Do you mulch your garden? What about your trees and shrubs? If not, you are creating more work for yourself and making it harder for your plants to thrive. Mulching can save you time, improve your land, and help you make the living world around you come alive. Keep reading to learn what mulching is, the pros and cons of mulching, and how to make it work for you.
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I love mulch. In fact, I hate it when I don’t have a large pile of wood chips or fall leaves sitting on my property waiting to be spread out. It just feels wrong not to have a supply of mulch on hand.
But even if you don’t go all in for mulch like me, putting mulch on your garden, around your trees, and on your lawn can be a fantastic way to save you time, energy, money—and improve your soil.
By using mulch, you will be mimicking nature’s processes for keeping soils rich and plants healthy, which will always boost your property.
As always, I made a free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet that summarizes this post (so you don’t need to take notes). It also has a list of resources and covers the different types of material to use as mulch and how to use them. Signup to get your cheat-sheet today so you can start working with nature by mulching.
What is Mulch?
Here is one of my favorite things--massive piles of wood chips ready to serve as mulch around my plants.
Mulch is material that you spread over the ground as a cover. Mulch can be either organic, (like wood chips, fall leaves, straw, etc.) or inorganic (like black plastic, rocks, etc.). Mulching is what you’re doing when you spread it over the ground.
Mulch should always stay up on top, not buried or tilled into the ground. That would cause the amount of available nitrogen in your soil to decrease, which can negatively impact your plants.
Part 2 in this series on mulch will cover the different types of material you can use for mulching. I tend to focus on organic materials. Other than rocks, I’m not a fan of using inorganic material as mulch, and even rocks should only be used in specific situations.
Inorganic mulch can cause problems over time, and it doesn’t improve the soil like organic mulch will. So for this post, I’m assuming you’re using some sort of organic mulch. Basically, that means the mulch is made up of old plants or animal waste.
There are 3 main ways to use mulch that will benefit your property.
3 Ways to Use Mulch on your Property
1Mulching Your Garden
2Mulching Trees and Shrubs
But before you start using mulch on your property, let’s cover the general advantages and disadvantages of mulching.
Advantages of Mulching
Mulching new plants like these growing on one of my hugelkultur beds provides a lot of great benefits.
The big advantage of mulching with organic mulch like wood chips is that it feeds the soil life, which builds your soil and feeds your plants. When you mulch this way, you are working with nature and nurturing long-term abundance for people, plants and wildlife.
Mulching with organic materials adds organic content to your soils. In addition to feeding the soil life, this also helps the soil hold onto water without becoming water logged. Plus, mulch reduces evaporation, which further helps your garden retain water.
If you want to transform your garden into a low water garden, then you’ve got to start mulching. Reducing how much water your plants need is a major advantage of mulching.
Mulching can help keep down weeds, saving you (and your plants) time and energy while you’re waiting for them to mature.
When combined with newspaper, cardboard or burlap bags (all of which will break down into soil) mulching can be done in a method call sheet-mulching, which is a fantastic way to prepare land for planting. It can smother undesirable plants while setting the stage for your future planting efforts to thrive.
Summary - Advantages of Mulching
- Feeds soil life, building soil, and provides nutrients to your plants.
- Increases the percent organic material in the soil.
- Reduces evaporation, increases water retention of the soil, and reduces drought stress.
- Suppresses weeds.
- Can be used to prepare sites for future planting.
Disadvantage of Mulching
In the short run mulch can increase pest issues such as this slug. But it also creates homes for the predators that eat the pests resulting in decrease in pest numbers overtime. Image credit: Wee Keat Chin CC BY 2.0
I’d be lying if I said there were no trade-offs… Mulching can result in an increased number of pests like slugs and pill bugs, since you’re creating the perfect habitat for them. This tends not to be a big issue with wood chips, but it can be an issue with fall leaves and straw or hay.
But this is not a permanent disadvantage of mulching. Over time, the predators that eat those pests will increase, resulting in a new balance.
The biggest disadvantage of mulching is the time, energy and potential cost of getting the material. Later in this post I will share some ways to get mulch for free, but one way or another, you will need to gather and spread the mulch.
This all takes time and energy. The benefits of mulch will save you time and energy in the long-term, but you have to get past the up-front investment.
Another potential disadvantage is the possibility of introducing contaminated materials—materials that have pesticide or herbicide residue on them, or other chemical residue. Straw and animal manure are the types most likely to have this issue. Wood chips are generally safe.
Diseases are generally not spread through mulch, but to be safe, I would avoid mulch from diseased plants. That said, I’ve collected tons of mulch (literally) from outside sources, and so far I haven’t had any issues. I don’t worry too much about wood chips, but I don’t use straw anymore because of the potential for problems.
It is also harder to direct seed your garden when the garden is heavily mulched. You will need to pull the mulch back so you can sow the seed into soil and not into the mulch.
Light rain or watering may only wet the surface of the mulch and not the soil below it. But this is only an issue after a long drought or when using overhead sprinklers. Drip hoses placed below the mulch is an effective and efficient way to water a mulched garden.
A quick note about mulch and nitrogen. If you search on google, you’ll probably find people talking about how mulch reduced the nitrogen levels in their soils.
As long as you don’t till in the mulch or bury it, you shouldn’t have any issue. Just be careful when planting, since the mulch can fall into the hole.
Summary - Disadvantage of Mulching
- Can cause pest population to increase in the short run (but decrease in the long run).
- Mulching takes time and energy to collect, transport, and spread the mulch. May cost money too depending on the source of the mulch.
- May introduce toxic chemicals to your garden depending on the source.
- It is harder to direct seed when a garden bed is covered with mulch.
- Light rains and overhead watering may just wet the mulch and not reach the soil.
Mulching Your Garden
Mulching the garden will do wonderful things for your harvests, as long as you follow some important rules.
First, most seeds can’t be sown into mulch.
This means you’ll either need to wait to mulch until you’re done sowing seeds or move the mulch aside. As long as you’re careful about this, then mulching won’t be an issue.
Always plant plants or sow seeds into the soil, and not into the mulch.
Mulch is great for helping to insulate the ground (and your plants!) from cold weather. This makes it easier to overwinter perennial vegetables and manage a winter garden.
The flip-side is, you may also find that mulch may keep your soil from warming up as quickly in the spring. Because of this, you may want to wait to add mulch until your garden soil warms up. Just make sure you get the mulch on before the rains stop.
I’m not going to lie—mulching the garden can be a bit tedious, but it’s well-worth the effort.
For me, the slow, methodical process gives me time to clear my head and take in the ever-changing wild world around me. And when it’s time to harvest, all my hard work pays out in dividends. Remember, mulching can build your garden’s soil, feed soil life, and act like a slow-release fertilizer for your plants.
It will reduce how much you need to water, and it can also help keep down weeds.
By mulching, you are mimicking nature’s tried-and-true system for enriching soils and fostering abundance across millennia. Your garden will thank you for it.
Mulching Trees and Shrubs
This is the front planting area at my place. The trees, shrubs, and other plants are thriving with a thick wood chip mulch. More plants have been added since this picture and all the plants have grown in what used to be a gravel and grass mix.
In many ways, this is a no-brainer. Mulch will help reduce the need for watering, build the soil, and help suppress unwanted weeds that would compete with the trees and shrubs for resources. And unlike when you’re planting seeds, you don’t need to be as careful about leaving room for a delicate new seeding to emerge.
But mulch also offers another incredible and surprising benefit for shrubs and trees—fungi.
For the most part, trees and shrubs are adapted to grow in soil that is teaming with fungi, but too often our degraded soils are lacking these vital participants.
“Okay,” you ask, “I know healthy soils need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. But Fungi?”
Fungi help plants by connecting with their roots and giving the plants water, nutrients, and minerals that the plants may have trouble getting on their own. Essentially, the fungi become an extension of the plant’s roots.
The fungi even allow the plants to share nutrients between each other!
By mulching around your trees and shrubs, you’re creating the environment fungi need, which will in turn benefit your plants.
If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets. These unsung heroes never cease to amaze me. Mulch will help you bring them to your garden.
Beyond this, as you know, the mulch will also build the soil and reduce any watering you may need to do.
A great way to build this mulch layer around trees and shrubs is through a method called chop-and-drop. Instead of hauling away branches and leaves when they fall or are pruned, just leave them on the ground around the plants to build mulch.
Mulching Your Lawns
ers can chop up the leaves so much that they just disappear into the grass. No need to rake and remove the leaves. Image - CC0 Public Domain Picture.
I hope you are seeing a theme by now—there are a lot of great advantages to mulching different areas of your property and gardens. But what about the lawn?
It turns out that even the lawn can benefit from mulching.
The easiest way to do this is to leave your grass clippings on the lawn after you mow. Don’t bag them up—just let them sit and decompose.
The grass clippings will feed the soil life and build soil, which will in turn fertilize your grass and reduce how much water you need to give it.
A mulching lawnmower is an easy way to achieve this if you’re concerned with having the grass clippings on the surface.
To give your lawn an annual boost, you can also do this with any leaves that fall on your property. Just run your lawnmower over the leaves and chop them up so they will quickly breakdown to help build soil and feed your grass. This is a lot easier than raking up all those leaves!
Getting Started with Mulching
I can never get enough wood chips for mulch.
So, does mulching sound great to you? I bet by now you’re likely wondering where you can get all this material for mulching.
This is the biggest downside of mulching.
Of course, if you’re mulching a lawn with grass clippings or a mulching a shrub with the cuttings you’ve just pruned, then you’ve already got this part covered. But if you’re doing a more substantial project, trying to come up with the sheer volume of material you need can leave you scratching your head.
Luckily, there are plenty of great ways to get mulch.
The first is to practice chop-and-drop anytime you are cutting and pruning your plants. This includes when you put your garden to bed at the end of summer.
Leave any fallen branches on the ground or place them around your trees. This is essentially nature doing the chop-and-drop for you.
Fall leaves are an amazing source of mulch that many people just get rid of. If they fall where you don’t want them, then just rake them up and place them around your trees and shrubs or save them and make leaf mold for your garden.
I used the site Nextdoor.com to connect with people living in my area, which allowed me to collect well over 200 bags of leaves to use on my property.
Wood chips can be a bit harder to find but, there are probably places in your area that have free wood chips you could get.
Plus, you can reach out to any service that cuts down or prunes trees for people, since they often want to get rid of the wood chips after a job. ChipDrop is a great site that can help you get deliveries of wood chips for free or low cost by connecting you with local arborists.
You might also reach out to local farmers and see if any of them have old, moldy straw that you could haul away to use as mulch. Just ask if they use any chemicals first, just to be safe.
So, are you ready to get started with mulching? Great leave a comment below sharing how your going to be using mulch to cultivate abundance!
And don't forget to check out part 2 of this 2 part series on mulching. Part 2 covers the different types of mulch and how to use them.
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Mulching is a widely-practiced gardening technique that is beneficial for plants when done properly. It is the act of covering the soil with mulches, such as bark, wood chips, leaves, and other organic material, in order to preserve moisture and improve the condition of the soil.What is mulching in landscaping? ›
Mulch is any material spread over an outdoor surface to cover soil. Mulch is used to help retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and improve the look of your garden. There are two types of mulch, organic and inorganic.What is the purpose of mulching? ›
Mulch acts as an insulator, helping to regulate soil temperature to keep plant roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Mulching is especially important for new plantings done in the fall that are still tender as temperatures begin to plummet. Conserves moisture. When you mulch you can spend less time watering.What are the three types of mulching? ›
The agriculture in dryland can be done with mulching in different ways as stubble mulching, plastic mulching, straw mulching and vertical mulching Therefore, conservation of soil moisture by using mulching may be an efficient option to save water as well as rising production in dryland farming.What are the 5 importance of mulching? ›
Mulches conserve the soil moisture, enhance the nutrients status of soil, control the erosion losses, suppress the weeds in crop plants, and remove the residual effects of pesticides, fertilizers, and heavy metals. Mulches improve the aesthetic value of landscapes and economic value of crops.What time of year should you mulch? ›
In general, mid- to late-spring is mulching season; this is when the soil is warming up from the freezing temperatures it experienced all winter. Mulching too early will slow down the warming process, which the soil needs to do its job.Can you mulch over old mulch? ›
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.What is the best mulch to stop weeds? ›
Woodchips. Not only great for mulch but also make an attractive feature in your garden. Putting down a 4–6cm layer provides good weed control.What are the three importance of mulching? ›
Mulch retains water helping to keep the roots moist. Mulch keeps weeds out to help prevent root competition. Mulch Prevents soil compaction. Mulch reduces lawn mower damage.Which is the main disadvantage of mulching? ›
Disadvantages of Mulching
TOO much mulch (a layer more than 3 inches deep) can bury and suffocate plants; water and oxygen can't reach the roots. A layer of 2 to 3 inches of mulch is ample. Do NOT overmulch. Mulch can contribute to rotting bark if piled up around the trunks of trees and shrubs.
Apply a Pre-Emergent:
This is the time to prevent weeds. Apply the pre-emergent before mulching. A second application later on ensures protection from weed seeds.
Our answer – No. We do not recommend putting landscape fabric underneath your mulch for the simple reason that it usually causes more problems than any benefit it provides. For one, the fabric blocks the transfer of beneficial microorganisms from passing through that layer of soil.Do you need to pull weeds before mulching? ›
Kill and remove weeds
This is an important step because just as mulch can help improve the health of your soil, it can also help weeds grow stronger if they're not removed. So, make sure you pull up and remove any visible weeds prior to putting down your mulch.
Cedar mulch is one of the best types of wood mulch. Cedar mulch has natural oils in the wood that repel insects, which makes it the ideal choice of wood mulch, particularly in areas where termites are prevalent.What is the best kind of mulch to use? ›
Stone is the longest-lasting mulch, followed by landscape fabric. Black plastic and rubber mulch last a long time, and help with both heat and water retention in the soil, though they're also more expensive than stone or landscape fabric.What are the 2 types of mulching? ›
- Organic mulches include formerly living material such as chopped leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, wood chips, shredded bark, sawdust, pine needles and even paper.
- Inorganic mulches include black plastic and geotextiles (landscape fabrics).
An important characteristic of mulch is its ability to insulate a plant and its roots from the effects of extreme temperature fluctuations. Ideal mulches must allow water and air to enter and exit the soil. They should be attractive, relatively odor free, and stay in place.Should you remove old mulch every year? ›
Expert green thumbs contend that getting rid of last year's mulch is completely unnecessary. Mulch gradually breaks down, adding beneficial nutrients and other organic matter to the soil. Removing pre-existing mulch every year only ends up to be extra work and a needless expense.Is it OK to mulch in the fall? ›
Many landscaping professionals actually practice — and prefer — fall mulching. Fall mulch works like spring mulch to retain soil moisture, suppress weed growth and protect bare soil from erosion.Should I water mulch after putting it down? ›
Expect all mulch to stop weeds.
Be sure to water after applying.
Mulching is best done either just before or just after the growing season. Therefore, most property owners have it done in either the spring or the fall. While it is up to you to choose when to mulch, there are certain advantages of having it done in spring.Is it OK to mix old mulch with soil? ›
Don't Use Mulch Mixed with Soil
"Mulch mixed with soil causes difficulties in digging and weeding," Baka explains. Plus, it can alter nutrient availability and soil structure.
Eventually all mulch will decompose and no longer provide the benefits it was designed for. Organic mulches provide nutrients to your soil, while retaining moisture and protecting the soil. As your mulch decomposes or is reduced in depth, you become more likely to see more problems with soil erosion and weeds.What kills weeds permanently? ›
Yes, vinegar does kill weeds permanently and is a viable alternative to synthetic chemicals. Distilled, white, and malt vinegar all work well to stop weed growth. Will table salt kill weeds? Yes, table salt will kill weeds.Can I just put mulch over weeds? ›
Smother with mulch
For shallow rooted plants, mulching will smother weeds and eventually kill off roots without hand weeding first, but you must make it thick. The best mulches are long lasting and organic. Apply thickly at 4 to 8 inches in depth.
Once trees, plants, and/or flowers are planted and bed edges are cut, laying down landscape fabric prior to mulching will prevent the germination of weeds. The fabric, which can be purchased at any garden supply store or online, is easy to cut to size for installation.What is the most commonly used mulch? ›
Wood chips and bark are the most common types of mulch, but you can even use stones to good effect.Will plants grow through mulch? ›
Most perennials will pop through the mulch in spring. If the plants are young, small, or newly planted in fall, you may need to clear some of the mulch in spring so that the plants can emerge without difficulty through the winter protection.What plants need mulch? ›
Potatoes, chard, kale, corn and some of the other vegetables that either live longer than a season or rot in too much water fit here. Examples of riparian corridor plants that need moisture but tolerate mulch. Acer macrophyllum, Big Leaf Maple.What are 2 advantages of mulching? ›
The Benefits of Mulch
Mulch will reduce the amount of water that evaporates from your soil, greatly reducing your need to water your plants. by breaking up clay and allowing better water and air movement through the soil. Mulch provides nutrients to sandy soil and improves its ability to hold water.
It's especially important to avoid using rocks as mulch around common foundation plants like azalea, hydrangea, and yews; these plants thrive in acidic soil (soil with a pH level below seven).Why not to mulch? ›
If not placed correctly, mulch can promote rodent, moisture and slug damage to plants and trees. If applied too early in the spring, the mulch will delay warming of the soil. Organic mulches usually must be re-applied yearly. Inorganic mulch products do not decompose and are, more or less, permanent.Is it better to mulch or not to mulch grass? ›
Mulching grass clippings provides more nutrients for your soil. As they break down, the clippings will release nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. These are essential nutrients that your lawn needs to stay healthy.Do you put soil on top of mulch? ›
Light, sandy soil is the best type of soil to put on top of mulch because it allows water to penetrate fast to reach the plant roots or seeds. If you've clay soil, you can improve its texture by mixing it with sandy soil or adding organic matter. You can add soil on top of mulch for the following reasons.Do you lay anything under mulch? ›
Don't Assume You Need Something Underneath
If you use an organic mulch that will break down, like shredded hardwood bark, avoid landscape fabric because you want the mulch to be in contact with the soil to improve it, Day says.
Mulches should be applied 2 to four inches deep. How Not to Mulch: Mulch too thin –Mulch that is less than two inches in depth does not serve the purpose of conserving moisture, reducing erosion, or providing any of the other benefits of mulch.Do professional landscapers use fabric? ›
Landscape fabric, otherwise endearingly known as weed fabric is one of those things that get us landscape professionals up in arms. Yes, it does prevent weeds (but only for a time).Can you use black garbage bags under mulch? ›
Garbage bags can be used in regular mulching because they will effectively smother weeds and hold moisture in the soil. However, because the plastic is less porous than organic types of mulch, it means less water and fewer nutrients will reach the soil itself from above the layer of plastic bags.Do soil go on top of landscape fabric? ›
It is very important to complete this task first as the landscape fabric will go above the soil. In most cases, it is very beneficial to the garden to dig down about two or three inches and surround the perimeter of the garden with a 2X4. This will keep the area in which the fertilizer is laid down in place.Will mulch attract termites? ›
Does Mulch Attract Termites? While the material itself does not draw termites to the area, mulch spread over three inches deep creates an inviting habitat for the pests. Layers of organic matter trap heat and moisture next to the ground. Termites use this thick mulch as shelter from harsh weather.
But it is normally better to remove the weeds and grass before adding a mulch layer. The weeds can be pulled, hoed or treated with herbicides that permit use near trees. Add a 2-3-inch mulch layer over the root system of your trees, but keep it 6 inches or more back from the trunks.Should I put newspaper under mulch? ›
An easy way to mulch and prevent weeds in the garden is to use layers of newspaper or cardboard beneath the mulch. This is sometimes called Sheet Mulching. The newspaper acts as a weed barrier and it will break down reasonably quickly.What is the disadvantage of mulching? ›
Disadvantages of Mulching
Although using mulch has many benefits, in some cases, its use can be detrimental to the garden: TOO much mulch (a layer more than 3 inches deep) can bury and suffocate plants; water and oxygen can't reach the roots.
In ecological horticulture, mulch refers to organic matter – such as leaves or grass cuttings – that is applied to the soil to protect it and supply it with nutrients. Mulching is the process of doing so by adding a loose layer of shredded plant material on top of the soil.What should I put down before mulching? ›
Spray all weeds with weed killer 1 to 2 weeks prior to mulching. This allows weeds to completely die, making them much easier to pull.What plants like mulch? ›
- Acer macrophyllum, Big Leaf Maple.
- Aesculus californica, Buckeye.
- Carpenteria californica, Bush Anemone.
- Calycanthus occidentalis, Spice Bush.
- Cephalanthus occidentalis californica, Buttonwillow.
- Fraxinus latifolia, Oregon Ash.
Mulch prevents weeds in a number of different ways. New weed seeds need dirt to grow, and a thick layer of mulch helps prevent the seeds from ever reaching the soil. As for the seeds or roots that are already in the soil, mulch blocks one of a plant's essential needs, sunlight.What is the best mulch to prevent weeds and bugs? ›
Cedar Or Cypress Mulch
Chip or bark mulch is made from cypress or cedar trees and is very helpful for repelling bugs. Both cypress and cedar contain natural chemicals and oils like thujone that deter insects. Cedar chips repel, inhibit, or kill insects like: Cockroaches.
Stone is the longest-lasting mulch, followed by landscape fabric. Black plastic and rubber mulch last a long time, and help with both heat and water retention in the soil, though they're also more expensive than stone or landscape fabric.Why not to mulch around trees? ›
Too much mulch applied over the root ball or resting against the trunk (see right photos) can cause problems for trees, especially when there is a lagre range in particle sizes. Roots often grow up and into the mulch causing stem girdling roots which can kill trees (lower photo).
Rocks are great at suffocating weeds and show a better success rate at weed-prevention than mulch. Stone cover is perfect for low-water gardens and landscapes. However, stones aren't the perfect solution for gardens that may get a lot of sun because they can hold more heat than mulch.How many inches should mulch be? ›
A 3- to 4-inch-layer of wood chips or shredded bark would be appropriate for well-drained sites around trees and shrubs. On heavy soils, a 2- to 3-inch-layer would be suitable. Do not pile mulch against the trunks of trees.