Tag Archives: mulch options

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.

Outdoor Classroom: guide to garden mulches

There are five good reasons to mulch your garden:
a) Mulches suppress weeds when laid to a depth of around 6cm (but the mulch itself needs to be free of weeds).

b) Mulches stop soils from drying out as quickly by slowing evaporation. However they should not be laid on ground which is already dry because they will act as a barrier to stop water soaking in easily when it rains.

c) Some mulches will feed the soil and add valuable carbon content.

d) Mulches protect your soil from wind, torrential rain and erosion and may slow the leaching out of goodness.

e) Most mulches make a garden look much more attractive and reduce dust.

ORGANIC MULCHES

1) Pea straw is popular but when used in areas where peas are not grown commercially, it has a heavy carbon footprint in transporting it. It should be weed free. It adds carbon content to the soil but it is a myth that it fixes nitrogen (peas store the nitrogen in their roots but you are only buying the harvested tops of the plants). It is better in the edible garden, and great for strawberries, but not very aesthetic in the ornamental garden. A bale should cover about 6 sq metres. Water it well or the dry straw may blow away. Oat straw and barley straw are suitable substitutes.

2) Composted bark is widely used and lasts a surprisingly long time. Compounds in the bark stop it rotting down quickly. It adds carbon over time, it should be free of weeds and it is visually discreet in the garden because it is dark brown. Buy pre-composted bark if you can – it does not rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. You can buy small bags but it is cheaper in bulk. A cubic metre should cover about 15 square metres.

3) Leaf litter is readily available and free in autumn. You can either disperse the litter over the garden beds immediately or you can rake it into piles and let it start to decompose first. A leaf rake makes this task much easier than trying to use a garden rake. Leaf litter will enrich the soil but it may look a little untidy in some garden situations.

4) Wood chip, sawdust, and wood shavings are not composted so must be laid on top of the soil and never dug in until they have rotted. This is to avoid them depleting the soil of nitrogen as they break down. Sawdust or shavings must be from untreated timber (tanalised timber is toxic) and fresh sawdust can look garishly orange on the garden. We use the fine wood chip from our mulcher extensively, raking it out immediately to a layer of about 6cm.

5) Old carpet must be natural fibre (generally wool), not synthetic. Test it with a flame – if it melts, it has synthetic fibres. Cutting with a Stanley knife is probably the easiest way to get manageable pieces. It may be best in the vegetable garden because it is not attractive. Lay it with the hessian backing side upwards and you can camouflage with leaf litter. Similarly, newspaper is not an attractive looking option, but it will work if you lay down a thick layer of maybe ten sheets at a time. Coloured pages are fine but avoid any glossy paper. It needs to be weighted down and covered with other garden litter to keep it moist. It represses weeds and adds carbon content.

6) Compost is our preferred option by a country mile but if you are using your own compost, you need to make sure it is as free of weed seeds as possible. Compost adds most of the nutrients the soil needs and is excellent laid as a mulch on top. Let the worms gradually incorporate it into the soil. It looks unobtrusive while nourishing and protecting the soils.

INORGANIC MULCHES

7) Stones are heavy to handle but can be visually effective in the right setting. They also store warmth for plants which prefer hotter conditions. They are best used with permanent plantings where the ground will not need to be cultivated (dug over) as you do not want to have to move the stones. Use a leaf blower to keep the build up of litter removed.

8) Limestone chip can be quite a stark white when first spread but this sometimes suits modern gardens. It is weedfree but it adds nothing to the soil. Once you have laid it on the garden, you will never get rid of it. Acid loving plants like rhododendrons and camellias will turn yellow because the alkaline lime will leach out. The same goes for crushed shell, which is also alkaline. The only way to keep these mulches clean and smart is to use a leaf blower to remove detritus.

9) Fine gravel and scoria are similar options. Fine gravel is a traditional mulch for rockeries and alpine plants because it is free draining and a neutral material. It can look a little industrial or utility in other settings. Scoria will give a decidedly retro 1970s’ look.

10) Weedmat is a commercial product designed predominantly for nursery use. It suppresses weeds and allows rain to penetrate while preventing excess evaporation. It should be laid taut and secured with wire hoops. It has no aesthetic value at all and looks uniformly unattractive when used in home gardens. It is at least better than its precursor, black polythene, which should never be used as a mulch because it sours the soil. Weedmat is bought by the roll and widths vary but it should price out around $1.25 a square metre.