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Mulching Methods
"By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower." -Rabindranath Tagor

Different Methods of Mulching

Note: Any mulch will help hold moisture in the topsoil which in turn helps to provide the soil microbes with an ideal habitat. Mulching can prevent moisture loss up to 90%, can cool the soil during the heat of the season by as much as 25 degrees and warm it in the spring. It will also increase earth worm populations. There are so many ways to do it and with many you are recycling natural materials.

Carpet and roofing paper can be used as a mulch. Roofing paper containing asphalt would not be acceptable. Carpet will serve you for many seasons and makes a good path between vegetable rows.

Grass Clipping Mulch: Excellent for garden and flower beds. Be sure to spread out the clippings letting them dry thoroughly before applying. Good for keeping soil from splashing onto the plants and causing diseases. Will also build nitrogen in the soil. Holds soil moisture quite well. Use at a depth of 3 inches.

Hay: Alfalfa, pasture, salt or any hay may be used. Superior for holding in moisture and preventing disease.  Beware slugs, pill bugs and rodents find refuge under hay.

Leaf Mulch: Ideal! This is the rich stuff you find decomposing on the forest floor. For landscape applications it is best to chop up the leaves with your lawnmower, then apply. Great in vegetable, flower gardens. It takes a long time to break down. When it has finished breaking down, leaf mould is one of the richest soil suppliers of nutrients and micro-organisms there is! The leaves of most trees can contain twice as many minerals as manure. The mineral content of a sugar maple leaf is over 5%, while even common pine needles have 2.5% of their weight in calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus, plus other trace elements.

Newspaper: Great in the vegetable garden, cover with dry grass clippings to make it be more pleasing to look at and hold it in place. It is still best to avoid paper with colored inks, if you know that the color is printed using soy ink, it is safe. Apply the paper several layers deep, wet it down and cover with the mulch. It will decompose by the end of the season and can be worked into the soil.

For wood and rock mulches see the conversion chart to help you figure out how much you need.

Wood mulch:
Applied at least 2-3 inches deep wood mulch can be a decent control for weeds. It is attractive and useful as it will decompose over time and add humus to the soil. Using wood mulch requires that you "topdress" it occasionally to keep the effective depth for weed control. Weeds that do root in this mulch are easily pulled out. Do keep the mulch pulled away from the base of your plants to avoid basal rot. Available as chips, pole peelings, bark nuggets and shredded fibers. Fibrous mulches are great as they "mat" and will stay put in high winds.

Wood Mulch Pros and Cons:

  • Initial application can rob some nitrogen from the soil; you may need to supplement nitrogen for your plants. Since wood itself contains very little nitrogen it helps itself to N already present in the soil to break down its carbohydrates. When the decomposing process is complete the nitrogen will then be returned to the soil. See organic soil amendment chart for sources of nitrogen. A surface mulch of wood will only take nitrogen from the top of the soil surface whereas any wood mulch worked into the soil will readily consume the nitrogen.

  • Avoid aspen, black walnut, and black locust in wood mulches.

  • You do not want mulch that comes from diseased plants. This should be thrown out.

  • Wood mulches can sometimes harbor insects and rodents i.e.: watch out for borers (very destructive bugs) and mice. Here again it is best to keep mulch pulled back from the plant base to make it unattractive for rodent nesting and burrowing.

  • Hard to clean leaves and garden debris out of wood mulch.

  • Retains moisture very well.

  • Keeps the soil cool during hot weather and warms it in early spring.

  • Wood mulch is very appealing. Looks great when used around evergreens and perennial plantings.

  • Cedar makes for a superior mulch as it has insect repellant properties.

  • Some good choices: cypress, cedar, redwood, willow and pine.

Rock mulch:
We are talking permanent here. You don't want to redo a rock mulch area! A landscape fabric underlayment is a must for rock mulched areas. If this is an area where you do not want anything to grow use some of the thick mill agriculture type plastic. This has a UV inhibitor in it to protect against breakdown and has the tensile strength that can take the mass weight of the rock. In planted areas use a heavy grade of landscape fabric like DeWitt Pro series. This allows for passage of water, oxygen and nutrients to the plants feeder roots. The use of plastic around plants will smother the roots.
Many different types and sizes of rock mulch are available. You can 1/8 inch chips, 3/8 inch pea gravel to 6-15 inch cobble stones. It depends on the look and purpose you are going for. In large areas a good choice would be 1 inch river rock. You get good coverage with this size, and it much easier to spread around than larger sizes of rock. The small chip grade is a great filler in between flagstones, stepping stones and the like. The chips have irregular edges, giving them a "locking effect" which packs tightly in the joints. The larger cobblestone grade is more for aesthetics and can be used in "dry streams." Mixing different types can be a great look when well planned. Note: areas of cobblestones combined with areas of plants mulched with wood is an excellent match.

Rock Mulch Pros and Cons:

  • Dirt and debris will settle in the rocks allowing weeds to grow. Periodic hosing down helps to clean the dirt and weed seeds from the area.

  • In high traffic areas walking on the rock mulch will eventually deteriorate the plastic underlayment. A double underlayment combining plastic first and then landscape fabric can last for decades.

  • It is best to use plants requiring low moisture (xeriscaep plants) or install drip irrigation for the thirstier plants in rock mulch.

  • Dark colored rock like lava rock can really "cook" an area. Don't use it around any plants.

  • You must keep the rock pulled back from the base of your plants so they don't end up getting choked.

  • No dispute that rock mulch holds its own in high wind areas.

  • Some nice rock mulches: red quartzite, butter rock, river rock, and cobblestones.

Living Mulches

  • Smother crops (or cover crops): Good for the vegetable garden or small farm.

  • Alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, canary grass, crested wheatgrass, cowpeas, clovers, hemp, millet, Sudan grass, sweet clover, rape, sorghums, soybeans.

  • Ground Cover Plants: For flower beds, slopes, rock gardens.
    Groundcover Plants that effectively choke out the weeds are:
    Ajuga, creeping dianthus, hens and chicks, ice plants, pussytoes, sedums (gold moss, Dragons blood, etc.), creeping and wooly thymes, vinca minor, and wild strawberry. Note: Gold moss sedum (sedum acres) forms a very dense mat and is exceptional for weed control. It has pretty star shaped gold flowers and is evergreen too!
    Groundcovers can also be an ideal solution for erosion control, alternative lawns, and firebreaks.


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