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What Kind of Mulch Is Right For Me?

Princeton Online article

One of the most important things you can do to keep the trees and shrubs on your property happy and healthy is to mulch them. Now is the perfect time to apply mulch, after the soil has warmed up and before the heat of summer hits.

Two questions we get asked all the time are, “What kind of mulch should I use?” And, “How much will I need?”

Let’s tackle the first one first:

What Kind of Mulch Should I Use?

There are many, many types of mulch out there, some which can be purchased and some which can be repurposed from lawn waste. In general, organic mulch – or mulch that comes from live organisms such as wood or leaves – is preferable to inorganic mulch (like rocks or rubber). This is because organic mulch adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes, enriching and improving the soil.

All organic mulches will benefit your landscape by regulating the soil temperature, retaining moisture, reducing soil compaction and, in many cases, providing aesthetic appeal. According to Cornell University, adding mulch can reduce summer soil temperatures by 8 to 13 degrees, help the soil to retain twice the amount of moisture and reduce weed removal time by two-thirds. Those are some pretty incredible statistics!

There are four main types of readily available organic mulch:  Shredded bark, shredded leaves, grass clippings and pine straw (pine needles). Let’s go over shredded bark first, as this is the most commonly used landscape mulch.

Shredded Bark

Shredded hardwood bark is what you typically see in residential landscapes and is perfect for trees, flower beds and overall weed control.

Shredded bark mulch makes a great soil amendment as it decomposes and can be dyed different shades of red, brown and black. The dye is typically nontoxic, made from natural colorants. (To be safe, it’s a good idea to double check with your supplier).

There are several different kinds of shredded bark mulch:

  • Double ground shredded bark: A blend of hardwoods shredded to one to two inches per chip, which gives a fine, uniform look. Great for flower beds and landscaped areas.
  • Cedar mulch: More expensive but has a special aroma and actually repels insects! Cedar mulch is great for improving the soil, suppressing weeds and it works especially well in steep areas because it tends to cling to the ground better than other types of mulch.
  • Root mulch: Made from roots that are double processed and aged to produce a rich color and fine texture. If you’re looking for mulch that will really enrich your soil and nourish your plants – this is it. Root mulch breaks down very well and is a natural soil conditioner. You’ll need to apply root mulch a little more thickly than other kinds of mulch – three to four inches deep.
  • Superfine hardwood: Ground using super fine screens to achieve a very consistent, delicate quality. This kind of mulch is perfect for flower beds or areas where you want the mulch to break down easily and nourish the soil.

Leaf Mulch

Not all mulch has to be purchased. Leaves can act as great mulch – as long as they are shredded before use – otherwise they will become matted down and restrict air and water flow to the soil. Leaf mulch is a great winter mulch, especially for garden beds and non-landscaped areas. Bonus: you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do with all those leaf piles in the Fall!

 

Grass Clippings

 

Believe it or not, grass clippings can serve as excellent mulch – if used correctly. Grass clippings decompose quickly and add nitrogen back into the soil, making it an excellent soil amendment. To avoid stinky odors, allow the clippings to dry out a bit before spreading. And don’t use grass that has been treated with pesticides, weed killers or other chemicals, especially if you intend to use it in a vegetable garden. While grass clippings are a great free option, they do break down quickly and will need to be reapplied more often than other kinds of mulch.

 

Pine Straw

 

Pine needles, commonly referred to as pine straw, make another readily accessible, free mulch material, especially if you have a lot of pines on your property. Pine straw is what trees in the forest naturally rely on for mulch material. Pine needles decompose slowly so they do not need to be replaced often (once a year is plenty), and they are very resistant to compaction.

 

You do, however, need to be careful about where you spread pine straw, because pine needles will naturally acidify the soil. Acid-loving plants and trees will benefit from a nice, deep layer of pine straw.

 

How Much Mulch do I Need?

 

When it comes to mulch, deeper is NOT necessarily better! The rule of thumb is two to three inches of mulch with an additional inch added the following year and each year afterwards.

 

If you are purchasing mulch, you can either buy it by the bag (usually sold in two- and three-cubic foot bags) or by the cubic yard from a local garden center, tree care service or landscape supply company. One cubic yard is equivalent to 27 cubic feet.

 

Now is the perfect time to show your plants some love – and get them through the hot summer – by giving them the benefit of mulch.

 

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