Mulching can make a big difference in the success of your gardening. It works wonders to retain the soil’s moisture, deter weed growth, cool the soil, protect the plant’s roots in cold weather, and make garden beds and shrubbery more attractive. Mulch is most any material spread around plants to cover the soil. Mulch can be classified into two broad categories: organic and inorganic.
Rocks, rock chips, plastic, and any other non-plant material is inorganic mulch. Organic mulch includes compost, bark, wood chips, straw, brown leaves, sawdust, newspaper, or other materials that will eventually decompose and break down into the soil.
Organic mulches also greatly improve the soil as they decompose. If you have a sloping garden, mulch will keep the rain from washing the soil away. Mulch can also help control the spread of plant diseases.
Another great benefit of using mulch: you will harvest more fruits and vegetables. This is because they don’t rot as easily as they do when coming in direct contact with the soil.
Selecting Mulching Materials
I have found that choosing the right mulch can make all the difference in your success in gardening. Some factors to consider when choosing mulch include cost, the crop you plan to mulch, and the season you will be using mulch.
First, the cost. You don’t have to spend a lot of money when suitable mulching material can be found at little or no cost. However, never mulch with the same material of the plants you are going to protect. This practice can transmit diseases to the current plants.
Using light-colored mulch in the summer and early fall will help reflect heat. A dark-colored mulch can warm the soil in the early spring and make early planting possible.
Although organic mulches have to be replaced after decomposition, it is still the thriftiest. This is because it is the easiest to find for free or very little cost. You can make your own compost from shredded leaves. Pine straw and hay are sold in inexpensive bundles.
Since gravel or rocks don’t breakdown, you will incur only a one-time cost. However, light-colored gravel will increase drying around plants. Only use it with plants that like dryness.
I have found that landscape fabric is fairly expensive, but it does do a good job of blocking weeds. An organic mulch such as wood chips makes landscape fabric look more attractive, but the organic mulch will form a layer of soil that will enable weeds to spring up. It is better to top the fabric with another inorganic material.
Mulching with black plastic around trees, shrubs, and perennials should be avoided because it will prevent air and water from reaching the soil. Use plastic around the plants in your home food garden for crops like tomatoes and strawberries.
If using plastic, install an irrigation system underneath or water the plants by hand. Use plastic sparingly if you live in a climate that gets really hot in the summer. It can raise the temperature of the soil and burn up organic matter.
Instead, use a soil-cooling mulch like straw or leaves. If your summers are cool and wet, avoid using a soil-cooling mulch. This practice can stunt plant growth and make them turn yellow from too much moisture.
I have found mulching a vegetable garden a little more complicated than mulching ornamental plants. Different vegetable plants like different growing conditions. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and melons are heat lovers and will do well with black plastic mulch. Most are not water permeable though, so take care to make sure the plants have adequate water. Too little moisture can cause blossom end rot on tomatoes.
Rain or overhead irrigation should provide ample moisture from the pathways between rows. Consider replacing the plastic with a water permeable mulch when the summer really begins to sizzle.
Broccoli, spinach, and other greens will not benefit from the heat provided by the plastic mulch. It is better to use shredded leaves, straw, or even shredded newspaper for these garden plants. These mulches will work to lower the soil temperature, keeping these cool weather plants happy.
Mulch should be applied to freshly cultivated soil. The amount you begin with will depend on the size of the particles in the mulch. If the mulch has fine particles like compost of shredded wood chips only build the mulch 2 to 3 inches deep around the plants. Any more than that may cut off oxygen to the plant.
For mulch with a larger size like rocks, bark chunks, and straw apply up to 4 inches deep. Larger chunks mean that more air and light will pass through so you will need a thicker layer for weed control, moisture conservation, and protection from heat and cold.
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Never pile any sort of mulch up against the crown of the plant. This can cause the plant to rot. Always leave a couple of inches breathing room of the plant’s stem or base.
If you decide to go with one of the organic mulches, add more from time to time throughout the season. This is because the mulch rots slowly and settles.
As we have seen, mulching is really a must do for healthy plants. With so many choices for mulch, you are sure to choosing the right mulch for your landscaping and gardening.