In whatever area of the yard you have your garden, mulch serves as the protective cover. Sometimes it’s a decorative quilt and other times a heavy insulator as proof against inclement weather – but all mulches offer a needed protective element as well as making your garden look better. Once you’ve planted flowers or vegetables, it’s important to choose a mulch variety that benefits your gardening needs.
Every plant has its own particular growing needs and some mulches cater to specific needs better than others. This means you’ll likely have multiple types of mulch in your vegetable garden. Choose each one depending on the time of year you plant the crops as well as your plants’ nutritional needs.
Heat-loving plants like tomatoes, melons, and peppers are usually planted once the soil warms up – they hate to have “cold feet.”
• Keep the soil warm through chilly spring temperatures by mulching the plants with black plastic. These sheets lay on top of the ground, killing off any sprouting weed seeds underneath. They also absorb heat from the sun during the day, keeping the soil beneath warmer during the colder nights.
• Most black plastics won’t allow water to penetrate, so as the season progresses you’ll have to remove it and replace it with another type of mulch or install a watering system that works underneath the soil.
• The simplest solution is to remove the plastic once the summer heat arrives and replace it with straw, newspaper or piles of grass clippings.
• These mulches will shade out weeds, allow water to get through to the roots, and will also allow excess heat to leach out of the soil.
Most spring plants such as broccoli, lettuce, spinach and greens thrive in cooler weather, so extra heat on their roots isn’t a good thing. These plants still need the weed-reducing properties of a mulch, but a straw or shredded leaf cover is a better choice. In fact, keeping these organic mulches on the soil around cool weather crops can keep the soil cool enough to keep the plants producing for weeks longer than they normally would.
No matter what you grow, your climate has a large effect on what type of mulch you should use. For example, the warm, tropical weather throughout most of the year in southern Florida doesn’t go well with black plastic. Excessive heat will stress plants and burn up any organic matter you may have in your soil. Cooling mulches such as piles of grass clippings are a better choice in this environment.
The opposite is true in northern areas of the country. Use black plastic for longer periods if your soil doesn’t usually warm up until near the first day of summer. This will allow you to lengthen your planting season as well as giving your plants a great environment in which they can grow stronger.
Types of Mulches
Your garden center will probably carry an intimidating variety of mulches. This smorgasbord might seem filled with good choices but, again, it depends on the needs of your plants.
• Shredded bark: One of the most common and least expensive of the organic mulches, it breaks down slowly and is good for mulching on hillsides. It’s considered environmentally friendly, but will remove nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down. Add a good layer of compost around your plants underneath this mulch.
• Straw: This mulch gives garden beds a beautiful golden color and it breaks down much more slowly than most other mulches. It can be filled with weed seeds, though, if you’re not careful with your supplier. Oat straw is known to be particularly weedy. Some suppliers carry a guaranteed weed-free variety of straw specifically made for mulching.
• Pine needles: Pine needles break down relatively slowly and can add a lovely look to perennial beds. They increase the acidity of your soil, so if you have acid-loving plants such as blueberries, azaleas or rhododendrons, this is the mulch to choose.
• Pine bark nuggets: Popular with commercial landscapers, these large nuggets don’t stay in place very well and allow more weeds to sprout through than most any other mulch. They can be easily washed away by heavy rain, but they break down more slowly than almost any other variety.
• Cocoa hulls: This mulch may have more pros and cons than any other variety. It’s extremely attractive, but you have to spray them with water to seat them in the garden or they’ll blow away in the wind. It has a wonderful chocolate fragrance, but can be the most expensive of the mulches. It may be ideal for spreading around smaller plants such as herbs, but it’s poisonous to dogs and cats if they eat it.
In addition to keeping the soil moist and weed free, mulch adds an attractive look to any garden, which makes it a clearly important element to your landscape list. It’s just a matter of choosing which one will benefit your plants.