How To Choose The Best Mulch
MULCH, MULCH, MULCH...JUST DO IT!
To gardeners, whether or not to use mulch is rarely the question. How to choose the best garden mulch for your specific needs, however, can be.
Using quality mulch in your garden or landscape is one of the most common ways to tidy up flower beds, landscaping, and/or other areas in need of a cosmetic (or nutrient) makeover. In short, adding mulch to any yard can be commonly referred as gardening instant gratification—which as most seasoned gardeners know—is a rare occasion. Choosing the best garden mulch for your specific application, however, can be a tricky process; because choosing the wrong mulch for the wrong situation is both time consuming and expensive.
The purpose of this hub will be to explain the basics of mulching—along with its many benefits—as well as how to choose the right mulch for your individual garden or landscape needs. So, let's get to mulching!
THE MANY BENEFITS OF MULCH:
Besides providing an attractive vista to any yard, the proper use of mulch offers a variety of benefits for both the property owner as well as the environment. Below is a small sampling of why you should implement mulch into your gardening and/or landscape plans.
- Adding mulch reduces the amount of grassy area in your yard therefore reducing both mowing time, fuel usage, pollution, and water usage. In short, mulch is GREEN!
- Mulch installed to the proper depth (3” or greater) provides an excellent barrier for weeds and other invasive plants.
- Mulching reduces the amount of water needed for many plants and vegetation by keeping soil temperatures down thereby reducing evaporation.
- Mulching reduces the need to use additional soil necessary for plants to grow while also limiting soil and other types of erosion.
- Most quality mulches decompose over time thus adding valuable nutrients back into the soil. In essence, mulch is time-released composting!
- Certain mulches—such as those composed of Cypress, Cedar, or Pine wood—are excellent at repelling and controlling a variety of pestilent insects; such as ticks, chiggers, gnats, etc.
- Most natural wood mulches (non-dyed products) promote an increase in worm activity which is ALWAYS a good thing in any garden or yard. Worms love to eat the decaying mulch which in turn creates great soil! Over time, even hard clay soils can be broken down simply by mulching and subsequent worm activity!
- In short, MULCH IS A GOOD THING TO DO! Not to mention that it looks GREAT!
THE MANY FACES OF MULCH:
The majority of mulches being used in today's gardens and landscapes are organic; simply meaning they are composed of once-living organisms, i.e., wood, grass, leaves, pine needles, nut casings, etc. For the sake of simplicity, this hub will focus on organic mulches since they are the most widely-used mulches today.
The primary ingredient for most mulch is wood, either from the core of the tree or the bark. The following is a list of primary wood sources for today's quality mulches.
- White Oak: White Oak is one of the most common woods used for many quality mulches. Since it is a hardwood, when ground into mulch, White Oak maintains its golden-tan color for a season or two (with proper raking) and decomposes slower than double-ground bark mulch. White Oak also takes colorings very well and the core wood is often used as an excellent playground mulch.
The larger wood mulches (i.e., nuggets) are great for areas where soil erosion is an issue since they will not "drift" away in most rain events. They are slow to decompose and over time add to your soil. One drawback is that they are not very comfortable to walk on (in bare feet that is).
- Cypress: Cypress is one of the most popular landscaping mulches for two reasons: Number one, it's very bug and insect resistant (thereby protecting your valued plants from unneccessary damage). And number two, Cypress is an excellent matting mulch; meaning that it stays together very well after installation providing better-than-adequate erosion control on sloped landscapes.
- Cedar: Although it costs a little more, cedar mulch is worth the expense for three reasons: First, similar to Cypress, cedar is an excellent (if not better) insect repellent due to more natural oils found in the wood. Slugs, for example, won't come near it! Second, Cedar has a delightfully aromatic smell that lasts a fair amount of time after spreading; especially if turned somewhat frequently. And finally, Cedar decomposes rather quickly thus putting its valuable nutrients back into your soil faster.
- Pine (In mulch and nugget form): Often overlooked in the mulch world is pine; which is a great mulch for a few reasons. First, pine mulch is another excellent matting mulch that does a great job at keeping soil erosion down (year round) and lowering soil temperatures during warmer months (therefore limiting water usage). Not to mention that its ability to insulate makes pine mulch very handy for winter gardeners trying to keep killing frosts at bay. Second, pine-bark nuggets are slow to decompose thus offering a great way to "pave" walkways or "pet highways" throughout your yard. And finally, pine mulch is relatively inexpensive, has better than average longevity, and in general, represents a great bargain!
Cedar, Cypress, and Pine mulches are all found in core and bark mulch form, make an excellent choice for softer-grade landscapes, and are especially suited for more-delicate garden areas. In addition, all three repel damaging insects, smell great, and decompose quicker than larger nugget mulches. These are my favorites!
OTHER TYPES OF MULCH...
In addition to the more-common wood mulches, a fair number of optional mulch choices are also out there; some of which in your own yard backyard.
- Ground up tree leaves: Depending on what type of area you wish to mulch, shredded tree leaves are great for spreading under decks, along fence lines, and other areas where controlling mud and runoff are a problem. When I spread my large amount of shredded oak leaves each fall, I do so to a depth of at least 3". That way, when they break down, I still have coverage. Over time, however, shredded leaves can raise the acidity of your soil; so monitoring pH levels from time time is not a bad idea.
- Pine Needles: If you're fortunate enough to have Pine trees on your property, the dead and fallen needles provide an excellent covering basically year round. They look great, last a long time, and hold well when matted.
- Pecan Shells: Pecan shells--as well as other nutshells--provide excellent ground coverage and look great doing so. Typically, a 2" layer of pecan shells will typically last 2 years; so keep that in mind when you purchase them since they can be more expensive due to limited availability.
- Grass Clippings: Even though it sounds odd, the grass clippings you bag (or not) as you mow are a very effective (and FREE) garden mulch! I've used grass clippings for years as a base covering below other mulches as well as a way to keep dust and mud down. Be careful, however, not to go beyond a 2" depth as grass tends to mat as well as restrict air and water penetration. But when used as a control mulch only, grass clippings are great!
DYED, ORGANIC WOOD MULCHES:
What type of colored mulch to use, and where to use it, are important questions you as a gardener need answered. The following guide is based on my experience--as well as seasoned advice from a few professional gardening friends--as to the best colored garden mulch to use in the best situation. I hope it helps.
The three, most-common dyed mulch colors are red, brown, and black; and each has its place. Reds are best suited for areas with lighter colored plants and trees/shrubs. They are also a great choice to complement rock gardens since their color retention leans to the long side. Reds are also used extensively in many commercial applications, i.e., around buildings and other public areas. Personally, I feel reds are best used over large areas. But this is just my opinion...
Brown mulches are another one of my favorites because they really make light and darker-colored plants and trees "POP" out of gardens and landscapes. The only drawback to browns is that they tend to lose their best color after one season. Browns are also an excellent choice for smaller areas.
Black mulches, similar to reds, are excellent commercial mulches due to longer-lasting color and their ability to work well in less-tended areas. For gardens, however, blacks are not the best choice since they tend to retain a fair amount of surface heat which can damage many plants.
HOW TO DETERMINE HOW MUCH MULCH YOU NEED:
In order to reap the full benefits of mulching, an overall depth of 3-4" should be maintained. The process determining how much mulch you'll need is simple. First, you need to determine the total square footage of the area to be mulched. And second, depending on how much mulch is needed, use the following formulas:
- To achieve a depth of 1" divide your overall square footage by: 324
- To achieve a depth of 2" divide your overall square footage by: 162
- To achieve a depth of 3" divide your overall square footage by: 108
- To achieve a depth of 4" divide your overall square footage by: 85
How to choose the right mulch for your yard and/or garden is one of the most exciting tasks, I feel, during the entire gardening process; because in the end, your yard, your plants, and the environment in general all benefit. So, go green and get to mulching! You'll be glad you did.