Garden mulch is a layer of protective material placed over the bare soil in a garden, serving much the same purpose as leaf cover in forest areas. Mulch is laid over the garden to help retain moisture, to help prevent erosion, and to stop weed growth and seed germination. Another added bonus to some organic mulches is that as the substance decomposes, it provides nutrients to the soil it is layered over.
What Does Your Garden Require?
Different gardens and different plants require different kinds of mulch, so the first step you need to take is to work out exactly what your garden needs. In areas with particularly cold winters, you may require a mulch designed to protect the soil beneath it from the freezing conditions and designed to prevent frost heaving, where plants are forced out of the ground by the alternate cooling and warming of the soil. On the other hand, if you live in a particularly warm area, the excess heat can be equally damaging to the plant roots underneath, so you will need a mulch that caters to this need. Of course, there are other factors as well, such as cost and ease of application. Each mulch has its plus and minus points, so at the end of the day it comes down to which is best for your garden.
Organic mulches are definitely the cheapest mulch available, usually coming straight from your own garden, the simplest of which is grass cuttings. Grass mulch is easy enough to obtain; simply trim your yard and recycle the grass cuttings by applying them to the required area. However, grass mulch has several downsides. Firstly, if the grass has already gone to seed when you trim it, it could end up sprouting in your fresh soil, which may be less than ideal. Secondly, in wetter weather, grass clippings can quickly turn into a slimy clump of material that looks ugly if you put more than an inch or so on the soil.
Compost is an excellent mulch if you have your own compost heap, as it is free and plentiful. It is also one of the best mulches for adding nutrients to the soil underneath as it decomposes, as well as insulating the soil during those colder times. Apply two or three inches of the compost to the soil and add a thin layer of bark or stone chips to the top for added protection. Be careful though; if the compost has not been properly de-seeded, it could encourage the growth of weeds.
Stone and gravel chips are useful in colder areas, as they won't need to be replenished constantly to protect the soil, and as an added benefit, they look very tidy over the top of the soil. The only downsides are a slight risk of weed growth and the fact that they add nothing to the soil.
A large plastic sheet can serve as a fantastic mulch for the purposes of soil protection; it will prevent heat or cold from damaging the plants beneath too much by keeping a relatively even temperature, as well as keeping moisture in the soil. However, it can be a nuisance cutting holes in it to let the plants grow through, so this is usually reserved for massive gardens or farms growing crops.