Mulching and Low Maintenance Gardening

How do people get those beautiful, lush gardens? I used to think I would have to be a little old lady before I had enough time to spend in the garden maintaining it.

Wheel barrow full of shredded bark mulch with raised garden bed and tomatoe plant in the background

Who else did I ever see with beautiful gardens not involving a professional landscaper other than the delightful elderly ladies in my neighborhood?

Then I discovered mulching. The age old technique, used effectively to improve gardens long before chemical techniques came into the picture.

There are several methods of mulching, and of course, gardening books and experts suggest a variety of options.

The consistent theme though is cultivating and enriching soil, creating a barrier, and applying material to an appropriate depth for your plants. This simple process can be successful in either a vegetable garden, or a flower bed.

The Value of Mulching

Texas A&M reports that a long established horticultural practice, mulching, is beneficial because it prevents erosion, especially on sloping beds, or furrowed rows. In especially harsh or rainy climates, this is an issue.

Look at the record landslides that have occurred on the west coast this year – often in housing developments placed upon hills with little to anchor the soil.

The same thing can happen in your garden simply from watering it without proper ‘armor” for your soil.

An organic or other porous material will allow moisture to get down into the soil and, even better, help the soil retain that precious moisture. This is especially important in arid climates, but also benefits those in damp climates as well.

Either way, when the hot weather strikes, evaporation is prevented, and so are high water bills. A gardener doesn’t have to resort to native planting to save on water.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of mulching, however, is the effect upon soil temperature. Extreme soil temperatures tend to stress plants out, making them weak and vulnerable to disease and pests.

Mulching provides regulation of soil temperature, keeping the soil temperature on a more even keel.

Of course, another benefit, and this is a valuable one to busy people, is the prevention of weeds due to the blockage of sunlight. Is there a gardener on this earth who doesn’t value that?

Last of all, mulching truly improves not only the quality of your garden, but the appearance as well. That’s what we are all striving for, after all, isn’t it?

Materials

It’s amazing what materials have been used. It’s important to know which will inhibit plant growth, and which will enhance it.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS – a part of the USDA) offers some suggestions. NRCS doesn’t come right out and say not to use inorganic sources such as plastics or ground cover cloths.

However, the organization points out that inorganic mulches lack the soil improving properties of organic varieties. They also tend to be difficult to remove if you need to change them, or they no longer serve their purpose.

Straw mulch laid in garden paths

Straw mulch laid in garden pathways – it was latter placed around the actual vegetables

That being said, organic mulches do improve the condition of the soil as they decompose. This keeps the soil loose allowing water to infiltrate the soil and stay there.

The benefits to the plants include: additional nutrients, aeration, and a place for roots to grow easily. Your local earthworms will find this an inviting habitat, which is also of benefit to your plants and the soil they reside in.

Some suggested mulches include:

  • Bark
  • Wood Chips, somewhat decomposed
  • Leaves, chopped and partially decomposed
  • Leaf Mold (not what it sound like)
  • Straw or hay (although seed heads may be a problem with hay)
  • Pine Needles
  • Grass Clippings
  • Newspaper
  • Compost

Do not use old weeds, diseased plant parts, or plant matter that has been treated with herbicides or chemical fertilizers.

Now, there are some things you need to keep in mind before you begin. To start with, take the time to test your soil ph level, and select your material accordingly.

For example, you don’t want to add acidic mulch to already acidic soil unless you are growing rhododendrons, blueberries, or some other acid loving plant.

Pine needles on the floor of conifer forest act as a mulch and inhibit the growth of secondary plants

Pine needles are an awesome mulch for those with blueberries or other plants that grow in acidic conditions – pine needles are sold by the bale in some parts of the US and Canada.

Be aware that some wood chips actually inhibit the growth of some plants. You will want to research this prior to choosing your material. If it is suitable, then you may actually have a pretty good chance of finding this particular type of mulch for a low cost or even free

Tree maintenance businesses and city maintenance crews will sometimes be amenable to providing you truckloads of wood chips.

The NRCS, and Master Gardeners everywhere will recommend composting the woodchips to some degree prior to use in order to alleviate a shortage of nitrogen that used up by the bacteria which are responsible for the breakdown of the wood cellulose into lignin (the material that gives great top soil its fluffy quality – similar to peat moss).

 applied in a bed of shrubs around lanscaping of brick ranch house. Includes a wheelbarrow and shovel to the right.

Partially decomposed shredded bark and wood chips provide a very atheistically pleasing mulch in front of this brick ranch

Leaf mold is a type of chopped, partially composted leaf matter. It provides an excellent soil amendment, and works well as a mulch.

fall leaves and leaf mold on a forrest floor

Once again, the forest floor demonstrates how nature provides its own all in one mulch and compost in the form of fall leaves which turn into leaf mold

Grass clippings require a bit more attention depending on the area of country and variety of lawn grass that you have. Feel free to spread grass clippings on your garden lightly.

Thick layers of certain varieties such as Costal and Bermuda will become compacted and matted, as well as slimy and rather smelly as they rot. Adding additional thin layers as you mow your lawn from week to week helps to alleviate this, but I have to tell you that my personal experience does not back this up with my particular type of grass.

If you are bent on using grass clippings in this manner and you live in areas such as Florida or southern Texas, you will want to keep it to areas where you do not have to walk. (Personally, I prefer to throw them into the compost pile along with a balance of other matter).

However, the Midwestern and upper southern grass species such as fescue, bluegrass, and white clover do not seem to have this problem – feel free to pile high.

Thick layers of black and white, not glossy newspapers make excellent mulch! You will want to anchor this down with something such as bark mulch, or weed-deterring decorative mulch.

Newsprint eventually breaks down, adding to the quality of the soil. It is easy to cut a slit in newspaper to put in a new plant. Of course, if you or a neighbor receives a daily newspaper, there will be a ready supply for your use.

The use of newspaper is also part of practice known as layer or lasagna gardening.

I saved the best for last. Composted organic material is simply the best thing you can use to mulch your soil. The matter has already broken down, releasing nutrients and other added benefits into the soil.

I consider cover crops, also known as “green manure” to fit into this category. Cover crops prevent weed from moving in over the winter, and are turned back into the soil in the spring. The nutritional value to your plants is, well, invaluable.

The Process of Mulching

Begin by cultivating the soil and getting every weed out that you can. Watch for runners of grass roots – get them out. In some gardens, this can be a real chore, but it is worth it in the long haul. This works best if you remove weeds before they become active for the gardening season.

When applying your chosen mulch, it is recommended that the material be kept a few inches out from the plant stem. There are many reasons for this including but not limited to the need for air circulation, disease control, and keeping mice and other rodents away from the stems (they use the mulch material for their tunnels).

Certain mulches – such as manure (particularly that from poultry)- that have not been composted well enough and if applied in too strong of a dose may even “burn” the plant due to excessive nitrogen.

straw mulch placed around lettuce pants; garden tools in background out of focus

Straw laid around butter lettuce plants

Also, consider the thickness of the mulch you are applying. Bark mulch and wood chips should be applied at a depth of 2-4 inches. These will settle, so take that into consideration.

Grass clippingss should be applied at 2-3 inches (a little at a time….remember the information I gave you earlier!) Newspaper should be laid in sheets of 1/4 inch, while Compost and leaves can be applied at a liberal 3-4 inches.

An Excellent Recipe for Mulching

If you have a good sized garden, do this in sections for best results.

Cultivate the soil by double-digging, or using a cultivator. (In my case, this entailed removing old worn out cover cloth with weeds sprouting through it, and cultivating the compacted soil beneath. What a project!)

Be thorough about getting any weeds out of the soil, short of using herbicides – just plain pulling or digging them out works best. Wait a few days, and pull up any weeds that begin to show their faces. Now you should be ready to proceed.

Supplement your soil with an appropriate amendment. This is the time to check the ph level before you add anything. Once you have decided upon a type of mulch, work it into the cultivated soil. My personal preference is for composted material or leaf mold.

Lay on the newspaper. Remember, 1/4 inch thick. You’ll get the hang of it. Again, remember to leave a 1-2 inch diameter around the plant bases. Weeds just won’t penetrate the newspaper from underneath.

You won’t see a mess of grass or wild morning glory runners shooting up. This is especially true if you have cleaned them out to begin with.

Cover the newspaper with the mulch of your choice. I have had the best luck with wood chips or bark dust. It is attractive, and if layered properly, will not show the newspaper underneath.

Again, if you have made a valiant effort at weed removal prior to beginning this process, you won’t find weed seeds sprouting in your upper levels of material.

In the past I have been able to keep a garden weed free and very lush for two years using this method.

My water bill showed a measurable drop and I spent much less time weeding the garden, and more time enjoying it. I do not know if these are typical results, but if I can do it, anyone can!

You will get incredible results in your garden if you mulch. Your plants will thank you, and you will thank yourself when you are sitting outside on the garden bench enjoying a glass of iced tea and a garden magazine rather than spending your day weeding.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

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