Tips on getting the most from this multitasking material

Mulch can make a landscaping homeowner’s life much easier, but that’s not to say that using the stuff involves no work at all.

You’ve got to pick the right mulch for your place and purpose, prepare the area, properly place the material and, over time, maintain it. In return, mulch will help control weeds, define the landscape and improve its appearance, retain moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and reduce erosion.That little bit of labor pays off, so to speak, in spades.

Here are some tips on using these landscape workhorses, especially conventional organic materials such as wood chips and pine bark:

mulch pile

To figure out how much you’ll need…

measure the dimensions of the space to be covered and multiply the length by the width to get the square footage. The industry standard for mulch use is 1 cubic yard for every 100 square feet of area, assuming you’re going to apply it at a depth of 3 inches.

Mulch won’t cover all sins

Before the stuff goes down, clear weeds and loosen the soil so that a hard, water-repelling crust won’t form.

Spread mulch 2 to 3 inches thick

Keep in mind that a material applied at 4 inches may settle to 3. And there can be too much of a good thing, as the University of California’s Marin Master Gardeners note. Mulch piled too deep can restrict the flow of air and water to the soil below, producing “mulch toxicity” and plants that fail to thrive.

Don’t pile material directly against plant stems or tree trunks

Mulch that comes into direct contact with plants or trees can retain water, cause rot and foster the diseases and fungus.

Make a date to come back later

Mulch should be replaced or refreshed at regular intervals.

The Dirt on Mulch

Everybody knows mulch: It’s the bagged red or brown wood bits at the garden center. It’s also any number of other organic and inorganic materials used to cover bare ground. Common organics include yard trimmings, hay, pine straw, pine bark, sawdust and cocoa hulls. These enrich the soil as they break down.

Frequently used nonorganic materials include gravel or crushed rock, plastic, landscape fabric and shredded rubber from old tires. While an inorganic won’t benefit the soil like organic mulch, it will last longer and can provide sharper definition in the landscape.

Mulch and gardening tools

Cautions worth noting on mulches in general and specific:

  • Low-nitrogen materials such as wood chips can cause nitrogen depletion of the soil as they decompose. If your plants start to sport yellow leaves, fertilize with a high-nitrogen soil amendment.
  • Mulches’ ability to keep soil cool can have the downside of retarding growth after winter. In spring, pull mulch back from plants so the soil can warm up.
  • In wet climates, be aware that mulch can harbor slugs and other pests that like to chew on tender plants.

WORKING SMART

Mulch pathway

Down the garden path

Mulch doesn’t have to be stuck in a garden bed. Freed to wander the landscape, it can be used to create attractive pathways.

START BY EYEBALLING THE PLACE you want your path to go and sketching it on paper, especially if you want it to wind through the landscape in soft curves. You can use spray paint to mark the boundaries of the path, or you can use stakes and string to create the margins.

REMOVE ANY SOD to a depth that will allow you to lay down a thick layer of material for your path. Level the soil with a rake and tamp down the dirt. Set edging — plastic landscape edging is inexpensive and easy to use, brick or stone looks more elegant but can be expensive if you’re making a long path — on the sides of the path to keep the mulch from seeping into the surrounding landscape.

COVER THE DIRT with landscape fabric to keep weeds from growing up in the path and stones (if that’s your material of choice) from sinking into the soil. You can also use plastic, but it will retain water and could make for swampy walking in low-lying areas or places that get lots of rainfall.

IF YOU’RE USING GRAVEL, you’ll probably want to have it delivered if the path will be sizable. Think about the walking surface and how comfortable you want it to be. Some organic mulches, such as wood chips, can become waterlogged and make footing precarious. Larger rock chunks may look nice but can be ankle-turners.

ONCE YOU HAVE THE PATH material in place, rake it to make it level. For a more solid pathway, use a tamper to pack it.

DOWN THE ROAD, organic mulch eventually will decompose and need to be replaced. While rock, crushed stone, pea gravel and other inorganic materials won’t decompose, they can be dispersed by foot traffic and will need to be replenished occasionally.

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