“Should I mulch” is a question we hear often each Spring and it’s a good question to ask, but it isn’t necessarily the most important one. The real question is: What are your overall goals for the garden (and it’s plants) this year? Are you looking to protect planting beds, enhance visual appeal, improve soil quality, or perhaps all three? The answers to these questions play a big role in deciding what type of mulch you do (or don’t) need. There are 3 general categories to chose from, depending on your needs: Organic, Living, or Inorganic.
Organic mulches are made from decomposing plant and/or animal (manure) matter that has been thoroughly composted, and provide a number of benefits when applied to planting beds. An even 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch will protect shallow root systems from temperature swings, improve soil moisture retention, reduce or control erosion from wind, water and traffic, and will even reduce the number of weeds in a bed. Additionally, organic mulches act as a mild, long-release fertilizer, providing important nutrients to the surrounding plants as well as providing microbial matter for worms, bateria, and fungi that are needed to promote a healthy soil. Here in the Midwest, a fresh layer of mulch is often applied to landscape and garden beds in early spring while bare, dormant plants are easy to work around without damaging. However, organic mulch can be applied at any time of the year.
Ground covers are considered a living mulch. These are typically low growing, spreading plants such as winter creeper, ajuga, periwinkle, and pachysandra. These living mulches are particularly great to use in areas that are shady or where erosion from wind, water, or even foot traffic is common as their root systems act as stabilizers, effectively holding the soil in place. In doing so, they provide habitat for worms and other living organisms and improve soil moisture retention. Ground covers are more than simply mulch – they’re also plants, and can add an attractive, almost maintenance free element to nearly any corner of the landscape with displays of color and texture which change with the seasons.
Not all mulches are organic. Inorganic mulches such as Landscape rock are frequently used instead of organic mulches around trees or in beds that are open to soil erosion from wind, as its heavier weight keeps it in place. Yet it still provides many of the same benefits to established landscape plants that an organic or living mulch would, such as protection from temperature swings, moisture control, and even reduces weeds. Available in a variety of colors, textures, and sizes, Landscape rock can be an attractive addition to any landscape! However, there is a downside: because rock is prone to ‘sinking’ into the soil over time, many home owners elect to put down a weed barrier before laying rock, as it reduces the loss of rock over time significantly.