Mulch is a superhero in many gardens. It discourages weeds, retains moisture, regulates soil temperature, and prevents the top layer of soil from becoming dry and crusty. Some types of mulch also improve the soil as they decompose.
A variety of materials can be used, depending on budget, purpose, and desired appearance. For garden pathways and larger areas, I recommend placing a weed barrier down first. If this barrier is thick enough, the area will not have to be cleared of weeds first. Garden stores sell plastic barriers, but these will prevent water from absorbing into the soil and will quickly break down into small pieces of plastic. Instead, try layers of newspaper, cardboard, notebook or copy paper, paper bags, burlap bags, or old clothes that are 100% cotton. Soak any papers in water first so that they stay in place until you cover them with mulch. Otherwise, a slight wind will ruin all of your hard work.
Leaves are a popular mulch because of their availability. Shred the leaves first to prevent them from matting as much, which will prevent water and air flow into the soil. Leaves, however, are not recommended for very windy areas.
Wood chips and shredded bark are another popular mulch and will stay in place much better than leaves. For best results, allow chips to decompose for 1-2 years before using them in the garden. If using fresh chips, be aware that walnut and cedar chips contain a natural growth retardant that can inhibit the growth of your plants. Also, if fresh chips get mixed in with the soil at all, they will pull nitrogen from the soil in order to decompose. Many tree removal services will give you wood chips at very reasonable prices.
Other natural ideas for mulch are grass clippings, nut shells (rinsed if they were salted), small sticks, dried pea pods, straw, pine cones, and pine needles. For perennial beds that won’t be replanted for awhile, broken ceramic pieces are an option. Pebbles, gravel, or small rocks are good choices for pathways.
3 inches of mulch is usually recommended, but there are some things to keep in mind. Mulch should be spread wide around trees, beginning a couple of inches away from the trunk. It should also not be piled right up to the stems of plants. To prevent mold growth and allow proper aeration, use a rake to turn the mulch occasionally. Add extra mulch yearly to replace any that has compacted, blown away, or decomposed. Other than that, enjoy your garden!
The Mulch Masters
Infinity Lawn and Garden
Jim Long’s Garden