How much do you know about mulch?

When most homeowners do their own landscaping they generally go to the closest supplier and order a scoop or two of wood chipped mulch, enough for what they need to complete the project.  The most common thing that is thought about before buying is the color: which will look best with the current landscaping or their home?  But did you know that there are actually beneficial reasons for the selections of mulches that are offered? 

So what is mulch: a layer of material applied to the surface of soil. Reasons for applying mulch include conservation of soil moisture, improving fertility and health of the soil, reducing weed growth and enhancing the visual appeal of the area. [thank you Wikipedia!]

BUT there are a few extra perks to selecting a “good” mulch.  “The ideal mulch is economical, readily available and easily applied and removed; stays in place well; and supplies organic matter to the soil, yet is free of noxious weeds, insects and diseases” says the Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

The most common mulches that you will find at your local supplier are –

  • Wood chips (barked) – this mulch has a high carbon and nitrogen ratio.  Wood chips are often known to lose their decorative appearance over time and fade to a gray or silvery gray color.  Because most homeowners prefer to see the beautiful color of the wood chips against their home and landscaping, they often will refresh their mulch by adding and additional 3 to 4 inches of chips.  The problem with this?  Obviously, waste of mulch but because of all of the mulch lying on top you are increasing the risk of suffocating the roots of your shallow-rooted plants.  A tip from the pros: turn existing mulch before adding more.  By doing this you are rotating the mulch from the bottom (which has received minimal sun) to the top.  Another perk of wood chips – you have a few choices of colors: natural (brown), red, and black.
  • Straw & pine needles – not our first recommendation.  Yes, straw is cheap, but it is highly flammable, hides rodents, easily blows away and is not, by any means – aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, when straw decomposes it lowers the soils nitrogen supply.  While it does have a few setbacks, there are some benefits: it will reduce weeds, it will help to reduce soil water looses and it is great for protecting roots from cold temperature injury.  But let’s talk pine needles they have a very pleasing look and will also provide a boost of acid which is great for plants that love acid like hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas.
  • Geotextiles – this is an up and coming trend.  They are non-woven and woven fabrics of polyester or polypropylene.  The benefit of this breathable covering is that it allows fertilizer, water and oxygen to easily reach the soil providing the nutrients your plants need and they still prevent weed growth.  Win! Win!  Of note, if you decide to use a plastic covering—make sure you cut holes into the plastic to allow water to get to the plants/soil.  If you are noticing puddling on the plastic, you need more holes.  Because these types of mulch will not decompose, they do not require frequent replacing, but they will not add nutrients to your soil.  Pro tip: use the geotextile as a base before adding wood chipped mulch. 
  • Organic matter (bark, compost, composted manure, grass clippings, shredded leaves) – helps to improve soil structure, drainage and aeration.  The cool thing about organic mulch is that when it starts to decay the organic material becomes mixed with the topsoil and adds nutrients to the soil.
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When selecting your preferred mulch, you will want to keep costs in mind – some options can get very pricey when are completing a big scale project.  When mulching you want to make sure that you thoroughly cover the area at a uniformed depth (around 3inches) to keep it most effective while properly insulating the soil.  In order to curb future problems with weeds you want to make sure you have no bare or low spots; this will deter the mulch from doing its job.  In addition to avoiding bare mulching, it’s important to note – you do not want to heavy mulch.  Heavy mulching over years will create a ‘mulch mat’ and will cover the crown area of plants thus preventing them from the proper nutrients they require.  Remember to taper your mulch when you get close to the edge (pavement, steppingstone, tree trunk, etc.).  Oh, and don’t forget your trees. 

So, did we overwhelm you?  Who knew that there was so much to take into consideration before mulching?  I know, it kind of blew my mind too!  If you are unsure of which mulch to pick, what color would best compliment your home/landscape – give us a call.  Our Project Manager loves to design our customer’s homes and has a knack for delivering a visually pleasing landscape while keeping your requests and price range in mind!

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Building Industry Association of Lancaster County Ephrata Area Chamber of Commerce Techo-pro Contractor Certified ICPI Installer