4 Steps to Mastering Mulch

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Colin Can Help Guide to Mulch: 

Over the last 15 years, I’ve installed thousands of yards of mulch and have seen firsthand what works and doesn’t. Following our mulching guide will save you time, money, and provide a beautiful and thriving home for your plants.

To have a healthy and happy mulched flower bed you need to spend as much time on the prep as possible, buy quality materials, and you can’t just forget about it after you install it. Let’s go over all of those areas in more detail:

Step 1: Prep the Area

Before buying or applying mulch, ensure your garden bed or landscape area is ready for this beneficial covering. Slapping lipstick on a pig will only work for so long.
Follow these key prep steps:

  • Clear Debris: Remove weeds, rocks, and any debris from the area. This provides a clean surface for the mulch to settle on. The better you do at getting out all of the roots, spores, seeds, and vines now will save you a TON of time in the future. Go as deep as you have the time and energy to do.
  • Level the Soil: Smooth out any uneven areas to create a uniform surface. This helps the mulch distribute more evenly. If the flowerbed is against your home, be sure that the area grades away from your home. You don’t want to create a water slide towards your foundation.
  • Weed Prevention: For extra weed control, consider using a weed barrier fabric or cardboard. I prefer cardboard because it will decompose over time while the fabric takes longer to decompose, it is also a pain to work around if you plan on planting in the future.
  • Measure Your Area: Once you have the area cleared out and you have a clear vision of what areas need to be mulched, measure the square footage of the area (length x width). Once you have your area ready and its measurements, you now know how much mulch you will need to buy.

Step 2: Select the Materials

Choosing the right type of mulch is crucial. Here are some common options and their benefits:

  • Wood Chips: Great for Rhododendrons
    – Made from shredded or chipped wood.
    – Excellent for moisture retention.
    – Helps regulate soil temperature, providing insulation for plant roots.
    – Gradually decomposes, enriching the soil with organic matter.
  • Bark Mulch: Azaleas flourish with bark mulch as a cover.
    – Made from shredded bark material and organic materials.
    – Ideal for moisture retention and weed suppression.
    – Provides a natural, aesthetically pleasing look to landscaping.
    – Gradually decomposes, enriching the soil with organic matter.
  • Straw: Can help improve your strawberry harvest.
    – Ideal for vegetable gardens as it helps suppress weeds and conserves moisture.
    – Biodegradable and enriches the soil as it decomposes.
    – Provides a light, airy cover that allows water and air to reach the soil.
    – Bonus: Grass clippings can be added for extra nutrient enrichment and moisture retention.
  • Pine Needles (Pine Straw):  Add to the base of your Blueberries
    – Suitable for acid-loving plants like blueberries and azaleas.
    – Lightweight and airy, allowing for good air circulation and water penetration.
    – Slow decomposition rate makes it long-lasting.
    – They smell AMAZING when freshly applied.
  • Compost: Can’t have a vegetable garden without it!
    – Rich in nutrients, providing an excellent source of organic matter for soil.
    – Supports beneficial microbial activity in the soil.
    – Enhances soil structure and fertility over time.
  • Gravel / Stone Mulch: Cacti, Succulents, and Evergreens all thrive with Stones.
    – Long-lasting and durable, providing excellent weed suppression.
    – Enhances drainage and prevents soil erosion.
    – Provides a clean, modern look to landscapes.

These mulch materials, paired with their ideal plants, offer tailored solutions for specific gardening needs and preferences. Select the combination that best suits your garden requirements, local conditions, and your personal taste.

  • Where To Buy: In almost all cases it makes sense to buy mulch in bulk from a local landscape supply store or nursery. These places typically sell their materials by the cubic yard and allow you to pick them up in a truck or trailer or most also have delivery services. The quality of these products is far superior to the bagged stuff from Home Depot or Lowes. When it comes to price, you can typically get an entire truck bed full of bulk materials for the cost of 6-7 bags from the box stores. Finally, the people at the landscape stores will be far more knowledgeable about the materials and have answers to other parts of your projects.

Step 3: Application

Proper application ensures it provides maximum benefits to your garden. Follow these steps for effective application:

  • Tools: The tools needed for this job are all basic tools.
    • Wheelbarrow: You will need something to transport the mulch to its new home. Unless the area you are going is too narrow, a wheelbarrow is the way to go.
    • Scoop Shovel or Mulch Fork: I prefer a Scoop Shovel over a Mulching Fork, but it all depends on your materials. A Scoop Shovel allows you to fill a wheelbarrow with only a few shovels full and beats the Fork for cleaning up the last bits towards the end of the job.
    • Tarp: If you are getting a load dropped on your driveway, you may want to put a tarp down to keep the pavement clean. Also if you are transporting it in a truck or trailer, you may want to secure a tarp around your load to keep any from blowing out.
    • Hard Rake: The Hard Rake is an essential tool when it comes to smoothing it all out.
    • Blower: You will want a blower or at least a broom to clean off your surface areas once completed.
  • Technique Tips:
    • Start from the back of your bed and work forward. By dumping your piles and spreading the back areas first, walking your way out is the same idea as not walking on a freshly mopped floor. If you can not stomp all over it, you limit over-compaction.
    • In areas with more plants or decorations, you may have to hand-toss the mulch into place instead of dumping and raking.
    • Make the heaviest part of your wheelbarrow load centered over the wheel, not back by the handles. This will allow the wheel to do more of the work than your shoulders.
  • Layer Thickness: Apply a layer of 2 to 4 inches.
    Remember, “The thicker you go, the less likely new things are to grow.”
  • Even Distribution: Spread mulch evenly across the entire area. Ensure it reaches the drip line of plants but doesn’t touch stems or trunks directly.
  • Avoid ‘Mulch Volcanoes’: Refrain from piling mulch against plant and tree bases. This can lead to excessive moisture retention and potential plant rot or disease.
  • Leave Plant Space: Leave a small gap around the base of plants to prevent moisture-related issues and maintain plant health.

Step 4: Mulch Maintenance

Regular maintenance ensures that mulch continues to provide its benefits over time. Nature doesn’t allow you to just set it and forget it. Here’s how to care for your mulch:

  • Monitor Moisture Levels: While mulch helps conserve moisture, regularly check the soil’s hydration. Adjust watering practices as needed to ensure plants receive sufficient hydration.
  • Fluff Organic Mulch: Periodically stir or fluff to prevent compaction. This encourages airflow and prevents the growth of fungi or mold in overly compacted areas. We recommend passing over all open areas with a rake once a week.
  • Replenish as Needed: Over time, organic mulches will decompose and settle. Check the mulch layer periodically and add more as necessary to maintain the desired depth.
  • Yearly Reapplication: To maintain the benefits of mulch, plan to reapply it annually or as needed. Over time, organic mulches will decompose and need replenishing, while inorganic mulches may require occasional top-ups to maintain their appearance.

By following these steps, you’ll be well-equipped to apply mulch effectively in your garden, promoting healthier plants and a thriving outdoor space. If this seems like too much of a project for you to handle, we offer Mulching Services throughout Northeast Ohio.

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