Let’s talk about mulch

Mulch has been the topic of the week. It seems everyone I know is mulching. I’m even doing a bit of mulching at the little house on a big hill. For me, it is the quickest and easy way to bring instant curb appeal to your garden.

Not only does it tidy up the landscape, but mulch also helps retain moisture and regulate the temperature of the soil. It will also aid against soil erosion.

There are several different types of mulch, and knowing the difference will help determine which is right for each garden spot.

Shredded bark is the most common. This is often made from cedar or pine and will break down quickly, which is a good thing; as it decomposes, it adds organic matter and enhances the soil. Over time, you will see a noticeable difference in the quality of the soil.

Chips and nuggets are just that: parts of trees and bark chipped into small pieces. The size can vary between mini and full-size nuggets (think chicken nugget size). This mulch does not work well on slopes. When it rains, the nuggets tend to float away. Because of their size, they will not break down as quickly; the bigger the chip, the longer it will last.

Straw mulch, in pieces or shredded, is traditionally used in vegetable gardens or strawberry beds. Using straw helps keep the mud off veggies and fruits. This keeps them clean and lowers the risk of disease from moisture on the leaves. When using straw, watch that you are not adding weeds or seeds that might be mixed in with the straw.

Wood chips use more nitrogen from the soil, not a problem for trees, shrubs and perennials that have deeper, more established roots. Vegetables tend to have shallow roots, plus most are annuals or only live one season, so don’t make them compete for nutrients.

Compost is another organic choice for top dressing. It will break down fast, adding to the quality of your soil while providing a beautiful background for the plants. Reach out to your local city — many have compost giveaways in the spring.

Shredded leaves and grass clippings can work. Make sure they are shredded; otherwise, wet leaves can form a layer of yuck on top of the garden. Shredded newspaper can work as mulch, too.

A few garden areas stand out in my mind because they used pea gravel or small stones as mulch. Some are in the movies, but one is the herb garden at the WV State Fair Grounds. Wow, it’s pretty. I loved it so much I came home and used stone as the mulch for my herbs. Full disclosure: I grow most of my herbs in containers, but they are sitting in an area of pea gravel. It is a nice change and gives the area distinction, maybe a tiny bit of glamour in my herb garden.

A few things about using stones as mulch: It is more expensive; it does not break down and add to the soil structure; and it can get hot and hold the sun’s heat. I did not put a weed barrier of landscape cloth (I’m not a fan) or newspaper underneath, so I have done weeding over the years. I do add to the rock every few years; I’m not really sure where it goes but am guessing it has something to do with the lawnmower and blower.

Organic mulch should be two to four inches thick. Applied any heavier, and the soil may not get its much-needed oxygen. The finer the mulch pieces, the thinner the layer needed and with stone, one inch is enough.

When starting a new bed, I use old newspapers (But, of course, not the garden column. You save those, right?!) as a weed barrier under the mulch. It will smother the weeds and then disappear over time. Mulch on its own will help prevent small weeds from growing but will not kill established weeds. Do this before spreading mulch.

I beg you; please don’t make a mulch “volcano” around your tree. Give the tree trunk and plant stems room to breathe. Piling the mulch up against the trunk will keep moisture again the wood and invite disease and insects.

Rubber mulch had its moment on playgrounds and pretending to be environmentally friendly. It’s not. The rubber leaches chemicals into the ground.

If you are going to mulch, and I suggest you do, go organic or stone. Your garden beds, walkways and other areas will reap the rewards. You will reap the oohs and ahhs of having a well-kept garden.