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Marvelous Mulches

Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet

Mulching your plants can be a good investment of your time to help ensure successful gardening. Mulches retain moisture in the soil, slow weed growth, protect the soil from erosion, keep soil temperatures moderate, protect your plants from soilborne diseases, and keep plants and fruits clean. There are different types of mulch to consider for your backyard project.

Organic mulches add nutrients to the soil and supply organic matter. They can reduce soil compaction and encourage the presence of beneficial organisms. Straw, shredded newspaper (soy-based ink only), and grass clippings are popular mulches that decompose easily. Popular organic choices are woodchips and leaves. Be sure that the leaves have aged at least six months. Natural chemicals can leach from decaying leaves and harm your new plants. Unchopped leaves can mat and block essential air and water from entering the soil. Some tree trimming companies and utilities will deliver a load of woodchips and leaves to your home for no charge. Caution: the free mulch may contain trash, disease organisms, or unwanted weed seeds.

Another option is to purchase woodchips or shredded bark--usually this is sterilized and disease free. There are several varieties to choose from. Cocoa bean shells have a delightful scent and a pleasing dark color. Frequently, they are used as a "top dressing" because they can be expensive. Pine is usually a lower cost option. Cedar and cypress tend to decompose slower than other organic mulches. Some nurseries sell mulch by the truckload. Prices vary according to the species of trees that grow in the area. Landscape professionals know what types of organic mulch are available locally.

Many people like the look of inorganic mulch. It achieves many of the same results as organic mulch. Choices available include synthetic weed barrier, landscape fabric, and rock. Synthetic barrier and landscape fabric can be applied to the soil, underneath a layer of some other loose mulch material. If you use plastic, be sure to allow for moisture to reach the plants. Rock comes in different kinds and sizes, lasts a long time, and tends to stay where you put it. Be cautious of limestone or marble chips--they are almost pure lime and can change the pH (the acidity of the soil).

Consider various mulches when planning your landscape design. Whether you choose river-washed pebbles or cocoa bean shells, mulch can help the soil and your plants and add beauty and a finished look to your yard.

For more information on mulching and other Backyard Conservation practices, visit the Natural Resources Conservation Service online at Or call 1-888-LANDCARE (toll free) for a free colorful Backyard Conservation booklet and tip sheets.

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