How to Mulch
An Introduction to Using Mulch
Do you do your own landscaping? Do you tend your own backyard garden? If so, you’ve probably heard or read about the benefits of mulch.
There’s a lot to understand about mulch, however. Even the most experienced lawn care fanatics might not know exactly what it is or why it’s so good for your soil.
Why should you mulch? What materials should you mulch with? How do you properly apply mulch? Find out from our mulching tips and tricks, and learn why the materials you break down with your chipper or chipper shredder can be a windfall for your property!
What Is Mulch?
The word mulch carries with it an image of decaying leaves and other bits of broken-down yard waste. But mulch can refer to any substance spread over ground soil to provide it with a layer of protection.
Mulch can be organic, meaning that it’s made from materials that were once alive:
- Wood chips
- Coconut husks
But it can also be inorganic, meaning that it’s made from manmade or non-living materials:
- Recycled rubber
- Plastic sheets
- Landscaping fabric
Mulch can even be a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, such as a layer of wood chips laid on top of a stretch of landscaping fabric.
Believe it or not, the most important component of your lawn or garden isn’t any of the plants it grows. It’s the soil. Without healthy soil, your plants would lack the nourishing foundation they need to thrive.
Take a look at all of the benefits that mulch provides for your soil:
- Insulation from the cold in winter
- Conservation of moisture and water in summer
- Prevention of soil erosion and loss
- Weed suppression
Yet mulch does more than just make your soil a good growing medium. Mulch also adds variety in color and texture to your landscaping—and that can add value to your property. A study cited in Turf Magazine estimated that a sophisticated, carefully planned landscaping design that includes a range of colors and features can increase a home’s value by as much as 11.4 percent.
What Materials Make Good Mulches?
Inorganic mulches can be useful in specific settings:
- Rocks and gravel are often used as mulch in desert climates to help plants that prefer dry growing conditions avoid root rot
- Plastic sheet mulch can significantly reduce evaporation, which helps conserve the limited moisture provided by drip irrigation
- Landscaping fabrics and plastic mulch can significantly raise soil temperatures to kill diseases
However, if you’ve invested in a chipper or a chipper shredder, chances are that you want to make the most of what you shred by creating your own organic mulch. To do that, it helps to know which kinds of mulches work best for which parts of your property.
Mulch is commonly spread around trees, shrubs, perennials, and other permanent or semi-permanent landscaping plants. In these areas, wood chips are an excellent choice. Wood chips are slow to decay, so they’ll provide long-lasting protection as tree mulch.
Other plants don’t live as long as trees and shrubs. These include vegetables and flowering annuals. For these plants, the better choices for mulch are materials that you would process in your shredder, such as leaves and grass. These materials decay quickly, so they won’t completely block the sunlight that seedlings need to develop. They’ll also feed your growing seedlings essential nutrients.
How to Apply Mulch
Once you’ve broken down your yard waste and made a nice pile of mulch, the next step is to apply it properly across your yard or garden. Follow these tips for correctly using mulch.
1. Use the Thinnest Layer Possible Around Annuals
If you’re mulching with grass clippings, straw, or leaves around vegetables and annual flowers, spread your mulch as thin as you can.
Make your layer no taller than 1”; a layer as short as 1/4" might be advisable. Your plants need protection, but they also need light!
2. Use a Slightly Thicker Layer of Wood Chips
Because they’re porous and have large spaces between them, wood chips can be applied around perennials in a thicker layer. However, take care to keep your layer of wood chip mulch about 2-3” deep (4” if your mulch contains large particles like pine bark nuggets). More mulch than that will absorb too much water and prevent it from reaching plant roots.
3. Don’t Blend Wood Chips Into Your Soil
As they decay, wood chips absorb nitrogen from the soil around them. However, nitrogen is a nutrient that living plants need to grow. Burying or tilling wood chips into the soil will take away nitrogen from the deep roots of the plants you’re trying to protect! Leave the wood chips on top of the soil instead.
4. Spread Mulch All the Way to the Drip Line
The drip line is an imaginary line around a tree that marks how far its longest branches extend.
If your tree has long branches, chances are that it also has long roots. To protect as much of the root system as possible, apply your mulch all the way to the tree’s drip line.
5. Don’t “Volcano Mulch” Your Trees
Often you’ll see wood chip mulch piled in a hill around the base of a tree. This is known as volcano mulching, and it’s not a healthy practice. The fungi that cause rot can make their way into the trunk of the tree via mulch. This is an especially big risk if your tree has any open wounds on the base of its trunk.
An example of volcano mulching—not a recommended practice
Instead of piling up mulch, make a crater in the mulch around the bottom of the tree’s trunk. The goal is to cover the ground around the tree, not the tree itself!
An example of proper mulching around a tree
6. Replenish Only What’s Lost
Although it’s slow to decay, wood chip mulch will break down over time. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to replace all of your wood mulch every year. To avoid your mulch layer getting too tall, measure its height and replace only as much as has been broken down over the past year. (Leaves, grass, and other quick-decaying materials should be replaced entirely every year.)
Wood chips and other materials from your chipper shredder can be used in all sorts of other applications, from creating walking paths around your property to building up your compost pile. Using them to make mulch is yet one more way to keep your soil healthy year after year.