Mulch is not only an attractive addition to your gardens and flower beds, but it also helps soil retain its moisture during periods of drought. Most mulch materials will also act as an ever-present weed inhibitor, lessening the need for gardeners to use potentially harmful herbicides. Depending on the type of mulch used, a typical layer of mulch should be 1-3 inches deep. Those with clay soils, which naturally have poor drainage, should not use mulch.
Cocoa shells are a byproduct of the chocolate industry. The shells are removed and discarded from the cacao beans during production, but can find a new use as mulch. These aromatic shells are gathered and sold in 50-lb. bags and have been used as an alternative to traditional mulching materials since the mid-20th century. While cocoa shells make a long-lasting mulch, they are not recommended for use in places where dogs are present. Just as with chocolate, ingestion of the cocoa shells can be fatal, due to the theobromine in the shells.
Leaves and Grass
Using your lawn's leaf litter and grass clippings is an inexpensive alternative to store-bought mulching materials. Shred the leaves before laying them down in your garden, or the leaves will mat together, restricting the flow of both water and air to the soil below. Lay grass clippings from your lawn mower's bag in the sun on a large piece of plastic. The clippings should be fully dried before they are transferred to your garden or flower beds. The thickness of the grass or leaf mulch should be no more than 1 inch.
Plastic mulch consists of thin sheets of plastic, typically 4 or 5 feet wide, and is a suitable mulch choice for vegetable gardens. North Carolina State University reports an increased growth rate of vegetables, such as tomatoes, squash and peppers, in gardens where plastic mulch is used. This mulch type increases the soil temperature and, as a result, crops reach maturation 2 to 21 days earlier, depending on whether black or clear plastic mulch was used. Soil compaction was decreased with the use of plastic mulch, keeping the garden's soil loose, which is beneficial to the development of the vegetables' root systems. One of the biggest drawbacks to plastic mulch is its higher cost compared to other mulch material.