The Best Mulch Types for Your Seasonal Garden

Protect, enrich and maintain the health of your garden and soil with the right mulch types for this season and beyond.

| November/December 2013

  • Organic mulches like wood barks and straw are great choices for natural weed suppression.
    Photo By Rick Wetherbee
  • Straw makes an excellent and attractive mulch for pathways between beds.
    Photo By Fotolia/alisonhancock
  • Wood mulch eliminates the need to mow between closely spaced raised beds.
    Photo By Fotolia/tamifreed
  • Bark mulch can really beautify your ornamental beds.
    Photo By Fotolia/Lijuan Guo
  • Many growers choose sawdust to mulch their strawberry beds.
    Photo By Rick Wetherbee
  • Red plastic mulch boosts tomato growth.
    Photo By Rick Wetherbee

Whenever I can simplify a chore and maximize the results, I’m on board — especially in the garden. I’ve found that one of the best ways of accomplishing that is to cover the ground with a blanket of mulch. Not only is it one of the easiest and quickest garden chores to take care of, its impact is far-reaching and at times can be the reason a plant thrives.

Simply defined, mulch is a layer of material applied to the soil surface. Mulches are typically organic in nature and often consist of compost, aged manure, grass clippings, bark mulch, wood chips, straw or shredded leaves. Leaves left whole can form a thick mat and inhibit the infiltration of water, air and nutrients. The material doesn’t have to be organic, however, to be utilized as mulch. Inorganic materials like plastic sheeting, geotextiles and landscape fabrics, and rocks and gravel are classic examples.

The main difference is that organic mulch materials will eventually settle and decompose, adding organic matter and nutrients to improve the productivity of the soil. When the soil is more productive, so are the plants whose roots live in it.

Organic materials, though, are temporary and need to be reapplied, whereas inorganic mulch materials are much more permanent in nature. Inorganic materials can be difficult to remove, especially in the case of rocks, gravel or plastic sheeting, which eventually breaks apart. These materials are therefore best suited to certain permanent plantings or the seasonal vegetable bed.

Mulch matter

While there is no ideal mulch for every situation, there are desirable attributes to look for in most cases: Quality mulch allows water and air into the soil, resists compaction, is odor-free and attractive, and stays in place. Ultimately, though, the best mulch is one that you can easily and cheaply access and apply to your garden.

You often can find straw, bark dust or wood chips at farming centers, feed stores, home improvement stores, garden centers, or in the ad section of your local paper. Of course you’re already one step ahead if you have a chipper, as you can make your own wood chips and sawdust from tree and shrub trimmings. You also may already have compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, newspapers, ground corn cobs or even coffee grounds, which can even help repel and kill slugs. Materials such as nut or rice hulls, animal manure, aged sawdust or vineyard waste can also be purchased as by-products from a local company or winery.

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