What you need to know about mulch

Without a doubt, mulch makes a garden look clean and tidy. But we're here to share some additional benefits mulch has to offer. We've also included a few words of caution and some methods of mulching that you might want to try in your own garden.
Whether you are pro-mulch or you prefer a minimalist approach, it's important as a gardener to keep an open mind and try out different gardening methods. Gardening is one large experiment, each year trying to expand upon last year's successes.
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Mulching your garden can improve your chances for success in several ways:
1. Mulch minimizes soil erosion. Heavy watering and rainfall can cause soil to erode, and mulch can help mitigate this, especially if some sort of barrier doesn't enclose your garden.
2. Mulch helps to retain moisture. A thick layer of mulch significantly reduces water loss due to evaporation, which is particularly important for new transplants.
3. Mulch regulates soil temperatures, insulating the soil during cool spells, and shielding it from the sun during the heat of the summer.
4. A consistent layer of mulch suppresses weeds. Mulch limits the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil's surface, which prevents many weed seeds from germinating and seedlings from growing.
5. Organic mulch enriches your soil. As straw, pine fines, grass clippings, wood mulches, and other organic mulches break down, they provide food for soil organisms and replenish the soil with nutrients.
As you can see, mulch has a lot to offer the home gardener.
However, there are a few things to avoid:
1. Don't bury your plants. Mulching too thick and too close to the base of your plants can smother them. It could also allow moisture to collect, which could cause stems to rot. This is especially important when employing deep mulching methods.
2. Don't allow your mulch to stick together too much. Breaking up your mulch now and again is a good idea. Organic mulches have the ability to become matted, which limits permeability. If water sits on the top of the mulch or rolls right off, lightly break it apart with a rake or pitchfork.
3. Avoid chemicals. Be aware of treated materials, whether with dyes or pesticides, which add undesired chemicals to your soil as the material breaks down. Inorganic sources of mulch, like plastic sheeting or weed cloth, could potentially leach chemicals into the soil as well.
Other general tips
If employing standard mulching methods, add 2 to 6 inches of untreated, organic material, mulching paths heavier and thinning the mulch out significantly as your reach the base of your plants. Also, don't mulch over any areas where you have directly sown seeds. The mulch will keep them from germinating in the same way it suppresses weed seeds. In most areas, spring is a good time to apply mulch, when perennial plants are still young but after directly sown seeds have grown to a couple of inches tall. Depending on the area you live in, mid to late summer may be a good time to reapply mulch in order to help retain soil temperature and prevent excessive evaporation during the heat of the summer. Keep an eye out for slugs and other moisture loving creatures, since organic mulches can actually provide homes for these pests.
Common mulch materials include:
Wood mulch
Some gardeners swear by using shredded wood to mulch their gardens and build their soil. Wood mulch is a great option, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. According to Barbara Pleasant, in an article she wrote for Mother Earth News, wood mulches have high cellulose and carbon content, which means they are slow to decompose and they require a lot of nitrogen to break down. As a result, mixing woody materials directly into the soil will tie up the available nitrogen for quite a while. If you want to mix woody mulch directly into the soil, first add composted manure or blood meal or some other organic source high in nitrogen in order to compensate for the extra nitrogen needed to break down the mulch. Wood mulch is better used as a surface mulch, as most of its surface area doesn't come in contact with the soil. Instead, fungus and bacteria aid in breaking down the wood mulch on the surface, and earthworms and other creatures slowly pull the organic material into the soil. Barbara Pleasant also discourages using mulch sourced from black walnut trees, which are known to release a toxin harmful to many plants.
Grass Clippings
Grass clippings decay more readily than other organic mulches, but if you have a lot to spare, they are a cost effective option. Just top off your gardens whenever needed and enjoy the benefits of the added nutrients, especially nitrogen, your garden receives as the grass clippings break down. Not to mention, if you use your own grass clippings you can ensure they haven't been treated with any chemicals. According to Barbara Pleasant in an article she wrote for GrowVeg, consider applying a lighter layer of grass clippings but more frequently, since thick layers can become soggy and severely matted.
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Straw
Straw can make great mulch. However, you'll want to ensure that it hasn't been treated with chemicals, which can be difficult. Also, according to Rol Staff of Rodale's Organic Life, it's important to source guaranteed weed-free straw. It if isn't specified, chances are it's mixed with hay, which is usually high in weed seeds. If you can find untreated, weed-free straw, it's a great organic mulch that lasts longer than grass clippings and still feeds your soil as it breaks down.
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