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Benefits of Mulching

Posted on 07 March 2011



Mulching, though somewhat tedious, time consuming and costly, has a number of benefits. Two obvious benefits of garden mulch are weed suppression and erosion control. Truthfully, any garden mulch distributed properly will cut down on weeds and erosion. 

Mulch is particularly good with reducing weeds as it covers evenly blocking sun to the weed root and thus slowing weed growth. In addition, mulch helps to keep erosion in check. With frequent watering or precipitation, mulch helps disperse the water more evenly throughout the soil and thus lowers erosion.

 Placing mulch around ornamental grasses will help the soil beneath remain cool, meaning you will have to water less. When you do water, the mulch will aid the soil in retaining that water longer. A successful summer insulator, mulch will both reduce the need for watering and protect roots against extreme heat. Extra bonus.

Generally, soils in moist climates tend to be acid and those in dry climates are alkaline. A soil with a pH lower than 7.0 is an acid soil and one with a pH higher than 7.0 is alkaline. Mulch can help adjust these levels, if necessary. Some argue, garden mulch has little impact on soil pH. For instance, while oak-leaf garden mulch may be acidic when fresh, most experts now say that it becomes more and more alkaline over time.  Sometimes the soil must be adjusted to suit the plant which will occupy that area. Furthermore, it is now generally thought that a garden mulch composed of pine needles lowers soil pH to only a negligible degree, if at all.   

There are two types of mulch, organic and inorganic. For our purpose we will cover only orgainic mulch, which can be defined as any material that provides protection and improves the soil when applied to the soil surface including wood and bark chips, straw, grass clippings and seed hulls.

USDA recommends mulch be applied according to the area you are covering as well as the type of mulch. Here is a look at the USDA mulch recommendations:

Bark mulch 2-4 inches Smaller chips are easier to spread, especially around small plants. Excellent for use around trees, shrubs, and perennial gardens. When spreading mulch around trees, keep the mulch an inch or two away from the trunk. A couple inches of mulch is adequate.
Wood chips 2-4 inches Similar to bark mulch. If using fresh wood chips that are mixed with a lot of leaves, composting may be beneficial.
Leaves 3-4 inches Best to chop and compost before spreading. If using dry leaves, apply about 6 inches.
Grass clippings 2-3 inches Thicker layers tend to compact and rot, becoming quite slimy and smelly. Add additional layers as clippings decompose. Do not use clippings from lawns treated with herbicides.
Newspaper 1/4 inch Apply sheets of newspaper and cover lightly with grass clippings or other mulch material to anchor. If other mulch materials are not available, cover edges of paper with soil. Applying on a windy day can be a problem.
Compost 3-4 inches Excellent material for enriching soil.

Mulch can often be purchased bagged or bulk from garden centers. Bulk may be cheaper if you need large volumes and have a way to haul it. Recycling centers also have free mulch available. Bagged mulch is often easier to handle, especially for smaller projects. Most bagged mulch comes in 3-cubic-feet bags.  Many gardeners use grass and leave clippings that have been re-mowed to fine particles and are then applied when dried.

Often garden mulch needs to be removed in spring as heavy organic garden mulches can smother emerging spring plants. This is obviously less of a factor, however, for plants that remain alive aboveground, throughout the winter. Those that are alive and ready to spring to life can profit from having the soil around their roots warmed by the spring sun, a process facilitated by the temporary removal of the garden mulch. Crocus and scilla, for example, seem to sprout forth as early as March in some parts of Colorado.

It seems to be a matter of balance when applying mulch to your garden or plants. Utilizing the package suggestions or USDA recommendations for mulching is helpful.  Mulch does have obvious benenfits and is generally utilized for optimal plant growth and happiness.

Written by Janine Buchal, March 2011


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