Mulching in the garden is an important part of maintaining the soil.
It is advisable to mulch once a year or every other year if you can, so, what is mulching, what does it do and how is it best done. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about mulching your beds and borders.
What Is Mulching?
Mulching is the simple process of adding a layer of a material, often organic material to the surface of cultivated soil.
There are two types of mulching which are those mulches that will break down into the soil and those that are non-biodegradable.
Biodegradable mulches will condition the soil and add nutrients as they break down. As they work their way into the soil they will need replacing periodically. These types of mulch include things such as; compost, wood chippings, grass cuttings, straw, leaf mould
Non-biodegradable mulches are usually sheets of material that are laid upon the soil such as landscaping fabrics where holes are cut for plants to grow through or things like gravel or pebbles. They will not benefit the soil by adding nutrients but still do have a place.
What Are The Benefits Of Mulching?
Mulching has multiple purposes and depending on what you mulch with will have different benefits. As an example, organic material, used as a mulch will add nutrition to the soil throughout the growing season. As a general rule mulching can provide the following benefits:
- Inhibit weed growth. Different mulches do better at this than others. Adding a good 2 or 3-inch thick layer of mulch will not prevent completely, but greatly inhibit weed germination and growth.
- Maintain moisture in the soil in dry conditions.
- Inhibit temperature fluctuations in hot and cold spells. During the winter a layer of mulch will help to protect roots in freezing conditions.
- Organic mulches will provide valuable nutrition to the soil as they breakdown.
Types Of Mulch
There are a variety of different materials you can mulch with which can fit any budget, using simple grass cuttings, for example, cost nothing but still provide benefit to the soil and your planting.
Compost is the easiest and most convenient mulch to get hold of especially if you make your own. You can get compost from the supermarkets nowadays and the great thing about it is that it adds lots of nutrients to the soil. It will be slowly worked in by the weather and the worms but will allow weeds to grow through.
Wood chips can give a neat and tidy appearance, especially if plants have lots of space between them. It will stay in place for a fairly long time but will still decay adding nutrients to the soil. Pine bark is acidic so will affect the soil and plants.
Creating leaf mould is a case of gathering up leaves and keeping them moist so they start to break down. If you have large trees you will have a plentiful supply so it can be very cost-effective. Leaf mould needs to be decaying otherwise the leaves can mat over the surface fo the soil. As a mulch leaf mould provide lots of nutrients, soil structure and hold moisture in the soil but will still allow weeds to grow if not thick enough.
Straw / Hay
Straw and hay is a cheap way to mulch and is effective for soft fruits like strawberries by keeping them off the ground. Straw has a habit of blowing all over the place and isn’t great for a formal garden but on the vegetable patch is a really simple way to cover the soil cheaply and effectively.
Grass clippings are something we all have plenty of even if you have just a small lawn, whilst it may not look attractive it is still beneficial for adding nutrients to the soil. If you have a mower with a basket to collect clippings it is simply a case of applying a thin layer around plants and borders. You will want to make sure the grass hasn’t gone to seed before you use it as a mulch and the mulch layer needs to be thin otherwise it will turn slimy in the rain. The grass will decay quickly so can be topped up often.
Gravel / Stone
Gravel, pebbles or stone can be used as a mulch which will not necessarily add nutrients to the soil but will still retain moisture and suppress weeds. Gravel or stone gives a border a certain look and can keep things neat and tidy but needs to be contained by edging to prevent it spreading where you don’t want it.
Landscaping Fabric / Plastic Sheet
Plastic sheeting and garden fabrics will not allow weeds through and hold in moisture and warmth better than most other mulches, this is why it is usually seen in agricultural settings.
Plastic sheeting is particularly effective to kill weeds or suppress the regrowth of weeds on cleared ground. If you are growing plants through sheets you need to cut opening and pay particular attention to watering through openings.
When To Mulch The Garden
Depending on what type of mulching you are doing will alter when it is best to do it. There is the option of mulching as and when you plant or doing entire borders in one go.
It is harder to mulch in any meaningful way when plants are in full growth. Waiting till plants have been cleared or when they die back in the autumn or winter may be the best option.
The best times to mulch are:
- In early winter or spring when plants are dying back
- When planting new plants
You can, of course, mulch at any point but working in and around plants is a lot harder.
How To Mulch Properly
If you are using an organic mulch such as compost, wood chips or anything that will break down into the soil spread a layer 2 – 3 inches deep across the soil, in and around plants.
If you cannot cover an entire bed or border then a good idea is to mulch around plants, when they do into the soil. This will protect the plants and help them retain moisture whilst keeping the work and cost down.
Inorganic mulches such as gravel or sheet materials are harder to put down when there are lots of plants growing. It is good to mulch clear ground and then put the planting through the mulch.
Even if you can only do a little bit of your garden borders mulching is very worthwhile and you will reap the benefits of better plant growth, more soil nutrition and a neat and tidy garden.