Depending on where you live, numerous other

materials make excellent mulches. Hay and straw work well in the vegetable

garden, although they may harbor weed seeds. Seaweed mulch, ground

corn cobs, and pine needles can also be used. Pine needles tend to increase

the acidity of the soil so they work best around acid-loving plants such as


When to apply mulch

Time of application depends on what you hope to achieve by mulching.

Mulches, by providing an insulating barrier between the soil and the air, moderate the soil temperature. This means that a mulched soil in the

summer will be cooler than an adjacent unmulched soil; while in the winter,

the mulched soil may not freeze as deeply. However, since mulch acts as

an insulating layer, mulched soils tend to warm up more slowly in the spring

and cool down more slowly in the fall than unmulched soils. If you are using mulches in your vegetable garden , it is best to apply them after the soil has

warmed up in the spring. Cool,wet soils tend to slow seed germination

and increase the decay of seeds and seedlings. If adding additional layers

of mulch to existing perennial beds,wait until the soil has warmed completely.

Mulches used to help moderate winter temperatures can be applied late

in the fall after the ground has frozen but before the coldest temperatures

arrive. Applying mulches before the ground has frozen may attract rodents looking for a warm over-wintering site. Delayed applications of mulch should prevent this problem as, hopefully, the creatures would already have found

some other place to nest! Mulches used to protect plants over winter should

be loose material such as straw, hay, or pine boughs that will help insulate

the plants without compacting under the weight of snow and ice. One of the benefits from winter applications of mulch is the reduction in the freezing

and thawing of the soil in the late winter and early spring. These repeated

cycles of freezing at night and then thawing in the warmth of the sun

cause many small or shallow rooted plants to be heaved out of the soil.

This leaves their root systems exposed and results in injury or death.

Mulching helps prevent rapid fluctuations in soil temperature and reduces

the chances of heaving.

Applying mulch

1. Begin by asking yourself the following questions.

What do I hope to achieve by mulching?

Weed control?

Moisture retention?

Soil improvement?


How large is the area to be mulched?

How much mulch will I need to cover the area?

Mulch is measured in cubic feet. As an example, if you have an area

10 feet by 10 feet and you wish to apply 3 inches of mulch, you would

need 25 cubic feet. (10' x 10' x .25' = 25 cu. ft.)

2. Determine what mulch material to use and purchase or accumulate

what you need.

Mulch can often be purchased bagged or bulk from garden centers.

Bulk may be cheaper if you need large volumes and have a way to haul it. Bagged mulch is often easier to handle, especially for smaller projects.

Most bagged mulch comes in 3-cubic feet bags.



Collect leaves in the fall.

Chop with a lawnmower or shredder. Whole leaves tend to compact if

wet or blow away if dry. Chopping will reduce the volume and facilitate composting.

Compost leaves over winter. Some studies have indicated that freshly

chopped leaves may inhibit the growth of certain crops. Therefore, it may

be advisable to compost the leaves over winter before spreading them.

Grass clippings–

Spread them immediately to avoid heating and rotting.


Save your own newspapers.


Smaller chips are easier to spread, especially around small plants.

When spreading mulch around trees, keep the mulch an inch or two

away from the trunk. A couple inches of mulch is adequate. There is

no need to apply the mulch 6 or 8 inches high, as often is seen. Similar

to bark mulch. If using fresh wood chips that are mixed with a lot of

leaves, composting may be beneficial. Best to chop and compost before spreading. If using dry leaves, apply about six inches deep. Thicker layers

tend to compact and rot, becoming quite slimy and smelly. Add additional

layers as clippings decompose. Do not use clippings from lawns treated

with herbicides. Apply sheets of newspaper and cover lightly with grass

clippings or other mulch material to anchor. If other mulch materials are

not available cover edges of paper with soil.

Applying on a windy day can be a problem. Use only newspaper text

pages (black ink); color dyes may be harmful to soil microflora and fauna

if composted and used.

Use 3 or 4 sheets together, anchored with grass clippings or other mulch material to prevent blowing away.

The amount of mulch to apply will be determined by the mulch material

you are using.

General Guidelines:

Do not apply mulch directly in contact with plants. Leave an inch or so of

space next to plants to help prevent diseases flourishing from excessive humidity.

Remove weeds before spreading mulch. Bark mulch and wood chips

are sometimes used with landscape fabric or plastic. The fabric or plastic

is laid on top of the soil and then covered with a layer of bark chips. A

caution to this practice: while the plastic or fabric may initially provide

additional protection against weeds, as the mulch breaks down,weeds

will start to grow in the mulch itself. The barrier between the soil and the

mulch also prevents any improvement in the soil condition and makes

planting additional plants more difficult.

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