To Mulch or Not to Mulch? That is the Great Gardening Question!

4 Materials
$100
2 Hours
Easy

Disclaimer: Mulch is a flammable material and once it catches fire, that fire can be very persistent. If you live in an area prone to dry and hot weather, please proceed with mulching project in caution.


Mulching has many benefits but after using it and researching upon the subject I discovered it can also be a detriment if it's done improperly. For years I loved the beautiful, finished look it gave my shrub bed. Just notice the before and after photos when a fresh layer of it was added in the Spring.

Before Mulching
Before Mulching
After Mulching
After Mulching

I would always buy the black mulch so that regardless of my soil color underneath it always looked like there was rich , black earth in my beds. It was easy to apply and held up wonderfully throughout the season.

post

My dilemma came once I began feeding birds here during Winter in my garden, lots of them flocked here and ate when times were tough. Even in Spring and Summer when the feeders were taken down they hung out here in the safety of my trees and shrubs and foraged for food, raised young and so on.

That's when the mulch became a concern, knowing it was treated with dye and other unknowns I wondered if it would pose any harm to them or other wildlife in the garden??

post

This was my opinion and my concious decision that I made for specifically for my garden. I switched to other natural options to top dress my flower beds, I buy topsoil and mix my own compost with it. My new way of refreshing in Spring may not be as uniform in color or texture but it still makes a vast improvement.

Before and After with Topsoil Dressing
Before and After with Topsoil Dressing

I get a nice, tidy bed and the and plants get the rich compost added in the mix. I have the peace of mind knowing it's all natural posing no harm to my little garden visitors and their babies.

Momma feeding her baby in my tree
Momma feeding her baby in my tree

In addition to top dressing my beds, at this same time I gently stir in slow release pellet fertilizer near the base of each plant "before" I cover it over with the soil mixture. Instructions are on the container of course as to the amount you would apply depending on plant size and so on.

I buy Shake and Feed because it is so convenient, no more mixing solutions and watering it in with a heavy watering can. It's perfect for my area because it will feed them for 3 months and that's about how long our growing season really is here!

Miracle Grow Shake 'n' Feed
Miracle Grow Shake 'n' Feed

So with a just a little effort put forth in Spring to apply fertilizer and add the top dressing my plants flourish all Summer without much effort. I just need to dead head and water them in dry spells.

* Note: I have all perennials so its key to keep them happy and healthy in their growing season to ensure that theyll return that same way the following year.

* Note: Do Not fertilize "perennials" late in the growing season when Summer is winding down because your plants will continue to grow and produce new growth when really they should be getting ready to shut down and prepare to rest for the dormant season.

Annuals are different since they only live a single growing season so you can continue to feed and deadhead them until they stop producing.

Heuchura, Sedum, Weigelia and Barberry
Heuchura, Sedum, Weigelia and Barberry
September 2018
September 2018

Final Notes

* If you choose to use mulch, apply it moderately and not directly against the plant stem or tree trunk because it can lead to stem rotting.

*Know your garden, if you get a lot of heat and sun mulch can provide great cooling layer and help conserve water loss from evaporation. In my case we do not get a lot of dry heat and I'm not charged for my water usage with a meter which is another thing to consider.

*Do research in gardening books and magazines, ask questions at your garden center and always try to get tips from fellow gardeners in your area, they know the most about your local growing conditions!

Happy Gardening and always garden with a close friend!😉

*Most important to note is that it can pose a "fire hazard" in hot and dry conditions and lead into a spark or hot amber igniting the dry mulch.

2018 Apple Tree Crop
2018 Apple Tree Crop


* Costs and time listed below are very flexible depending on what you buy to top dress and the size of your garden bed.

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Have a question about this project?

4 questions
  • Brenda
    on Mar 31, 2019

    thankyou for the wonderfully informative article. Plan to remove grass from my backyard and replace with mulch. Will have lots of flower beds as well.Don't want stones or decorative gravel as afraid of the lawn mower hitting one and causing damage / maiming neighbours. I already have grass and lots of flower beds at the front which is enough work and expense for me. What is the process for removing grass and leveling the lawn which is bumpy in spots? Can I just put cardboard over it before adding mulch? Considering using stepping stones to make paths. Had not thought about dyes from coloured mulch. What are your thoughts? Brenda

    • Kim Casper
      on Mar 31, 2019

      Hi Brenda~ I got rid of the entire front lawn by putting heavy cardboard over it and then wood chips a few inches thick. It absolutely did the job but grass seeds blow in from other yards and you just have to tweak them out when they start to randomly show....it comes out very easily in chips. I tried one half with cloth underneath and that does NOT work even with stones over cloth. Unless possibly, you use a very heavy gardeners cloth. Don’t bother with the light cloth ever.

    • Barb
      on Apr 1, 2019

      Brenda I like the cardboard remedy too. I also use some newspapers as well but they seem to mold more easily and cardboard is easier to work with and blends in better so I try to make sure it's on top.


      In winter I use weeds or large rocks/bricks to prevent wind blowing the paper layers away. (I'm in a rural area so no worry about neighbours or regulations) Then in spring I add the mulch/wood chips ect.


      Used to date a tree man and had dump truck loads for free! Oh well, so much for the good old days of my youth😌

    • Robyn Garner
      on Apr 3, 2019

      I found recently that spraying heavily with vinegar an area I want to remove our so-called "grass" (really just loonnggg weeds!) to expand a garden bed and then covering with plastic is fabulous! The plastic keeps the vinegar from evaporating before getting to the weeds, plus it creates a lot more heat which works even better.


      I leave these in place only a couple of days (weight the plastic down with whatever is around. I used water bottles refilled from the hose). Pull up the plastic when you see all the surface grass has died. Then, just shovel up the grass and roots as best you can before getting on your hands and knees to get the remaining roots. Once the grass is dead is so much easier to get through and the vinegar will evaporate, posing no problem to begin planting immediately! 😎🌼🌻

    • Tracey
      on Apr 5, 2019

      I too sprayed weeds with the vinegar remedy but a few days later new weeds sprouted! I've used black garbage bags to smother and bake wees but that takes a long time. I've used cardboard but that only helps smother what weeds are beneath it it doesn't stop new ones from germinating on top of the cardboard in the mulch layer, they'll have to be pulled! Hope this helps.

    • Donna
      on Apr 7, 2019

      I bought a house in December, plenty of weeds/lawn. In the front, since there has been so much rain, I wasn't able to get it mowed. Decided to put down a layer of cardboard and throw out shredded bark. It's been a month now. The weeds underneath are dying. I cut holes in the cardboard where I wanted to plant drought tolerant plants. It appears to be working. If you google cardboard and termites, it does say termites like the cellulose in the cardboard. I'm keeping the cardboard away from the house and hoping that perhaps the cardboard will be to wet before the termites discover it and the cardboard will mulch in nicely. Keeping my fingers crossed. Cardboard is cheaper than fabric to use, and since I just moved, have plenty. If you do this, look for the biggest boxes to cover , over lapping a bit, and I used some metal stakes to hold it down. You can also put out medium to large rocks to hold the cardboard in place.

    • Infoseekrs
      on Apr 8, 2019

      I would absolutely go with cardboard boxes (tape and staples removed) and arborist chips (shredded trees). The cardboard blocks weeds from coming up and the chips make rooting difficult for blown in seeds. If you grab the few new weeds as they come (it's not usually a perfect system) you'll stay on top of it and your yard will look great and be super healthy. The cardboard actually provides nitrates as it breaks down under the chips which is good for the soil.

  • Lindsey
    on Apr 1, 2019

    OK. What about the weeds that will undoubtedly grow through the soil?

    • Weed every day would be my guess. I have part of my beds mulched with natural cedar, no dye. I boil 2 kettles a day. When I exercise the pets, I spend at least 15 minutes or more digging out weeds. My yard is much smaller and I live where it gets blazing hot in summer, I am in Zone 9. I also use Epsom salt followed by boiling water or white vinegar depending where the stubborn weed might be. No chemicals due to all the pets.

    • Lora Taylor Hyatt
      on Apr 1, 2019

      Put newspaper down to stop the weeds.


    • Barb
      on Apr 1, 2019

      Yes some weeds come thru. Usually they are very easy to pull up. They make great amendments to the compost pile. Pull them up BEFORE they form seeds. You may need to add more newspapers/cardboard then mulch if lotsa weeds are in an area. Make sure your paper layers overlap!😍

    • Tracey
      on Apr 5, 2019

      I pull up the weeds BUT there aren't usually too many accumulating because I pull out one here and there as I water my plants or deadhead them, the soil is always loose too so weeds are easy to remove. If you prepare the soil well in the Spring and do light maintenance through the Summer you'll keep on top of the weeds.

    • Terese
      on Apr 7, 2019

      Put down the gardening cover that comes in a roll at any garden center, or discount store. You merely lay it out over the area before laying the mulch.

    • Infoseekrs
      on Apr 8, 2019

      Naomi has a good idea but you can only do that away/downhill from desired trees/plants or they'll suffer along with the weeds. The best place for this is away from garden beds and on brick/paved areas such as driveways, curbs, patios/walkways. I use the following with great success:

      • 1 gallon white vinegar
      • 1 cup salt
      • 1 tablespoon biodegradable liquid dish soap

      Combine ingredients in a spray bottle and treat weeds at the sunniest time of day for best results. I use the spray bottle on stream (rather than spray) or put the solution in a cleaned out plastic ketchup bottle to douse the weeds in driveway cracks, along curbs etc. For those awful weeds that have a huge root and break when you pull, fill a poultry injector with the solution and stab the root to inject the solution directly into it, adding a little solution directly around it as well (below the surrounding soil level). Again, keep the solution far from good plants or they'll meet their demise, or at least get severely burned and dehydrated, along with the weeds.


    • Heather cooney
      on Apr 10, 2019

      Be careful not to use cardboard or newspaper near the house as they attract termites and other unwanted pests.


  • Rosemary Richards
    on Apr 6, 2019

    My question is would using an Untreated wood product attract termites?


  • Jackie
    on Apr 7, 2019

    My yard is hard because it have small rocks in the ground what the best plant to plant

    • Arifah
      on Apr 7, 2019

      Depends on sun, shade etc. sunny spot and fast draining you could use various succulents like sedums, hylotelephiums, semperviviums. There are so many options, but check locally for your area. There are different types of ornamental grasses, goundcover thymes, my favorite is Thymus praecox ‘Red Creeping’, lavenders, just to name a few things.

    • Tracey
      on Apr 8, 2019

      My advice woukd be to check with your local garden center because different areas are more suitable for certain growing zones. If it has small rocks like pebbles that's fine all plants need drainage, you can add topsoil and compost to the garden bed and most plants and shrubs appreciate the drainage small rocks can offer. If you are saying your soil is mostly rocks there are plants that grow better in poor, dry soils...that's where they are happiest. Thanks for your question.

Join the conversation

4 of 56 comments
  • Nell
    on Apr 19, 2019

    I will definitely try the Shake and Go opposed to the packets to add to water. Love your garden with the black mulch. I have used pine needles, red mulch, and black mulch.

  • Lorinda Mae Lane Silliman
    on Apr 20, 2019

    Very good idea! I just use steer manure. Its solid black, only costs a a bit over a dollar a bag, no odor. It fertilizes as it breaks down, and looks very very clean!

    • Tracey
      on Apr 24, 2019

      Sounds great, it's just I don't have access to that where I live just bagged sheep manure. I heard that you have to be careful over using too much or you could damage your plants. I'm guessing the steer manure isn't like that?

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