As you begin to plan your spring gardening, don't forget to consider your many mulching options. Mulch can help your plants thrive or kill them off - or even do both at the same time! In this article you will learn the advantages of mulching, the different mulches available and the benefits of each type, and some basic guidelines to follow to give your plants the best chance of success this year.
Benefits of mulch
- Completes the look of your yard or flower bed
- Acts as a natural weed control
- Maintains moisture levels in your soil, protecting from over and under watering
- Acts as a barrier to fluctuating temperatures that can cause damage or death to your plants
- Plant-based mulch adds nutrients back into the soil as it decomposes
Types of mulch
- Leaves, grass clippings - Non-decorative, decompose quickly and enrich the soil. Before adding grass clippings to an existing plant bed, make sure herbicide was not used and there are no weeds mixed in. A thick layer can be used in the fall to kill off existing vegetation in anticipation of a new bed the next planting season.
- Bark mulch - Decorative, decomposes slowly. Adds nutrients to the soil, but make sure you remove old layers in the spring to prevent harmful buildup of old mulch.
- Wood chip mulch - Decorative, decomposes fairly quickly and adds nutrients to the soil. Check thickness each spring before adding a new layer.
- Stones or pebbles - Decorative. Not beneficial to the soil like plant-based mulches, but won't have to be replaced every year. Good for light use around mature trees and shrubs.
While mulching is a fairly simple process, the right tools will make the job go faster.
- Wheelbarrow - Never unload mulch onto your lawn (it will kill the grass almost immediately) or into your planting bed (you won't be able to control the thickness). If your project is small, you might have bags of mulch that can be carried to your planting bed. Otherwise, you should unload mulch onto your driveway or patio and use a wheelbarrow to transport it to your bed.
- Square shovel - For scooping mulch into your wheelbarrow, use a square shovel instead of a pointed shovel. Pointed shovels work well for digging into soil, but they won't dig into mulch well and you'll lose half your load with every scoop. However, you should NOT use a shovel to spread mulch on your planting bed. Spreading by hand is the best way to control the thickness and keep it consistent.
- Mulch fork - If you're in a hurry, a mulch fork is the fastest way to load mulch and allows you to scoop plant-based mulches in large bunches. Again, use only for filling your wheelbarrow, not for placing mulch into the bed.
How to Successfully Mulch Your Planting Beds
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when applying mulch is adding the new mulch on top of years of old mulch. While plant-based mulches do decompose, adding a new layer can cause the existing layers to stop decomposing, creating a permanent barrier to plant growth. For an annual bed, remove old mulch before you till the soil and add compost. If you're applying mulch to a perennial bed, you might be tempted to just add a new layer of mulch on top, but this can cause rot, nutrient starvation, and plant death. Remove as much of the old layers as possible before you add more. Your mulch should never be more than three inches thick in a planting bed, so by adding only an inch or so each time you mulch, you can get away with only removing the mulch every other year.
Don't skip the edging. While it might seem like your mulch will stay put without some form of edging, it probably won't. Protect the yard around your planting bed and install edging before you mulch, such as edger blocks or plastic rolled edging. It will add visual interest, keep your planting bed tidy, and save you headaches later.
For annual beds, till your soil, add compost, till again, and then add your mulch. Set your plants temporarily on top of the mulch to find the best arrangement. As you plant, make sure the soil you use to fill in the holes does not contain mulch. After planting, clear the mulch away from a four inch area around each plant base.
For new perennial beds or when planting large plants, shrubs or trees, install your plants in the soil before you add the mulch. Since perennials generally need to be placed with plenty of room to grow, it will be fairly easy to add mulch around the plants without smothering them. Most new shrubs and trees will need a good layer of mulch in a concave circle (three to four inches thick at the outside rim, one to two inches thick near the base) for the first year. This will regulate moisture and temperature levels while the plant is most vulnerable. Since trees require plenty of water after transplant, you might need to water often and the built up mulch walls will keep water near the tree.
For mature trees, a small mulch bed around the tree can add visual interest to your lawn and make mowing easier. A newly planted tree will need a good mulch bed to protect it from the elements as it takes hold in its new home. But, be very careful when applying mulch around a mature tree. Heavy mulch around the tree will contain too much water and cause the tree to rot. Plant-based mulches can create a home for tree-killing pests. Any type of mulch can cause roots to start growing upward into the mulch instead of down into the ground, making the tree more vulnerable to temperature and precipitation fluctuations and weakening its sturdiness in the ground. To offset this risk, use stones or pebbles rather than plant-based mulch, and don't layer it any thicker than one inch.
For more advice on mulching and other gardening and landscaping techniques, browse our other Garden Center articles or visit your local Menards®!