Mulch Madness

By Paul James

I have a confession to make: I’m a compulsive mulcher. You might even say I’m a mulch maniac. It all started nearly 40 years ago when I used a light layer of straw to cover my first vegetable garden, something I’ve done every year since. A year later, I started using bags of chipped and shredded wood mulch in my ornamental beds, a practice that continues to this day. So clearly, I’m hooked on mulch. And you should be too.

By using mulch in the garden, you’re mimicking what nature has been doing for eons – covering, and thereby protecting and enriching the soil with organic matter. Deciduous trees and shrubs blanket the forest floor with leaves that prevent erosion, maintain soil moisture, and prevent noxious weeds from germinating. As those leaves decompose, they provide nutrients to plants and food for soil-dwelling critters, especially earthworms, and they improve the soil’s structure and tilth. When you mulch at home, you’re doing essentially the same thing. And you get an aesthetic bonus too, because mulch is beautiful. To me, it’s like icing on the cake.

There’s really no such thing as the best mulch. What you choose to use is entirely up to you. These days, pine-bark chips are my favorite for ornamental beds, although for decades I used shredded cedar as well. In my vegetable garden, I use a lot of shredded leaves, homemade compost, and straw. At a previous home, I controlled slugs in a hosta bed using pecan shells. They looked great, and slugs won’t walk across them.

Ideally, you should mulch to a depth of two to four inches for maximum benefit. Keep the mulch off the crowns of annuals and perennials to prevent them from rotting, and several inches away from the base of trees and shrubs to prevent damage by voles and field mice that feel protected under the cover of mulch. Consider “fluffing” the mulch once or twice a year with a metal rake just to loosen it up and bit so that water can easily percolate through it. Beyond that, all you need to do is add a fresh layer every year to maintain the proper depth.

I’m convinced that mulch offers the biggest bang for your buck in the garden, and it protects the investment we gardeners have in our plants. So do yourself and your plants a favor by adding mulch to your garden. But be forewarned: You might soon discover that you too are a mulch maniac.