Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
Mulch is a material that covers the soil for several reasons, which include conserving soil moisture, preventing diseases, enriching the soil, and eventually controlling weeds which is the main reason. For any garden to be healthy and beautiful, you must apply mulch in the best and most effective way possible.
What’s the best mulch to use in the garden? After many years of using mulch, I think they all work. But there are three that I find the best—compost, straw, and wood chips. We will cover these in more detail further in this article.
A Well-Mulched Garden
A well-mulched garden will give you the best produce, while vice versa is true simply because a well-mulched garden prevents the number of ailments that affect your garden.
Mulch can be classified into two broad categories: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches are derived from remains of plant materials that decompose naturally, including straw, shredded leaves, salt hay, compost, grass clippings, and rotted hay, to name a few.
On the other hand, inorganic mulches are typically made from inert materials, including gravel, polyester garden fabrics, carpet remnants, and clear, black, or colored plastics, among others.
The amazing thing about grass clippings is that they decompose quickly and help the plants grow by emitting nitrogen. To create good mulch, you need to use dry grass to create a heap of layers that will assemble progressively to a few inches thick.
The reason why you should avoid using green grass is that it does not decompose easily. Instead, it produces too much heat and a bad smell. Clippings from lawns cured with chemicals such as herbicides and fertilizers should be avoided.
Compost generally constitutes waste from the kitchen, rotten trash of decomposed organic ingredients, and discarded yard. The good thing is that they are readily available, giving your plants enough nutrients for a long period to grow healthier.
These nutrients include nitrogen and carbon, which are present in the soil. The composting materials will, over time, restore all the soil properties and overcome any toxic substance that might prevent the plant from thriving.
Wood chips are the secondary products we get from the timber industry, making them reachable by customers. They are on the verge of becoming the most common mulch used today, and they come in different kinds and colors.
Interestingly, these chips are used as mulch because of their huge, defined size and the fact they are always free from pesticides and weeds. You can visit a garden center to grade them into extended sizes if you obtain them in different sizes. Wood chips use nitrogen in the decomposition process though they decompose gradually.
Before scattering the wood chips on your garden, add a few organic nitrogen-containing fertilizers to hasten to breakdown.
Another option is to use natural plants that do not require many nutrients. If you are struggling with where you can get wood chips at a nominal fee, a tree care or utility company might be your good choice.
It is obtained from the remains of legumes, plants and grains after the harvesting process. It is considered light mulch, which decomposes at a faster rate compared to other types of mulches. The great thing about straws is that they have high volumes of nitrogen, especially those from Lucerne and peas.
Nitrogen helps the plant to grow healthy and produce high-quality yields. They are mostly used in vegetable gardens where the high nutrient content can be used diligently. Other straws, including wheat and barley, can be used in gardens, although they may have low nitrogen content.
A slight inconvenience about straws is that they might harbor rodents such as rats and can also be easily carried away by the wind, so you must be careful when using this type of mulch. Another challenge is that you might find seeds that may sprout in some straws, but you can get rid of them.
Hay can be defined as grasses or legumes cut well and dried under the sun. Hay tends to decompose proportionally, giving your plant ample time to grow. To get the best yield out of your garden, it is recommended that you use hay free from any weeds or seeds; otherwise, this whole process will crumble.
There is a high possibility that hay can also harbor rodents if piled up on tree trunks of vegetable stems, so to avoid any harm caused by these animals, you should avoid this.
Hay is highly recommended because it has more benefits than other mulches, for instance, reducing weeds, restoring soil moisture, and incorporating soil moisture into the soil.
Mulch made of leaves will require you to make two to three layers of leaves on the ground, which will take a little time to decompose. After decomposition, your garden will be free from weeds, and the soil nutrients will increase by a bigger percentage.
Only shredded leaves should be used simply because when the leaves are big, they can form a thin surface layer when wet, preventing water from entering through. This would then mean no oxygen in the soil. Watch the video below to learn how to make leaf mulch at home.
If the main reason why you want to mulch your garden is to elevate the acidity level of the soil, then using pine needles would be an excellent alternative. They are very appealing and stick in one place compared to other mulches, making them an absolute choice for sloppy gardens.
Unlike other organic mulches, pine needles have a slow decomposition rate. After a considerable amount of time, they start turning gray or silver.
This one is a bit affordable,- especially if you lack enough resources to use the other organic mulches. It is derived from curbside and constitutes a mixture of different materials, including pieces of glass.
Sugar cane mulch.
This one is mostly sold in bales and is generally made from sugar cane leaves well-dried under the sun. It is cheap and readily available to customers in various local shops.
It has a very high decomposition rate and hence fosters the development of soil microorganisms. To have the best yields in your garden, the only thing you need to do is to top it up frequently.
BENEFITS OF USING ORGANIC MULCHES.
Grass clippings have several benefits, which include;
Providing a high number of nutrients to the soil, not only nitrogen but also phosphorus and potassium, through decomposition. These nutrients are needed in high amounts for your garden to stay healthy and provide high-quality yields.
Another benefit of mulching using grass clippings is that it helps you in reducing waste. At first, you might feel like you are generating a lot of waste, especially since the clippings remain in the yard, but the fact is, you are not. Those clippings are the organic matter needed in the decomposition stage.
The next benefit is that after the grass clippings are broken down, be sure that the yard will have free and natural nutrients.
There are several benefits attached to using compost mulch, and they include the following;
Considerable amounts of nutrients, carbon and nitrogen, are added to the soil frequently, especially when it rains, and the water runs through the compost. These nutrients improve the quality of the soil.
- Compost mulch has a high-water retention capacity.
- It helps in reducing soil erosion.
- It helps reduce the number of weeds that might affect the plants in your garden.
- It helps uplift the soil’s chemical, biological and physical elements.
Wood chips have several advantages when used as mulch and may include the following;
They break down in a gradual process.
It enhances better soil temperatures during winter, which acts as an insulator when added to soil with the right depth. Wood chips conserve soil moisture in the case of a snow cover.
It helps slow the growth of weeds by ensuring that the weeds get less sunlight, hence having retarded growth.
Wood chips help prevent soil erosion by generating a protective layer, especially during Windy and rainy seasons. It is, therefore, one of the best techniques to affirm soil rigidity.
- Wood chips resist pest attacks.
- Hold water well
- warms the soil
The advantages of using straw as mulch include the following;
It gives a natural look due to its light color, reflecting light to your plants hence keeping soil temperatures stable.
Adds nitrogen to the soil, therefore, the healthy growth of the plants.
Straw is very convenient, meaning it is straightforward to work with. You need not reapply again once it is applied during the growing season.
It helps in preventing soil erosion caused by rain.
The pros of using hay as mulch include the following;
Hay gets rid of tilling and weed removal because the dead plants are absorbed into the mulch; hence no need to turn over the soil.
Hay is well known for its ability to trap moisture in the ground and reduce the need to water your plants in the garden.
Unlike organic mulch, inorganic mulch is made of synthetic materials that cannot decompose readily. Materials for organic mulch include plastic sheets, rocks (river rock, stone, or gravel chippings), recycled rubber, crushed glass, and geotextiles.
These materials have benefits of their own that have rated them as some of the best mulch for gardens.
This mulch is made of thin, durable sheets of PVC or polyethylene, which has been used for decades. Plastic sheets are ideal in commercial farming because plants must remain healthy and well-protected against harsh prevailing weather for maximum productivity.
But it is also recently being applied for subsistence or home farming and is now the best mulch for gardens. As a result, more and more people are using plastic mulch. The mulch generally works like organic mulch; by preventing soil erosion and reducing moisture loss through evaporation.
Plastic mulch comes in 2 main types:
- Black Sheeting
- Transparent Sheeting
Each type has its unique capabilities, as stated below.
Being black, the sheets are opaque, which means no light passes through them. The sheets also prevent air passage. However, there is warmth. Weeds survive like normal plants since they need sufficient light to synthesize food through photosynthesis on the leaves.
They also need air since leaves are their breathing apparatus. The absence of air and light makes the weeds smothered and eliminated.
Raising and maintaining soil temperature.
This is because black color absorbs and retains heat more than it can emit. This is ideal during cold seasons. By increasing the soil temperature, plants germinate and grow faster since warmth/optimal temperatures are a requirement for growth.
These mulch sheets now allow light and warmth to pass through the soil while depriving the weeds of air. Like normal plants, weeds will suffocate due to limited soil air under the clear sheets. Again, this results in some weeds being eliminated.
However, not all weeds can be eliminated using clear mulch sheets. Some weed species have adapted well to survive under a limited air supply.
Increasing and maintaining soil temperature
The clear sheets are meant to increase warmth, maintain humidity and allow light into the soil. These are perfect conditions for the germination of seeds to take place. The sheets act as catalysts, ensuring these conditions always prevail, hastening the germination process.
That was barely scratching the surface of the benefits of plastic mulching. Further reasons why plastic sheets are among the best mulch for gardens are explained below.
Higher productivity (yields and profits)
Indeed, it makes greater financial sense to use plastic mulch since the overall returns always get more than the costs. Protecting plants from damage caused by human activities such as continuous cultivation and harvesting reduces the possible loss of yields in the long run. Weeding costs when farming traditionally (without plastic mulching) is greatly minimized as profits skyrocket.
Better soil structure
Plant nutrients are maintained, and the arrangement of soil layers remains intact as long as you use plastic mulch. This is as opposed to traditional farming, where gardeners continually disturb the soil, leaving the soil structure messed up and essential soil nutrients lost.
Soil erosion also disrupts the soil structure. When using plastic mulch, the best irrigation method is the drip method. Hence, the mulch allows drip irrigation and the maintenance of soil structure.
If the produce, such as fruits, is hanging too low close to the ground or touching it, the quality is not compromised as long as you use plastic mulch. This is because crawling pests that injure and damage the fruits are kept at bay.
Even if fruits fall, they will lie on the mulch while waiting for collection. The mulch also prevents infections in the soil that may attack the fruit. Aside from quality, the fruits also remain clean.
Insulation against extreme temperatures
In extreme temperatures, these sheets act as buffers to the soil. During winter, when ice-cold temperatures, the plastic mulch insulates the soil against getting ice-cold. The clear plastic mulch escapes some excess soil heat in sweltering summers.
This keeps moderate temperatures in the soil. This is useful in protecting temperature-sensitive plants against damage by extremities in temperatures. As a bonus, plastic mulch helps some fruit varieties to get out of winter dormancy.
Some clear plastic sheets are made to be stable under UV exposure, making them serve your garden for many years.
Other types of plastic sheets are IRT plastic and red plastic mulch.
IRT plastic mulch
It is better than black and clear sheets in heating and maintaining the soil heat but also equally great at suppressing weeds. It is the best mulch for gardens with heat-seeking crops such as tomatoes.
Red plastic mulch
It is also a good soil warmer, leading to improved yields and increases in soil water, air, and nutrient contents.
Rock mulches range from pea gravel, gravel, quarry stone, and crushed stone to riverbed rocks/lava rocks. Rocks are the best mulch for gardens with seedlings and rock gardens. The best size of rocks for use as mulch is at least 1.5 inches in diameter. Bigger rocks may be pressed onto the ground to make them deeper into the soil.
Benefits of using rocks as mulch
For plants requiring dry soil conditions, rocks allow moisture to evaporate, saving the plants from the possibility of root rot.
- Allowing water penetration from above – rainfall and overhead irrigation.
- Adding to the aesthetic value of flower beds and landscape beds. Rocks make them look clean and attractive.
- Weed elimination. When rock mulch is considerably thick, weeds can hardly survive. It can be used together with either plastic sheets or landscape fabric.
- Insulates the soil. Rock is capable of absorbing and reflecting solar heat. This keeps the soil temperatures from getting extreme, making it the best mulch for gardens with moderate-temperature plants.
- Rock mulch is best adjacent to structures since it absorbs and reflects as much heat as possible but can never burn. This is ideal for areas prone to fire, such as fire pits.
- Prevents excessive evaporation of moisture from the soil.
Rocks prevent soil erosion. In steep slopes, and surface run-off is pretty fast, rock mulch prevents loose soil from being swept off since it won’t float in water.
The wind will probably not blow off rocks unless it is pumice or lava rock. This is ideal where other types of mulch may not work best.
This is unheard of to quite a good number of people. It is made of old tire rubber recycled and ground for use in the gardens. Listed and explained below are why ground-recycled rubber mulch is the best for gardens for some people.
Benefits of Rubber Mulch
- Its moisture retention capability. It can keep moisture in the soil for a long time without evaporating.
- Weed smothering capability. It works by killing weeds by preventing light passage.
- Adds aesthetic value to the garden. Some rubber mulch comes in different colors, and people select the most attractive colors to give their gardens unique looks.
- Great insulation. In extreme weather conditions, rubber mulch will shield the soils from these extremities.
- Keeps off pests. Pests such as ants and termites are no match against rubber mulch. Rubber, especially from tires, is tough for them to chew on using their mandibles.
- Keeps of weeds and infections. Rubber mulch won’t ever be a perfect substrate for fungi since it is not absorbent.
Rubber generally lasts long, even when used on the road. When used as mulch, it will last even longer. It also degrades very slowly. Hence, rubber mulch will serve your garden very long without replacing it. Colored mulch can retain its color for so long.
Rubber mulch isn’t easily blown off by wind or swept away by water. It could also serve as the best mulch for gardens in windy and high-rainfall areas.
Easy to maintain
Due to durability and stability, rubber mulch will serve your garden long before replacing it.
Warning about rubber mulch
One should note that rubber mulch has not been proven safe for food. Studies revealed that tires and other products that rubber mulch may be made from could leach into the soil.
About 1.5 inches of rubber mulch gives a service equal to 3 inches of organic mulch. Therefore, you can get more value with less rubber mulch.
Saves the environment. Applying rubber mulch means you won’t have to damage trees. The rubber is recycled; it means old tire rubber has been put to good long-term use.
This mulch is made of crushed glass that is recycled, tumbled, or graded, not just any glass, such as broken bottles and glasses.
Benefits of crushed glass
- Durability. Crushed glass is more durable than raw/normal glass. Tumbling is meant to make the glass more durable.
- Aesthetic value. Tumbled and crushed glass makes the garden attractive, especially when used with rock mulch or in a rock garden.
- Safety. Tumbling also removes the sharp edges. Therefore, it prevents injuries to gardeners.
- Environmental friendliness. Glass mulch is made of recycled glass. Therefore, the environment becomes free of waste glass which does not easily degenerate. It is also a suitable alternative for sand.
- Thermoregulation. Glass mulch keeps soil temperatures optimal.
- Hydro regulation. It also maintains optimal soil moisture, especially in sandy and rocky soils.
- Inexpensive. Tumbled glass can be given for free or sold cheaply by glass recycling companies.
As the name suggests, these are fabrics used for making the earth look beautiful through landscaping. They are also great for draining and geoengineering. Geotextiles are generally water and air-permeable, and they’re of landscape fabric and drainage fabric.
Advantages of geotextiles
Eliminates weeds. The mulch is applied slightly below the soil surface, allowing passage of water, air, and nutrients but never that of weeds.
- Environmental friendliness. The fabric used doesn’t poison the soil through chemical dyes.
- Durability. Geotextiles are made of durable fabric. If well utilized, they could remain functional for many years.
- User-friendliness. The fabrics are easily customizable into preferred sizes, shapes, and lengths/widths.
- Prevents soil erosion. Geotextiles allow water through them but not soil movement. Thus, it also enhances drainage since water can only sip downwards through the soil if not upwards.
- Prevents landslides. Geotextiles are the best mulch for gardens in hilly places with high rainfall. The fabrics reduce the excessive water dampness that brings instability of soil in such areas.
Best for use near structures. In this case, drainage fabric is applicable. Buildings such as houses have their foundation underneath the soil. An example of drainage fabric, such as the French drain, can be used near them.
Normally, these foundations are made of stone which gets wet, weakening them over time. Therefore, French drains would work by diverting the wetness to someplace else.
They can be installed both indoors and outdoors. Another example of drainage fabric is rigid and flexible PVC pipes that work the same way as the French pipes and are less expensive but more durable and workable.
For all interested in gardening or are already gardeners, mulching is beneficial regardless of whether the gardening is commercial or subsistence. There is a vast scope to mulching, and most of it is easy. Therefore, mulching is not an option; it is essential.
To learn more about garden mulch, check out the video below. I will take you through all the options available and their benefits in a more in-depth way.
Mulch is not only going to save you time, but it will also save you money on irrigating your plants. It will make your job much easier by cutting down weeds, and it’s much better for the soil’s microbial life. This then helps to feed the plants providing you with a higher-yielding crop.
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Remember, folks, you reap what you sow!