Much Ado About Mulch
How Much to Mulch, and How to do it Effectively
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Jennifer Maynard – From flower gardens to homestead veggie gardens, mulching is an integral part of bed cultivation. But are you mulching the right way? There’s a science behind mulching that’s more complex than many people realize and learning how to mulch effectively can dramatically improve the health of your soil and the prospects of whatever you’re planting in it.
Learning how to mulch properly starts with the fundamentals. What is mulching? What material should you use? When should you mulch? And so on. We’ll answer these questions and more, giving you a crash course in good mulching practices and why they’re so important.
What is Mulching and Why is it Important?
Most green thumbs and croppers know why mulching is important. For those new to cultivation, mulching is something of a surface treatment for planting beds. While mulch types vary (we’ll discuss later on), it’s typically comprised of organic matter, spread across the surface of the bed to evenly cover and protect the soil. The reasons behind mulching are many:
- Helps retain and balance moisture levels in the soil
- Impedes the growth of weeds, mold, and fungi
- Improves the fertility and soil health
- Reduces potential for water and wind soil erosion
- Stabilizes ground temperature during seasonal shifts
Done right, adding mulch to planting beds creates ideal conditions for germination and reinforces the soil microbiome to support that germination. Mulching stands right alongside fertilization and proper tending as one of the core pillars of good cultivation.
Mulch Materials and Proper Spreading
For mulch to be an effective aid to cultivation, it needs to properly support the crops growing in that bed and the soil profile they’re rooted in. Case in point: material matters. Too many novice planters mulch before understanding the ramification of the material they’ve chosen.
As an example, bark and wood chips are common mulch materials. Unfortunately, they’re not ideal for many planting beds because of their tendency to leach nitrogen from the soil. Conversely, fresh organic mulch such as leaves and lawn clippings contain an abundance of phytonutrients that can be reabsorbed into the soil to improve its microbiome. This opens the door to a bigger conversation about falling leaves and natural mulching, a regenerative farming practice that’s largely preferable to other mulching practices. Instead of raking fallen leaves out of your planting beds, rake them in and allow natural composting to take place for an effortless solution to mulching!
Finally, when it comes to spreading mulch, less is often more. Layering mulch too thick will generally leave soil oversaturated and could cause root issues, such as root rot. Keep mulch spreading to between two and four inches.
When to Mulch for Maximum Effect
Mulching is typically best done seasonally and serves distinct purposes depending on the season. During the spring, early mulching helps stabilize ground temperatures overnight and impede the growth of weeds to help springtime crops get a good start on growth. Fall and winter mulching helps to prevent early growth from perennials that may be affected by a late-season freeze. It also moderates soil moisture through the winter and, aided by cover crops, can protect the soil during the offseason.
That said, mulching continuously is a regenerative farming practice that’s gaining momentum. This technique involves thorough mulching in the spring and fall, then using discarded or naturally fallen plant matter as additional mulch as part of routine tending. Celebrated gardening author Ruth Stout often described this technique in her books, simply stating that “as it decays and enriches the soils, I add more.”
Common Mulching Mistakes to Avoid
Despite the seemingly simple process of mulching, croppers need to beware of the common pitfalls that can make it a detriment to planting beds, as opposed to a vital step in cultivation.
The first thing to avoid is store-bought mulch. Bagged mulches come with a variety of unknowns that make them a poor choice for planting beds. First, they’re often subject to coloring and dyes to promote consistency. Second, even despite being labeled as a particular type of mulch, many are amalgams, making it impossible to know exactly what you’re dumping into a planting bed. Finally, the cost of bagged mulch can make it prohibitive for larger beds.
The alternative to bagged mulch is, of course, fresh mulch. If you have the power to compost your own fresh organic matter, this is preferred. If not, there are likely several local sources for fresh mulch at affordable prices.
The other major mistake to avoid is mixing mulch into the soil. Mulch is meant to stay on the surface of planting beds. Mixed in, the soil will spend precious nutrients breaking down organic matter, instead of nurturing plants. To avoid this, it’s best not to till the soil between plantings — another tenant of regenerative farming.
Be Diligent in Mulching
Mulching remains one of the most beneficial ways to improve your soil, but one that demands mindfulness. When in doubt, lean on regenerative farming practices to properly mulch your planting beds. Done properly, mulching will not only improve the health of your crops, it’ll restore the integrity of your soil and sustainably rejuvenate its nutrient profile.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.