Mulch: Ugly Name, Beautiful Results

It is always important to remember that your lawn or garden is an ecosystem. It is an exciting mix of growing plants and decaying remains, inert minerals, and a broad spectrum of living organisms – all contributing to the health and attractiveness of your property.Your yard is an outdoor living space  One of the simplest and most effective ways you can influence this system for the better is through the judicious use of mulch around trees and in planting beds. Mulching provides many different advantages and can dramatically improve the looks and health of your favorite outdoor space.


When you spread mulch under a tree or around a vegetable garden, you provide several improvements to the plants in the area. Mulch acts as a blanket for the roots it covers, keeping them warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. This moderating influence allows for a longer growing season and protects your plants from extremes that occur throughout the year. Most importantly, a smart covering of mulch slows evaporation and therefore reduces the amount of water needed by the plants. Additionally, a thick coat of mulch makes it harder for weeds that compete for nutrients to take root amongst desired plants. When weeds to appear, it is much easier to remove them if they are attempting to root in mulch rather than deep in the soil. Less critically, but more visually, mulch helps you produce a neat, organized appearance in the public parts of your “spread.”

Organic Mulch

The primary type of mulch used today is organic mulch. This consists of processed and sometimes aged organic material that is spread about the base of a tree or underneath bushes and garden plants. Organic mulch breaks down over time and needs to be replenished every other year and replaced totally every decade. This breakdown provides much needed nutrients and soft particles to the soil but can be minimized through the use of hardwood mulch, which lasts longer than other types.  Mulch produced from soft woods like pine is generally less expensive and is often considered more attractive. Care must be taken; however, as pine mulch will float and wash away in heavy rain. If you or your neighbors have termite problems, soft woods should simply be avoided.

Typical hardwood mulch
Typical hardwood mulch

If attractiveness is less important (in a backyard, for instance) consider reusing grass clippings or pine needles. They provide many of the same benefits and reduce waste. In certain situations, you may want to consider cedar mulch. Although very expensive, cedar oil is one of the few things in nature that humans find pleasant but is hated by biting insects. This type of mulch is normally purchased in large bags at garden centers and hardware stores.

Inorganic Mulch

Most of mulch’s advantages are provided by its physical presence. It is literally acting as a blanket on top of the soil. Consequently, inorganic materials can be used in the same manner to produce most of the benefits of traditional mulch with the added plus of a longer lifespan and tailored appearance. Rubber mulch is often used in playground situations and is produced by grinding old tires into chunks, removing any metal wire, and dying it to an attractive finish. In many situations crushed stone or river rock can provide the benefits of mulch along with a permanent, attractive appearance. Weed barriers are also considered mulch. This is a finely woven fabric, normally placed underneath another layer of mulch, that allows water and air to penetrate but prevents weed seeds from sprouting from underneath. In a garden setting, if performance is the overriding concern, newspaper and cardboard are both excellent, if unattractive mulches. Earthworms are attracted to both and they will rise to consume the paper, providing outstanding compost in their wake. A nice double layer of cardboard, heavily watered on both sides will dramatically improve your soil in a season or to as the paper disintegrates to nothing.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

There are only a couple of things to keep in mind if you are planning to mulch this season. Trees and other woody plants are picky about their feet. Don’t pile up the mulch on top of tree roots too deep as it can cause rotting if damp mulch presses against the trunk all the time. Stick to a maximum depth of four or five “fluffy” inches in all cases. The very base of the plant should be exposed, so leave a small bare patch immediately around the trunk. If you have a newly planted tree, shape the mulch into a bowl shape around the trunk to retain water that new transplants need.

It is common to want an attractive lawn, but not everyone has a green thumb. Proper mulching techniques lead directly to healthier plants and a prettier yard. Once you have dressed up your land with some pretty mulch, you will want to spend more time outside and your plants will thank you for your help in combating winter, summer and pests.

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