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We made several mistakes mulching everything there was to mulch, but you don’t need to suffer the same losses.
In this post, I’ve compiled all the best ways to mulch and how to avoid making all the mistakes. My goal was to create a page where you don’t have to worry about missing out on any crucial information.
It’s all here: general mulching, pathways, mulching vegetable gardens, and mulching for healthy perennials.
1. Use the right type of mulch in the right setting
Regions have various conditions, hot, dry, cold, windy, humid, and so on! Some mulch materials are more practical than others in specific situations.
For example, whole leaves may not be the best choice for windy regions because all your work will be blown away. Pine needles or woodchips would be better choices, even the best choices—since they retain water very well and windy areas dry quickly.
For another example, small rocks are not the best choice for mulching in hot and dry climates. Although rocks have a cooling effect in the shade, they absorb heat in the sun. The heat absorbed and retained can cause heat stress to roots. Wood chips would be a better choice, as they are like a sponge and remain neutral in temperature.
Even if you’re not looking to mulch fruit trees in particular, this post is filled with mulch types and their pros and cons.
2. Lay compost under mulch for unestablished plants
Established trees and perennials can wait for mulch to break down before nutrients are available.
Unestablished trees, perennials, and especially fruit trees need nourishment right away; the same as annuals.
This is why many gardeners use compost as mulch for their vegetable gardens.
The best mulch for fruit trees is high in nutrient content.
3. Uproot and edge vigorous weeds before laying mulch
Mowing weeds down low or uprooting them all together is a matter of what you’re dealing with.
Rhizominous spreaders, like the undefeatable bermuda grass, not only need to be removed from the whole area that needs mulch, but edged if it’s going to remain on the other side.
If you don’t remove vigorous rhizominous plants, perhaps horsetail, their root systems will be living under your mulch and competing with your desired plants. The competition makes it more difficult for introduced plants to establish, to thrive.
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
4. Use sheet mulch to smother established weeds
Non-vigorous plants can be mowed down low and an organic sheet mulch can be laid before topping it with a shredded mulch of choice.
If you don’t wish to lay sheet mulch, I recommend removing the established plants, then mulching. If you’re planting a tree, the hole you dig will accomplish this anyway. You may just consider expanding the width of weed removal for mulching a generous circumference.
If you don’t cut back and sheet mulch over or remove regular growing weeds, they may survive and grow through the mulch.
Sheet mulch is an easy and free way to save harder labor.
Related post: What kind of material is best for sheet mulching? (the free kind!)
5. Use living mulch for low-maintenance pathways
In our experience, unless you’re up for laying a gravel walkway, the lowest maintenance mulch for a pathway is a living one!
Wood chips were our first exciting choice and it looked beautiful!
For about a year.
After that, native grasses began growing through. We didn’t even sheet mulch underneath. That may have helped, but only for an additional year with paper-based sheets. Then we’d need to re mulch all the pathways, which is impractical for us.
Permanent inorganic sheet mulching isn’t an option for us, since plastic is something we wish to minimize exposure to and demand of. And for the sake of growing soil rather than concealing it.
Living mulch, such as white clover, can be sown very easily on all the walkways and grows no higher than 6 inches. No mowing is needed either! Plus, it looks gorgeous whether it’s flowering or not.
If you live in a tick-prone area, over time you do what we’ve started and edge your living pathways with thyme! Thyme is also low-growing, very fragrant and has a nice texture to look at too. It’s less tolerant of walking than clover I find.
For areas that are wheelbarrow-heavy, a living mulch may not be the best option, but thickly-grown clover has tolerated the odd wheel. Truly heavy traffic zones usually don’t allow anything to grow anyway. So by using your living pathways as is, it should work out fine. It has so far for us.
6. Mulch moist ground, and not dry ground
Either way, it will get rained on. But if you’re mulching a freshly planted plant, it should be watered well anyways. The soil needs to settle and air bubbles need to rise.
Even if you’re not trying to mulch a plant; laying mulch on a moist surface helps everything stay in place. Putting mulch down on dry soil can dry out the mulch further than it may already be. Drier mulch is lighter and the elements can easily rustle it around before a chance to settle.
Finally, one of the big jobs of mulch is to retain soil moisture. If the soil is moist prior to mulching, water is there to be retained. Otherwise, it will all have to wait for the rain to trickle down in great enough volumes before soil biology can begin to flourish in a moist environment.
When is the best time to mulch in the Northeast?
Whether you’re in the Northeast or the Southwest the best time to mulch is less about an exact time of year, and more about the presence of conditions and what you’re mulching.
The best time to apply mulch to a vegetable garden in spring is after the soil reaches plantable temperatures. Cool crops, for example, brassicas, can tolerate 35°F (2°C) soil at a minimum. Mulch keeps the ground cool, so if you mulch before the warmth, you’ll wait longer to plant than you should.
The best time to lay mulch around perennials is in spring or fall; the ideal time to plant new plants.
In the Northeast, the best time to mulch is typically in the spring or fall. In the spring, mulching can help to prevent weeds from germinating and to retain moisture in the soil. In the fall, mulching can help to protect plants from cold winter temperatures and to prevent the soil from erosion.
It is important to wait until the soil has warmed up in the spring before applying mulch. This is typically when the air temperature has reached around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the fall, it is best to wait until after the first frost to apply mulch. This will help to protect the soil and plants from freezing temperatures.
7. Make a mushroom bed with mulch for established plants
Mushrooms break down wood mulch whether they are edible for you or not. So I thought it’d be nice to give you the great idea of making the most of your mulch.
Gourmet mushrooms are delicious, and passive to grow once planted in a suitable area.
We gave our fresh-planted (young) plum trees a wood chip and straw mix mushroom bed when we planted our first trees.
The issue with making a mushroom bed over your trees, and especially young trees, is the height of the mulch. But it can still work great for established plants, more so where the soil is lacking and roots have become tripping hazards!
A young tree performs better with a layer of fresh compost before mulch is added to cover.
A mushroom bed needs to be a minimum of 4″-6″ thick and that is on the too-thick side for healthy mulch. Plants’ roots need oxygen, so if you combine layered mulch with compost, the deprivation becomes worse with added height.
I recommend saving this option for established plants or empty spaces of mulch, like pathways, or intentional mushroom-only beds if you like this idea. Either way, your gourmet mushrooms will walk all adjacent mulched spaces eventually if they can survive the pre-existing fungi competition.
8. Avoid using permanent inorganic mulch at all costs
Inorganic mulches miss the mark on the most beneficial aspect that organic mulches provide. Laying them as a permanent ‘solution’ does more harm than good.
Inorganic sheet mulch does have a useful place as a temporary covering. It can heat soil quickly in spring and terminate crops or weeds to avoid or reduce tillage.
9. You don’t need to lay plastic under organic mulch
Plastic under mulch deprives plants of air and water and supplies no nutrients. Plants don’t grow well without these basic needs and plastic can look horrendous. Especially as it degrades over the years.
Usually, plastic is covered with a nice-looking organic mulch. So it makes little sense to put plastic down first as it defeats the benefits of compostable material.
If you’re looking for a mulch that takes a long time to become ineffective at suppressing weeds; try bark mulch, and plant trees, shrubs, and herbs that grow to shade the ground.
Read on: Do you put anything under mulch? Yes (and No…)
10. Use nutrient-dense mulch rather than decorative
Beautiful landscapes with plants have thriving plants, not dying plants. Decorative mulches, such as rocks or dyed mulches, are not the best choice for nurturing healthy plants.
For a healthy landscape, you’ll need to know the best mulch for fruit trees (and other perennials).
11. Make your own mulch when it’s possible
Importing mulch or any means of fertility comes with risks. Risks of contamination and quality. On the other hand, making your own mulch comes with benefits! Benefits like cost savings, customization, sustainability, and satisfaction.
Contamination is on the rise of risks these days as imbalanced ways of production become increasingly challenging. Mass production is far less resilient than small-scale production. So they often need to use chemicals that cause more harm than good so they can save their product, sell it, and put food on their table.
Small-scale production is easier to manage a wider diversity of plants that include other important species. The more gardeners who take soil-building into their own hands, the more resilient we can all be against pests, disease, and overall crop loss.
If you have the space; rake and use your own leaves, dry and use your grass clippings as mulch, or even grow your own mulch! It can all be done without a dime.
Canadian Organic Growers have been testing willow as mulch for its possibly immune-boosting function on plants. Plants such as apple trees have displayed greater health compared to others who didn’t receive willow mulch.
Willows are easy and vigorous to grow, so plant up and put it to use if you can. Producing our own woodchips and leaves for mulch has been more rewarding than buying bales of straw. A peace of mind is here that wasn’t filled from questionable straw.
12. Avoid laying mulch too thickly
While we want to ensure the weed don’t make it through, we also need our plants to breathe.
Too much mulch is suffocating as oxygen levels become lower as the ground deepens.
If established plants are growing where you want mulch to be, remove them first. Weed seeds are the only thing fresh mulch should be prevented from growing.
How thick should mulch be to prevent weeds?
A minimum of 2 inches of mulch prevents weeds from sprouting, and a maximum of 4 inches prevents root suffocation. The particle size of mulch also impacts the ideal level of thickness. Smaller particles allow less oxygen, while larger particles have more space.
13. Avoid organic mulch on veggie gardens in early spring
We veggie growers want to get started in the season as soon as possible, right? If you agree, then don’t put down organic mulch.
Organic mulch keeps the soil cool. Our goal is to heat the soil up!
What can you do to prevent weeds from establishing before you plant? Use a temporary, dark-colored sheet of mulch.
14. Use dark sheet mulch on resting vegetable beds
In autumn, many growers put their vegetable beds to rest with compost and a black sheet after it’s too cold to grow anything.
In spring, the dark-colored tarp or fabric heats the soil as it absorbs the sun and prevents any weeds from growing ahead of you.
15. Mulch vegetable gardens with compost in spring
When the soil temperatures are ready to accept your plants, the sheet mulch will need to be removed and you can either leave the soil bare or cover it with something else.
Leaving the soil bare means a lot of weed work.
Covering it with an organic mulch can suppress weeds well but won’t provide immediate nutritional value.
Many gardeners use compost as mulch (for best results) in a vegetable garden. You can either apply compost as the mulch, or compost and then mulch, and remove the organic mulch at the end of the year to replace it with the temporary inorganic sheet mulch for the effect described above.
Try both, and see what works best for you!
Related post: Sheet Mulching vs Lasagna Gardening: What’s The Difference?
16. Prioritize organic mulch for permanent projects
Organic mulch builds our best asset and inorganic mulch prevents it. Soil! Healthy lives depend on healthy soil.
Permanent projects could be a food forest, a beautiful landscape, pathways, or an herbaceous tea garden.
Food forests and tea gardens need organic mulch for long-term sources of nutrients and protective benefits.
Aesthetic landscapes and pathways can still hold more functional value than not. With the right mulch choices they can still be easy to manage and last long-term.
Our future needs more soil, not less.
17. Apply new mulch regularly to keep weeds suppressed
How often should mulch be topped up?
Bark mulch lasts much longer than leaves, and the options in between are available. Just be sure that whatever mulch you choose, you top up frequently enough for it to remain effective as a weed suppressor and soil protector.
In general, replenish wood mulches every 2-3 years and non-woody mulches every 1-2 years. Some bark mulches can wait up to 4-5 years before needing a top-up. The time between replenishment has pros and cons depending on the plants you grow and their stage of life.
If you’ve planted a fresh set of perennials that aren’t established, it’s worth laying compost, then wood mulch on top to ensure they are fed short-term. After that, if you want less mulch maintenance to be part of the plan, replenish the mulch with wood chips after 2-3 years. After the next 2-3 years, consider bark mulch if your plants are clearly healthy and established.
If you’re unsure when to apply more mulch, look for some signs:
- a dull appearance
- the layer looks very thin
- the soil has exposure
- the composition of the original mulch is unidentifiable
- weeds are popping up
Should you remove old mulch every year?
The whole point of organic mulch is not only to suppress weeds and cover soil but to build and nourish it. Removing old mulch would defeat this purpose.
Removing old mulch is not a necessary part of maintenance as it defeats the benefits of building soil and feeding plants. Removing old mulch is a good idea if it’s left so long that weeds are growing. In this case, remove all material and weeds, then add a fresh layer of mulch to reset the area.
Removing the old mulch simply makes it easier to remove unwanted plants. If you can leave the old material and reset the area with more mulch on top, that works too.
Scraping everything away just to add mulch back on top is seldom necessary. Disturbing the ground in the least way possible is always the best option for maintaining a healthy environment.
18. Spread mulch evenly to prevent clumps or bald spots
Spreading mulch evenly not only looks nicer but is more effective and economical.
Thin spots can allow weed seeds access to sunlight with just the right amount of moisture retention to sprout in ideal conditions.
Thick spots might be thicker than ideal for air exchange.
Mulch can be expensive to buy (or make!) so it’s always a good idea to use it adequately and efficiently. Even spreading ensures the whole area received all the benefits without needing extra or falling short.
19. Keep mulch away from structures
Why should you not put mulch around your house?
Mulching with organic material around the home can introduce several kinds of problems.
Increased fire risk, rot from moisture retention, rodents, and carpenter ants are all best kept away from the home, barn, or shed. Organic mulches beside any structure can increase the chances of creating other issues, but if you still want mulch around the home; consider inorganic options.
Can you put mulch around your house safely?
Not all mulch types can be a problem for your home or any other structure.
Inorganic mulches are safe options to use around the house, such as rocks, rubber, and ‘living’ mulch. These materials aren’t flammable, offer good drainage, and don’t provide food or favored shelter for problematic critters.
20. Keep mulch away from the trunk of the tree
Mulch retains moisture, and consistent moisture can be damaging where airflow is required. If mulch is piled around the base of the tree and it rots, it will die. Usually, you have about 2-3 years to correct the issue if you’ve made this mistake.
3 Keys To Correctly Mulch Any Tree (What To and Not Do)
21. Layer your mulch; don’t mix it
Woodchips for example are known to “rob nitrogen of the soil.” This is temporarily true, but with proper layering, your plants won’t be affected negatively by it. Here’s how it works:
Bacteria and fungi work together to break down basically everything. They need energy and resources to do so such as nitrogen.
If you mix your woodchips into the soil, resources that would otherwise be available to plants will get tied up and soil acidification is more likely to occur.
So how do you get around this? You don’t get around the process, but you can change the locations of the process.
When layering fresh chips onto the surface—without mixing them in—the nutrients available where mediums are touching will interact to break down the materials. As the first phase of woodchips breaks down using the compost or soil beneath, rain leaches available nutrients down into the soil. What’s left is up for grabs to break down the next layer of fresh mulch on top.
Fungi are the main organism to break down lignins (wood) and also have the ability to source their energy, such as nitrogen, elsewhere. Should nutrients be lacking where needed, fungi can still break down wood. Mycelium networks amazingly provide access to nutrients even when distant. It’s like a network of fair distribution rather than location-based competition.
The main point of a process far more complex than described; is keeping the layers separate as it has a positive impact on your plants. It’s the way nature does it and critters and other organisms will do the mixing for you as needed.
The way nature does it, regardless of details, is the best of what we really need to observe and apply.
Did I miss anything?
Leave a comment if you think there is anything missing about mulching mistakes!
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