What Is Mulch and How Do I Use It? (Tips + Ideas)

what is mulch

If you have ever searched online for gardening tips or the best way to make your plants thrive, you have probably seen a lot of sites recommending that you add mulch around the base of your plants. We are one of those sites and are huge proponents of mulch, but we have noticed that while we and others recommend using mulch, we may not have spent enough time explaining what mulch is, how to use it, when to use to it and what we mean when we say to add a layer of it to your garden.

To remedy this, we have put together this post with answers to some of the most frequently asked questions having to do with this important landscaping component.

What is mulch?

Mulch is an umbrella term that covers just about any material that can be spread around plants or over soil to serve several purposes we will address below. This includes organic options like compost, leaves, grass clippings (from lawns that are not treated with chemical herbicides or pesticides), straw, hay, newspaper, shredded copy paper, aged manure, bark, wood chips, cardboard and peat moss. It also includes materials that will not decompose, such as rubber mulch, gravel and glass mulch.

Mulch with Paving Stone Border

Why should I use mulch?

The most common reasons for using mulch include:

  • Limiting weed growth
  • Covering bare soil
  • Enhancing the area’s visual appeal
  • Helping the soil retain moisture
  • Encouraging worm residency and activity
  • Reducing mud in walkways or around plants
  • Continuously add nutrients to the soil
  • Maintain soil temperature
  • Protect roots
  • Reduce dust

Inorganic mulches (glass, rubber, gravel) do not add nutrients to the soil, of course, but they can serve most of the other purposes of mulch and are often more appealing to gardeners looking for a way to improve the look of their garden.

Bark Mulch

Where should I use mulch?

You can use different types of mulch anywhere in your yard. The most common areas to use mulch include around the base of trees and plants, spread throughout vegetable gardens, as top dressing in containers and as general ground covers.

When should I add mulch to my garden?

In Southern California gardens, you can add a layer of mulch around shrubs or in your garden any time of the year. However, most folks apply mulch in spring and fall. Adding mulch in fall helps regulate the soil temperature and protect your plants’ roots as the temperature drops.

How do I add mulch to my garden?

Essentially, you just spread your mulch around your garden anywhere that you want to cover the soil, retain moisture or limit weed growth. When adding mulch around the base of plants, shrubs and trees, it is best to keep most mulches a few inches away from the plant or trunk. This will help reduce the potential for rot and allows the plant a little breathing room.

Here are the basic steps to add mulch to your garden or around landscaping plants:

1. Pull any weeds in the area.
2. Add any soil amendments you plan to use.
3. Dig the beds, if necessary.
4. Make the area relatively smooth (it does not have to be perfect, since the mulch will help level it out).
5. Water the soil around your plants or trees if it is not already moist.
6. If you plan on using cardboard, newspaper, cloth or plastic to limit weed growth, lay it out in the area.
7. Add between two and four inches of your chosen mulch being careful to leave some breathing room around trunks and stems.
8. Rake the mulch to even out the surface.

If you use an organic mulch option, it will decompose over time and will need to be replenished.

Rocks as Mulch

What does it mean to sheet mulch?

Sheet mulching is very similar to simply adding mulch. The main difference is that you place an organic weed barrier on the soil before adding your mulch. The most common materials for this are cardboard or newspaper, which are laid in sheets under your mulch. Your weed barrier will decompose over time, adding nutrients to your soil.

Can I make my own mulch?

Yes, you can absolutely make your own mulch. For many gardeners, it is most convenient to purchase bags of mulch at your local garden center, but you can also use items you probably already have at home.

One of the simplest and fastest ways to make mulch is to shred cardboard or newspaper. You can also gather fallen leaves to use as mulch or use a mulching lawnmower that leaves your grass clippings on your lawn as mulch.

If you have a wood chipper, you can chip fallen or pruned branches from trees on your property or, if you have some tree trimming done by professionals, ask them to chip or shred the branches for you to use as mulch.

You can also make your own mulch by starting a compost pile or purchasing a compost bin for your backyard. This option allows you to use kitchen scraps, newspapers and junk mail to make nutrient-rich mulch for use in your garden.

Gravel Mulch

Further Reading