Soil Moisture, Weed Control, and Nutrients all at once

If you’re a baby boomer, or short on gardening time but you’re unwilling to give up the beauty and pleasure of growing flowering plants, try using garden mulch.

Mulching with pine needle mulch, lava rock, or other mulches will save water by keeping it in the soil and preventing weeds from germinating.

garden mulch

How can you make gardening easier on aging bones and rickety legs? Looking for ways to continue reaping praise for your lovely garden without the pain?

Here are some ways to lighten the burden of garden maintenance.

Using garden mulch will eliminate those pesky weeds.

Most people don’t like weeds amongst their iris or other perennials.

The worst offenders are grasses, with rhizomes entangled with the roots of the desired plant.

The only way to get the grass out is to dig up the whole thing and replant it, hopefully without any bits of roots from the weed, which can come back with a vengeance.

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Organic garden mulch

Depending on the soil type, garden mulch may help, mostly because it will soften the soil, which most weeds don’t like. If you notice, the worst places in your garden for weeds will be compacted; mud-like in the spring time, and bake to a rock hard consistency under summer sun.

Keeping the organic matter constantly replenished will do a couple of things: first, the desirable plants flourish in soil that receives compost regularly, and their growth will overshadow the weeds.

The weeds will be easier to pull out of the friable soil.

Mulching, a way of adding organic matter without tilling or mixing it in is a win/win situation.

Spread some compost or well rotted manure around each plant, then scratch that in.

Place several layers of newspaper or cardboard around each plant, then cover it with your choice of grass clippings (don’t put these right around the crown of the plant, as they can get hot while decomposing), sawdust, wood chips, bark mulch or lava rock.

These will all decompose and have to be replenished except for rock or pebble mulches.

The benefits of Garden Mulch:

  • Maintains a reservoir of moisture in the soil so you don’t need to water as often, or at all. The cool moist root run helps many plants survive drought conditions much better.
  • Protects the micro herd of bacteria, fungus, worms and other creatures from baking in the hot sun.
  • Prevents weeds from germinating, and also makes the soil softer and existing weeds are easier to pull.
  • Adds organic matter to the soil as the mulch breaks down.

…and the drawbacks:

  • A new layer of mulch has to be added as old layers break down – this is a good thing too, as it’s adding organic matter to your soil.
  • Some garden mulches like sawdust or shavings tie up Nitrogen in the soil. Add some kind of Nitrogen fertilizer to the area near the plants to supplement it.
  • Certain mulching materials tend to blow away in high wind areas – use pebbles or lava rock instead.

The big drawback to using rock mulches is that if you have to dig up any plants to move them or replace them, it’s hard to get all the mulch out of the way first, and also hard to replace.

One of the most important techniques in any self respecting organic garden or xeriscape landscape is mulching.

I use many methods, depending on the ultimate goal.

If it’s an area that will be dug up and replanted, such as a nursery bed or vegetable garden, I’ll use an organic mulching material that will break down and can be dug in at the end of the season, or simply use the lasagna gardening or sheet composting methods.

There are several methods of mulching and materials that I choose from.

In an area that is for a permanent display garden of stock plants, such as Sedum I’ll use a mulch in the areas between the plants and in the pathways in the vegetable garden to keep the weeds down and serve as a moisture reservoir.

In the well drained soil I’m fortunate to have, rainfall drains away quickly unless I use some type of mulch.


Mulching Materials; Pros and Cons

Organic Mulches:

Organic mulching materials are anything that will eventually rot down. Advantages of these kinds of mulches are that they will add organic matter to the soil and improve it over time.

Disadvantages are that they have to be replenished; they may harbour slugs and other pests, and become slimy (and slippery) when over wet such as under irrigation.

Here are some options:

  • Leaf mold – made by chopping your damp fallen leaves and mixing in a little compost to get the decomposition started. You can store this over the winter in a bin, or simply in plastic bags. In the spring, your leaf mold will be dark and rich, ready to spread on your garden.

I use this for perennial beds, especially in shade to provide more moisture retention, and dig it in to vegetable gardens to add extra organic matter.

If the leaves are left whole and not chopped, they can sometimes mat down, becoming slippery to walk on. Let the chickens take care of that for you in the chicken pen by mixing it with other nutrient rich materials.

  • Straw – the stalks of barley, oats or wheat left after the grain is harvested. Clean and easy to spread, but tends to look a bit untidy. The best choice for vegetable garden pathways.
  • Hay – try and find it without weed seeds in it as this will just spread around the problem, and defeat the purpose of mulching.
  • Grass clippings – best if collected dry, and spread on vegetable gardens before wetting. Don’t place it too close to the stems of plants, as it can get very hot. Also can be a fire hazard, so use with caution in fire prone areas.
  • Use chopped reeds or alfalfa from your mulch bed and save on trucking costs.
  • Wood shavings – not recommended by some gardeners due to the fact that it will tie up nitrogen from the soil while decomposing.

Add small amounts to compost, or on top of the soil, or for paths. If your chickens can start breaking this down in the chicken house with the deep litter method, it will take a few months to mature but will be a rich source of nutrients for your vegetable garden.

  • Compost is considered the very best mulch for vegetable gardens. It’s also excellent for around plants that need that little boost. You can never have enough compost.
  • Bark mulch is a very attractive option, giving a rich dark look to plantings of ferns and around trees.

Also available in some areas are:

  • Cocoa shells
  • Coffee beans, or grounds from your local coffee shop.
  • Pine needle mulch and other locally produced materials. Find out what’s available near you to reduce your carbon footprint regarding trucking.

Inorganic Mulches:

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Inorganic or mineral mulches are pretty well permanent, requiring only the occasional topping up. Some of the best are:

  • Lava rock, which is graded in size to around 2-5cm across. It comes in several colours, the most popular being the orange brown similar to terracotta, and a pale grey. Over time, the lava rock will break down, releasing tiny amounts of nutrients.

I use lava rock on most of my succulents, both indoor tender types and the hardy Sedum and Sempervivum. They all thrive with this to protect the root zone.

  • Pebble mulch is usually sold graded to be of a more uniform size and is more expensive, or as pit run, which includes all sizes up to and including boulders, as well as sand. You can grade out the sizes you don’t want and use them in specific places, or leave it as it comes and have a more rustic feel to your landscape. It is also known as river rock, stone mulch, or decorative stone.
  • Shale is usually available in bags from garden centers and comes in orange tones to grey brown shades. The main disadvantage of all these mulches is the weight, for shipping and for handling

Other kinds of mulches:

In some cases, you don’t really need an attractive mulch; you just need to restrict the light getting to the soil to prevent weed growth.

In these situations, I just use anything I have available to cover the soil. Sometimes I’ll use several sheets of newspaper – the best ones are those that are full sized sheets, not the tabloid size. This has to be done on a windless day, or it will be all over the neighbourhood.

Cover this with sawdust, wood chips, sand or any other available material.

This is a great system for making new beds, sometimes referred to as lasagna gardening, or for paths. I also use cardboard in the same way.

Also keep your eyes open for old carpet.

I cut it into lengths about 60cm across which can be rolled out wherever I need a new bed. After the weeds are cast into submission, I take up the carpet to be used somewhere else, add a layer of chopped leaves, sawdust or horse manure, and cover with cardboard or newspaper.

Weight this down with more sawdust or other material, and water well. You can actually plant right through into the ground below, if it’s not completely hardpan or clay.

Even better is to use compost which has earthworms in it to break up the soil below.

Once you use this method, you won’t go back to the backbreaking labor of hand digging or rotor tilling. This method may take a little longer, but is so much less work for the gardener.

Paths can be built the same way; temporarily use the carpet to kill the weeds, lay down several layers of newspaper, and then weigh it down with sawdust, wood chips, bark mulch or other wood waste.

Over time, the newspaper will break down, possibly allowing weeds through; topping up the mulch will eliminate them easily as they’ll already be weakened.

Mulching is the easiest and best way to control unwanted weeds in your garden.

No amount of chemical warfare will give your garden additional organic matter, improved drainage or beauty like mulches.

Choose the right one for the specific need, tailoring the mulch to the requirements.

Once you get used to the idea of using permanent mulch in your garden, and you see how the plants benefit from protection from the hot sun, lower water consumption and better health (both the plants, and yours) you’ll wonder what took you so long.

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