One of gardening’s secret weapons is mulch. It’s not a glamorous starlet that steals the spotlight, but its performance can make or break a landscape design. Whether you’re grooming a fabulous front yard or raising your family’s favorite veggies in the backyard, mulch can make each planting area healthy, earth-friendly and beautiful.
How does mulch benefit the landscape?
Mulch falls into two general categories: organic and inorganic. Both types contribute good looks to a garden design.
Step 1: Thickness
Apply a 2- to 3-inch-thick mulch layer. If you’re gardening in slow-draining soil, use a thinner layer (1 to 2 inches); for fast-draining soils like sand, aim for 4 inches. A too-thick layer can lead to plant rot, diseases, pests and rodents.
Step 2: Placement
Extend mulch beyond the plant’s drip line — the point where the outermost edge of leaves occurs. To prevent rot, pull mulch back 2 to 4 inches from perennial crowns, shrub stems and tree trunks.
Step 3: Water
Water mulch after application. This keeps dry mulch from absorbing soil moisture (and stealing it from plant roots). Second, it helps anchor lightweight mulches easily carried by wind.
Apply mulch year round in every climate. In the coldest regions, to protect overwintering plants, apply mulch after the ground freezes. To insulate soil against summer heat, apply mulch in late spring after soil warms.
Organic mulches break down through the growing season — faster in warmer regions. Typically, you’ll have to re-apply organic mulch annually. Check mulch thickness occasionally; replenish as needed.
You’ll find the best mulch bargains when you buy in bulk, but that means you’ll need a pickup truck. Bagged mulches can be easier to transport and may be the best deal for small front yard beds or modest backyard planting areas. Most stores give discounts for broken bags; ask at the register.
Good organic mulch should have an earthy, damp odor. If you smell ammonia, vinegar, alcohol or sulfur, don’t buy that mulch. It could actually harm plants.
Every mulch type offers distinct advantages. How can you choose the one that’s right for your gardening situation? Learn more about different mulches in our Landscape Mulch Gallery.