Gardening Tips: Mulching

Mulch isn’t only a finishing touch for your yard: it’s a workhorse of a garden tool that keeps water and warmth in and weeds out (for the most part). Glance down the cavernous aisles of any garden center, and you’ll find endless possibilities.

Organic vs. Inorganic Mulch

What we know about the word “organic” doesn’t apply here. When it comes to organic versus inorganic mulch, one isn’t superior to the other; the classification simply refers to what the mulch is made of and what it will contribute to your garden. Organic mulches made of things such as compost, pine needles and wood chips keep plants off the ground and nourish the soil as it breaks down. Inorganic mulches – think gravel and garden fabric – don’t add nutrients to the soil and can be difficult to water around, but they help the ground retain heat and keep weeds from taking over your space.

ORGANIC MULCHES

Compost

Pro: rich in nutrients

Con: can contain weed seeds

Hay/straw

Pros: affordable, easy to work with and manages weeds

Cons: messy (doesn’t stay in place), attracts rodents and can contain weed seeds

Pine needles

Pro: lightweight but stays put

Con: not as clean-looking as other mulches

Wood chips

Pros: affordable, breaks down slowly and retains water

Cons: difficult to clear out each year and can retain too much water, causing fungus to grow

INORGANIC MULCHES

Black plastic mulch

Pros: prevents weeds, retains water, retains heat in colder months and keeps vining crops from rotting

Cons: difficult to water and can overheat ground in hotter months

Gravel/stone

Pros: easy to water, permanent and visually appealing

Cons: expensive, heavy, hard to move around and doesn’t prevent weeds

Landscape fabric/geotextiles

Pros: retains water, prevents weeds and allows airflow and nutrients in

Cons: degrades over time, cumbersome to maintain and remove, requires an overlay of mulch

One of the biggest benefits of mulching is giving your garden a layer of protection against weeds, but weeds will be weeds, and no mulch will keep them all at bay. Before you attack the little green invaders, figure out which approach will be most effective so you don’t spend days on the ground digging them out to no avail.

If your soil is wet, now is the perfect time to pull weeds out from the root. (Moist soil has more give to it.) Firmly grip weeds at the base near the soil line and tug – this should pull up the entire plant, root included.

If your soil is dry, use a hoe or trowel to decapitate them. Carefully chop weeds just below the soil line to cut off the tops – the root will subsequently die off underground. If you have large weeds, you may need garden clippers or loppers, and then it’s off with their heads! Cut them as close to the base as possible so that they don’t regrow, and try to get at them before they seed – or else you’ll have to content with their offspring.

Regular weed observation and maintenance is essential: Don’t hover, but a quick check around your garden a few times a week will make weeding feel more like tending and less like a chore.

Shannon Weber is the creator, author and photographer behind the award-winning blogaperiodictableblog.com, and her work has appeared on websites such as Bon Appétit, Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen.

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