Mulch: More than Just a Pretty Face
When you picture a garden with mulch, what do you envision? Is it simply a pretty finishing touch to your formal gardens with shrubs and flowers? Is it even necessary for vegetable gardens? Hardly.
If you’re a true gardener, there’s nothing quite so gratifying as nurturing your one-time seedlings into beautiful and productive flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Of course, weather, or rather the unpredictability of it, can sometimes do a number on plants and undo all your hard work. Pests can also harm plants. Adding mulch to your garden, however, can help your plants weather the weather and encourage good insects.
What is mulch, anyway?
Mulch is basically a coating of material spread over garden beds to help protect and enrich the soil beneath them. And while it’s true that various mulches are aesthetically pleasing, they play a far more important role in the life of garden plants. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers grown in mulch-covered beds have a leg up on those grown in bare soil as they add an important layer of protection from harsh sunlight, heavy rain, or freezing temperatures.
Mulch can be made from either organic or inorganic materials, and each offers something valuable to plant and soil protection.
Common organic mulches include:
- chipped or shredded bark
- dry grass clippings
- pine needles
- hay or straw
- shredded leaves
- kitchen food scraps
Organic mulches all decompose at varying rates, adding much-needed nutrients like nitrogen and carbon to the soil as they do so. They also prevent evaporation thereby keeping moisture in the soil.
Shredded leaves, in particular, are especially good for vegetable gardens as they are inviting to earthworms. Worms, who feed on the leaves, help to loosen soil and oxygenate it. This makes it easier for water to infiltrate and help plants grow. Straw mulches spread over vegetable gardens in the fall will slowly decompose over the winter and welcome beneficial insects like spiders. And come spring, it’s easy to rake up.
There are other benefits to be had from organic mulches. For example, mulch helps to suppress the growth of weeds, and it keeps soil and plant roots cool and protected from the sun’s harsh rays.
Common inorganic mulches include:
- black plastic tarp
- landscape fabric
- gravel and stone
Unlike their organic cousins, inorganic mulches do not decompose and add no nutrients to the soil. However, they do offer other benefits. Black plastic tarping is widely used to suppress the growth of weeds. However, the same tarping also prevents water and air from getting into the soil. Landscape fabric is often a better choice as it is permeable to both air and water but is also effective in reducing weed growth.
Gravel mulch is particularly attractive and also helps to suppress weed growth and moisture loss. It can be especially helpful on hilly garden areas as it prevents soil erosion.
When Is the Best Time to Mulch a Garden?
The best time of year to add mulch to a garden is in the spring as it will prevent your soil from becoming too warm. Weed your garden, remove the old mulch, then lay down the new. Adding a layer of mulch in the fall is also beneficial as it will protect your roots and soil from the harmful effects of winter weather.
Whether your prided gardens are filled with flowers, fruits, vegetables or other attractive plants, you’ll be doing them a great favor by protecting them with a layer of mulch.