Mulch is a vital part of a healthy and attractive garden. It has many benefits. The most obvious one is the appearance. A well mulched garden looks well maintained. It helps to visually tie all the yard together and to define the edges of the beds. There are many types of mulch out there though. In our area, the most common mulch is shredded hardwood. It looks nice and holds in place fairly well. It is probably the best mulch to use on slopes as it stays in place better than most. One problem with shredded hardwood is that it is more difficult to work through as it tends to mat. The more finely shredded the mulch is the more attractive and beneficial it is for the soil.
Another common mulch for this area is ground pine bark. Those bags of soil conditioner you buy at Lowes or Home Depot are just finely ground pine bark. Fine pine bark mulch is my favorite mulch for that reason. Every time you dig into your beds, you are working the mulch into the soil, improving it. The drawback to pine bark mulch is that it tends to float. For that reason, it does not work well on slopes or where water is likely to flow.
Many people in order to save money use pinestraw. Pinestraw is common in the southeast so it is readily available. However, I question it’s benefits as it doesn’t retain water as well and doesn’t last long. It also doesn’t work into the soil very well. Many cities are also banning it’s use near residential buildings due to the fire danger as well. Fire spreads rapidly through dry pinestraw, endangering everything and everyone in it’s path. I prefer to only use pinestraw in totally natural areas away from the house.
Two types of mulch I do not use are the dyed red mulch and rubber mulch. In my opinion, red mulch is ugly. It does not look natural at all. It is a fad that I feel cant go away too soon. Rubber mulch is ground up used tires. While it may last a while, I question how environmentally friendly it is. It may last a while and eventually break down into the soil. But the same logic could be used for using rusty nails. They would eventually break down into the soil as well. Maybe not as comfortable to walk on but the nails are probably more natural than man made rubber tires.
Not only does mulch make the garden more attractive and improve the soil but it also helps to control weeds and to conserve water for the plants. It also helps to control erosion. In order for it to do these things though, it needs to be a minimum of 3” thick.
While I am on the subject of controlling weeds, I’d like to state my opinion on another common landscaping technique. Many people like to put down fabric or plastic before they put down mulch. All mulch breaks down over time. It eventually becomes great organic matter for growing plants. So weeds will eventually grow on top of the plastic or fabric. Shrubs will start to grow roots both on top and under the weed barrier. Then it becomes difficult to dig up the plants. The worms and insects that nature provides to naturally churn the organic material into the soil are artificially stopped from doing so. The soil underneath the plastic or fabric essentially becomes dead. Doesn’t seem environmentally friendly at all.
The reason I recommend mulching now is that it is easy to do before your bulbs and perennials start shooting up. To wait too late will make it difficult to mulch without damaging tender new growth. The mulch will help conserve water for the plants during the hot summer months.