Mulch – your comprehensive guide

I am still amazed by the number of gardeners who aren’t convinced that mulching does anything other than provide a finished ‘look’.

I once had a client who refused any mulch on her (corporate) garden beds. She wanted to see clean black earth and nothing else (including weeds). She believed that the mulch delivery plus the labour for application was just more unneeded expenses on her bottom line.

April Don't do THIS 073

I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that budgeting for mulch is one of the best pay backs you will ever see in your garden.

Think of all the benefits of your mulching investment:

For starters, a good covering of mulch (3 inches) protects your plants. It keeps the roots cool in the hot summer months. It keeps moisture at the root level, where it’s needed. If properly applied, it eliminates rain water run off, and keeps that elixir of life right where you want it.

Mulch is always feeding and enriching your soil. As it slowly breaks down, those lovely little unseen critters in the ground are pulling it in as a food source. It’s heaven for earth worms and you must appreciate earth worms for the sheer amount of work they do in your garden, year after year.

Mulch suffocates weeds and their seeds. I hate weeding with a passion. I don’t have the time or the patience for it, especially when there’s little need to do it. I haven’t had a load of weeding to do in years, because I religiously mulch my gardens. And even if a small weed appears in your mulch, it’s weak and easy to pull. Sometimes I just nudge it with my foot and uproot it.

Mulch not to buy:

cedars, pruning, squirrels 005Do not use any of those dyed mulches. I love the look of black as much as anyone else…but it won’t last. And if the bag tells you it will–then it’s loaded with chemicals to make it stay that way. Black. Or RED. Ugh. Why hasn’t red mulch been eradicated from this earth by now? It’s not only ugly, it’s totally unnatural looking. There is no red like that in nature. If we all stopped buying it, production of it would stop, right?

cocoa mulchDo not use cocoa shell mulch if you have animals. Period. It’s toxic and fatal and it’s another product that should be discontinued in my opinion. It’s also really lightweight and will blow away come the first wind storm or rain storm. There’s really nothing to recommend it, other than its delightful smell of chocolate when first applied.

Low Cost Mulch:

Bulk. There are low cost options available now. You can order your mulch in bulk, in big bags or even dropped on your driveway, if you have lots of garden beds. You can even get it delivered in 2-3 cubic foot bags that are placed where you want them by those young and strong delivery people. It’s much nicer on the lower back, yes?

Landfill.  If you’re feeling particularly frugal, you can head out to the landfill and get free mulch. You have to dig it out into your own containers and bring it home. It’s dirty and hard work, no doubt. Do note that this mulch is loaded with sticks, as it’s barely one year old–it’s not complete mulch yet. It disappears rapidly, and you’re left with a garden bed of sticks (and oftentimes bits of garbage). But it’s definitely better than nothing.

shred your leavesNature’s bounty. If you live below pine trees you’ve a lovely supply of mulch already. Just rake it into place. And it’s a myth that pine needles will acidify your soil. No worries.

Fallen leaves. To think we rake it up and leave it for curb pick up! You must shred it with your weed whacker, or run over it with the lawn mower, to use as mulch.  It’s well worth the effort.

Do consider these Mulching materials:

Cedar mulch (shredded bark and hardwood) is always a winner. It’s wonderful smelling. It ages to a soft grey. It’s completely natural. It’s long lasting as it doesn’t break down quickly. It’s an excellent renewable source, as it’s a byproduct of timber harvests. It is a perfect insulator for your plants all year long for at least two years.

Cypress mulch. Much the same as cedar for it’s smell and long lasting properties, except for two important things. It’s not a renewable resource. It’s not as good at water retention as is cedar.

Pine Mulch is shredded pine bark, less expensive, retains its colour, but breaks down faster. It’s also lighter weight so erosion can be a problem.

Hemlock mulch is the shredded hardwood, which should be soft to the touch with a very slight red tinge. Watch out for dyed versions.

Black mulch is hardwood that’s been left to age into black.

Wood chips are best used for dog runs or children’s play areas, not garden beds. If you’re purchasing for a play area, ensure you are getting a certified organic playground product.

Large Bark mulch is beautiful and very expensive. It also takes forever to break down. I’d probably layer it with a cedar mulch below and top up for the ‘look’. Believe me, if someone has the budget for it, I’ll happily take the extra time it takes to lay it. It’s perfect for that woodland finish.

Composted mulch is by far the absolute best product on the market. It’s also expensive, as it’s a minimum of two years old, having been repeatedly wetted and turned into that natural black looking earthiness. It also disappears rapidly, as it’s feeding your soil at an incredible rate. Serious gardeners use this black gold. However, you can get the same impact by composting first and mulching second. Amending with compost every single year does wonders.

dandelion in rocksRiver rock. A very popular look with many gardeners. Do be aware however that weed seeds will blow into all those nooks and crannies, and you’ll be forever killing them. Boiling water does the trick, by the way. Or a bit of salt carefully applied before a rain. Or salt followed by boiling water. Way too much maintenance for me, personally.

cedars, pruning, squirrels 010Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. I love the idea of it, though it won’t add any nutrients to your soil. Depending on where it’s being applied, say corporate curb sides and such like, it will smother weeds, stay in place and last 10-20 years.

Ultimately, you generally do get what you pay for. Mulching is your investment in money, time and labour, so choose and spend wisely.

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