By Erik J. Martin
Want to give your forthcoming foliage an extra boost this spring? Applying plant food and plant fertilizer can help. But don’t overlook the magical benefits of mulch, which can help your garden and grounds survive and thrive.
Mulch is a layer of typically organic mulch materials such as wood chips, leaves, compost, bark and straw. These collected materials serve as a protective covering that is applied around plants, trees, flowers and other foliage.
The plant benefits of applying mulch are multiple. Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, reducing the need for frequent watering and keeping plants hydrated. It also blocks light from reaching the soil, thereby reducing the growth of garden weed seeds and making it easier to maintain a weed-free garden. Additionally, mulch helps regulate soil temperature, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, which can benefit some plants. And over time, mulch decomposes – adding organic mulch matter to the soil and improving its structure and fertility.
While mulch can be applied at any time, it is normally laid down in the spring when plants are emerging from dormancy or in autumn to safeguard plants from colder temperatures, notes Janet Loughrey, a gardening expert with GardenDesign.com. She says it’s important to understand and use the right types of mulch.
“Wood chips or bark improves soil structure and drainage and suppresses weeds. It can be used for tree and shrub foundation plantings or garden beds to reduce overall maintenance. Straw mulch is best used in vegetable plots to cool the root zone, retain moisture, and suppress weeds. It is generally applied around strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, zucchini and cucumbers after plants have become established in early summer,” Loughrey says. “Compost can be applied to virtually any plant on top of the soil where it will break down to feed the plant over a period of time and improve soil structure.”
Fresh grass clippings can also be used as mulch, but it’s wise to let them dry first and apply them in a thin layer to avoid compaction and matting.
It’s recommended to layer bark or wood chips two to four inches deep versus two to three inches deep for straw and one to two inches deep for compost.
It’s also best to apply mulch in the springtime after the soil has warmed up and any danger of frost has passed.
This helps prevent the mulch from insulating the soil and delaying soil warming, which can slow the growth of plants. In colder climates, it may be best to wait until later in the spring to apply mulch, while in warmer climates mulch can be applied earlier in the spring.
Jon Stephens, a professional gardener and chief editor of TotalGardener.com, recommends using mulch “when the soil is still cool and wet. This will ensure water retention throughout the summer.”
It’s crucial to choose the right type of mulch for your plants, as some mulches are not applicable, depending on the plant species.
For example, using fresh grass clippings or straw mulch as mulch around acid-loving plants like rhododendrons can lower the soil pH and harm the plants,” cautions Jones.
To play it safe, consult a horticulturist or do research online.
“It’s smart to check the pH level of your soil before applying mulch to make sure it is not too acidic or alkaline for the plants you are trying to protect,” adds Stephens.
In addition, keep mulch away from the stems of plants to prevent disease, replenish mulch as necessary to maintain a consistent layer, and avoid applying mulch too thickly, which can suffocate plants and reduce oxygen levels in the soil.
Don’t apply mulch directly against the trunks of trees either, as this can promote decay and insect problems.
Lastly, you can make your own types of mulch by gathering organic waste materials like shredded leaves, grass clippings and compost that can be mixed.