Mulch 101: Get to know the unsung hero of the garden

Gardeners know that mulch is a great-looking layer of topping on the soil in gardens and landscapes, but mulch is so much more than just a decorative cover. Mirroring the leaf layer found on a forest floor, mulch covering can benefit both plants and soil.

There are many different types of mulch to consider. Some mulch contains leaves and bark that decompose and break down over time, while others contain things like pebbles and shredded tires.

Mulch’s benefits run much deeper than beauty.

* A mulch layer can moderate the soil temperature reducing the effects of extreme heat or cold.

* Soil condition may be improved by the decomposing matter from mulch that provides plants with added nutrition.

* Mulching a garden creates the ideal environment for earthworms and beneficial organisms.

* If heavy rains or soil erosion is an issue, mulch can help reduce these effects. Weeds will find it difficult to become established and grow in a mulched area.

Using mulch in the flower and vegetable garden is always a good idea. Not only does it “finish” a bed, but it also creates a path through the garden, even during wet conditions. Use mulch to create trails through planting areas or even non-planted areas, such as under a swing set to prevent erosion, or around a bird feeder to prevent fallen seeds from germinating. Mulch is not just for gardens and landscaping anymore. Use a two-inch layer of mulch at the top of indoor plant containers to help cover unsightly soil, conserve water and keep them looking great.

Available varieties of mulching materials are diverse and nearly limitless. Most preferable however, are mulches that break down over time and add to the nutritional make-up, or tilth, of soil. Most commonly used mulching materials are: bark or wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, straw or hay, newspaper, pine needles, cocoa shells and compost. Each offers unique benefits, depending on use.

* Wood chip or bark mulches offer a nice “finished” look, while providing numerous benefits and requiring very little upkeep. These types of mulch are also readily available nationwide. Scotts Nature Scapes Advanced Mulch provides even more benefits than the average wood mulch. Although most bark-based mulches lose color and fade to gray after a few weeks, Nature Scapes mulch has a one-year color guarantee. So, if new mulch is added to your landscaping more than once a year, Nature Scapes can help to save time and money. In addition, the Water Smart technology used in this product has a water-channeling property that prevents over watering in flowers and produces beds by channeling water directly to the roots. This helps use up to 30 percent less water.

* Leaves and grass clippings have the added bonus of being free. However, leaves will need to be chopped up with a mower first and left to compost over the winter for the best value to the garden. Grass clippings decompose quickly and are not as attractive as some other forms of mulch. Both of these materials are better capitalized on if simply chopped up and left on the lawn for a layer of mulch added directly to grass.

* Straw or hay is inexpensive, but may contain seeds that will germinate in the garden.

* Newspaper is also cheap, but will need to be wet down first, and then covered with another type of mulch to prevent it from blowing away.

* Pine needles may drastically increase the soil acidity and are best limited to mulching around acid-loving plants such as blueberries and rhododendrons.

* Cocoa shells are becoming popular in many areas because of the unique look, but this is not advisable for pet owners. When ingested by pets, the cocoa shells may cause illness.

* Compost is always a great idea because it not only adds nutritional value to the soil, but also is an excellent way to recycle waste. For maximum effect, a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost is required. This is often used in conjunction with another form of mulch, such as wood chips or bark.

Mulch may not get the glory in the garden or landscape it deserves, but this often-overlooked cousin of soil has a lot to offer. Even if you just use mulch for its neat appearance, you will still reap all of its wonderful benefits.

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