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Mulching is a major part of gardening, and if it is missing from yours, then it is time to change that. Mulching protects your soil from eroding, either via blowing away in the wind or washing out in the rain. It naturally prevents weeds. It even feeds plants as it slowly breaks down. The initial thought of many gardeners, this one included, is to rake beautiful lines to admire the dark richness of our soil, but what we should really do is cover it up. In fact, bare soil, weeded ‘til the dirt is exposed or sprayed until only Round-up ready plants remain, is why fertile lands turn into deserts.

Mulching keeps soils healthy, full of life and constantly refueled. Think of it like a sunscreen so the garden doesn’t fry and dry out. Think of it as efficient use for all those clippings from the yard, or neighbor’s yard, or all those leaves raked up, or the freshly trimmed hedges, or the compost you’ve been making over the last year. Think of it as medicinal for the garden, stopping weeds before they start and, at the same time, providing nutrients.

Now, stop thinking about it, and start doing it. Here’s a quick guide.

What to Use for Mulch

Sure, there are shiny plastic packages of garden mulch for sale at the nearby nursery, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, or whatever center you want to name. However, these are hardly necessary. Mulch doesn’t need to be an extra expense, as it comes in many shapes, sizes and forms, one (or many) of which you’ll have access to for free. Grass clippings, leaves (especially shredded), wood chips, tree bark, straw, hay, pine needles and organic compost will all work just fine. Even stones will work if you are in a more arid setting.

  • The Ugly Other Side: Now, to be truthful, organic mulch doesn’t prevent all weeds, but it does make weeding a lot easier. Some folks opt for inorganic mulching systems like plastic sheeting, which can really snuff out the weeds, but it is, of course, a petroleum product, bad for the environment and possibly for you. Plus, inorganic mulching adds nothing to the soil for next time. It isn’t a sustainable method.

How to Apply Organic Mulch

Basically, anywhere something isn’t growing, where the soil is exposed, you need to be mulching. Other than that, there are lots of options for applying mulch. Here are some of the most common scenarios:

  • Existing gardens are easy to deal with. First, give them a thorough weeding. Then, cover the ground in whatever organic material you’ve collected, including the weeds you just pulled. Grass clippings are great for a quick boost of nitrogen for plants, and typically something that can be regularly replenished with very little extra work. Wood and bark are good for longevity. Or, mix them all up to give the garden a balanced diet.
  • New gardens are a great time to mulch because, rather than tilling up the soil and destroying all the microorganisms, you can create permanent mulch beds on top of the soil. It will fertilize the earth below, and you can plant right into the mulch. Cardboard boxes are a good place to start, laying them over the area (grass and all) where you’d like the garden to be. Cover that with a good layer of something rich in nitrogen: grass clippings, green trimmings or compost. Then, make a carbon layer out of brown stuff like leaves, wood or straw. Finally, wherever you want to grow something, make a little hole, fill it with soil and plant away.
  • Chop and Drop Mulching is my favorite and should be the ultimate goal. It’s a permaculture method of growing something that sprouts up quickly and feeds the soil, such as legumes. Then, as you trim them back, you simply drop the green matter right there and then. This is a double productive way because the green matter is mulching above ground and, as the plants are trimmed, fertilizing nitrogen nodules are being released underground. So, cutting the excess off of these plants actually feeds the plants around them.

Whichever methods you use, hopefully all of them, it is important to remember to make the process as simple as possible. You don’t need new bags of stuff from the store or designer, decorative mulch. Just cut your grass and afterwards spread the clippings over the garden bed. Rake the leaves and afterwards spread them over the garden bed. Trim branches and pile them up under the tree. By putting this stuff on the curb, you are doing your garden a disservice, as well as the environment and our landfills. All this “trash” could be feeding, protecting and enriching your garden spaces.

Image Source: Heart Windows Art/ Flickr