Nature has a simple and effective process for feeding and enriching the earth. When plants die or drop their leaves, the organic matter decomposes and returns nutrients to the soil.
During the winter, this layer of organic matter protects seeds from the cold, and in the spring it holds in moisture to encourage seed germination. If the layer is thick enough, it will discourage new growth and protect established plants.
Gardeners have taken this natural process and turned it into the concept of mulching where a thick layer of organic matter is applied to planting beds and gardens.
Advantages of Mulch
Mulching helps the garden by providing:
- Weed control
- Soil enrichment
- Moisture retention
- Visual appeal
Types of Mulch
Mulch is both functional and decorative, with many different types available. When choosing mulch, consider the density and texture relative to the plants in your garden. Tender seedlings will have a hard time pushing through a thick layer of coarse mulch while large areas around trees and shrubs may benefit from a heavy weed-preventative barrier.
While your choice of mulching material should primarily be based on its purpose, it’s also a matter of taste and budget. Some popular options include:
Organic Mulches that Break Down in One Season
- Other Mulch: Less common (but effective) one-season organic mulches include shredded corn stalks, manure, peat moss, and rice hulls.
Organic Mulches that Last More than One Season
- Other Mulch: Other multi-season organic mulches include seed and nut hulls, cocoa bean hulls, corn cobs, and sawdust.
- Rock: Stone, gravel, and crushed rock are highly resistant to wind and maintain their appearance for years. Since rock absorbs heat, it often gives gardens a parched appearance.
Spread mulch to a depth of 2” to 4” and keep it back slightly from stems and trunks to avoid smothering the plants. Avoid a “volcano” effect around tree trunks – trees grow their roots to varied and specialized depths and can be sabotaged by an extremely thick layer of mulch.
Beautifying Your Garden with Mulch
In designing your garden, think of mulch as the elegant background that allows your ornamental plants to show their stuff. In the photo below, notice how the edged lawn and mulch accentuates the shape and color of the crimson pygmy barberry.
Mulching not only makes mowing easier around trees but also calls attention to attractive bark and trunk shapes. For a balanced appearance around small ornamental trees, consider making the mulch ring the same diameter as the treetop.
Mulch can also be used to set off an area in a pleasing shape and act as a design feature in its own right to:
- Eliminate the need to grow grass in a shady area.
- Accentuate a prize tree or shrub.
- Provide a shapely curve in the overall lawn design.
Also consider using more then one type of mulch for design purposes. In the garden above, river stones were used as an edging, with shredded wood mulch around the plants themselves.
While river stones often appear white or gray when dry, they can display beautiful colors when wet.
Whatever your design or purpose, your plants will be protected from extreme temperatures, weeds, and short dry spells by a protective layer of mulch.