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The Glamorous World of Mulching

The Glamorous World of Mulching

Image: Kelly Sikkema

Why Mulch?
Mulching is an important practice when curating a thriving, low maintenance, beautifully bountiful garden. Mulching depresses weed growth, helps to retain moisture, incubates the soil to keep it cool on fabulously hot summer days, and warm in the icy winter months. Mulching can add nutrients to your plants, help build a healthy soil ecosystem, save money, and it looks purdy.

What Is Mulch?
Mulch is generally any type of material that sits on top of a garden bed. Mulch can be rocks, plastic sheeting, discarded essays, wood scraps, dissections of that old carpet you’ve always hated, burlap sacs, shredded tires, outdated bus schedules, pants, whatever. As long as it sits on the soil, it’s mulch. But that doesn’t mean that you should throw all your garbage on your veggie patch to keep down the weeds. Some mulches are more appropriate than others fro specific garden needs. A small list can get you on your path toward your ideal mulch material.

Wood Chips
Many people use wood or bark chips to mulch with because they are aesthetically pleasing, effectively retard weed growth, regulate soil temperature and discourage water evaporation—as any good mulch should. Chips are great but the large chunks take a long time to break down and can put a real dent in the wallet. They’re really best for more permanent applications. I usually save my wood chips for kid friendly pathways between beds. They’re nice and soft upon impact and there aren’t any sliver pokies to lodge into little hands.

Shredded Bark Mulch
Similar to chips but different. Bark mulch is shredded into smaller pieces than chips and therefore can break down a lot quicker. Bark mulch is popular because it looks uniform and lovely, does all the great things chips do, but as they compost, they will add nutrient to the soil and mix with your existing garden bed layers. Spread a minimum of two inches of bark mulch on your garden beds. As they break down, you will need to reapply again the following season or year.

BEWARE: Cedar leaches nitrogen—an important fertilizing element. If you are planning to mulch a garden bed with wood chip or bark mulch, be sure to get a mix that is cedar-free. Otherwise you may end up with a lot of dead plants and sadness in your heart.

Adding a layer of topsoil to your garden bed is not just a soil building method but is also somewhat surprisingly a method of mulching. If you add compost to that top soil, man oh man will your plants ever be happy campers! This is best done in the early spring before your plants poke their lovely little heads out of the soil. Give them that extra boost of compost love and two to four inches of sexy, rich topsoil and they’ll reward you greatly.

Stone mulch works well for perennial gardens where you have established plants and do not intend to do much expansion. Stone will not decompose (at least not in any manner that you’ll see in your lifetime), does not add nutrient and will cost a good deal more than most other types of mulch. But they don’t require re-applications and they can look pretty swish if applied to an entire bed. Good for high heat gardens and drought tolerant species in urban settings. Spring for stone mulch for super low maintenance and rocky aesthetics.

Leaf mulch is a super inexpensive and effective mulch material. You can simply build yourself a tower out of chicken wire, collect leaves in the fall and then apply them to your beds. Sometimes in high winds you can run into blow away problems if the leaves are broadly lobed. If you have a lawn, you can try to avoid having your leaves scattered around the neighbourhood by laying your leaves along the grass and then running your mower over them. Be sure you have your bag collecting the leaves. Apply the shredded leaf mulch to your beds and water them in. Your leaves won't blow away so easily, you will have a better decomposition rate, better soil moisture retention and less chance of leaf mould. Win!

Similar to leaves, straw is a light, economical mulch material. It does decompose quickly so you will need to reapply a couple times per year. You also may end up unintentionally growing oats, be forewarned. Apart from these minor setbacks, straw and hay make great mulch and offer a great farmy-feel aesthetic.

Cardboard & Newspaper
Obviously cardboard and newspaper are awesome because they are pretty much just hanging around the house anyway. If you have the room to store them, you could have free mulch to last a lifetime. Or if you’re really adventurous you could scavenge cardboard and recycling bins around your neighbourhood. Fun Sunday activity? Cardboard and newspaper make for good mulch especially to build new beds. Newspaper can be a bit fussy when wind comes along and you’ll need to take all the tape and staples off your cardboard, so they’re not entirely perfect but can really cut down costs and all that other good stuff. Add a thin layer of compost and/or soil on top though and you could be on to something.

TIP:  Spring and autumn are not created equal! Mulch with composted, nutrient rich material in the spring. It will add the benefit of surging your plants with extra minerals while it decomposes and still does all the good mulchy stuff we talked about earlier. It will potentially cost a bit more, but your garden will be that much more productive and won’t need all those fussy fertilizer applications. In late autumn, mulch with something like shredded bark mulch or leaves. Most of your plants will be going dormant for a few months anyway, so adding compost to the soil isn’t as pertinent. Save yourself the dollars and add something that will really protect your babies from the cold and help to suppress weed growth. In the early spring do your big clean up and add your spring mulch!

It’s not too late to mulch now! With heat waves and droughts running rampant, if you haven’t already, mulching now is a great idea. Mulching now means less watering, and less heat stress for your plants over the course of the baking hot summer days. Shred that bark! Get some hay! Go dumpster diving for cardboard! Spread the mulch love!

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