The Scoop on Mulch:
Good mulch is an essential garden element, perhaps even the ultimate gardener’s helper, reducing weeds, conserving water, regulating soil temperatures, and preventing erosion.
Nature’s most famous mulch is “duff,” the layer of leaves, branches and other organic matter that collects on the forest floor. Eventually, this duff decomposes and enriches the fertility, aeration, and tilth of the soil. Mulch does the same thing for your garden.
Hardwood mulch tops my list for best overall mulch for a wide variety of garden uses. It’s good-looking, long-lasting, heavy enough not to easily float, and its chunky texture allows for excellent air exchange between the soil and the atmosphere. It also decomposes into excellent compost that I eventually till into the soil. I use a 2- to 3-inch layer around plants (remember: don’t pile mulch against any plant stem) and a 6-inch layer to make informal garden paths. Hardwood mulch is moderately priced and readily available bagged or in bulk.
Cypress mulch is especially valuable for preventing erosion on slopes, as the slender, pointy pieces knit together to form an amazingly stable mat that won’t easily move during a gully-washer. This tight mat can inhibit air exchange, so I do not recommend covering large areas with cypress mulch. It is very long-lasting, so I use it in bands across slopes, but not in perennial or annual beds where I work the soil fairly often.
Pine bark mulch is acidic and the mulch of choice when growing acidic-soil-loving plants such as azaleas, gardenias and camellias. It comes in two basic types: nuggets and screened “fines.” The nuggets are extremely attractive, long-lasting, allow for excellent air exchange, and are wonderfully easy to spread around where you need them. They also float superbly, so don’t use it where rains can wash it away. I use screened fines for mulching newly planted groundcover beds and in annual and herb beds where I tend to work the soil a few times per year.
Grass clippings actually make a pretty good mulch – and one that is overlooked by almost everyone. These fresh clippings make an excellent mulch for perennial and annual beds or in herb or vegetable gardens. While the clippings decompose fairly rapidly, the supply is usually readily available.
Just last night someone asked me what I thought of the brightly colored mulches available these days. I ruminated on it for a moment – while not my choice by a longshot, if the flashy color gets someone who would normally not apply mulch to do so, leading eventually to gardening success, then maybe – just maybe – it’s the greatest stuff in the world.
About the author: Steven L. Chamblee serves as an author and Contributing Editor for Neil Sperry’s GARDENS magazine, writes the monthly “Native Son” column for Neil’s e-gardens newsletter, and is the Chief Horticulturist at historic Chandor Gardens in Weatherford.