How much do you mulch?


By Linn County Master Gardener Lisa Slattery
Just ask my two teenage boys how much they like mulch - we just completed the physically demanding task of spreading 12 yards (yes, really that much) across our gardens. It's one of those early year garden tasks that I do not look forward to but that is essential for garden maintenance and health throughout the growing season. Mulch looks nice and keeps a nice tidy appearance in the garden but there's more to it than looks.  Mulch is particularly important when it's hot and dry like it has been already this Spring here in Eastern Iowa.
So why is mulch so important? Mulch keeps weeds to a minimum and helps to maintain good soil temperature and ground moisture.  All garden guides will insist that you mulch a newly planted tree or shrub since it is so important in maintaining ground moisture. Mulch is equally important around smaller, less established plants as well as vegetables.  Mulch also helps to keep soil in place during rain storms.  One very important advantage to mulch is that is keeps soil from splashing up on plants when watering which keeps soil born disease and fungi off of your flowers and vegetables.  Mulch tomatoes and you have a big head start on avoiding common tomato diseases this summer.
Mulch serves multiple purposes. Once you decide to mulch you need to choose a mulching material that will best suit your garden and landscape. That said, it's best to mulch yearly even though you may be tempted to skip a year.
There are a variety of mulch materials to consider. Mulch is widely available in various quantities and costs vary.  For my gardens, which are extensive, I purchase finely shredded premium hardwood mulch by the truckload.  Hardwoods come in different grades, colors and price ranges.  Hardwoods can also be purchased in bags at any good quality garden center.  Cocoa bean shell mulch is available in bags and makes a great mulch for smaller areas, vegetables and containers.  This is also available in bags.  Some gardeners choose last-years leaves or grass clippings as mulch.  This is a good choice when used properly.  Before using grass clippings let them dry because they tend to clump and rot – and don’t use those from a recently herbicide-treated lawn, mow at least three times before you use those clippings for mulch.  Newspapers, pine needles, sawdust and straw are all acceptable to use as well. Don't use rocks as mulch though - they heat up in the summer sun and can be detrimental to plants.
Mulch materials will decompose at different rates.  For example leaves or coca bean shells will decompose faster than bark or wood chips so you may want to use different mulches for different areas.  There are also colored mulches that are on the market which are usually wood chip or cypress wood mulch that is dyed.
Iowa State University has a nice guide called “Mulch Choices at a Glance" that goes into more details and the pros and cons of various mulch materials.

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