Next time youre in nature, try looking at the ground. Its usually covered in old leaves, fallen branches, rocks and other debris. This layer is vital for soil health. It helps regulate moisture, provides nutrients, suppresses weeds, prevents erosion and supports resident microbes and insects.
You can recreate this effect by mulching any bare areas in your garden. Mulch is essentially anything that covers your soil. And its meant to stay on top of soil as a buffer, not to be dug in like compost or fertilizer. Organic types of mulch will break down and release nutrients over time, but keep them on the soil surface for the most benefit.
There are many different types of mulch you can use. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on your site. These are some of the most common mulches available.
Wood Chips and Shredded Bark
Wood chips are primarily branches and wood fiber cut into small pieces. Whereas, shredded bark is only bark with no wood pulp. Both make excellent mulch in areas youd like to keep clean, such as under strawberries or other low-growing crops. You can also use them in pathways or around perennial plantings.
Wood chips retain water better and break down faster than shredded bark. This means that chips may be a better choice in areas like a vegetable garden where you want more moisture and nutrients. Bark may do better in long-term areas where you want better drainage, such as underneath shrubs.
Covering the soil with large rocks counts as mulch. Rock gardens may look dry, but the moisture stored under rocks helps sustain the surrounding plants.
Rocks will also capture heat from the sun and create warm microclimates around them, which can be very helpful in cooler regions. Rocks can also prevent erosion when used on a slope.
Dont be too quick to clean up your yard. Lawn clippings can be left on the lawn to compost in place, or gathered and spread over your garden beds. You can do the same with any plant trimmings, especially leafy greens from vegetables or flowering plants. These can be left next to the plants to cover the soil and allow the nutrients to be recycled.
Fall leaves are a great opportunity to add extra organic matter to your beds. They also help keep the soil warm and safe over winter.
If you have your own compost pile, your finished compost can be used as mulch. Depending on how rich your compost is, you may want to spread a small amount throughout your garden and then cover it with a less nutritious mulch like dried leaves.
Gravel or Pebbles
These small stones are typically used for pathways or driveways. Unlike pavement or cement, they allow water to pass through to the soil underneath. Like larger rocks, gravel and pebbles will absorb heat during the day and release it at night.
Its best to contain gravel or pebbles within a frame or solid edging material. They often scatter into your garden beds or lawn if theyre left loose. This is annoying for bed maintenance, and can be a hazard if your lawnmower catches and throws loose gravel.
Wine Cork Mulch
Almost 13 billion wine corks are produced worldwide every year. Unfortunately, many of these end up in landfills. A much better use for corks is to repurpose them as mulch.
Wine corks are a natural material made from bark of the cork oat tree, native to the Mediterranean. Corks are dried and compressed to be water resistant, so they need to be broken into smaller pieces to make a good mulch. These are full instructions on how to make your own wine cork mulch.
Mulching is a great way to reuse newspaper. Newspaper blocks sunlight from reaching the soil, so its excellent for controlling weeds. These are some helpful tips on how to use newspaper mulch in your garden.
Newspapers that are only printed with black ink are safe to use. The black ink contains a carbon-based compound thats biodegradable. On the other hand, colored inks may contain harmful metals or other compounds, such as lead or sulfur. Not all inks are harmful, but its hard to know exactly whats in each one. Its best to avoid any colored flyers and inserts from your newspapers.
Straw is the dry stalks left-over from grain crops after the grains have been harvested. Not to be confused with hay, which is usually a mix of grasses, legumes and other plants that are grown to feed to animals. Hay includes all the seeds from these plants, which would create a huge weed problem if you used it as mulch.
Straw will have less seeds in it than hay, although some of the grain and other possible weed seeds will be present. Its good organic matter and will provide lots of carbon to your soil as it breaks down.
Although, avoid using straw if you have any rodents on your property. Rodents like mice, voles or rats love nesting in straw and will make homes in your mulch.
The most common landscape fabric is made from woven polypropylene, which is a type of plastic. Its typically laid directly on top of soil. The fact its woven allows water to go through the fabric while providing a solid barrier to prevent weed growth. You can cut individual holes in the fabric where you want to plant shrubs, trees or other plants.
Other mulches can be put on top of the fabric to make it look better, such as bark mulch or gravel. Although, weeds often take root in between the mulch and the fabric as the fabric breaks down over time. These weeds can be difficult to remove in older landscapes as they become entangled in the fabric.
Many mulches are good in garden beds, but what if you have an area you want to keep open for recreation or other uses? Thats where synthetic lawns work well. They dont require the water and maintenance of a real grass lawn, and they still provide the benefit of protecting your soil.
A synthetic or artificial lawn is made from different types of plastic materials to create a mat that looks and feels like real grass. It can be shaped to fit any area you need to fill.
If you have a bare edge in your garden, try planting something low-growing to fill the space. Perennials like thyme, sedum, rock cress, snow in summer or candytuft can make excellent ground covers that will return every year. Annuals like alyssum, lobelia, begonia, bacopa or petunias will bloom all season as well as cover your soil.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.