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Mulching Basics: To Mulch or Not To Mulch By Cady Davies

  in Gardening | Published 2016-12-28 08:26:50 | 160 Reads | Unrated


Here are some of the basic ideas about mulching your garden and a bit of information about each of the materials used. Each material has its own merits so consider the benefits and drawbacks to see if mulching is right for you.

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It is important to make sure that you don't drown the plant in mulch and level the material so it doesn't look uneven. Since mulch is always in the process of composting, you will need to replenish it from time to time. It is an ongoing process. Remember what is good for one plant, may not be good for another, so review the list of mulches below and pair them to your plantings.  




  1. Conserves Water
  2. Deters Weeds
  3. Insulates Soil – Warm in Winter, Cool in Summer
  • Attracts Earthworms
  • Improves soil fertility and structure
  • Keeps fruit, vegetable and plants clean
  • Provides clean places to
  • Makes the garden look neat and tidy


    1. Soil can become too wet, causing plants to rot
    2. Mulch can be keep sun from warming the soil
    3. Insects and rodents can breed and hide
    4. Annual seeds can’t get through
    5. Not good for seeded areas or seedlings
    6. Some mulches can drain nutrients from soil



    Straw vs. Hay

    I recommend only using straw as it contains almost no seeds. If you must to use hay, as it is often less expensive option or free, try to get a second or third cutting as it will contain less seeds and keep the mulch extra thick.  Just know that if you get that free hay from the farmer that let it get too moldy for livestock, you will need to deal with the seeds that come with it. Both hay and straw breaks up into flakes and is lovely to lay beside plants keeping them safe and warm. When it breaks down you can till it into the soil.


    Grass Clippings

    First, never use grass clippings on your vegetables that have been sprayed with weed killers or insecticides. Grass can become very hot and burn your plants so it is imperative that you keep the clippings from touching your plants. It is advisable to let them dry out a day or two before using them. Grass also decomposes quickly and looks somewhat messy in a flower garden. It can be used to warm up the soil in the spring.


    Fall Leaves

    It is best to shred larger leaves like maple before placing them over ground covers or herbaceous plants as they tend to pack down and create a heavy mat when laid whole.  Smaller leaves, such as oak make for a much lighter aerated material.


    Black Plastic

    Many gardeners use black plastic for weed control, then place another material on top to keep it in place and make the area more pleasing to the eye. If you are using plastic as a mulch, make sure you secure it well to the ground and poke some holes in it so water doesn’t pool and seeps to the earth.


    Buckwheat Hulls

    Buckwheat Hulls come in large easy to manage bags. Sprinkle directly from the bag to tidy up your garden.  It is not a very good weed control as the hulls are very light weight. If your garden is in a windy spot, I would choose a different material. However, the hulls clean up a flower garden and do stop many annual seeds from germinating.


    Newspaper and Cardboard

    Cardboard and newspapers are easy to come by. I have used cardboard extensively for fighting weeds between my vegetable rows as you can often get boxes from the market for free.   I like to put wood chips on top to make my garden look a bit tidier and keep a barrier for the soil. If you water it all down well at the start it helps to hold it in place. In the spring, it is easy to pull up or I have even tilled it into the soil.


    Cocoa Shells

    Cocoa Shells also come in a handy bag and is another light mulch that looks nice in a traditional garden setting, cleaning up pathways and making things look tidy.   


    Evergreen Branches and Needles

    For those gardeners that live in the north, evergreen branches can be used around perennial beds to create a basket of snow, protecting roots from alternate thawing and refreezing.  Pine Needles can be used and can look quite lovely, however they are acidic and this should be taken into account before placing around some plants. However, acid loving plants such as rhododendrons and roses would love it.


    Material, Cloth

    Cotton sheeting can be used, especially with another heavier mulch to weigh it down.  There are many cloth materials sold as mulch. Some of them are even biodegradable.  Just make sure it is pure cotton and not a blend of something else.



    If you live near the seaside, this may be a fun option. Seaweed is very heavy and can be awkward to transport and distribute. It should be rinsed before using.  It used as a winter mulch and tilled into the garden in spring.  


    Shavings, Sawdust, Shredded bark

    Sometimes you can get these from sawmills or purchase in bags. Be careful of using shavings or sawdust from carpenters as it often contains chemicals from plywood or chipped boards and can harm your plants. Bark always cleans up the area nicely and lasts a long time. However, it can deplete the soil of nitrogen.


    Stone, Rocks, Pebbles

    Pebbles need to be several inches thick to deter most weeds. If you use a plastic material underneath, you only need to cover the plastic, but make sure you poke holes in the plastic or use a manufactured cloth that allows moisture to seep through.


    Mulching your garden and plantings can be a very effective way of keeping the soil moist and keeping weeds under control. Happy Mulching! 



    Cady has always played in the dirt. She loves sharing her passion of gardening with the world and helps run a website helping gardeners to get outside any time of year by selling greenhouse kits. Browse their selection now at



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