Mulch, Mulch, and More Mulch

During my South Florida Master Gardener training, a fellow student asked our extension agent what was the best solution to combat both our dry winters and torrential summer rains. “Mulch, mulch and more mulch,” the extension agent responded. That was 15 years ago, and I can tell you that was the best advice I ever received about gardening. Plus, it’s worked in both the subtropics and the high desert of New Mexico where I later lived.

Here are some benefits of mulch:

  • Mulch retains water in the soil for the plants. It acts like a blanket above the soil and slows down soil evaporation. Therefore, you need less water.
  • Organic mulch fertilizes the soil as it decomposes. This improves your soil quality by adding nutrients. It also reduces compaction and improves drainage.
  • Mulch prevents soil erosion from heavy rains.
  • Mulch reduces unwanted pests in your yard. Cedar mulch decomposes slowly and its bark has oil that acts as an insect repellant.
  • Mulch controls weeds. A well-mulched landscape has fewer weeds.
  • Mulch helps create a habitat for earthworms and other beneficial insects. Earthworms will feed your soil and the beneficial insects will aid in decomposition.
  • Mulch adds a lot of curb appeal. Here’s your opportunity to get creative. You can mix and match larger bark mulch with shredded mulch in different areas. You can also add some rocks to highlight parts of your landscaping.
Rumman Amin on Unsplash

Mulch with Organic Material

Ideally, you want 2-4 inches of evenly spread mulch in your landscaped area. Leave space between the base of your trees and the mulch, so as not to damage the tree. Also, please be aware of where your mulch comes from. Many of the colored mulches, particularly the red mulches are shredded pallets dyed in color. These can contain chemicals and are better used in an industrial setting because they come from a waste product. And, these products don’t decompose or weather as nicely in your landscape.

Look For Eco-Friendly Options

In choosing mulch, look for an eco-friendly or sustainable option. You can usually find information on a bag that tells you how the mulch was farmed and where. If you can’t find this info on the bag or with a Google search, then it’s probably not an eco-friendly option.

Sometimes, you can find a tree trimmer who will drop off their newly chipped mulch for free. For this, you want the mulch to be thoroughly composted before spreading it on your landscaping or garden. This ensures that all pathogens and seeds have been “cooked” through. Your municipality is a another great place to get free mulch. Often cities offer a location where you can come and bag your own from their tree trimmings. I’ve done both the drop off from the tree trimmers and the city bring-your-own-bag, and I have gotten good quality mulch with both.

Usually, I layer other organic matter under the wood chip mulch. Newspaper, leaf litter, yard trimmings, cardboard, even coffee grinds will all decompose and accelerate the soil-building process. Below is a video of my Santa Fe backyard which started as a dust pit and was transformed into a beautiful yard with super productive soil after a number of years of soil-building.

Santa Fe backyard before (2012)
Santa Fe backyard after (2019)

Some Backyard Composter Options

Below are some backyard composter options. The composting I’ve described above was done without a composter. I layered organic matter and over time the natural cycle happened. But, to accelerate the process, a composter is a great option. I’ve used the tumbler composter. And, when the compost is ready, it smells like a rich forest floor.

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