Mulching Explained

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on August 4, 2010

Mulching does more than make a garden look neat.  It conserves water and helps keep weeds and diseases at bay.  It even helps fertilize the garden.  Read on for tips on mulching your garden.

When you look at a forest that is undisturbed, you find a thick layer of leaves on the ground.  Those on the bottom of the pile are mostly decayed, while those on the top are fresh.  Over time, the decaying leaves become fertilizer for the trees and other plants in the forest.  This is how mother nature fertilizes and protects her plants.

When you plant a garden or flower bed, the first thing you do is clear away the dead leaves and vegetation.  Then you plant your garden.  If you are good at gardening, you have tilled the ground to a depth of six inches, then worked in three inches of compost.  This gives you a rich base in which to plant.

Do not stop there, however.  When you transplant something, mulch around it.  If you plant seeds, wait until they come up and are about three inches high, then mulch around them.

Mulch helps hold the soil in place during a rain.  It keeps dirt from splashing on the leaves of the plant when it is being watered, or when it is raining, thus keeping down diseases.  Mulch helps hold water so that the plant can use it.  This cuts down on irrigation and avoids wasting water.  When your plants have fruits or vegetables, mulch keeps them clean and reduces insect damage from pill bugs and similar insects.  Finally, mulch insulates the plant crown and roots, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the heat.

What to use?  Many cities chip the tree limbs they cut around power lines.  Some give that away free — you just have to go pick it up.  Others sell it.  That is one source of mulch.  You can buy it in bulk from landscape supply places, or buy small quantities from home and garden places.

Pine straw is often used as mulch.  It can acidify the soil, however, so be careful when using it.  Cocoa bark, from the tree that produces the chocolate bean, is also sold.  It and coconut husks are poisonous to dogs, so be careful if you use it.  Some people use plastic mulch, but it doesn’t work as well as straw or wood chips and isn’t as environmentally friendly.  Straw works and so does sawdust.  Most of the time, though, chipped up tree limbs are used.

How much?  The first year is expensive.  You need to put down 3-4 inches of mulch.  This will make it harder for the weeds to grow through, conserves water, and keeps your vegetables clean.  Every year after this, you add one inch of mulch to the top of the pile.  Over the course of a year, the bottom inch of the mulch decomposes, becoming fertilizer for your plants.  If you add an inch to the top each year, you maintain the mulch layer at the optimum depth and freshen up the appearance of the mulch.

You will still need to add nitrogen fertilizer to your plants, but you should not have to add as much as if you did not have mulch.  If you are mulching something like a vegetable garden that starts over each year, straw is a better choice than wood chips.  After the garden is done, you can turn the straw into the soil and it will decompose during the winter to provide additional organic material in the spring for the new garden.

What questions on mulching can I answer for you?  How do you use mulch?

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Available in print or ebook from or other retailers, this book walks you from choosing the site of your garden all the way through what to do after the harvest. Buy a copy for yourself or a friend today! 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Jacobs August 4, 2010 at 10:26 am

Good article about mulch. I might add that the issue of pine straw being acidic is mostly a myth. I did some testing and wrote an article addressing the issue if you’d like to give it a read: heard pinestraw is acidic and will make my soil acidic and is only good for acid loving plants?


Will August 5, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Heh her is the respnse cached error again. Oh well. I was going to say that using a mulch that is already mostly decomposed is the best idea. I have had to pull wood chips out of gardens because they tie up all the nitrogen as they slowly decompose.
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Stephanie Suesan Smith August 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm

You have to add extra nitrogen to help the decomposition, but the mulch should lie on top and take a year to decompose the bottom inch of the mulch layer or so.


Kate Hayes August 6, 2010 at 9:46 pm

This is very interesting! My husband and I just bought a house with lots of gardening to do…so your site may be a great resource for us. Stopped by from the Blog Hop. Thanks for checking out my blog too! I’m glad to have found you. Now I know where to bring my gardening questions. 🙂
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Stephanie Suesan Smith August 7, 2010 at 7:44 am

That is what I am here for. If you have specific questions, let me know and I will try to answer them in a post or point you toward a post that is already up that answers them.


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