Mulching

Mulching, or gardening with compost, is a multi-purpose landscaping approach based on nature.

Have you ever stepped off the trail in a forest, and noticed how the forest floor feels under the trees? It is soft and cushy. This is nature's compost – leaves fall from trees to protect the earth below.

The fallen leaves help keep moisture in while moderating the effects of heat and cold on the soil surface. Over time, as leaves break down, organic matter replenishes the soil. Year after year, new layers of natural leaf mulch are added to continue this cycle.

You easily can allow the same natural cycle to enrich your garden, but some homeowners have objections. Perhaps they find the decomposing leaves to be unsightly or maybe their plants don't produce enough leaf matter to enable natural composting to happen.

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What is Mulch?

Mulch compost can be organic or inorganic. Organic compost can consist of leaves, bark, wood chippings, manure, compost, straw, pine needles, newspaper or cardboard. Inorganic mulch is made of plastic in various forms, and quite often comes in the form of rubber pellets or chips.

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Benefits of Mulching

  • Composting helps to retain moisture by reducing direct contact with the sun and wind, both of which dehydrate soil.
  • It helps moderate temperature fluctuations in the soil, protecting roots and seeds.
  • Over time compost breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil – this is the main reason for adding fresh layers over older layers.
  • A thick enough layer of mulch blocks weeds.
  • Mulching is also used for aesthetic reasons; mulched garden beds can look more attractive than bare soil. It is one of the best bang-for-your-buck value enhancements for increasing a property's curb appeal!
  • Compost can also improve drainage and increase air flow through the soil.

How to Make Your Own Mulch

  • Take your existing leaf matter, and break it down further, either by running a mower over the leaves or passing the leaves through a shredder.
  • Grass clippings can be used for mulching, both in the lawn and in beds. It is generally better to mix the grass clippings with other materials, such as leaves or wood chips. If you mulch grass clippings back into the lawn, be sure that they are very finely cut. Monitor for thatching; thick layers of dried grass which inhibit air, water, and nutrients from moving freely through the soil. Too much organic matter causes problems on lawns.
  • With a chipper you can create wonderful mulch from dry or green tree limbs.
  • Shredded paper and cardboard can be used as mulch. For certain applications, plastic sheeting can be employed short-term, but take care; it can lead to a sterile soil environment. Too little organic matter creates problems too.
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Colored or Natural?

Colored mulch often is chosen for aesthetic reasons, with black and red variants being the most common colorations. Some gardeners swear that black keeps the soil warmer in winter, and fans of red claim it reflects sun onto the plants, encouraging more growth.

While colored varieties can be attractive, we generally recommend natural mulch, for three main reasons:

  1. The red color is created with iron oxide (rust) and black is created with carbon black (charcoal) which are not harmful in compost. However, some cheaply-produced mulch is colored with artificial dyes which can be toxic to the environment, or even to people handling it.
  2. Colors can stain your skin, so protect your hands with gloves. You could also track the color of fresh mulch from your shoes onto your floors.
  3. Colors tend to fade fairly quickly, ending back at the natural color. So, why not avoid the complications of artificial colorations and go with natural color in the first place?

Precautions

  • Don't mulch up against the perimeter of a structure; it provides cover for some seriously unwanted insects, like termites. We recommend keeping a six-inch un-mulched band around the structure.
  • When mulching with wood chips, be aware that certain types of wood can produce a pH change in the soil. Cedar, for example, increases the acidity of the soil; some plants may benefit, but it's detrimental to many other plants.
  • While mulching is great for retaining moisture in the soil, this can be problematic if the mulch is packed directly against fleshy plant stems, tree trunks, or buildings. The added moisture can produce rot so it is recommended that a mulch-free band of four to six inches is maintained.

Mulching is an evolutionary process with wonderful garden benefits. YardDoc recommends mulching twice a year; in spring to defend against the hottest summer weather, and then again in fall to protect plants and soil from the winter cold.


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