Gardener spreading a straw mulch around plants

Garden experts will regularly extoll the benefits of applying mulch to your flower beds. But what is it, and just exactly what good does it do? Here we provide some of the answers to your mulching questions…

What is mulch?

Mulch is a term used to describe a material that covers the soil in a protective layer. It usually refers to organic matter although, as with most things these days, you can get mulches made of plastics and other modern materials. You can mulch your lawn as well as your flower and veggie beds, but we’re just going to focus on using organic mulch on your flower beds.

What are the benefits of mulching?

There are numerous benefits to mulch with the main ones being as follows…

  • Water retention: that layer of organic matter is great at preventing the soil from drying out, helping to keep plants’ thirst at bay.
  • Soil health: as the mulch slowly breaks down it adds to the general health of the soil. Depending on what type of mulch you use such as bark mulch or cypress mulch, it can also load the land with nutrients, helping to feed your plants and make them stronger and healthier.
  • Weed suppressant: garden soil is usually covered with tiny seeds that have drifted in on the breeze or spilled from birds’ beaks (and bottoms). Smothering them with a layer of mulch will help to prevent them from germinating. (Note: don’t cover existing weeds with mulch and expect them to disappear – they will find a way through…!)
  • Plant protection: surrounding your plants with mulch will not only help provide water and nutrients but it will also make them feel a little cosier and even safer – some mulches can deter certain pests from venturing too close.
  • Added warmth: as the mulch decomposes it gives off heat, warming up the soil below. Mulching your veg patch at the start of the year will help prep the beds ready for early spring sowings, giving them a boost of warmth and enriching the soil with goodness.
  • Tidiness: mulching the borders and veg patches is like vacuuming the carpets – it will give them a consistent covering of tidiness and make your garden look clean and new.

What can I use as mulch?

Most organic matter that is shredded fine enough to be able to steadily break down can be used as a mulch. Common mulch choices include:

  • wood chips
  • leaves
  • grass clippings
  • compost
  • manure
  • straw

You can also sow crops known as ‘living mulch’ or ‘green manure’ – such as clover – which cover the ground to provide protection and can then be dug into the soil for nutritional benefits.

Mulching flower bedsWhat makes a good mulch?

The key thing for a good mulch is that it must be able to break down into the soil, but hang around long enough to do its job of suppressing, warming and slowly releasing goodness. Too fine and it will quickly wash away or, in the case of sawdust, get wet and form unwanted clumps; too lumpy and it will hang around for an eternity, providing no real benefit to your garden. For example, leaves make a great mulch, but before you just chuck them all over the flower beds, shred them up first. In most instances it also helps if your choice of mulch has been aged before applying, so the decomposing process is under way – this is particularly beneficial if you’re using wood chips or manure.

Another important factor is for your organic mulch to be free of disease and chemicals, so be certain any wood chips you use are fit for the purpose (and not, for example, the result of an old kitchen cabinet going into the shredding machine).

And finally a word of warning: be careful if you intend to use grass clippings. We once went on a post-mow scattering spree around the fruit bushes without realising the lawn contained couch grass – we’re not sure if it was the clippings themselves rerooting or any grass seeds that might have got mixed up with them, but we’ve been fighting couch grass in our fruit patch ever since.

Have you ever used anything else to mulch your flower beds? Ask us any questions about mulching in the comments.

Two Thirsty Gardeners bio
STIHL & Two Thirsty GardenersThe Two Thirsty Gardeners, Rich and Nick, are bloggers who love gardening, eating and drinking in equal measure! They love to share tales from their allotment including their experiments turning the spoils of their crops into alcohol, both the good and the bad! To find out more about Rich and Nick, click here.