Mulch. It’s as essential to a good garden as seeds, soil and sunshine. A layer of mulch acts as a weed barrier, making it tougher for those dandelion seeds and thistle seeds to take root. It’ll also make it easier to remove those weed seedlings when they do get started. Mulch helps hold water in the soil, keeping plant roots moist between rainfalls and waterings. Water poured straight onto the soil is quicker to evaporate, and can erode soil around a plant’s roots, but a thick layer of shredded bark or will act like a sponge, keeping moisture where you want it and protecting your plant’s roots. Mulch will reduce how often you need to water your garden, too. Additionally, mulch will help protect tender plants from extreme temperature fluctuations in early spring and late fall.
Depending on where you live, you’ll find anything from shredded bark to pine needles to grass clippings makes good mulch. Enviro Girl is a huge fan of shredded bark–and she can have it delivered from any number of reputable landscapers in the area. For an additional fee, they dump a truckload of it in her driveway–she pays around $25 per cubic yard and she gets about 20 yards every year. She’s got a lot of ground to cover. If you’re in the market for less, say, 2-4 cubic yards, DO NOT go to your local hardware store and buy plastic sacks of it. Head over to a local landscaper with either a pick up truck, trailer or empty trash barrels and fill up. You’ll end up purchasing better quality mulch material without generating excess waste and you’ll end up getting a better price.
Because Enviro Girl goes through so much mulch in a given season, she’s begun exploring how to make it herself. Living on 60 acres she’s got no shortage of dead trees and fallen limbs to run through a wood chipper. By her estimation, investing in a $750 Troy-Bilt 250cc chipper/shredder would pay off within a couple of years. And like any enterprising young woman, she’s considered selling her homemade to help pay off such an expensive piece of lawn equipment.
A free source of mulch is your municipality’s waste department. When city workers collect curbside yard waste, they usually chip and shred it into mulch for people to grab at no cost. This mulch includes chipped up Christmas trees, tree limbs and leaves. Unlike landscaping mulch, it may include the remnants of diseased plants or weeds, so the quality isn’t top-notch, but it’s preferable to NO mulch. Enviro Girl used empty garbage and recycling bins to transport municipal mulch to her garden when she lived in town years ago.
Plastic packaging aside, the other reason you should NEVER EVER buy mulch from a Big Box Store or anyone else selling it by the bag is INVASIVE SPECIES. Mulch shipped across state lines likely has bugs or plant diseases or fungus contaminating it. Landscapers stake their business on quality control, but it’s still wise to ask, “Where did you get this bark?” Enviro Girl asked her Mulch Man and learned his mulch came from Michigan, one state north from where she lives, and it was double-chipped and double-screened per state regulations to keep ash-borers away. He laughed at her question, but agreed it was good to ask because bad mulch can import a lot of trouble. Always make sure your mulch is coming from a local or trusted source.
Once you’ve got your mulch, it’s a simple matter to move it to where you want it–around trees and shrubs and into gardens. Using a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork, you can make short work of distributing mulch around your property. A garden rake is the best tool for raking the mulch into a level layer 1-2 inches thick.
By applying mulch early in your growing season (March or April), you’ll smother most weed seeds and not have to worry about damaging tender bulbs or perennials shooting through the soil. If you’re mulching a vegetable garden, you might spread rows of mulch between your plantings and then work it among your plants after they’ve grown 4-5 inches.
Mulch. It’s an inexpensive and organic way to combat weeds and retain soil moisture. As garden choices go, spreading mulch is a no-brainer.