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How to Mulch: Need-to-Know Basics

May 6, 2014 | By | 3 Replies More

how to mulch

Front yard before mulch…

Every year in late winter, Mr. President and I pull on our muddy boots and head outside to mulch most of our yard. Despite the back-breaking work, it’s a nice way to get a first dose of fresh air and sunshine after being cooped up all winter.

The house we moved into last year sits on nearly half an acre of land and much of it was already landscaped. In my quest to get our new yard under control, I’ve spent lots of time this spring proactively weeding, moving plants, and mulching.

Despite what it looks like, proper mulching is not an exercise where you just pile the mulch up and spread it out. It’s important to select the right mulch for your specific application and apply it so that it enhances the soil, the health of your plants and the look of your garden.

Learning how to mulch properly will save you time, energy and water. Mulch regulates the soil’s temperature, helps keep moisture from evaporating so quickly, and blocks emerging weeds. Finally, if you use a good, organic mulch, your soil will improve over time as the materials decompose to add nutrients.

How to Mulch Perennial Beds

how to mulch

Use a dirt rake or your hands to spread mulch.

Stay away from heavy wood chips. Instead, select a light, finely-shredded hardwood mulch that will decompose more quickly to improve your soil. If possible, find a vendor that will mix the fine hardwood mulch with 25-50% compost for a real soil enhancement. Also avoid any artificially-dyed wood mulches – they have no place in a healthy garden.

If you have a lot of space, purchase mulch by the truckload. Back when I was single and lived in my old house with the tiny urban yard, I could get by with several bags of mulch from the nearest garden center. Now that I live in the ‘burbs, we buy mulch by the yard, and it’s delivered to our driveway. We get the trusty wheelbarrow and shovels to distribute it around the yard.

A common pitfall when mulching is to lay it on too thick and smother your plants. Some folks head out every spring and fall and lay a thick layer of mulch, whether it’s needed or not. Your garden may have different needs, but we typically mulch only in the spring, and we lay down no more than two inches of a light compost/mulch blend. In the fall, we might chop up some fallen leaves and scatter them around plants that have a tendency to heave out of the ground as it freezes, like coral bells (heuchera). Don’t pile up the mulch too closely to the base of plants, just leave a little ring around them so they don’t smother.

how to mulchHow to Mulch Vegetable Gardens

My very first year of growing vegetables, I didn’t mulch at all. That was a good lesson learned, and now with my new garden, I am a mulching enthusiast. You can mulch vegetables with a light organic mulch/compost blend that you’d use in your perennial beds, but use only a thin layer. My mulch of choice in my raised beds is grass clippings from our yard – they are free!

Only use grass clippings if you maintain your lawn organically!

Grass clippings decompose quickly adding nitrogen and potassium to your soil. It’s best to make sure the clippings are dry before you use them and spread only a thin layer. Thick layers of fresh grass get very warm as they compost and they can burn newly plants. Keep the grass clippings away from the base of your vegetables as well.

How to mulch

And after.

Another great vegetable garden mulch is organic straw. Don’t use hay since it often contains weed seeds that will make your life hell. Same principles apply to using straw – use only a thin layer in between plants and not piled up around them.

Finally, because mulch can help retain soil temperature, timing can be important. For instance, if you’re mulching a bed that will be used for heat-loving vegetables like eggplant and peppers, wait to mulch until your soil has warmed up to at least 65°. The mulch will help hold the heat in for better yields.



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Category: Flowers, General, Home and Garden

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