Fall is an excellent time to use mulching material in your garden. Why should you use mulch? To protect plants for the upcoming winter weather. Many mulches also help add nutrients to the soil over the winter months.
But, what mulching material should you use? Aren’t they all the same?
Mulching is an essential part of gardening; it adds nutrients to the soil, prevents water evaporation and helps reduce weeds. Used correctly in the landscaping of the garden should improve the appearance of the yard or garden. Mulch hides unattractive pipes and vast expanses of unplanted beds.
Mulching can be done at any time of the year, however there are specific times when the garden will benefit more from a sweet wood smelling mulch, such as fall or spring. There are specific benefits to each mulch type. Let’s explore the when, when, why and what (types) of mulching:
When should you mulch?
Fall is the ideal time to mulch as it is neither too dry nor too wet. This makes it an ideal time to include this pleasurable task in your gardening calendar. Mulch will help trap moisture and warmth in the soil. This is so essential during the cold winter months. During winter it can be best used by the plant roots to encourage healthy root growth. Which results in healthy plants in the Spring.
Spring is nearly as good a time to mulch as the mulch will provide essential nutrients for all new growth in the garden. It also helps fertilize old and new planting beds.
Winter is not a great time to mulch as the mulch will seal in any cold that is in the soil. Summer mulching will just absorb water without letting it penetrate down into the soil. However mulching in winter and summer may be unavoidable, Particularly if you plant a new garden during these months and you are desperate to start preparing the soil for planting. In these cases choose a good fertilizer and compost to include in your mulch.
Before applying mulch any time of the year, always make sure that all weeds are removed from the area you propose to mulch.
Why should you use mulch?
Mulch, as well as adding essential nutrients to the soil prevents soil erosion. This happens in all gardens due to heavy rain and strong winds.
Mulch isn’t just about making wonderful soil, it is used for landscaping purposes. Inorganic mulch is often used to create paths and to cover large beds where soil isn’t required. Gravel, stones and rocks are generally the materials used. However, eventually small amounts of the stone drop down into the soil. This is okay as it helps break the soil down and assists in soil drainage.
Bark chips make excellent mulch for paths and large unplanted beds and this mulch too, will eventually break down and help improve the soil.
Organic mulch is well known for playing a huge part in successful gardening. It improves poor soil, enabling essential nutrients, micro-nutrients and fertilizers get deep into the soil to depths where the plants can best use them to produce a healthy root system. Nutrients and the breaking down of soil is important in to obtain a good soil. Especially in heavy clay and sandy soils where every assistance is necessary to improve the texture of these soils.
Mulch prevents weeds. Spreading a medium to thick layer around your plants reduces these unwelcome visitors in your garden. The mulch around the plants also keeps the soil warm and moist. This creates ideal growing conditions.
What mulch is best to use?
Mulch is a layer of material applied to the soil that performs a variety of functions. It can act as a weed suppressant, an insulating layer, a moisture retaining layer or be purely decorative. Organic mulches also release nutrients back into the soil, are eventually incorporated into the soil and can help with aeration and drainage. The types of mulch available to the gardener are varied, and each has its merits in a particular situation.
Use different shades of mulch to help give your plants maximum benefits. Dark organic mulch will keep tender plant roots cool in the summer. Rocks and gravel will let the heat pass down into the soil, giving warmth to more established or heat loving plants.
By far the best mulching material, from the point of view of producing healthy plants and a healthy garden, is home-made compost. In effect you are recycling nutrients that previous plants have removed from your soil. Rich in organic material, it can be spread around plants either at the beginning of spring, or in the fall. Although it will suppress weeds and insulate the soil, the main aim of compost mulch is to be dragged back into the soil by earthworms and other soil organisms.
Here it will replenish nutrients, help to retain moisture, aid drainage and alleviate soil compaction. Other forms of organic mulches, such as seaweed or spent mushroom compost, perform much the same functions. Grass clippings, which are sometimes spread on borders straight after mowing, are really best added to the compost bin and utilised that way.
Organic mulches are often not very decorative, and although this is not a problem in the vegetable garden, in the ornamental border they can be an eyesore. They also disappear into the soil over time.
For ornamental borders, a variety of bark mulches are available. Although organic they are low in nutrients and last a long time on the soil. A layer of bark can be very attractive, especially in a shrub border. Bark mulches contain lignin which is an organic compound found in woody plants. This type of mulch will last longer as it takes longer to break down.
Wood chippings and sawdust would do the same job but are not as nice to look at. A very good alternative to bark is coconut coir mulch, which will last but provides more nutrients. Pine needles are also an option. It should be noted that all wood based mulches will last, but they are all slightly acidic and should not be used around plants that require a pH above 7.
Newspaper & Cardboard
One organic mulching material that is often forgotten is newspaper or plain corrugated cardboard. You will need to avoid glossy paper or coated cardboard, however. The key is to have all natural fibers.
A couple of sheets of newspaper laid around the base of a plant, will perform all the functions of a mulch. If you don’t like the look, this mulch can be hidden away under a layer of soil. Cardboard is better used in the vegetable garden, and makes an excellent temporary mulch. Around the roots of cabbages it can prevent cabbage root fly from laying its eggs.
Paper mulches can be left and will rot. Cardboard can be shredded after use and added to the compost bin.
The use of gravel, slate and other aggregates is more for decorative effect, although they do retain moisture and heat and suppress weeds. Gravel is good as a mulch on the top of containers. Horticultural grit is used around alpines to aid drainage. Aggregates come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, from the natural to the man made. Glass beads are available, and recycled rubber mulches made from car tires. Ther’s plenty of options for the gardener with imagination.
To prevent weed growth, the use of a synthetic landscape fabric is recommended underneath most aggregates. This allows rainwater and air to get to the soil, but prevents sunlight and so weeds cannot germinate. This fabric is often used in the vegetable garden. Lie it on the soil and cut holes to plant your vegetables in. This works well for potatoes, as the plants do not need ‘earthing up’ using this method.
Straw is a favorite mulching material in the vegetable garden. Use straw under strawberries or courgettes to lift them off the soil and prevent rotting.
This is also an excellent mulch for winterizing garlic beds. In Spring or Fall, it can either be dug into the soil or composted.
Additional Mulching Tips
Don’t be over enthusiastic with your mulching material. It’s important not to smother the plant with layers and layers of organic and inorganic materials. Give the soil a chance to breathe and receive some water, especially so if you are using inorganic materials such as polythene or cardboard.
Equally important, any sour smelling compost will create problems to your soil, use good quality sweet smelling mulch for healthy soil.
Finally next time you pass a garden containing splendid healthy plants, cast your eyes away from the blooms down to earth level. Check out whether or not the plants have mulch around them; as the saying goes ‘the answer is in the soil’.