i repeat: mulch is not a decorative accent!

MULCH IS NOT A DECORATIVE ITEM, like carpeting or paint! If chosen carefully and applied properly, it’s the most important soil-building, plant-sustaining tool a gardener has. At this time of year, I’m asked a lot about mulch, but most of the questions make me a little nervous, because they center on the aesthetics only. It seemed a good moment for a friendly reminder about what mulch is (and isn’t), and how to use it, in the form of my Mulch FAQs.

  1. Funny. When I put down new mulch that is a bit of a different color than the “old” mulch people are like but it doesn’t match. I always say. It will. It’s there to become soil and keep in moisture not look good. That’s what the plants do.

  2. Juniper gardener says:

    As wise gardeners have told me, “mulch is not a landscape feature”. Chopped leaves, or better yet, plants that connect with each other to cover the ground. But changing the aesthetic of the masses is the challenge!

    1. Jane says:

      OH, yes. “The masses.” What really gets me is that people who migrate to the U.S. copy the worst aspect of the U.S. masses. And why, the even more heinous dyed mulch has not been banned in the U.S. is beyond understanding.

      I cannot use tree leaves because they kill anything they come into contact with, so — call the anti-masses police — I have spots of bare naked earth visible in some places in the garden.

  3. Matt says:

    Mulch is ugly and only serves to replenish and maintain soil nutrients to assist with plant growth. For me, mulch is as aesthetic as manure!

  4. Thomas says:

    Has anyone seen(or smelled) the chocolate mulch-I have a friend has a huge house and a huge yard who found this foul stuff and proceded to have it delivered by the dump truck load – Huge swaths of the stuff- The effect was “Willy Wonka’s Nuclear missile site”

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Thomas, and yes — it’s cocoa hulls. I mention them in the FAQ page about mulch. Sorry for your aromatic situation over there. Keep the dog away — they can be toxic to canines!

      1. Jane says:

        I think it is worse. Where I live the town offers sterilized human waste for a price. Not joking. I mean, my personal waste might be one thing…

  5. elizabeth says:

    I had a question about compost. I don’t have make my own compost and need to buy a bulk load for my garden. I’ve gotten a truck load from some goat farmer friends, but they don’t have any more to give. so I will need to purchase. There isn’t any “certified organic” bulk compost available where I live in Montana. It sure is scary researching what some companies put into their compost, like “biosolids” which include sewage sludge. I’ve located a company that makes compost from 80% alfalfa fed dairy cattle, 20% wood and straw waste. They do their best to make sure the compost doesn’t have herbicide residue, but its my understanding that most manure based compost will have some herbicide residue in it.
    Any advice? The soil I got tests fine for fertility, but is heavy clay and I need to mix quite a bit of compost in to lighten it up.

    1. Jane says:

      You know what I’ve done? I’ve dug kitchen scraps directly into the ground, around plants. Perhaps idiotic, but I don’t have to guess.

  6. Salix says:

    Totally agree with you on this. Many people, however must like the coloured – UGLY, I say – mulch in their mixed garden beds. You almost don’t see the plants.

  7. Kathy - Snappy Gardener says:

    Great post on mulch – thanks! And I couldn’t agree more re: the abrasive colors treated with who knows what. Any thoughts on cedar vs. hardwood / pine?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Kathy. Other than for pathways, where whatever you like visually and is coarse enough to hold up to foot traffic is your call, my thing is that mulches that are wood-based in particular is that if they’re going on garden beds, they have to be pre-composted (aged) and fine-textured enough to break down into the soil gradually. I hate nuggets, or big chips. The stuff I use was used as stable bedding for horses/cows, so it’s sort of between a wood shaving and a small chip.

  8. Carole says:

    OK. I am overwhelmed. I want a compost like mulch after years of trying things I don’t like for the same reasons you list. But getting and affording a couple of cubic yards of sweet peat or something similar is a. hard to find, impossible so far and b. will be so expensive. Maybe I should just start with bags that are easier for me to carry than wheelbarrow…..thoughts, guidance, places anyone likes just west of Boston??

  9. Christine says:

    Last year, at a gardening friend’s recommendation, I used mushroom compost for the first time. (I don’t grow many plants of the heath variety that can be harmed by the salts, so it worked well for my yard). What a difference it made in the soil in my yard, which tends to be fairly heavy and clay-like; I noticed that the addition of the organic matter, even without tilling of any kind, helped loosed up the soil over the months. It has a beautiful dark color, had almost fertilizer-level impact to growth, and greatly helped with weed suppression. So, that’s now my drug of choice–and it’s time to get some more!

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds delicious, Christine. :) Organic matter is where it’s at, and sounds like you found a great source. Good tip!

  10. Brian G. says:

    Thanks to you and our friend in North Chatham I am never without worm-filled mulch/compost/soil conditioner. Now, if I only had a reliable mason (hint, hint).

  11. ellen rocco says:

    Besides my usual “you and your website are terrific!” I have a question: I followed the link to read more about mulch and then clicked on the reference to a homemade sifter. That brought me to a page on Johnny’s Selected Seeds suggesting I search for whatever the term I wanted. Is there something else I was supposed to do? We already use a hand held wooden framed sifter but seeing the photo, I was hoping there might be something on a larger scale.

    While we’re at it, any way to sift for the bulbils that form on ficaria repens???

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