Every gardener agrees that maintaining the back or front yard doesn’t come without challenges. You could use a variety of techniques to tackle these issues, but organic mulch can be one of the most effective solutions.
Some of the most common challenges you’ll find yourself struggling with include:
- controlling and removing unwanted weeds
- Watering your garden
- Fertilizing your garden
Mulch provides a one-for-three solution that will make garden maintenance a breeze. Indeed, the fact is that the cozy mulch blanket can protect your soil from excess dryness, unwanted weed seeds, and help nurture it with beneficial nutrients.
Here’s everything you need to know about organic mulch and how to use it.
What exactly is organic mulch?
When you are on the hunt for mulching materials at your local garden center, you are likely to encounter different types of mulch, namely organic and inorganic. By definition, organic mulch refers to layering of either living or formerly living plant matter. On the other hand, inorganic mulch is specifically made using human-manufactured or non-natural materials. This can include plastic, quarried stone, and rubber.
It’s worth mentioning that inorganic mulch serves a purpose in gardening as it is highly versatile and long-lasting, unlike its organic alternative. A weed blocking gardening mat can provide protection from weeds for many seasons. However, gardeners can’t expect to gain nutritional benefits from inorganic materials. The organic variant will decompose over time as it consists of materials that were once alive. The decomposition process improves the soil structure by providing essential nutrients.
A summary of what you can achieve
Using organic mulch as part of your landscaping goals tackles the top three challenges of every gardener, as mentioned above. Its unique nutritional values mean that you can feed micro-organisms in the soil, which promotes growth. But it’s not just the nutritional benefits that make organic mulch a gardener’s best ally.
A layer of mulch provides unique protection against external elements. In a sunny climate, for instance, mulch can minimize the risks of evaporation, which means that the soil remains moist for longer. As a result, you don’t need to worry as much about watering your garden. Additionally, the protective layer also offers a barrier against the wind, which can cause fluctuations in the soil temperature or bring undesirable seeds. In winter, mulch keeps your soil warm, which reduces damage from frost and ice.
If you understand which type of mulch is best for your environment, you can significantly reduce the presence of weeds and even protect your soil from diseases. Yet, choosing an inappropriate material could have adverse consequences. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common mulching materials for organic layering.
Best materials for organic mulch
Typically, you will find wood chips, straw, barks, and compost at specialized garden stores. So it can be tricky to know where to start. Here’s an overview of the best organic materials we recommend.
Straw mulch is a favorite for vegetable gardens. You can use it to keep the soil warm in winter and protect your crops. It lets the water through and prevents evaporation. It’s also highly effective to reduce weed spread and growth.
Beware however, as straw is highly flammable and blows around at the first wind. It’s best used in a covered vegetable garden or a protected area.
Pine straw is a superb addition to orchards or ornamental gardens. They add an elegant note if you can spread it heavenly. It resists compaction, which means it will let the water through and help regulate soil temperature. You can also use pine needles in your vegetable garden.
Unfortunately, dried needles are highly inflammable. They are also best combined with other materials to add nutritional values to the soil and suppress weeds. Alone, they fail to tackle these issues.
Grass clippings are a fantastic addition to your lawn as they can significantly reduce the need for lawn fertilizer. They do not replace the fertilizer, though, but can save you a lot of money. Typically, you’ll get those from your mower, if you have a mulching mower, such as the Greenworks cordless lawn mower. You can also use lawn clipping in your vegetable garden and your compost pile. They add plenty of organic matter and prevent water evaporation. They can mat, however, which will create an unpleasant slimy material. To avoid the issue, you want to apply clippings in thin, dry layers.
Shredded leaves are typically collected in the fall, as part of a garden cleanup. Used alone they tend to blow away at the first wind or mat in the rain. But if you mix them with straw, you can prevent matting risks and keep your soil protected. You’re more likely to find leaf mulch in a vegetable garden or an ornamental garden. Because it’s a messy-looking mulch, it’s often used in combination with other materials. It’s a nutritious addition to the garden that prevents water evaporation. On their own, leaves are not always effective to protect the soil from cold temperatures, which is why you’d find them a more popular material to store throughout the winter and use at the start of spring.
Newspaper or cardboard
Paper and cardboard materials are used by gardeners who want to prevent weeds. You need to ensure your newspaper and cardboard are wet for best results. Ideally, you want to soak the cardboard to ensure both sides are wet. There isn’t much nutritional value, so it’s the type of mulch you need to combine with other materials. You can cover it with a layer of wood chips or straw.
Corn cobs and stalks
Corn stalks are a favorite in vegetable gardens as they can help regulate winter temperature on the soil. Entirely free of seeds, the stalks and cobs are great weed suppressants. They let the water in and reduce evaporation risks. However, you will need to prepare the material for mulching. Cobs need to be ground up while stalks have to be shredded.
If you are looking for stalks to use on your small shrubs and perennials, however, evergreen branches are a great alternative for ornamental gardens.
Living mulch is a cover crop that acts as a mulch layer while carrying on growing. You will need a slow-growing plant. The concept of using a companion plant to protect your crop isn’t new. But living mulch can act as an attractive ground cover, such as creeping red fescue, for instance. As companion plants, they enhance soil protection, keep weeds at bay, and can fix nitrogen issues in the soil. You find ground cover living mulch in ornamental gardens and orchards. Companion plants are more common in vegetable gardens.
We’re nuts about nuts! Pun aside, nutshells can be attractive mulching materials that suppress weeds and prevent evaporation. They let the water through. Because they need a long time to decompose, they are a neat and long-lasting addition to an ornamental garden.
A word of warning, though, as walnut shells can be damaging to plants sensitive to black walnut toxicity. Sensitive plants could wilt and die in its presence, so to be on the safe side, it’s best to avoid walnut shells.
Sourcing quality seed hulls from buckwheat, rice, cocoa beans, or cotton can be an attractive mulching layer for your garden. These are best suited for a vegetable garden due to the nutritional values. However, it’s important to ensure the sourced material is free from pesticides. It’s best to combine seed hull mulches with other layers as, used alone, they can have a high level of potassium.
Least recommended/ recommended with caution mulch materials
Not all mulch material is good for your garden. When you understand how to use organic mulch, you know how to avoid some of the most devastating traps. Here, I’ve compiled a brief list of the top materials that you should consider with caution.
You have probably found many articles that recommend using coffee grounds in ornamental gardens. They are also a neat addition to your vegetable garden as they add plenty of organic matter and help regulate temperature. However, coffee grounds can rapidly compact if it isn’t covered by other mulching layers. They can’t be used near seeds as this can affect germination. The best and safest use for coffee grounds is in the compost pile. You should always compost the grounds before using them in your mulch.
Compost is suitable as mulching material in all gardens, except for gardens that specifically require lean soil. It adds a ton of nutritious organic material but, doesn’t generally prevent weed growth.
It often has the opposite effect of speeding weed spread and growth! Home-prepared compost is likely to contain weed seeds, especially if you don’t cover your compost pile, to maintain the heat. Store-bought materials, on the other hand, are seed-free. You can keep weeds under control by covering your compost mulch with other layers of weed-suppressing materials.
Bark mulches or gorilla hair is best used in wet climates. You can also use these if you have drip irrigation in your garden. The long-lasting mulching material can help prevent weed spread and add organic matter.
At this point, it’s important to make the difference between gorilla hair and bark chips. Bark chips tend to be expensive and can compact easily. Unlike gorilla hair, they’re not as effective at conserving water as they form a barrier that can dry the soil.
You will also find colored wood mulch, which doesn’t compact and can be attractive. However, it often fades at the contact of external elements over time. It’s typically used in ornamental gardens and needs to be changed regularly to maintain its pleasant appearance.
Wood shavings and sawdust belong in your compost pile. Used as mulching material, they compact and keep the water at bay. If you want to use sawdust, you should consider adding nitrogen generating materials, as it tends to tie-up nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes.
There’s little nutritional value or temperature protection to gain from this material alone. Mixed with other layers of organic mulch, you can alleviate some issues, such as matting or slime apparition. Yet, on its own, it isn’t always a safe choice.
If you live in the north-east of the United States, you’re probably familiar with salt marsh hay mulch. It’s typically harvested in flood plain regions and coastal estuaries. However, the constant harvest can lead to disruptions of the ecosystems in these regions. Saltmarsh hay packs a lot of nutrients for your soil and adds a protective barrier to regulate temperature and weed growth. But, they are not a sustainable choice for the local ecosystem.
You can find organic mulch materials both in stores and around your household. Depending on the type of garden you have, some materials are more suitable than others.
Vegetable gardens prefer straw, leaf mulch, corn stalks and cobs, coffee grounds, seed hull, and living mulch.
Ornamental gardens benefit primarily from nutshells, cardboard and newspaper layers, colored wood, living mulch, and pine needles.
Grass clippings can boost lawn fertilizing naturally, but they don’t exclude the use of fertilizer.
Some mulching materials, such as compost, cardboard, straw, pine needles, and sawdust are best used in combination with other mulching layers.
It’s best to stay away from salt marsh hay and walnut shells in your garden.