Mulch is one of the best things you can add to your garden. There are many benefits of mulch that help protect and improve your crops.
Mulch comes in many different types, including non-organic and organic based on the material it is made from.
However the most popular and also most cost-effective is arborist wood chips. And that is what this article will assume you are using.
You’ve undoubtedly seen the trucks in your neighbourhood with large wood chippers being towed behind them. Often you can get a full load of wood chips for free, as most tree companies have to pay money to dispose of the chips.
If not you can also get wood chips delivered for a delivery fee and a reasonable per yard fee. Make sure to get a large load as you have to pay each time for delivery if you get a small truckload every year. Or hit up a friend with a full-size pickup truck to go and pick up a truckload at a landscape supplies dealer.
Or if you have enough trees, you might want to buy a wood chipper/shredder like the one I have to make your own wood chips.
Once you have the mulch, what will it do for your garden? Let’s have a look at 7 benefits of mulch.
A good layer of wood chips several inches thick does wonders to reduce the number of weeds you will have sprouting up.
While it won’t suppress every weed, especially the more persistent ones, it will help for annual weeds.
Plus any weeds that do manage to make their way through the mulch will likely be easier to pull out. The soil underneath will be more moist and looser from the mulch covering it and so most weeds will literally just pull out with a gentle tug.
There’s no need to lay down weed barrier fabric prior to putting down the wood chips, so long as you use a thick layer. Save yourself the expense and work of buying the fabric and installing it.
One of the best benefits of mulch is it’s moisture retaining properties. The mulch itself will absorb water from rain and irrigation and then release it to the soil.
The evaporation of the water off the mulch will also have a cooling effect on nearby plants.
And you’ll find that the soil underneath the wood chips will rarely dry out, except in the most severe drought conditions.
Often what gardeners will do is place their drip irrigation emitters under the mulch so that when irrigating, the water will moisten the soil underneath.
Wood chips have in the past had the unfortunate reputation of supposedly robbing nitrogen from the soil as they break down. This is an urban myth. There has been no scientific evidence to support this. What nitrogen gets tied up in the wood as it decomposes is a minute quantity.
The best proof is a forest floor. Despite rotting wood being in close proximity to plants growing on the forest floor, these plants still grow and actually fare better than plants that are further away from dead tree material.
With the wood chips on the surface, any natural breaking down of the mulch into finer organic matter happens very slowly.
If you do notice issues with your plants being low on nitrogen, you can of course add extra nitrogen to the soil. In the long run though, the wood chips will break down gradually into a very fine, rich amendment that can then be dug into the soil. Mind you various creatures will help you with this by drawing the material deeper down.
Wood chips and other mulch will act as an insulating blanket for your soil. And it works both ways, keeping soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
During winter, your soil will usually be at a higher temperature than the cold air above it. It’s based on the mass of the soil.
In summer, your soil will be cooler than the hot air above it. Again this is due to the mass of the soil heating up slower.
Soil that is deeper will be either warmer or cooler depending on the season. So adding wood chips will actually “move” the soil’s first few inches (where your plant roots are) deeper.
There are lots of soil-born diseases. One of the most common ones is blight and the way it gets onto plants is by water splashing up from soil that contains the blight fungus.
While it is hard to control blight in the soil, you can control it splashing up onto the leaves of tomato plants and other plants affected by it, which may either delay or completely stop the onset of blight.
Common advice is to water only the soil and not the plants themselves but what happens when it rains? Raindrops hit the soil and then splash soil up onto the plants.
Mulch will form a barrier between the soil, where the fungus lives, and the plants.
Erosion is a real problem. Every year topsoil is lost due to erosion of one kind or another. And it takes a long time (up to 500 years per inch) to create topsoil so we need to protect it from erosion where we can.
Erosion occurs in the following ways:
Water: When water runs over bare, unprotected soil, either from rain, streams and rivers, snow melt or excessive irrigation. The topsoil gets washed away and usually ends up eventually in the oceans.
Wind: When wind blows over dry, unprotected soil it picks up the soil and blows it elsewhere. Deserts are mainly created this way, especially after all vegetation is stripped from an area during deforestation to make way for livestock grazing and other purposes.
So how can we stop or at least minimize erosion? By covering the soil and protecting it from water runoff, wind erosion and compaction from foot traffic.
Wood chips are the perfect covering as they can absorb water readily and let it trickle down into the soil gradually. Once wetted down chips are also relatively immune to being picked up by wind and blown around, in turn protecting the soil below from blowing around.
This usually is the main reason homeowners use mulch. And that’s why an industry has developed, selling dyed mulch.
As a homesteader growing your own food, looks may be the last reason you need mulch. But seeing as we are already using mulch for the other benefits listed above, having better looking vegetable and flower beds is a nice side benefit.
Mulch helps to make everything look cohesive. It can cover up drip irrigation lines to make things look tidier.
With all the benefits that mulch and especially wood chips have, why is it that more homeowners don’t use them?
Partly it is education and this post as well as all the posts on my blog are written with that purpose in mind.
In some cases there is also misinformation that says that mulch is detrimental to your garden.
But often it’s cost and hence why I mentioned the free options above. Considering though that you will save money on watering and weed control products (even if they are organic) and your time, it’s worth purchasing a load of wood chips if free is not available.
There is also the work of spreading mulch everywhere. Make your job easier by using a snow shovel to scoop the mulch up. And work with the mulch when it is dry if possible as it will be much lighter.
Consider getting a bunch of neighbours together and get a huge load of wood chips and then help each other spread it in their yards.
So improve your garden and add some mulch – you’ll be glad you did!
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Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC