Use Mulch to Lower Your Garden Maintenance

Patsy Bell Hobson shares information on how to use mulch to lower your garden maintenance, includes types of mulch for the garden, how mulch reduces watering and weeding and decreases soil erosion.

Spring crocus peek through a layer of mulch.

Spring crocus peek through a layer of mulch.

Photo: McGuirk

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Learn how to use mulch to lower your garden maintenance work.

There is no such thing as a maintenance-free lawn or garden. However, a lower maintenance lawn and garden can be easily achieved. The secret? Use mulch to lower your garden maintenance.

Choosing the right type and amount of mulch can reduce watering and weeding chores and be an attractive upgrade to any landscaping project. Properly installed mulch will protect the soil from erosion or crusting over by increasing air and water circulation.

Mulch allows for better soil penetration, which creates a looser, healthier soil and reduces routine maintenance. Using mulch also improves soil in less visible ways by building healthy soil structure and increasing biological activity, which reduces tilling and cultivation.

The most popular mulches are bark chips or chunks (shredded bark is easy to get from the local sawmill, and composted sawdust also works well and can be obtained at the same place), straw and hay (although they can be full of pesky grain, grass or weed seeds), leaf mold or pine needles. Even compost makes a nice organic mulch.

Selecting Garden Mulch

Plan for two to three inches of mulch to control weeds and retain moisture. Home gardeners can purchase bagged or bulk mulch with confidence by checking the labeling. The Mulch & Soil Council, a non-profit group for mulches, potting soils and commercial growing media, governs mulch product quality guidelines and industry labeling practices.

Buying the right amount of mulch will save time, money and multiple trips to the garden center. Use the following guidelines to estimate the right number of bags needed for a project.

Prepackaged mulch comes in two- and three-cubic-foot bags. Generally, larger bags are more economical, smaller bags are easier to handle. One large three-cubic-foot bag will cover 18 square feet with two inches of mulch. A smaller two-cubic-foot bag of mulch will cover 12 square feet with two inches of mulch.

Estimate the number of bags needed using the following formula.

Bag Size 2-inch depth 3-inch depth
2 cubic feet 12 square feet 8 square feet
3 cubic feet 18 square feet 12 square feet

For example: a garden that’s 10 feet wide and 40 feet long would have a 400-square-foot area (10 by 40 = 400). Mulching that garden to a 3-inch depth would require 50 two-cubic-foot bags of mulch (divide the 400 square feet by 8 square feet per bag from the table above). Or, a 400-square-foot garden area divided by 12 (for a three-inch depth) would result in 34 three-cubic-foot bags. (OK, math wizards, you’re right: It’s 33 1/3, not 34.)

For bulk purchases, remember one cubic yard covers 108 square feet at a three-inch depth. When bulk mulch is delivered, it is usually sold by the truckload or cubic yard. A small pickup should easily hold one and a half cubic yards, which will cover 162 square feet to a three-inch depth. A full-size pickup should hold at least two and a half yards, which will cover 270 square feet to a three-inch depth.

“The vast majority of mulches are from forest products. A bark mulch (88 percent lignin and less than 11 percent wood) is the premium product as it is literally the bark off a tree. Other mulches may have higher wood content, which means more cambium and heartwood,” says Robert C. LaGasse, executive director of the Mulch & Soil Council.

Reprocessed wood, or recycled wood products, usually contains kiln-dried wood and lumber. It is less water absorbent and tends to decompose faster than forest products. If you choose wood chips as mulch, incorporate added nutrients into wood mulches to prevent nitrogen depletion. Supplement with nitrogen fertilizer at the rate of one pound per 1,000 square feet. The fertilizer addition is important.

Mulch provides an insulating barrier on the soil surface that slows direct evaporation and especially convectional evaporation caused by the wind. There may be situations where the higher absorbing characteristics of some materials actually dries out the soil when the mulch becomes dry.

Garden Mulch Bargains

Grass clippings are nutrient-rich fertilizer — and best of all, they’re free. Rake piled-up clippings and spread immediately after mowing to avoid heating and rotting. Self-mulching mowers that leave finely chopped grass and leaves on the lawn are like having a self-fertilizing lawn.

Newspaper text pages with black ink make a great mulch. Avoid the color pages, because the color dyes may be harmful to soil micro flora and fauna if composted. Layer overlapping sheets together, two or three sheets deep. Anchor with grass clippings, straw or other mulch material to prevent the pages from blowing away.

This is an inexpensive mulch solution, especially for food gardens between vegetable rows. Providing an excellent weed barrier and moisture conservation, newsprint can easily be incorporated into the soil, adding an excellent source of organic matter to the garden at the end of the season.

Mulch Resources:

Mulch & Soil Council
Manassas, VA
Posted an excellent and fairly objective comparison of all different mulch products;
Composting, Fertilizer and Mulch Collection

North Carolina State University’s website
Contains an article by Erv Evans, a consumer horticulturist, about mulching trees and shrubs;
Mulching Trees and Shrubs