In Southern California, the gardening season can begin as early as mid-March. If you’re starting your garden, you will probably spend several days preparing your soil and transplanting new plants. But, once you’re done with that, there is one more step that you shouldn’t forget: laying down mulch.
Mulch provides an additional protective barrier between the environment and the roots of your plants, and can do so much for your garden.
Types of Mulch
Mulch can be made from organic matter or from non-organic materials. Organic mulch can be made from grass clippings, leaves, shredded bark or wood chips. Non-organic mulches include gravel, river rock or decomposed granite.
Organic mulches tend to be better weed barriers than non-organic varieties since seeds have an easier time slipping through rocks to the soil level. But, for the same reason, organic mulch also acts as a greater barrier to irrigation. Water finds its way to the soil much more easily if it can roll down the smooth surface of river rock than if it meets shredded wood, which can trap and absorb the water.
Benefits of Mulch
Mulch is not required for healthy plants, but the benefits make it worth the extra effort.
California experienced an exceptionally rainy season this year. All that precipitation, when combined with our usual warm spring temperatures, will likely lead to more weeds than normal in your garden this spring. If weeds become a problem, they can rob your flowers and vegetables of water, light, nutrients and root space.
Mulch protects your garden from weeds in two ways: It prevents seeds from reaching the soil, where they would take hold and germinate. It also reduces sunlight penetration to the soil surface, drowning out the light to those seeds that do find their way down.
Mulch insulates the soil to help regulate the temperature of plant roots. This keeps your plants in their optimal temperature ranges, even during the heat of the summer.
According the the EPA, the average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day. Approximately 30 percent (96 gallons) of that is used for outdoor irrigation.
Mulch reduces the water needs of your garden, cutting your monthly consumption and keeping your water bill down. Mulch slows evaporation to help the soil retain water, keeping roots moist longer. This is especially true if you choose an organic variety, since it will absorb water.
For even more water efficiency, consider replacing your spray sprinkler heads with drip irrigation, which delivers water underneath the mulch and practically eliminates evaporation.
Can add nutrients to the soil
Many people choose inorganic mulches, like stone, because they do not need to be replaced as often. However, these do not contribute to the life of your soil, or the growth of your plants.
Organic mulches break down over time. As the material slowly decomposes on top of the soil, the process can release nutrients that feed your plants. Shredded leaves and grass clippings are rich in nutrients, break down quickly, and are inexpensive (or free, if you get them from your own yard). Avoid using whole leaves, as they quickly form a dense mat of soggy, decaying matter that blocks out sunlight and oxygen.
Prevents soil compaction
Mulch helps prevent compaction of soil due to foot traffic. You work hard to make sure your soil is light and aerated. The addition of mulch provides a cushion that helps keep it that way, even as you plod about, tending to your plants.
Can help ward off bugs
Certain types of mulch, like cedar bark, have natural oils that repel many common garden pests, including slugs, moths and snails. Cedar mulch also prevents splashing during rainstorms, which can control the spread of fungus spores.
Conversely, very fragrant mulches can attract pests to your yard, so talk to your landscaper about what is best for your location.
Overall, mulch provides a multitude of benefits to your garden. And, there are a wide variety of materials and application methods. For best results, research to find out which options meet your needs. If you are looking for more information, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) provides a printable document covering everything you ever wanted to know about mulch. Check it out.