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Gardening Tips

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Past Articles Library | Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Gardening Needs

Most gardeners have heard that they should mulch their flower beds, vegetable gardens, around trees, and paths through their landscape.  Mulch keeps the soil warm in the winter and cooler in the summer.  Most mulches soak up water and gradually release it to plants as they need it.  Mulch also keeps most weeds out and makes the yard look neat and cared for.  All this is good.  However, these days there are so many different kinds of mulch, each having pros for using it and cons for using it, that a gardener can get lost in the mulch aisle of the garden store. This article covers the major kinds of mulch and what they are generally used for, the pros of using them and the cons of using them.

  • Bark mulch -- This is one of the least expensive types of mulch you can find.  It is a mixture of many types of trees bark.  Bark mulch is the best mulch to use on slopes because it does not easily wash away.  If you use this mulch, you will need to add some nitrogen to the soil as the microbes that feed on the bark use a lot of nitrogen when they break the bark down.
  • Cedar mulch -- Cedar mulch is either shredded or chipped.  The shredded mulch is lighter and best used around small plants.  The chipped mulch is courser and works better around larger plants.  Cedar mulch breaks down slowly and smells pleasant.  In fact, some people think the odor repels pests from the plants it is spread around. It does need to have extra nitrogen added to it so there is some nitrogen available to your plants as the cedar breaks down.
  • Cocoa hull mulch -- Cocoa hull mulch is expensive, but it is long lasting and doesn’t tie up nitrogen when it decays.  It is light and you will probably have to spray it down with water when you put it out to keep it in place.  One of the significant cons to this product is that cocoa hull mulch is toxic to pets and people.  If the dog, cat, or child eats the hulls, it will make them very sick and may kill them. 
  • Cypress mulch -- This is made from either chipped or shredded cypress trees.  Shredded cypress mulch is better than chipped because it tends to decompose faster and add more nutrients to your soil.  However, cypress mulch is not environmentally friendly as wild trees are being cut way too fast for baby cypress trees to replace them.  Using something else is better for the environment.
  • Leaves -- Leaves make excellent mulch and are usually free.  You can spread them around flower beds, vegetable beds, and around trees.  Leaves should be shredded by mowing over them before they are laid down on the surface you are mulching to keep them from matting.  Leaves also break down faster than some of the other mulches, so they are most often used in the winter to break down by spring gardening time.  This adds nutrients to the soil for your spring gardening.
  • Paper mulch --Newspapers are often used as mulch.  They can be spread down directly on the soil or shredded and spread.  Do not use any piece of paper with coloring on it.  That introduces the dyes, some of which are poisonous, into your garden soil.
  • Pine straw -- This may be free in areas where there are lots of pine trees.  It is a nice burnt orange color when fresh.  The down side of using pine straw is that it acidifies the soil where it is spread.  This makes it excellent mulch for acid loving plants such as blueberries, but can cause problems if plants need neutral or alkaline soil to grow well.
  • Rubber mulch -- This product is made from recycled rubber that is shredded.  It comes in different colors so you can choose the color you want to spread on your landscape.  It lasts for years as it is not decomposing the way wood chips and other organic mulches do. Rubber mulch lets through water and nutrients.  It does not absorb them the way wood chips or other mulches do.  This may mean you have to water your landscape more often to keep the soil at the right moisture level.
  • Straw mulch -- straw is the left over stalks of grain such as wheat.  It is usually inexpensive.  You can often purchase it from landscape companies.  It does decay relatively quickly, so you will have to add more each year.  It should be spread six inches deep for this purpose.  Straw is good for mulching perennials such as strawberries to protect them from the cold in winter.  It can easily be removed or tilled under the next spring. Straw may contain weed  seeds so you should spread three sheets of newspaper under it to keep the weed seeds from reaching the soil and germinating.
  • Wood chips --Many municipalities and tree trimmers give wood chips away as long as you haul them away yourself.  Wood chips take approximately a year for an inch of them to decay, so you put the chips down three inches deep.  Every year you add another inch of them to make up for what decayed and to freshen the look of the mulch.  You should know that some of the trees that are chipped are being cut down due to illness, so there is some danger of spreading disease with this type of mulch.  You will also have to spread extra nitrogen so that the microbes that break down the wood chips leave enough nitrogen for your plants.

Mulches are a gardener’s friend.  They work hard to protect your gardens, flower beds, and trees.  Do not let the number of different types of mulches phase you.  By learning what type of mulch is right for your needs, you can walk confidently down the mulch aisle and get exactly what you  and your plants need.