Mulch - Like Icing on the Cake

By Paul James

If you consider the money you spend on plants as an investment of sorts (and you really should), then you should also know that the smartest way to protect and insure a return on your investment is to apply mulch to your garden beds. Here’s why.

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 are lots of different organic mulches on the market, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Chipped or shredded wood mulches are by far the most common. Pine needles are big in the south, and are gaining in popularity here as well. But mulch can also be nothing more than a layer of shredded leaves, compost, or any number of bagged products sold as soil conditioners.

Whatever you choose to use, a two- to four-inch layer is ideal, and ideally applied in spring and again in late fall. Spread the mulch evenly, tucking it up to the base of plants without covering their crowns to discourage rot. Don’t create pyramids of mulch at the base of trees – not only can that cause serious pest and disease problems, it also looks weird. (I sure hope my neighbor is reading this!)

And speaking of weird, don’t freak out if you see white strands of fungus growing in your wood-based mulch. That’s actually a beneficial fungi that’s helping break down the wood and converting it into plant nutrients.

The only possible downside to mulching heavily and regularly is that you may have to water a little more each time you water, because the water has to percolate through the mulch to get to the roots of plants. But you can also water less frequently. Which means it all comes out in the wash, so to speak.