In agriculture and gardening, mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil to retain moisture, reduce erosion, provide nutrients, and suppress weed growth and seed germination. Mulching in gardens and landscaping mimics the leaf cover that is found on forest floors.
Materials used as mulches vary and depend on a number of factors. Use takes into consideration availability, cost, appearance, the effect it has on the soil — including chemical reactions and pH, durability, combustibility, rate of decomposition, how clean it is — some can contain weed seeds or plant pathogens.
A variety of materials are used as mulch:
- Organic residues: grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, kitchen scraps comfrey, shredded bark, whole bark nuggets, sawdust, shells, woodchips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, wool, but also animal manure, etc. Many of these materials also act as a direct composting system, such as the mulched clippings of a mulching lawn mower, or other organics applied as sheet composting.
- Compost: This should be fully composted material to avoid possible phytotoxicity problems, and the weed seed must have been eliminated, otherwise the mulch will actually produce weed cover.
- Rubber mulch: made from recycled tire rubber.
- Plastic mulch: crops grow through slits or holes in thin plastic sheeting. This method is predominant in large-scale vegetable growing, with millions of acres cultivated under plastic mulch worldwide each year (disposal of plastic mulch is cited as an environmental problem).
- Rock and gravel can also be used as a mulch. In cooler climates the heat retained by rocks may extend the growing season.
There is a belief that organic mulches can negatively affect plant growth when they are decomposed rapidly by bacteria and fungi, which require nitrogen that they remove from the surrounding soil. However, whether this effect has any practical impact on gardens is disputed by researchers and the experience of gardeners. Organic mulches can mat down, forming a barrier that blocks water and air flow between the soil and the atmosphere. Some organic mulches can wick water from the soil to the surface, which can dry out the soil.
Commonly available organic mulches include:
- Leaves from deciduous trees, which drop their foliage in the fall. They tend to be dry and blow around in the wind, so are often chopped or shredded before application. As they decompose they adhere to each other but also allow water and moisture to seep down to the soil surface. Thick layers of entire leaves, especially of Maples and Oaks, can form a soggy mat in winter and spring which can impede the new growth lawn grass and other plants. Dry leaves are used as winter mulches to protect plants from freezing and thawing in areas with cold winters, they are normally removed during spring.
- Grass clippings, from mowed lawns are sometimes collected and used elsewhere as mulch. Grass clippings are dense and tend to mat down, so are mixed with tree leaves or rough compost to provide aeration and to facilitate their decomposition without smelly putrefaction. Rotting fresh grass clippings can damage plants; their rotting often produces a damaging buildup of trapped heat. Grass clippings are often dried thoroughly before application, which mediates against rapid decomposition and excessive heat generation. Fresh green grass clippings are relatively high in nitrate content, and when used as a mulch, much of the nitrate is returned to the soil, but the routine removal of grass clippings from the lawn results in nitrogen deficiency for the lawn.
- Peat moss, or sphagnum peat, is long lasting and packaged, making it convenient and popular as a mulch. When wetted and dried, it can form a dense crust that does not allow water to soak in. When dry it can also burn, producing a smoldering fire. It is sometimes mixed with pine needles to produce a mulch that is friable. It can also lower the pH of the soil surface, making it useful as a mulch under acid loving plants.
- Wood chips are a byproduct of the pruning of trees by arborists, utilities and parks; they are used to dispose of bulky waste. Tree branches and large stems are rather coarse after chipping and tend to be used as a mulch at least three inches thick. The chips are used to conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature and suppress weed growth. The decay of freshly produced chips from recently living woody plants, consumes nitrate; this is often off set with a light application of a high-nitrate fertilizer. Wood chips are most often used under trees and shrubs. When used around soft stemmed plants, an unmulched zone is left around the plant stems to prevent stem rot or other possible diseases. They are often used to mulch trails, because they are readily produced with little additional cost outside of the normal disposal cost of tree maintenance.
- Woodchip Mulch is a byproduct of reprocessing used (untreated) timber (usually packaging pallets), to dispose of wood waste by creating Woodchip Mulch. The chips are used to conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature and suppress weed growth. Woodchip Mulch is often used under trees, shrubs or large planting areas and can last much longer than arborist mulch. Woodchips can also be reprocessed into playground woodchip to be used as a impact-attenuating playground surfacing.
- Bark chips, of various grades are produced from the outer corky bark layer of timber trees. Sizes vary from thin shredded strands to large coarse blocks. The finer types are very attractive but have a large exposed surface area that leads to quicker decay. Layers two or three inches deep are usually used, bark is relativity inert and its decay does not demand soil nitrates.
- Straw mulch or field hay or salt hay are lightweight and normally sold in compressed bales. They have an unkempt look and are used in vegetable gardens and as a winter covering. They are biodegradable and neutral in pH. They have good moisture retention and weed controlling properties but also are more likely to be contaminated with weed seeds. Salt hay is less likely to have weed seeds than field hay.
- Cardboard or newspaper can be used as mulches. These are best used as a base layer upon which a heavier mulch such as compost is placed to prevent the lighter cardboard/newspaper layer from blowing away. By incorporating a layer of cardboard/newspaper into a mulch, the quantity of heavier mulch can be reduced, whilst improving the weed suppressant and moisture retaining properties of the mulch. However, additional labour is expended when planting through a mulch containing a cardboard/newspaper layer, as holes must be cut for each plant. Sowing seed through mulches containing a cardboard/newspaper layer is impractical. Application of newspaper mulch in windy weather can be facilitated by briefly pre-soaking the newspaper in water to increase its weight.
In temperate climates, the effect of mulch is dependent upon the time of year at which it is applied as it tends to slow changes in soil temperature and moisture content. Mulch, when applied to the soil in late winter/early spring, will slow the warming of the soil by acting as an insulator, and will hold in moisture by preventing evaporation. Mulch, when applied at the time of peak soil temperatures in mid-summer, will maintain high soil temperatures further into the autumn (fall). The effect of mulch upon soil moisture content in mid-summer is complex however. Mulch prevents sunlight from reaching the soil surface, thus reducing evaporation. However, mulch can absorb much of the rainfall provided during light rainfall, which will later quickly evaporate when exposed to sunlight, thus preventing absorption into the soil, while heavy rainfall is able to saturate the mulch layer, and reach the soil below.
In order to maximise the benefits of mulch, while minimizing its negative influences, it is often applied in late spring/early summer when soil temperatures have risen sufficiently, but soil moisture content is still relatively high. Furthermore, at this point in the growing season, plants should be well enough established to be able to cope with the increase in the numbers of slugs and snails owing to the habitat provided for them by the mulch. However, permanent mulch is also widely used and valued for its simplicity, as popularized by author Ruth Stout, who said, "My way is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both sides of my vegetable and flower garden all year long. As it decays and enriches the soils, I add more."
Plastic mulch used in large-scale commercial production is laid down with a tractor-drawn or standalone layer of plastic mulch. This is usually part of a sophisticated mechanical process, where raised beds are formed, plastic is rolled out on top, and seedlings are transplanted through it. Drip irrigation is often required, with drip tape laid under the plastic, as plastic mulch is impermeable to water.
In home gardens and smaller farming operations, organic mulch is usually spread by hand around emerged plants. (On plots with existing mulch, the mulch is pulled away from the seedbed before planting, and restored after the seedlings have emerged.) For materials like straw and hay, a shredder may be used to chop up the material. Organic mulches are usually piled quite high, six inches (152 mm) or more, and settle over the season.
In some areas of the United States, such as central Pennsylvania and northern California, mulch is often referred to as "tanbark", even by manufacturers and distributors. In these areas, the word "mulch" is used specifically to refer to very fine tanbark or peat moss.
Mulch made with wood can contain or feed termites, so care must be taken about not placing mulch too close to houses or building that can be damaged by those insects. Some mulch manufacturers recommend putting mulch several inches away from buildings.
Anaerobic (sour) mulch
Mulch should normally smell like freshly cut wood, but sometimes develops a toxicity that causes it to smell like vinegar, ammonia, sulfur or silage. This happens when material with ample nitrogen content is not rotated often enough and it forms pockets of increased decomposition. When this occurs, the process may become anaerobic and produce these phytotoxic materials in small quantities. Once exposed to the air, the process quickly reverts to an aerobic process, but these toxic materials may be present for a period of time. If the mulch is placed around plants before the toxicity has had a chance to dissipate, then the plants could very likely be damaged or killed depending on their hardiness. Plants that are predominantly low to the ground or freshly planted are the most susceptible, and the phytotoxicity may prevent germination of some seeds.
If sour mulch is applied and there is plant kill, the best thing to do is to water the mulch heavily. Water dissipates the chemicals faster and refreshes the plants. Removing the offending mulch may have little effect, because by the time plant kill is noticed, most of the toxicity is already dissipated. While testing after plant kill will not likely turn up anything, a simple pH check may reveal high acidity, in the range of 3.8 to 5.6 instead of the normal range of 6.0 to 7.2. Finally, placing a bit of the offending mulch around another plant to check for plant kill will verify if the toxicity has departed. If the new plant is also killed, then sour mulch is probably not the problem.
Groundcovers (living mulches)
Groundcovers are plants which grow close to the ground, under the main crop, to slow the development of weeds and provide other benefits of mulch. They are usually fast-growing plants that continue growing with the main crops. By contrast, cover crops are incorporated into the soil or killed with herbicides. However, living mulches also may need to be mechanically or chemically killed eventually to prevent competition with the main crop.
Some groundcovers can perform additional roles in the garden such as nitrogen fixation in the case of clovers, dynamic accumulation of nutrients from the subsoil in the case of creeping comfrey (Symphytum ibericum), and even food production in the case of Rubus Tricolor.
On-site mulch production
Owing to the great bulk of mulch which is often required on a site, it is often impractical and expensive to source and import sufficient mulch materials. An alternative to importing mulch materials is to grow them on site in a "mulch garden" - an area of the site dedicated entirely to the production of mulch which is then transferred to the growing area. Mulch gardens should be sited as close as possible to the growing area so as to facilitate transfer of mulch materials.
Mulching (composting) over unwanted plants
Sufficient mulch over plants will destroy them, and may be more advantageous than using herbicide, cutting, mowing, pulling, raking, or tilling. The higher the temperature that this "mulch" is composted, the quicker the reduction of undesirable materials. "Undesirable materials" may include living seed, plant "trash", as well as pathogens such as from animal feces, urine (e.g. hantavirus), fleas, lice, ticks, etc.
- ^ a b Louise; Bush-Brown, James (1996), America's garden book, New York: Macmillan USA, pp. 768, ISBN 002860995-6
- ^ Stout, Ruth. Gardening Without Work. Devon-Adair Press, 1961. Reprinted by Norton Creek Press, 2011, pp. 192-193. ISBN 978-0-9819-2846-3
- ^ a b Patrick Whitefield, 2004, The Earth Care Manual, Permanent Publications, ISBN 978-1-85623-021-6
- ^ Stout, Ruth. Gardening Without Work. Devon-Adair Press, 1961. Reprinted by Norton Creek Press, 2011, pp. 6-7. ISBN 978-0-9819-2846-3
- ^ Beware of Sour Mulch
- ^ [Brandsaeter et al. 1998, Tharp and Kells, 2001]
- ^ a b c Jacke and Toensmeier, Edible Forest Gardening, vol. II
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