The merits of mulch

Homemade compost - our preferred garden mulch

Homemade compost – our preferred garden mulch

Mulch, dear readers, mulch now. Mulch well and you will be grateful later.

There are good reasons to mulch. In areas prone to drying out over summer, a good layer of mulch put on now will contribute to retaining soil moisture levels later. You don’t want to be mulching when the soils have already dried out because, equally, it acts as a barrier to stop water being absorbed.

Mulching also keeps down weeds and hugely reduces the amount of summer weeding that is required. There are two provisos. You need to clear the area of weeds first. Mulch won’t kill existing weeds. It just discourages germination of all those seeds lurking in the soil waiting to spring forth when the time is right. It also makes it much easier to pull out those that do penetrate through the layer. The second proviso is that you need to be using a weed-free mulch and many home compost mixes won’t have achieved that state.

Avoiding soil splash is another benefit. In areas of heavy rainfall (and some of us can get downpours akin to the tropics, albeit without the warm temperatures), bare soil splashes back up and this can spread disease amongst vulnerable plants. Soil splash also makes vegetables dirty. Mulch acts as a cushioning filter.

Depending on your choice of mulch, it can act as a soil conditioner and add valuable carbon content. Some will gradually break down as worm and microbial action incorporated it into the soil. Obviously this is only true for organic matter. We are big fans of organic mulches here, less so of inorganic options like limestone chip or gravel. But no matter what you use, a mulched garden looks better than expanses of bare soil. It is the experienced gardener’s not-so-secret weapon. You won’t find many good gardeners who do not mulch regularly.

So what to mulch with? Our number one preferred option is compost, homemade compost in fact. It does three jobs in one hit. It mulches, it feeds the soil so that we rarely have to use other fertilisers and it looks unobtrusive. But then we do not want a mulch that looks obvious. It is a tool, not a display in itself.

Leaf litter can be untidy but makes a good mulch

Leaf litter can be untidy but makes a good mulch

The second choice mulch here is leaf litter. We don’t waste any organic material. If it doesn’t get composted, then it gets raked into a back area to gently decompose and darken, before being raked back out around plants. Leaf litter can be untidy but it is good in less formal areas.

Then there is fresh wood chip. We own a good sized mulcher so we generate a fair amount of wood chip from the garden debris that is too large to go into compost. Calf shed shavings and sawdust also come into this category. When fresh, all these materials have to be used as mulch but not dug into the soil or they will rob the nitrogen as they break down. Laid on top and exposed to the elements, the decomposition happens slowly and naturally and should not cause problems. If you are going to use sawdust, just make sure that it is never, ever tanalised (you will poison your soils) and be prepared for a few months of a somewhat alarming orange appearance.

Old wool carpet and newspaper (weight the latter down) can be used as mulch if you don’t mind the look. We do mind, so we don’t go down that track. Just make sure the carpet is 100% wool and not synthetic and keep to newspaper – leave the glossies out with the recycling.

Pea straw may be a better option for the vegetable garden than the ornamental garden

Pea straw may be a better option for the vegetable garden than the ornamental garden

If you need to head off to the garden centre to buy your mulch, you will often find pea straw on offer. While this is a traditional mulch, if you are not in a pea producing area, consider its carbon footprint. It blows away unless you keep it damp. It is a myth that it helps fix nitrogen in the soil – that capacity is in the pea roots and all you are buying are the tops. Aesthetically, I think it looks fine in the vegetable garden (especially if it is all around high-producing strawberry plants) but I am less keen on the look in ornamental gardens. A bale should cover around 6 square metres of area.

Granulated pine bark is often favoured. Try and get it pre-composted. Compounds in the bark stop it rotting down too quickly so it lasts a surprisingly long time on top. It is a discreet looking mulch but it adds no fertility. If you have a big area to cover, buying it in bulk will save money. A cubic metre should cover around 15 square metres.

You need a layer of 6 to 7 centimetres to be effective. You will often see 10 cm recommended but that is pretty deep. Finally, try not to pile the mulch hard in on the trunks of woody plants. It doesn’t matter around perennials but trees and shrubs run the risk of collar rot.

The mulching effort now will reward you further down the track.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.