What is the best mulch for gardens? With ideas


Mulch is a material that covers the soil for a number of reasons which include conserving soil moisture, preventing diseases, and enriching the soil and eventually controlling weeds which is actually the main reason. For any garden to be healthy and beautiful, you need to 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, It is my opinion that 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 garden which is well-mulched 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 that are organic mulches and inorganic mulches. Organic mulches are those that are derived from remains of plant materials that decompose naturally and they include straw, shredded leaves, salt hay, compost, grass clippings and rotted hay just to name a few.

Inorganic mulches on the hand are those that are typically made from inert materials and they include gravel, polyester garden fabrics, carpet remnants and clear, black or coloured plastics among others.

Organic Mulch.

Grass clippings.

The amazing thing about grass clippings is that they tend to decompose quickly and they help the plants to 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 but instead, it produces too much heat and bad smell. Clippings from lawns that have been cured with chemicals such as herbicides and even fertilizers should be totally avoided.

Compost.

Compost generally constitutes of waste from the kitchen, rotten trash of decomposed organic ingredients and discarded yard. Good thing is that they are readily available and they give your plants enough nutrients for a long period of time for them 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.

Wood chips are the secondary products that we get from the timber industry, therefore, making them reachable by customer. They are on the verge of becoming the most common type of mulch used today and they come in different kinds and different colours.

Interestingly, these chips are used as mulch because of their huge defined size and the fact they are always free from pesticides and weeds. In case you obtain in different sizes; you can visit a garden centre to grade them into comprehensive sizes of your choice. Wood chips tend to use nitrogen in the decomposition process though they decompose in a gradual manner.

Before you begin scattering the wood chips on your garden, you need to first add a few organic nitrogen-containing fertilizers in order to hasten the process of breaking down.

Another option is to use innate plants that do not require many nutrients. If you are having trouble on where you can get wood chips at a negligible fee, a tree-care company or utility company might be your good choice.

Straw.

It is obtained from remains of legumes plants and grains after the process of harvesting takes place. It is considered as light mulch which decomposes at faster rate as 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.

The 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. There are other types of straws that can be used in gardens although they may have low nitrogen content and they include wheat and barley’

A slight inconvenience about straws is that they might harbor rodents such as rats and they can also be easily carried away by wind, so you need to be careful when using this type of mulch. Another challenge is that in some straws, you might find seeds which may sprout but you can get rid of them.

Hay.

Hay can be defined as grasses or legumes which have been cut well and dried under the sun. Hay tends to decompose in a proportionally simple manner giving your plant ample time to grow. To get the best yield out of your garden, it is recommended that you use hay that is free from any weeds or seeds otherwise this whole process will crumble down.

There is a high possibility that hay can also harbour rodents if piled up to tree trunks of vegetable stems, so in order to avoid any harm caused by these animals, you should avoid this.

Hay is highly recommended mulch because it has more benefits compared to other mulches, for instance reducing weeds, restoring soil moisture and finally incorporating soil moisture into the soil.

Leaves.

Mulch made of leaves will require you to make two to three layers of leaves on the ground which will definitely take a little time to decompose. After decomposition takes place, your garden will be free from weeds and the soil nutrients will increase with 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 and hence prevent water from entering through. This would then mean no oxygen in the soil. To learn how to make leaf mulch at home check out the video below.

Pine needles.

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, hence making them an absolute choice for gardens that are sloppy in nature. Pine needles have a slow decomposition rate unlike other types of organic mulches. After a considerable amount of time, they start turning gray or silver in color.

Recycled mulch.

This one is a bit affordable especially if you lack enough resources to use the other types of organic mulches. It is derived from curbside and it constitutes a mixture of different materials including pieces of glasses.

Sugar cane mulch.

This one is mostly sold in bales and it is generally made out of sugar cane leaves that have been well, dried under the sun. It is very cheap and is readily availed to customers in various local shops.

It has a very high decomposition rate and hence fosters the development of soil microorganisms. In order 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 the process of decomposition. For your garden to stay healthy and provide high-quality yields, these nutrients are needed in high amount.

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 is broken down, be sure that the yard will have free and natural nutrients.

There are a number of benefits attached to using compost mulch and they include;

Considerable amounts of nutrients, that is, 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 in reducing the amount of weed that might affect the plants on your garden.
  • It helps in uplifting the chemical, biological and physical elements of the soil.

Wood chips have a number of advantages when used as mulch and may include;

They break down in a gradual process.

Enhances better soil temperatures during winter, meaning that it acts as an insulator when added on soil with the right depth. In case of a snow cover, wood chips tend conserve soil moisture.

Helps in slowing down the growth of weed, by ensuring that the weeds get less sunlight, hence have retarded growth.

Wood chips help in preventing soil erosion by generating a protective layer especially during Windy and rainy seasons. It is therefore one of the best techniques used in affirming soil rigidity.

  • Wood chips resist pest attacks.
  • Hold water well
  • warms the soil

The advantages of using straw as mulch include;

It gives a natural look due to its light color which also reflects light to your plants hence keep soil temperatures stable.

Adds nitrogen to the soil hence healthy growth of the plants.

Straw is very convenient meaning it is very simple to work with. Once it is applied during the growing season, you need not to reapply again.

Helps in preventing soil erosion caused by rains.

The pros of using hay as mulch include;

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 into the ground and therefore reduces the need to water your plants in the garden.

Inorganic Mulch

As opposed to organic mulch, inorganic mulch is made of unnatural materials that cannot decompose readily. Materials suitable for use as organic mulch are such as plastic sheets, rocks (river rock, stone, or gravel chippings), recycled rubber, crushed glass, and geotextiles.

These materials have got benefits of their own that have rated them as some of the best mulch for gardens.

Plastic sheets

This type of mulch is made of a thin, durable sheets of PVC or polyethylene and their use has been happening for decades. Plastic sheets are mostly ideal in the course of commercial farming because plants need to remain healthy and well protected against elements such as 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 in the same way as 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.

Black sheets

Weed elimination

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 just 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. Absence of air and light leads to the weeds getting smothered and therefore eliminated.

Raising and maintaining soil temperature

This is because black colour 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 necessary requirement for growth.

Clear/transparent sheets

Weed elimination

These mulch sheets now allow light and warmth to pass through the soil but still depriving the weeds of air. Just like normal plants, weeds will suffocate due to soil air being limited under the clear sheets. Again, this results to some weeds being eliminated.

However, not all weeds can be eliminated using clear mulch sheets. Some weed species have become very well adapted to survive under limited air supply.

Increasing and maintaining soil temperature

The clear sheets are meant to increase warmth, maintain humidity and allow light through into the soil. These are perfect conditions for germination of seeds to take place. The sheets act as catalysts since they ensure these conditions prevail at all time, hastening the germination process.

That was barely scratching the surface on 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 to be more than the costs. The protection of plants from damages caused by human activities such as continuous cultivation and harvesting reduces possible loss of yields in the long run. The costs of weeding when farming traditionally (without plastic mulching) are 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 method of irrigation is the drip method. Hence, the mulch allows drip irrigation which also allows the maintenance of soil structure.

High quality produce

If the produce, such as fruits are hanging too low close to the ground, or are touching it, the quality does not get 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 down, they will be lying on the mulch while still intact 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 times of extreme temperatures, these sheets act as buffers to the soil. During winter when the temperatures are ice-cold, the plastic mulch insulates the soil against getting ice-cold. In the very hot summers, the clear plastic mulch allows some of the excessive soil heat to escape.

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.

Durability

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 the 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

Is also a good soil warmer leading to improved yields, and increases in soil water, air and nutrient contents.

Rocks

Rock mulches range from pea gravel, gravel, quarry stone, crushed stone, to riverbed rocks/lava rocks. Rocks are the best mulch for gardens with seedlings and simply 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 go 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 where moderate-temperature plants are planted.
  • Rock mulch is best adjacent to structures since it absorbs and reflects as much heat 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 prevents soil erosion. In areas where slopes are steep and surface run-off is pretty fast, rock mulch works to prevent loose soil from being swept off since it won’t float in water.

Rocks are generally probably not going to be blown off by the wind, unless it is pumice or lava rock. This is ideal where other types of mulch may not work best.

Recycled rubber

This is unheard of to quite a good number of people. It is simply made of old tire rubber which is recycled and ground for use in the gardens. Listed and explained below are the reasons why ground recycled rubber mulch is the best mulch for gardens to 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 colours and people happen to select the most attractive of colours 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 really hard 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.

Durability

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 for a very long time without having to replace it. Coloured mulch can retain its colour for so long.

Stability

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 for considerably long before having to replace it.

Warning about rubber mulch

One should note that rubber mulch still has not been proven to be safe when used as a mulch for food. Studies revealed that tyres and other products that rubber mulch maybe made from can leach into the soil

Effective

About 1.5 inches of rubber mulch gives the amount of service equal to that of 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. In fact, the rubber is recycled; it means old tire rubber has been put to some good long-term use.

Crushed Glass

This type of 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 look attractive especially when used together 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 soil moisture at optimal levels especially in both sandy and rocky soils.
  • Inexpensive. Tumbled glass can be given for free or sold very cheaply by glass recycling companies.

Geo-textiles

As the name suggests, these are fabrics used for making the earth look beautiful through landscaping. They are also great for draining and geo-engineering. Geo-textiles are generally both water and air-permeable and they’re of two types: landscape fabric and drainage fabric.

Advantages of geo-textiles

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. Geo-textiles are made of durable fabric. If well utilized, they could remain functional for many years.
  • User-friendliness. The fabrics are easily customizable into preferred size, shapes, and lengths/widths.
  • Prevents soil erosion. Geo-textiles 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. Geo textiles are the best mulch for gardens on hilly places that receive 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 making them weaker 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 both the rigid and flexible PVC pipes that work in the same way as the French pipes are less expensive but more durable and workable.

For all that are interested in gardening or are already gardeners, mulching is, indeed, very useful regardless of whether the gardening is commercial or subsistence. Clearly, there is a very wide scope to mulching and most of it is very easy. Therefore, mulching is not an option; it is very necessary. 

To learn more about garden mulch check out the video below. Where I take you through all the options available and their benefits in a more in-depth way.

Conclusion

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 microbial life too. This then helps to feed the plants providing you with a higher-yielding crop.

I hope you got some value from this post, If you did consider subscribing to the blog so you are notified each time I upload new content just like this. You can do that from the right-hand side-bar.

Remember folks you reap what you sow!

Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter and long term gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 45. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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