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Mulching is one of the best ways to achieve and maintain that green garden look. It's something that if you do it right, one application can last for several years.

Mulch is nothing more than a layer of protective material that is placed over the soil in your garden and around your plants and shrubs. It can be organic material, a  mineral or a synthetic material.  As the gardener, you will need to choose which type you think will be best for your garden.

Mulch can be heavy or light but needs to be permeable enough to allow water and air to pass through it, yet dense enough to inhibit or eliminate the growth of weeds and not be blown away.

Mulch should be applied at the beginning of the growing season in sufficient quantities so it will last at least through the season.


Why Mulch

Here are some of the reasons that it's a good idea to apply mulch to your garden:

  • It will help to insulate the soil and moderate the soil temperature so it doesn't get so hot in the summer and as cold in the winter.
  • It helps retain soil moisture by protecting it from the sun and wind.
  • It helps control weeds by blocking the sunlight.  A good layer will keep almost all weeds from germinating.
  • As organic mulch decays it will add nutrients to the soil.
  • It helps protect the soil from erosion by slowing down the actions of hard wind and rain.

One instance where you wouldn't want to apply mulch would be in low-lying wet areas where the soil needs to be expose so it will stay dryer.


Organic Mulch

Examples of organic mulch are tree bark, grass clippings, pine needles, shredded leaves, hay, straw, pine straw, sawdust, wood chips, shredded newspaper, and cardboard

Organic mulches consist of plant matter in one form or another and they will decompose over time.  As the mulch breaks down, it will add nutrients to the soil.

The lighter mulches from paper and wood products tend to be washed away more easily by heavy rains and may allow weeds to grow up through them unless they are applied in a thick layer of several inches.  However, bark and wood chips are very popular mulching materials and will give your garden area a very attractive look because of the texture and color. 

Large cedar chips are an excellent mulch because the larger size will not blow or wash away as easily as smaller pieces and cedar is a naturally bug resistant material.

Grass clippings and pine straw are a good mulching material. They start breaking down quickly to enrich the soil and tend not to wash away as easily as other wood products.  If you do use grass clippings, be sure they don't contain pesticide residues.


Mineral Mulch

Mineral mulches like crushed stone, gravel and volcanic rock have a tendency to get worked into the soil so it is harder to scrape them back when you want to plant or expose the soil. 

They also will absorb the heat of the sun so in the summer, areas mulched with rocks will retain the afternoon heat longer, not only raising the temperature around the plants but reflecting more heat from the surface of the rocks back up to the plants.  So if you want to use mineral mulch, be sure it is around hardy plants that can handle the heat.  In northern climates this is a good thing because the heat retained by rocks will extend the growing season of your plants.

The nice thing about mineral mulches is that they are pretty much permanent.  Once applied, they won't blow away or decay.  One application will suffice for many years unless you have kids in the neighborhood who might like to add to their rock collections or sand boxes.


Synthetic Mulch

Synthetic mulches include plastics and geoextiles.

Plastic mulch is generally in the form of plastic sheets.  Plants can be grow through slits or holes cut in the plastic sheeting. This method is widely used in large-scale vegetable growing.  Many times when a gardener uses plastic sheets, they will then use a second mulch layer on top of the sheets to hold them in place and to give additional protection.

Plastic does have the problem of being disposed.  Some consider this disposal to be an environmental problem.

Geotextiles are the other type of synthetic mulch.  This is fabric mulch made out of polypropylene or polyester.  A tightly woven geotextile mulch will allow water and fertilizer to enter the soil but will inhibit the growth of weeds. .

For a better garden you should place some mulch around your plants. It won't be a cure-all for your moisture, erosion and weed problems, but if you can spend the time and money, it will go a long way in giving you a healthier and easier to maintain garden.

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