Applying Garden Mulch: Tips For Spreading Mulch In Gardens

Man Spreading Mulch In Garden Area With Shovel
mulch spreading
(Image credit: cindygoff)

Mulch has value in the garden beyond the visual. Mulching helps control weeds, conserve moisture, increases tilth as it composts and adds nutrients to the soil. Spreading mulch in gardens is a fairly fool proof process, but there are a few things to note along the way. A few tips for spreading mulch will allow your plants to grow healthier and protect them from damage.

How to Spread Garden Mulch

There is a wide variety to choose from with mulch application, from organic to inorganic. Recycled rubber and plastic are now being ground into inorganic mulches for landscape use. Similarly, oyster shells are common mulch in some areas and continue the reuse cycle. Natural mulches such as bark are more familiar forms used in home landscapes. Applying garden mulch simply means adding a layer of material over existing soil which will provide a variety of benefits. Spreading mulch in gardens isn't the same as frosting a cupcake with wild abandon. There is finesse to the practice and some tips for spreading mulch to prevent rot and allow late-growing plants to penetrate the area can be helpful. When to spread mulch isn't as important as how to spread mulch. You can mulch any time of the year. It's common to add mulch in springtime when rains start to help it break down and impact the soil condition. Also, there are fewer plants sprouted in spring, which makes the task easier; however, you can mulch at any time. Your choice of mulch and the area to be covered will determine the depth at which you layer the material.

Mulch Application Depths

Materials that won't break down quickly are excellent choices for ornamental beds, around trees and along permanent plantings. Bark is a classic example. Fine bark and bark chips should be applied at a depth of 2 to 3 inches (5-8 cm.) around plants. Large to medium bark can be applied up to 6 inches (15 cm.) deep. The bark won't break down in one season and shouldn't need to be replaced each year. Mulches that break down quickly are excellent for vegetable and annual beds, where frequent turning brings the mulch into the soil for quicker composting. These should be spread 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5 cm.) around the base of plants. Some good examples of these are leaf litter, straw, grass clippings, or cocoa bean hulls. Inorganic mulch such as black plastic is laid in one layer on the soil surface to warm the ground before planting heat-loving veggies. Remove the plastic or cut out holes for the plants. It is wise to remove the plastic in summer, as the excess heat can burn roots.

Applying Garden Mulch

While mulch has numerous benefits, too much of it can be a bad thing. In areas with disease problems or where insects overwinter, mulch should be pulled away from plants in spring and composted to kill disease and larvae. Keep mulch at least 3 inches (8 cm.) away from the trunks and stems of plants to prevent mildew problems and hiding places for pests. Very light, dry mulches need to be spread at double their recommended depth to achieve that number after settling. Select light colored mulch in summer and dark in winter. Light deflects the sun and dark will store any solar heat. So many common things make excellent mulch. Even newspapers layered at a depth of eight pages will make a quickly composted carbon adding mulch. Keep watch for arborists in your neighborhood and ask them for a load of wood chips or seed your veggie garden with rye grass as a living mulch and springtime green manure. Mulching is easy and its use will increase your crop yields, minimize pest and disease issues, and lower your water bills along with a host of other benefits.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.