Experienced gardeners love mulch--and with good reason. Mulching saves labor, conserves water, stabilizes soil temperatures and protects the ground from erosion. Mulch can also give the landscape a neater, more cohesive appearance. Once you learn how to mulch appropriately, you'll wonder how such a simple step can do so much.
Mulch serves many purposes in the home landscape. A layer of mulch applied between plants limits weed growth by preventing light from reaching undesired seedlings. It also acts like a blanket over the soil, holding in moisture and insulating the ground from temperature changes. Mulch helps keep precious topsoil where you need it because it protects the ground from the erosive forces of rain and wind. Organic mulch enhances the soil, as well. As it decomposes, it adds valuable organic matter, which improves soil texture and contributes to a healthy soil ecosystem. Finally, well-chosen mulch adds aesthetic appeal by offering an attractive accent that ties a landscape together.
Many materials can be used for mulch. Organic mulches originate from plant material. Examples include pine needles, bark, wood chips, straw, shredded leaves and newspaper. Inorganic mulches include stone or gravel, chipped rubber, plastic and manufactured landscape fabrics.
The type of mulch you choose should depend on the functions you want it to serve, the look you want to achieve and your long-term maintenance goals. These functions include weed control, aesthetics and maintenance. Organic mulches do break down over time and you will have to replenish them periodically. Inorganic mulches are permanent, but they don't build valuable topsoil. If aesthetics are a concern, try the mulch in a small area to see how it looks before buying enough to complete your entire yard.
Most loose mulch is applied about 2 inches deep for effective moisture conservation and weed protection. Don't apply mulch too thickly or it will prevent air circulation and keep the soil from ever drying out. Too much moisture can lead to disease and other problems. Avoid the common mistake of piling a mountain of mulch around the trunks of trees or stems of plants. This can cause rot and create a favorable environment for disease and insects.
Some gardeners think mulching will completely eliminate the need to weed. This is not true. Most mulches slow weed growth but don't prevent weeds entirely. Some fabric weed barriers used as mulch will block nearly 100 percent of weeds, but the occasional seed may still sprout on top of the fabric and will need to be pulled.