Living Off the Land: Mulches in garden, landscape

Lance Ellis

There are a few secrets that every successful gardener must have, and one of them is to fully utilize mulches in their garden. Mulches come in a variety of forms and offer benefits to the home gardener in varying degrees.

Mulches can help you by:

• Reducing the weed population and the amount of work needed to manage them.

• Acting as an insulation barrier for the soil so that it does not get as cold during the winter and as hot and dry during the summer.

• Conserving moisture, as a layer of mulch will reduce overall water usage and dehydration stress to your plants.

• Encouraging the development of a healthy soil ecosystem that contains beneficial organisms, such as earthworms.

• Reducing water stress in shallow-rooted plants

• Releasing nutrients as it decomposes, improving its tilth, structure and ultimately your plants.

• It will also improve the overall beauty of your garden, as well as you will not be tracking mud into the house as much. In a landscape, it definitely improves the overall beauty and provides a contrast between the plants and their surroundings.

Mulches come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and composition. Many times our first thought is that mulches have to be either leaves or grass clippings. But within the past 15 years, there has been a movement to use alternative mulches to achieve similar results as an organic mulching system.

Select a mulch that is suited for your location and purpose. Choose one that achieves your goals, so, for example, if you want to increase the nutrients in your soil, reduce weeds and reduce moisture loss, then a leaf or grass-clipping mulch could help you. The drawback though is that you have to reapply it annually to keep this mulch sustainable. If providing nutrients is not your intent, but rather weed control and resistance to the incessant blowing of the wind, then a gravel mulch will fit the bill.

Different mulches include composted leaves, lawn clippings, hay or straw, shredded bark or wood chips, sawdust, plastic mulch, general compost, grave, and even old carpet.

Composted leaves provide a good way to hold onto moisture, but really don’t add a great deal of nutrients to your soil. They need to be somewhat composted as this will help hold onto moisture.

Lawn clippings have many good qualities, including being a good source of nitrogen. But this can also pose a problem as too many lawn clippings can become a black, stinky mess when piled on too high. It is better to add thin layers of lawn clippings at a time, rather than a thick layer all at once.

Shredded bark or wood chips are a great way to make a flower or landscape bed look really good and also add nutrients to keep weeds down. The drawbacks for bark and wood chips is that they get weathered looking and start to blow away.

Sawdust is actually a pretty good product to use if you have plants that perform better in a slightly acidic soil. Most sawdust is acidic by nature, so it is best if you can let it sit for a year and water it a few times at least to help wash some of the acidity out of it.

Plastic mulch is just a layer or two of plastic sheeting put down around the plants. It helps a great deal with weeds, and holding in moisture, but does not give any nutrient benefits. If done correctly, it can be reused.

In established garden walkways and perennial landscape beds, gravel is a great alternative to other mulches as it can be almost maintenance free.

Lastly old carpet remnants work well in garden walkways. They will deteriorate, but just lay another old carpet fragment over them, and they will work well for keeping weeds down. Good luck with your mulches, and happy gardening.

Lance Ellis is the University of Idaho Extension educator for Fremont County. He can be reached at 208-624-3102.