Although mulching can be time-consuming and tedious, it is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Mulch retains moisture in the soil, helping the plants and saving water at the same time. Some mulches are also excellent weed suppressors and make beds look neat and tidy. When choosing organic mulches, you also have the benefit of improving the soil at the same time.
There are many materials you can use as mulch, either recycled from the garden or purchased, and organic or inorganic. Take a look at their pros and cons to determine which is right for you.
Straw or Hay
Straw mulch is a great choice for vegetable gardens. While it can look untidy, it conserves moisture incredibly well, making it perfect for moisture-loving veggies that need plenty of water to produce fruits. It is also great for keeping weeds down and is often very cheap (or completely free if you have a farmer or stable owner willing to share nearby). Hay can also be used for the same purpose, but often contains seeds that can fill your veggie garden with weeds. Straw and hay are organic materials that will break down over time to improve the quality of the soil.
If you have a consistent supply of compost from your own compost heap, consider using it as a mulch. Compost retains tons of moisture and also contains nutrients and organic materials to improve the soil. Compost keeps the soil cool, especially during the hotter months when high temperatures can cause stress. But, if you’re looking to suppress weeds, compost is not the most effective. It also needs to be kept moist to be effective and so is not ideal for those who often forget to water their plants.
In the spring and summer months when lawn mowing becomes an almost weekly task, you may be looking for ways to use the piles and piles of grass clippings you collect. The same can be said for the raked-up fallen leaves in autumn and winter. While these are great for compost, you can also use dried clippings as a wonderful mulching material. This is completely free and makes use of garden waste, but does come with a few caveats. You shouldn’t use any grass clippings that have been treated to avoid damaging the plants they are used on. And, if placed in a thick layer and allowed to dry out, the grass can form a dense mat that actually repels moisture, having the opposite effect.
Wood chips are a preferred mulch for those that like to keep their garden uniform and tidy. They look great when spread over beds and conserve moisture well. They are also one of the best options for suppressing weeds, especially when placed in a thick layer. You can find hardwood or softwood wood chips that each serve slightly different purposes. Pine chips (softwood) change the acidity of the soil and are great for use around acid-loving plants like azaleas. Hardwood chips take longer to break down but generally remain neutral while doing so.
If you’re looking for a way to suppress weeds, landscaping fabric is your answer. These materials are designed to keep weeds down while still allowing air to flow through the soil, unlike plastic sheeting. In tough-to-manage areas where weeds are really taking over, this option is your best bet. However, it doesn’t look great in the garden, meaning you’ll need to cover it with something else (like stones) to hide it. They also don’t contribute to overall soil health like other mulching materials and make changing up the plants in your garden incredibly difficult.
Each of these materials is great in its own way. Choose the one that best suits the needs of your garden and your plants.