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The Garden Writers Association

Last Update 06/03/08
Mulch Demystified

How to Choose and Use Mulch in Your Garden

Most people understand the basic premise of mulch, but when they go to their local garden center they find quite a few different kinds. Which to choose?

First let me reiterate the wonderful uses mulch has:

1) A couple inches of organic mulch cuts down on watering

2) Prevents erosion

3) Insulates roots from extreme temperatures

4) Improves the quality of your soil

5) Reduces weed population

Organic mulch can be separated into two categories based on its intended use:

1) The best mulch for flower beds and vegetable gardens is a one that will decay quickly. In Florida, you may find yourself replenishing your mulch a couple times a season. This is a good thing as it helps to build the soil and add nutrients to it.

2) The best mulch for use around trees, shrubs, and for paths is one that will rot very slowly -- usually this type of mulch is made from bark or wood. Mulch made from wood chips not only rots slowly, but is very low in available nutrients and so retards weed growth. Wood chips are not a desirable mulch to use on flower or perennial beds as they take nitrogen from the soil (you will need to periodically add a nitrogen containing fertilizer to your soil to combat this problem when you begin to notice the lower leaves on your plants turning yellow).

Shredded leaves An excellent soil builder and quick to decay. Often weed-free.

Grass clippings An excellent -- and free -- soil builder. Breaks down quickly, but keep the layers thin (no more than 2"). Be aware though that if your lawn is weedy, grass clippings will be a source of weed seed.

Hay/Straw Decays really quickly. Drawbacks are that they may contain weed or grain seeds and tend to be difficult to spread around small plants.

Seed hulls (cocoa, rice) Easy to spread, often weed-free, but rather slow to decay and susceptible to erosion.

Pine needles Weed-free and slow to break down. Good for use around trees and shrubs, but not around flowers, perennial beds, or vegetables.

Bark nuggets Very slow to decay, weed-free, good for use on paths and around trees and shrubs.

Shredded bark Very slow to decay, weed-free, good for use on paths and around trees and shrubs.

Wood chips Very slow to decay, weed-free, good for use on paths and around trees and shrubs.

If you want to use wood chips in your garden, the Enviro-mulch works great. Red mulches add a touch of color as well as iron (Fe) to your garden as the chips are stained red with an iron solution. Eucalyptus mulch smells good and has its uses if you like that scent, but I highly suggest boycotting the use of Cypress mulch -- the trees that are taken to be ground into mulch are not being replanted -- sort of a case of environmental rape.

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