Benefits Of Mulch In Your Garden {Ultimate Guide To Mulching}

Mulching is a simple yet highly valuable practice that can greatly enhance your garden. Unfortunately, it is often overlooked or underutilized despite its significant benefits. In the natural world, bare soils are virtually nonexistent, and once you understand what this means to the soil and plants, the phenomenon is truly remarkable.

If you’re a gardener, this article will explain the numerous benefits of mulch in your garden and answer the question — why is mulch important?

Strawberry plants mulched with grass clippings and straw.

If you want to learn about mulch, this is your ultimate guide to get you started.

I know I became obsessed with it when I started casually reading about the topic.

As I started delving into soil microbiology and the science of how things grow and how they grow best, mulch became as crucial as water or compost.

It was obvious to me pretty quickly that mulching was not optional — not if I truly wanted to maximize yields and maximize the nutrients in the food I was growing.

Today, mulching my vegetable garden, fruit trees and berry bushes, and the permaculture projects we are slowly incorporating is not even a question.

The primary benefits of mulch is that it retains moisture loss while protecting and feeding your soil and thus your plants.

Once I have you convinced, check out my handy mulch calculator to automatically calculate exactly how much mulch you need to cover your beds.

Benefits of Mulch

  1. Adds aesthetic appeal to the garden by creating a uniform and tidy appearance.
  2. Prevents soil compaction in unused garden beds that are not ready to be planted.
  3. Acts as a natural barrier against certain plant diseases and pathogens, limiting their spread.
  4. Enriches your soil with organic matter, enhancing the overall health and resilience of your garden.
  5. Promotes natural defenses against pests and diseases.
  6. Certain mulches actually boost the immune system of some plants.
  7. Supplies essential slow-release nutrients to your plants, ensuring their optimal growth and development while preventing vitamin loss.
  8. Retains soil moisture, reducing water needs and saving money.
  9. Minimizes watering time, saving both time and money.
  10. Provides shade for delicate seedlings, acting as a protective shield from excessive sun exposure.
  11. Acts as an excellent insulator, regulating soil temperature and creating a favorable environment for plant roots.
  12. Keeps roots cool during hot summers and provides warmth in cold winters, minimizing plant stress.
  13. Serves as a natural weed barrier by blocking sunlight, preventing weed growth, and reducing competition for nutrients with your plants.
  14. Boosts soil biological activity by providing nourishment to beneficial microorganisms and earthworms. These organisms help break down organic matter, enhance nutrient cycling, and improve soil structure.
  15. Mulch acts as a protective layer, reducing valuable nutrients being washed away by heavy rain, excessive watering, and UV rays from the sun.
  16. Mulching enhances soil conditions by aiding in soil structure, assisting in moisture retention for sandy soils, and promoting better drainage for clay soils.
  17. Mulching prevents soil erosion and compaction, especially in high-traffic areas like pathways and play areas.
  18. Mulching protects plants from mud-splash caused by watering or rainfall, preventing soil particles from splashing onto leaves and stems.
  19. Mulching with organic materials such as grass clippings and leaves allows for the recycling of materials, promoting a sustainable gardening practice.

Types Of Mulch

As we practice no-dig no-till regenerative agriculture and gardening, the focus here is on organic mulches.

Wood Chips

Wood chips are small pieces of wood typically used as mulch in orchards and permaculture food forests to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and enhance soil health.

I see a lot of needless discussion on wood chips vs mulch — when the reality is wood chips can be used to mulch vegetable gardens as well as fruit trees.

It is a myth that wood chips tie up nitrogen. That is not a concern unless you’re tilling them into your soil, and why would you ever do that?

In the back To Eden gardening method ( a type of no-dig/no-till gardening), it is wood chips that are used in the vegetable gardens as well as around the fruit trees.

One of the biggest benefits of wood mulch is that it is easily obtained for free or cheap (GetChipDrop) and it takes a long time to break down.

Wood chips are very beneficial in pathways as well, and to put in the bottom of raised beds.

When sheet mulching to suppress weeds, wood chips are probably the best choice.

When we put in our raised garden bed site this year, (read about that in my how to lay mulch over grass article which takes you through it step-by-step) it was a no-brainer to use wood chips.

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Leaves & Leaf Mold

Leaves are incredible.

They can be used instead of cardboard (as I describe above in the sheet mulching tutorial) and they can be made into compost, mold, mulch as I describe in my detailed article how to shred leaves for mulch at that link.

Leaves and wood and other materials are frequently combined together too and that is a fantastic approach to mulching that I describe in leaf mulch vs wood mulch in more detail.

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Ramial Chip Wood

Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW) refers to small branches and twigs from trees and bushes, typically less than 7 centimeters in diameter, that are chipped or shredded for use as mulch.

This specific type of wood mulch offers several notable benefits in gardening such as containing a high concentration of nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are gradually released into the soil as the wood decomposes.

This nutrient enrichment enhances plant growth and vitality.

It is one of the best mulch for fruit trees you can use (mixed with regular wood chips and leaves like a forest floor) as it seems to be capable of boosting the immune system of trees and aiding in pest and disease suppression.

Whenever you’re pruning fruit trees or bushes — that’s the valuable ramial chipped wood and it should be used as mulch, not composted or discarded.

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Grass Clippings

If you’re mowing your lawn and wondering can you use grass clippings as mulch? The anaswer is a very enthusiastic yes.

Grass clippings make one of the best organic mulches and it is likely the easiest one to obtain for everyone.

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Hay, Straw, & Chopped Straw

Hay is dried grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants that are commonly used as animal feed.

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal crops, such as wheat, rice, or barley, which are often used for animal bedding.

Chopped straw refers to straw that has been cut into smaller pieces, making it easier to handle and spread as mulch or bedding material.

Unlike the other two options, chopped straw (also called garden straw), is 99% dust-free (making it excellent for asthma and allergy sufferers) and also weed seed free.

And using straw as mulch can be cheaper.

All three are fantastic natural mulches in your gardeners and come with their respective pros and cons.

Using hay as mulch is more nutritious for example.

We primarily use chopped straw in our gardens as it’s affordable and easy to work with.

When it comes to the best mulch for organic vegetable garden, you can’t go wrong with either of these — unless they’re been contaminated with weed killer and other poisons.

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Compost

Another crucial component of successful organic gardening and healthy soil and plants — compost.

But as a mulch it is lesser known. I go into this topic in-depth in my article on using compost as mulch.

If you’re already an avid practitioner of no-dig/no-till gardening, then you already know that some of the top people in the world use compost as their mulch and nothing else.

In fact, many of those people grow directly in compost and simply add an inch every year or twice a year to the top of their beds.

Our raised beds are actually 60% compost (from mixed sources) topped with an inch of compost and then other mulching ingredients.

And the best compost for raised beds or in-ground gardening will usually be from mixed sources like animal bedding, manure, kitchen scraps, mushroom waste etc.

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Chop & Drop (Plant Matter)

Chop and drop is a gardening technique where plants are cut or pruned and the plant material is left on the ground as mulch.

Instead of removing the plant waste, it is intentionally left in place to decompose and provide various benefits to the soil and surrounding plants.

The chopped plant material acts as a natural mulch, helping to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and add organic matter to the soil as it breaks down.

This practice of chop-and-drop for mulch and fertilizer is commonly used in permaculture and sustainable gardening systems to promote soil health and nutrient cycling.

Certain plants with a long taproot (like comfrey) are especially popular as they are capable of mining nutrients and minerals from deep soils, much deeper than your vegetables get.

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Healthy Mulch

If you’ve ever noticed your mulch turning white — that is usually a good thing!

White mold in your mulch is a good sign that beneficial bacteria exist in your garden soil. These bacteria feed on your mulch and form fungi.

Read more and see some photos from my garden in my article why is my mulch turning white?

Why Is Mulch Important? What Is The Point Of Mulch?

Permaculturalists understand the benefits of mulch very well as mulch has played a significant role in establishing and maintaining food forests and ecosystems.

No-dig, no-till gardeners are starting to understand the crucial significance that mulching can play in their home vegetable gardens and market gardens.

But why has the average home gardener — even an organic gardener — been so hesitant and slow to adopt the practice of mulching their garden beds?

We seem to understand that mulching flower beds to create attractive landscaping in our homes is a thing, but what about the beds where we grow our food?

The truth is that mulching your garden is an extraordinary thing that can have significant and surprising benefits to your soil health and plant yields.

My raised beds are fully mulched and will remain that way all year long.

Our fruit orchards and berry bushes are mulched.

Even the older growth trees on the property will eventually be mulched.

What Is The Best Mulch?

The best mulch for your garden is one made from organic materials, or a combination of them. The best mulches will feed and protect your soil while helping you grow an abundance of food easier.

We use chopped straw, old hay and baled straw, grass clippings, leaves and leaf mulch, compost, and wood chips.

Use what you have on hand and can easily obtain or make — that is always the best way.

And remember that he best mulch changes according to needs.

So the best mulch for asparagus beds may not be the best mulch for strawberries or something like corn or your perennial beds.

Why Inorganic Mulches Are Not Recommended

Inorganic mulches, such as plastic or rubber, are not typically recommended for use in gardens, especially home gardens.

Unlike organic mulches, which are derived from natural materials, inorganic mulches do not offer the same benefits to soil health and plant growth. In fact, they can have several drawbacks.

Inorganic mulches do not break down over time, which means they do not contribute to improving soil structure or adding organic matter.

Additionally, they can create a barrier that restricts the exchange of air, water, and nutrients between the soil and plants. This can lead to poor drainage, increased soil compaction, and hinder the growth of beneficial soil organisms.

Furthermore, inorganic mulches can create an unnatural and ugly aesthetic in garden beds.

Overall, organic mulches are generally more beneficial and sustainable for promoting healthy plant growth and soil vitality. Trust me, the world has enough plastic waste sitting around for the next forever or so.

What Are Disadvantages of Mulching?

While mulching offers numerous benefits, there are a few potential disadvantages to consider:

  1. Weed Seeds: If the mulch material contains viable weed seeds, it can lead to an increase in weed growth. It’s essential to use weed-free mulch or properly composted organic matter to minimize this risk.
  2. Excessive Moisture: In some cases, certain mulch materials or excessive mulch thickness can retain too much moisture, leading to waterlogged soil and potential root rot. It’s important to monitor moisture levels and adjust mulch thickness accordingly.
  3. Pests and Diseases: In certain circumstances, mulch can provide a habitat for pests or harbor fungal diseases. It’s crucial to maintain proper garden hygiene, regularly monitor for pests and diseases, and promptly address any issues that arise.
  4. Overheating: In warmer climates or during hot weather, certain mulch materials, particularly dark-colored ones, can absorb and retain heat, potentially leading to overheating of plant roots. Consider using lighter-colored or reflective mulches in such conditions.

By being aware of these potential disadvantages and taking appropriate measures, you can effectively manage and mitigate any risks associated with mulching to create a healthier and thriving garden environment.

How Often Should You Mulch?

You can freely keep your garden mulched all year.

If you’re installing new raised bed or preparing a new garden site — mulch the soil straight away to prevent it from compacting as it sits unplanted.

Add new mulch as needed.

Does Mulch Help Keep Soil Cool?

Yes, it can, but it depends on when it is applied.

When applied as a layer on top of the soil, mulch acts as an insulating barrier that reduces soil temperature fluctuations. It blocks the direct heat from the sun, preventing the soil from heating up quickly during hot weather.

In the spring time if your mulch layer is too thick it may prevent the soil from heating up adequately.

In cooler regions it may be best to remove mulch during this time, apply compost (which is also a type of mulch), and then apply any other mulches after the soil has warmed up.

You may also want to only use compost as mulch in your garden and that is a perfectly valid choice.

What Is The Best Mulch For Hot Climate?

In hot climates, certain organic mulches are particularly effective in reducing heat and regulating soil temperature. Consider using the following organic mulches for optimal results:

  1. Straw: Straw mulch provides a light-colored and airy layer that reflects sunlight and keeps the soil cooler. It also helps retain moisture and suppress weed growth.
  2. Wood Chips: Using larger-sized wood chips as mulch creates air pockets that insulate the soil, preventing excessive heat buildup. They also retain moisture and gradually decompose, enriching the soil.
  3. Pine Needles: Pine needle mulch forms a dense and acidic layer that helps regulate soil temperature and conserves moisture. It is especially suitable for acid-loving plants like strawberries or blueberries.
  4. Compost: Applying a layer of compost as mulch not only adds organic matter but also helps maintain soil temperature. Compost acts as a natural insulator and retains moisture, promoting healthy plant growth.

Remember to apply the chosen organic mulch to a depth of 2-4 inches, ensuring proper coverage and maximum benefits in hot climate conditions.

Do You Remove Mulch In The Winter?

No, it is generally not necessary to remove mulch in the winter. In fact, it is recommended to add more mulch during the winter months to provide additional insulation and protect the soil from extreme temperature fluctuations.

As spring approaches and the weather begins to warm up, you can gradually reduce the mulch layer to allow the soil to warm up and promote healthy plant growth.

This approach helps maintain soil moisture, suppresses weed growth, and protects the soil and plant roots throughout the winter season.

Certain perennial beds (like strawberry beds) need to be mulched with an extra-protective cover.

Do I Need To Remove Old Mulch Before Applying New Mulch?

In most cases, it is not necessary to remove old mulch before applying new mulch.

As long as the old mulch is not excessively thick or compacted, you can simply add a fresh layer of mulch on top. The new layer will blend with the existing mulch and continue to provide the benefits of weed suppression, moisture retention, and temperature regulation.

However, if the old mulch is significantly decomposed or harboring pests or diseases, it may be beneficial to remove and replace it before adding new mulch.

Additionally, it’s important to avoid excessive mulch buildup, as it can create a barrier that hinders water and air penetration.

Can You Put Soil On Top Of Mulch?

In certain gardening practices, such as creating raised beds or incorporating additional soil amendments, adding soil on top of mulch can be a viable approach.

This method can help improve soil quality, increase the depth of planting areas, or provide additional nutrients to plants.

It’s important to ensure that the soil layer is not too thick to allow proper water penetration and air circulation.

Care should be taken to avoid smothering the underlying plants or causing excessive moisture retention.

Final Thoughts

The benefits of mulch are irrefutable.

From conserving soil moisture and suppressing weeds to enhancing soil fertility and promoting plant health, mulch plays a crucial role in gardening and growing nutrient-dense food.

Throughout this comprehensive guide, we have explored the numerous advantages of mulch, including its ability to regulate soil temperature, improve soil structure, and reduce the need for irrigation and fertilizers.

Whether you are a seasoned gardener or just starting out, incorporating mulch into your gardening practices is a wise and rewarding decision. By harnessing the power of mulch, you can create a thriving and sustainable garden that will flourish for years to come while giving back to the earth.

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