This is the time of year when I’m grateful to have a fresh layer of mulch in my garden beds. Not only will it help keep my plants protected during the winter, it offers a tidy, finished feeling once the showier features of the garden have faded. With little in the way of vibrant blooms and foliage, a thick layer of mulch is like tucking in a blanket against the cold.
In addition to protecting plants during winter months and deterring next season’s weeds, mulch retains moisture in the soil and enriches it as it breaks down. There are several different ways to go when adding mulch to your garden. You can buy either natural or artificial mulch, or use materials that are already available in your yard.
If your property has mature trees, there’s little point in mulching before the leaves have fallen. Any mulch you buy will be covered up, and besides, with all of the organic material raining down it’s both practical and environmentally sound to use what you have. Don’t bag it and your landfill will thank you; don’t burn it and your neighbors will thank you. Leaves are a natural mulch that can both protect your plants and amend your soil—they are full of nutrients such as potassium, carbon, and phosphorous—and if you have heavy clay soil, they will help to lighten it over time.
As we all know, leaves will blow around in dry blustery weather, while in wet weather whole leaves can compact into a mat and prevent rain from penetrating, so it’s important to shred them before adding to your garden. One of the easiest ways to do this while also cleaning up your yard is to mow the fallen leaves. This works best with a limited amount of material, as heavy leaf fall will overwhelm most mowers. For bigger jobs, a leaf vacuum is invaluable. It looks like a push mower, but the blades shred the leaves into a large capacity bag. There are also vacuum attachments for ride-on mowers.
It’s perfectly fine to include grass clippings with shredded leaves, as they will break down quickly and add further nutrients. Just be sure not to use too much, since a thick layer of grass can get wet and moldy. One further warning: Grass that has weed killers or pesticides could carry that into your garden and potentially cause damage.
Pine needles can also be used as mulch, though again they can blow around if used on their own. They are somewhat acidic but become more neutral as they break down, so unless you’re working them directly into your soil, your plants probably won’t be affected.
And of course, if you have a compost pile, compost makes an excellent mulch. Whichever mulch you use, remove any dead branches on shrubs and any faded seasonal stuff before spreading it. This will ensure your garden beds look neat and are prepared for the next growing season.
If you don’t have your own raw material available, or you prefer to purchase landscaping mulch, there are various options. Shredded hardwood bark is often a byproduct of lumber and paper industries, ergo part of the recycling process. Wood chips, or bark nuggets, are another alternative. They are slow to break down and so will last longer than shredded bark, but they do float and can wash away in heavy rain. Both bark and chips are available in multiple colors, including shades of red, brown, and black. If you have pets, be aware that dark mulch might stain their paws and potentially track into the house.
Straw is mostly used for vegetable gardens and does a good job of controlling mud. Just be sure there are no seeds in it, or come spring they’ll turn into weeds.
For homeowners wanting a long-lasting mulch, rubber mulch—made from recycled tires—has been suggested.
While it won’t host termites or nuisance pests, it also won’t host beneficial bugs. Nor does it improve your soil; in fact, it’s more likely to leach chemicals into your garden. Add to that the fact that it is flammable, and rubber is generally not recommended by landscapers as a mulch material.
Pea gravel, however, makes a fine alternative to organic mulch. Not to be confused with regular gravel, pea gravel has a smooth, round shape and comes in various earthy tones. Its attractive appearance makes it a great choice for both garden beds and paths. While it won’t decompose, it will get hotter than organic mulch, so be careful with delicate plants. It also does best with some sort of edging to prevent it from escaping its borders over time.
How much mulch?
If you’re mulching more than a small area, it’s best to skip lugging home bags of mulch from the garden center and order a delivery. Local nurseries and landscape businesses often sell mulch by the pallet or scoop. One cubic yard of mulch will cover a 10 x 10 area with about three inches of material. A scoop of mulch is generally about 1.25 cubic yards, giving you about 120 square feet of coverage.
No matter which kind you choose, a blanket of mulch will enhance your winter curb appeal and make for happy plants now and into the next growing season. Whether you use what you have from your garden, or buy an attractive finishing touch from your local landscape business, now is a smart time to tackle this important garden project. ✦