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Mulch has become a staple for homeowners and gardeners everywhere for many benefits it brings to outdoor plantings. During winter seasons, it is an important way to protect exposed soil, prevent erosion, and protect plantings from cold damage. During the warmer months, mulch can help preserve moisture, keep weeds from sprouting, and even feed the soil.

Many people think of mulch just as that stuff you buy in bags at your favorite hardware store or outdoor center, but mulch is really any material you can use to cover the surface of the soil. This can include organic mulches such as grass clippings, wood chip mulch, shredded leaves, and straw to inorganic mulches such as cardboard, black plastic, landscaping fabric, rubber, and even pebbles. Organic mulch breaks down more slowly, enriching the earth with nutrients as it does.

What Type of Mulch Should I Use — and Where?

Garden mulches come in a variety of forms, each with pros and cons. For most organic mulches, however, more is not better. Two or three inches of mulch is plenty. Thinking about using an inorganic mulch? Then you only need about an inch of mulch coverage. Using more mulch than is necessary can put heat stress on plant roots and encourage disease.

Bark Mulches

Bark mulches such as wood chip mulches and shredded wood mulches are great for areas that won’t be disturbed later by digging, such as foundation plantings and walkways with established garden beds. They don’t mix easily into the soil, so they can be a pain to move out of the way if you want to put new plants in place.

Mulch made from softwood bark is beautiful, does not compact, and decomposes very slowly. Hardwood bark, on the other hand, also looks attractive but decomposes much more quickly and must composted properly to avoid issues with your soil such as fungal growth.

Bark mulch colors range from red, to several shades of brown, to black. The color has no effect on the efficiency of the mulch — it is simply a matter of choice.

Pro Tip: Mulch placed near the trunks of trees and shrubs can contribute to rot and encourage wood-boring insects and rodents. To prevent this problem, keep mulch 6 to 12 inches away from woody plants.

Grass Clippings and Leaf Mulch

Grass clippings and leaf mulches aren’t as pretty as bark mulches, but they are fine for out-of-sight areas that need some protection. Make sure you don’t use clippings or leaves from chemically treated lawns or plants to avoid bringing toxins into your soil.

Rubber Mulch

Mulch made from recycled rubber can maintain its look for many seasons and resists compression and washing away as well as controlling weed growth. This makes it a superb choice for children’s play areas or high-activity sites. Because it doesn’t biodegrade, it won’t enrich your soil and it can be difficult to remove once it settles into the ground, so be sure that you really want it where you place it.

Other Inorganic Mulches

Other inorganic mulches such as landscape fabric, cardboard, and even rocks can be used to stop the spread of weeds and protect plant roots from extreme temperatures. While cardboard, newspaper, and even landscape fabric will eventually biodegrade, other materials, such as stone will not. Anything that doesn’t decompose should be considered a permanent mulch.

How and When to Apply Mulch

Typically, you should wait until several freezes or cold spells have occurred, typically in late November or later, before applying winter garden mulch, especially around tender perennials or grafted plants such as roses. You can use any organic mulch at a depth of approximately 3 inches to provide coverage, which will help plants remain dormant until their growing season begins in the spring. Be sure not to heap mulch around the crowns of plants as this can attract rodents that will do damage by gnawing plant bark.

Once the danger of frost has passed, you can remove winter mulch so the ground can warm up and encourage plants to grow. At this point, consider putting down cardboard, newspaper, or landscape fabric to prevent weed growth. Then you can add the organic mulch of your choice. Remember to replace mulch as it decomposes into the soil.

Still Confused About How to Mulch Correctly?

Lots of homeowners have questions about how to mulch correctly, since the “right” way depends on several factors — from where you want to use it, to why you are considering using it in particular areas, and even home design or plant color can factor into it.

For help finding the right type of mulch for your home or your specific application, it’s smart to get help from experts in the industry. That’s why so many people turn to Townsend Arborcare. At Townsend, our landscape professionals can help you explore your options and make the right choice for your yard and garden. Plus, we offer a done-for-you mulch service that can take the worry — and the workload — out of keeping your landscape protected and beautiful using the right mulch for the job.

Let us take the workload off your hands. Contact a Townsend Arborcare consultant today and learn how easy it can be to keep your yard and garden mulched — the right way!
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