A GROWING CONCERN: Mulch away to achieve a weed-free yard

I JUST REALIZED that in the past 12 days, I have spread 63 yards of mulch around four clients’ yards (not today, though; I ran out of Ben-Gay).

And why? One of the most misused, unused, not-understood gardening products I come across is mulch. Why? Well, let’s define it.

Mulch is a layer of material placed on the ground and around plants to conserve moisture, hold down weeds and ultimately increase fertility.

Mulching also has a protective weather element, too, which is completely different in structure. I’ll write about that in late October when it is relevant.

Mulching is a basic gardening job. Not only is it building block of organic gardening, but it is most effective in increasing yields of flowers, vegetables and fruit.

Avoid weeding

Countless hours of weeding are eliminated with correct mulching of landscape. These folks also benefit from the water savings mulching provides. Mulching is vital in lessening the effects of harsh weather.

Cold, wind, heat and dryness or drought — all these factors are greatly mitigated by proper amounts of mulch.

Plus, well-mulched soils stay loose and well-cultivated, which are optimum characteristics in growing media.

So, what is mulch and where do you get it?

Practically any organic material could be used as mulch. Keep in mind that different material has different traits.

Common mulches, especially for vegetable gardens, would be grass clippings, straw, leaves, hay, sawdust or various hulls and husks — even ground corncobs.

For this time of year, let’s focus on landscaping mulching and leave gardens until later. To the homeowner, landscaping is your mulching experience.

Beauty bark, wood chips, shredded bark and other bark wood products are the staples to the mulch realm. To me, these names are meaningless; they are all mulches. Take your pick. It matters only in your preference of products and the aesthetics you want.

Be careful with fabric

What really matters is the amount and procedure. To begin, prep the area. Now, this does not mean go out and get fabric and cover the area.

I have never used fabrics outside of lining drain fields. They are useless, bubble up for years but most importantly block the interfaces of mulch benefits to the native soil (roots, bugs and microbes).

Fabrics are used because few people apply the right amount around landscape and thus do not achieve the weed-free results expected.

But if you must cover some grass or horsetail, only use woven nylon, which lasts of 30 years and allows water through and atmospheric exchange.

So, back to prep. Do a basic cleanup. Weed and rake the area, and cultivate lightly if possible. Next, and hear this, fertilize the area ever-so-slightly heavy (an additional 10 percent above recommended levels).

Next, make sure the soil below the surface is moist. Between nutrition fixation and not getting enough moisture through a half-foot of mulch or more, these two factors can severely damage the plants.

Understand, this time of year is prime for mulching because both your soil and mulch are wet.

Next, and here is the hard part, lay down 6 to 8 inches of wood mulch. Spread it thick. Set a stick 4 feet high, paint the bottom 8 inches and there is your marker.

Hold it on the soil so as to see the mark and keep the mulch uniformly thick as you move across the area.

Around bushes and plants, leave a slight cone for water collection at their base. It is best to sprinkle a lawn fertilizer on the surface of the mulch to feed the decomposing microbes. They thrive on nitrogen, so throw them a party and use ammonium nitrate (21-0-0).

Next, sprinkle out a germination inhibitor and water it in thoroughly.

All that is left to do is one more step. This step unfortunately stops 90 percent of the people from enjoying a fairly weed-free, eye-pleasing landscape that is lush and mulched.

With top dress, for newly mulched 6- to 8-inch-deep areas, the first two years are a breeze.

Wonderfully rich humus

You pull or cultivate an occasional weed and germination inhibit every four or five months. Then at the 25th month, put down a heavy fertilizer layer and 1 to 2 inches of new mulch.

Good wood mulch after two years will decompose an inch or two each year. This wonderfully rich humus will feed roots and worms alike.

The looseness of the soil will make the few weeds easy to pull. The look will be most professional. Plant roots will explode into this zone.

To close, although done at any time, March and April are the months to do this.

You are getting close to many yard chores to come. The weather is perfect and so is the mulch, so do not make the mistake of using too little — that’s one of my best gardening secrets.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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