Mulch for Moisture

Ilona Erwin


One of the best ways to conserve moisture in your garden is through the practice of mulching. There are many materials and methods and they each have their advantages and drawbacks. I thought I would write about my experiences with some of them, since this is turning out to be a drought-ridden gardening season. But truthfully, I use mulch for many reasons, including soil improvement and weed control, so the garden here always has mulched areas, and probably needs more.
The generally recommended mulching depth is 2 to 4 inches, and you should resist the temptation to make it deeper just thinking that if some is good more is better. It doesn’t work that way, because roots need some air, and also you don’t want to invite rodent nesting.

Since I mentioned that, some have drawn back in disgust and horror. Mulching practice to discourage rodents making their homes near you is to wait until after frost in the fall to mulch and renew in late spring. Don’t make it deep near your buildings, etc.

Mulches I’ve used

Bark Mulch

Highly recommended. The most common, and the type of mulch I use the most is bark mulch. I have tried different types, and cypress bark is the most long lasting. I used to favor pine bark, and have switched to it for the last couple years, but have experienced some problems with the suppliers. One year, so much garbage was mixed in that there was an awful lingering smell and some fungus problems. This year not as obvious, but still, instead of pine scent, there is a tainted though faint bad smell to it. Next time, I have vowed, I will go with my own more sensitive nose, instead of sending the Handyman (my DH). On the whole, despite my bad experiences, (which are few comparatively) I have had good results with bark.
It’s assets:

  • It breaks down into organic matter to improve the soil
  • It allows water to permeate
  • An attractive look is a plus
  • Easy to handle and keeps a good appearance without more maintenance than putting more on each year
  • Many color choices and types

Drawbacks:

  • Not long lasting- due to decomposition
  • Conducive to fungal and disease problems at times
  • Supplier practices of “mixing stuff in”
  • Gardener practice of hilling up around crown of plant or tree

Lawn Clippings

Not recommended. I had large expanses of grass ( not lawn, mind you, GRASS!), and at the beginning of gardening here I had the bright idea to mulch with the clippings. This was not a good idea. I believe now that grass clippings should go into the compost pile to break down, first, before going into cultivated garden soil or around trees. If your landscape area grows good grass, like mine, then you will have a weed problem with grass that is both laborious and tiresome to deal with. Grass is very persistent and many types are rhizomatous- which means they spread underground. I have had weed problems ever since, and this includes the practice of edging without taking away the sods. Grass breaks down nicely, so an area with overturned sod, or composting the clippings is good to have. Just not to mulch with. Besides- gathering up all those clippings is additional work.
Assets:

  • Available

Drawbacks

  • Grass seeds will sprout and make your gardening life miserable

My advice goes double for baled hay or straw.

Sawdust, Wood Chips, Wood Shavings

Not really recommended. The problem with these are that they take nitrogen to break down (all organic mulches do, but these take alot). The trouble with this is that this robs your plants and leaves them sickly and weak. Not what you desire from your mulching practice- so I would put whatever supply you have in the compost bin. EXCEPT- not preservative treated wood shavings or sawdust. Those are poisonous. Throw them away as hazardous waste. No compost, no burning, -get rid of them. NO kidding.

Assets:

  • Often available
  • Can provide organic matter

Drawbacks

  • Takes too much nitrogen, so it’s better for composting than mulching

Pine Needles

Highly recommended. These are more available in the South and thus used more there, but if you have a supply definitely use it. Pine needle mulch is nice looking and produces a lovely smell and a good job of weed suppression. It is a fire hazard, however. So keep that in mind. It also tends to break down to an acid pH. This is very good for acid-loving plants such as camellias and azaleas.

Tree leaves

Not recommended. If you live in a high wind area like me, you are nuts to use leaves as a mulch. They will dry out and blow…alll over your yard, all over your neighbors yard. Twice the raking time? Are you crazy?
If you live in normal areas without howling prairie winds, still, the leaves compact down and in the case of using shredded maple leaves ( as I did to my defeat and despair) they are so alkaline when they start breaking down that you endanger the plant. Or in this case, kill your Sweet Gum tree.
I love leaves, I love them for composting. They make leaf mold when composted, and that, gardening friends, is wonderful stuff.

Plastic

I hate plastic mulch. That is all I have to say about it, so if you want an unbiased opinion on its uses, assets, and drawbacks. Here is your link to Plastic mulches.

Stone

Recommended. There are beautiful ways to use inorganic mulches such as stone, and many types of stone mulches are available. I do think you need a weed suppressing mat underneath, and then you still have a bit of weeding every once in awhile, but stone keeps the ground a bit cooler and it helps keep the moisture from evaporating.

Stone mulch is not so much good for plants as it is a pleasing landscaping weed suppressor. Most stone used is gravel, and if you have seen gravel driveways that gives you indication of the problems you can run into with weeds and reflected heat. It is good for stabilizing garden areas subject to washout, like steep slope grades and downspout areas. A pretty way I’ve seen is the “dry creek bed” look.

A knowledge of your own conditions will help your mulch choice decision.

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Links:
Mulch Gardening
Mulch Techniques

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.