Tips about mulching – mulch instead of watering

a pile of mulch and a wheelbarrow
a pile of mulch and a wheelbarrow

A thick layer of mulch protects the soil, prevents weed growth and provides food for beneficial creatures in the soil. If you know the properties of the different materials, you can use them effectively.

Covering the soil with leaves or shredded material improves soil quality, protects the delicate fine roots of shrubs from direct sun, suppresses weeds and increases soil moisture. Here are tips for the proper use of mulch.

In a nutshell: How to mulch properly?

The biggest mistakes in mulching are made in the choice of material, the thickness at which it is spread, and by not applying nitrogen fertilizer when using bark mulch, for example. You mulch properly if:

  • You apply organic nitrogen fertilizer to the soil before spreading bark mulch or wood chips.
  • You spread lawn clippings preferably dry and no more than two inches high.
  • you spread bark mulch to inhibit weed growth at least 5 cm (2 in) high in beds where no herbaceous young plants are growing.

Proper mulching

What does “mulch” mean?

Mulch usually refers to a soil cover made of natural, easily decomposable, organic materials. Depending on the material, the layer, which may be more or less thick, protects the soil from the effects of weather such as frost, wind and rain, prevents water stored in the soil from evaporating too quickly in summer and regulates unwanted wild weeds. In practice, this means less watering, hoeing and weeding. And just like on a compost pile, the material is gradually transformed into fertile humus by soil organisms. This makes mulching an important measure for building humus in the garden. Only those who prefer to use fleece or film do without this important effect.

Prepare bed for mulching

Before mulching, you should thoroughly hoe the soil and thus cut existing capillaries in the soil surface. This will make it easier for water to penetrate deeper layers later. When hoeing, you will also discover any existing nests with snail eggs, which you should definitely remove in this step.

Mulching with foil, fleece and paper

The advantages and disadvantages of ribbon fabric or fleece made of dark plastic fibers balance each other out. Under them, the soil warms up quickly, remains moist for a long time, and even areas colonized by root weeds can be rehabilitated. However, the first few centimeters of the soil surface are really heated up and aeration is limited. Biodegradable films made of paper or corn starch decompose within a few months, so they are recommended only for short-term use, for example, for beds with cucumbers, pumpkins and other vegetables that require warm, but at the same time quite moist soil.

Bark mulch and bark humus

Bark waste comes from forestry or sawmills. Products made from medium coarsely ground pine, Douglas fir or spruce bark are most effective in suppressing budding weeds. Use it to mulch newly planted perennial beds, paths and ornamental shrubs. For long-term protection, a layer thickness of 7 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) is required. Carefully remove root weeds such as goutweed or couch grass beforehand, otherwise they will soon grow through the mulch cover. Vegetables and herbs do not tolerate bark products, also mulch roses with fermented bark humus at best.

Fresh wood chips for woody plants

Even a simple garden shredder can be used to make good use of regularly occurring prunings from woody plants. Because fresh wood consists mainly of lignin, it decomposes very slowly. This is why the material is used as permanent mulch under ornamental shrubs. Above all, do not apply finer chaff, as produced by most devices for hobby gardeners, too thickly, otherwise the air circulation in the root area will be restricted too much and the woody plants will care.

Mature compost – not only for roses

Mature compost can be used to cover seed furrows and planting pits, where it specifically promotes seed germination and rooting of young vegetable seedlings, fruit trees and other young plants. To improve the soil structure when planting new beds, the compost layer can be several centimeters high. To cover a square meter of area about 1 cm (0.4 in) high, fill a bucket with a capacity of 10 liters. Five liters are sufficient for mounding the sensitive grafting site of freshly planted roses.

What about grass clippings?

Fresh lawn clippings or grass cuttings usually accumulate in abundance during the summer. The stalks provide plenty of nitrogen. Because the clippings are very moist, the layer thickens within a few days (“matting”). On sunny days, the surface dries out and becomes crusty, and rot develops underneath. Therefore, spread fresh material only very thinly and renew it weekly. For a thicker layer, allow the mown material to wilt for a few days, loosening or turning it several times. Do not reapply until the previously applied layer has collapsed.

Mulching with leaves

As in nature, you can simply leave autumn leaves under ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs, provided that the trees and shrubs were free of pests, fungal infestations or other easily transmitted plant diseases. Oak, walnut or chestnut leaves contain abundant tannic acid. Unmixed, you can use previously chopped leaves as mulch for bog plants such as azaleas or hydrangeas. For other plants, it should be shredded before use along with garden waste such as grass or crop residues.

Straw protects against fungal attack and secures the harvest

A bed cover of coarsely chopped straw has proven to be particularly effective for strawberry cultivation. The fruits stay clean as well as dry and are less affected by gray mold or rot fungi. The straw, preferably from an organic farmer, should only be applied after the soil has warmed up or during the main flowering period. A small bale (10 to 15 kilograms / 20 to 30 lbs) is sufficient for an area of about 100 square meters / 1,000 square feet.

Coconut mats as a protective cover

Whether used as winter protection mats to protect against ice and frost or to prevent the upper soil layers from drying out due to wind and sun, all plants benefit from the air, permeable bed cover, especially shallow-rooted plants such as blueberries and cranberries, kiwis or elderberries, but also ornamental plants such as honeysuckle. The 3 to 5 centimeter (1.2 to 2 in) thick mats are made from the edge layers of the coconut, with organic natural rubber serving as the binding material. A pair of garden shears is all that is needed to adjust the width and length or cut out planting holes. Alternatively, there are round mulch discs, already slotted, which are placed around the trunk or the base of the bush like a collar. Shelf life of coir products: two to three years, after which rake off the remains and compost.

Coordinate mulch and fertilization

Green mulch materials supply the soil with all important nutrients, and additional fertilization is usually unnecessary. However, straw, bark mulch and wood chips remove nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. To avoid disturbing plant growth, rake horn shavings into the soil before spreading (40 to 80 g/m² ). Permanent mulch, as in the bed with blueberries or rhododendrons, push aside in spring, apply acidic special fertilizer, cover the soil again and supplement the mulch layer if necessary.

Mulch and slugs

Mulched beds can be a haven for slugs if it rains a lot, so weigh up whether you need to take accompanying measures against slugs. If you have a lot of voracious slugs in your garden, you can either use organic slug pellets in the vegetable beds or try mulching with wood chips or chopped tree prunings. Its surface is so rough that slugs do not feel so comfortable.

Suitable mulch material for vegetable beds

  • Chopped shrub or hedge cuttings
  • Wood chips, they are especially recommended in case of slugs and snails, because they can’t get along very well on the sharp wood chips
  • Dried lawn clippings
  • Hay or straw
  • Special mulch foil
  • Stinging nettle plants or other weed plants such as comfrey

Suitable mulch material for perennial beds

  • Chopped shrub or hedge cuttings
  • Wood chips
  • Small cut perennials from the previous year – This method is also called area composting). So you supply your beds in a kind of cycle again with new nutrients.
  • Bark mulch – It is only conditionally suitable. Bark mulch looks nice and tidy, but has a slightly acidic PH value. Depending on the soil and the plant, you should add some lime to compensate

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