This year’s mulch becomes next year’s compost! This means as the mulch decomposes it puts valuable organic matter back into the soil that helps keep it loose which promotes root growth. Mulching also protects soil from erosion, reduces compaction from the impact of heavy rains, and retains moisture reducing the need for frequent watering. Mulch even helps the soil to maintain a more even soil temperature by acting as insulation. It suppresses weed growth and germination and adds a more “finished” look to your garden.
An organic mulch can consist of a variety of materials: Grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, kitchen scraps, shredded bark, whole bark nuggets, sawdust, shells, woodchips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, wool, or cotton burrs to name a few. When choosing which to use, base your decision on what you’re planting. Straw is a great insulator during colder months, composted cotton burrs provide incredible nutrient value for your soil, and wood mulches add that “finished” look mentioned above. Wood mulches can also be a deterrent for digging animals, like cats, in some cases.
Mulch provides an insulating barrier between the soil and the air. When applied in the summer, the soil will stay cooler and when applied in the winter, mulched soils will not freeze as deeply. This insulation effect tends to keep the soil from warming up as quickly in the spring, but keeps the soil warmer longer into the fall and winter. If applied later into the summer when soil temperatures are at their highest, mulch will help to maintain that warmth even further into the colder seasons. For vegetable and flower gardens, apply mulch after the soil has warmed up in the spring. When adding additional layers of mulch to existing perennial beds, wait until the soil has warmed up completely.
Applying mulch in the late fall before the ground has frozen may attract rodents looking for a warm place to stay! So, be sure to wait unless you enjoy a few extra “pets”. Used to protect plants from snow and ice during winter, mulch should be a loose material, like straw, hay, or pine boughs. These materials help keep your soil and plants warm without compacting under the weight of the snow and ice!