An Alameda Garden: A Tale of 7 Mulches: How to Choose the Right One for Your Garden

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Tale of 7 Mulches: How to Choose the Right One for Your Garden

If there is one business to be in during this stubborn drought, it might be the mulch business. Mulching your garden provides so many benefits, not the least of which are minimizing evaporation and suppressing water-stealing weeds, both important objectives in a drought. But there are many materials, both organic and non-organic, that you can use as as mulch. How do you choose? Following are the pros and cons of some of the best and/or most popular options.

1. Bark or Wood Chips

Among the most commonly used mulches, bark and wood chips are easily available in bags from garden centers but can also be obtained (sometimes for free) from tree services. Wood chips can be slow to deteriorate, but they can temporarily bind up nitrogen in the soil as they do, which robs nearby plants of needed nutrition. Bark chips can also be toxic to plants if they are too fresh. You can also buy bags of colored wood chip mulches (generally red, brown, and black).

2. Straw

Straw mulch can be hard to find in urban and suburban areas but is readily available in rural areas. Rice straw adds nutrients to the soil and doesn't have seeds, but it deteriorates rather quickly. Wheat or oat straw lasts longer but you have to deal with the seeds first by soaking the straw before spreading it out and allowing the seeds to sprout and die. Straw isn't expensive and is good at holding moisture in the soil while allowing air to pass through.

3. Alfalfa Hay or Pellets

This is a more expensive option but a good source of nitrogen for the soil. It is seedless and long-lasting compared to rice straw. Since it is pelletized and bagged, it is easier to transport than bales of straw.

4. Shredded Redwood "Hair"

Shredded redwood can be a very attractive mulch, but it's lightweight and can blow around. Also, weed seeds and other debris can get caught in the finely shredded fibers, making it messy.

5. Cocoa Bean Hulls

This mulch gained a lot of popularity primarily for its fragrance. It smells like chocolate. The downside is the fragrance doesn't last long, it's expensive, and it's lightweight enough to blow away. It can also be toxic for dogs if they should eat it.

6. Grape Seed Mulch or Compost

If you live anywhere near wine country, you may have easy access to grape seed mulch, which is basically winery waste. It is a really dark (almost black) mulch that is long lasting and will feed the soil as it decomposes. It's not as readily available as other mulches but nurseries and soil suppliers may be able to hook you up. Depending on the source, you may need to screen or filter it before spreading it out to remove bits of vine and other debris.

7. Pine Needles and Other Leaf Mulches

If you have a good source for pine needles, you have a gardener's goldmine. Pine needles make a terrific acidifying mulch. Not only are they free, they're also long lasting and don't compact too much, making them a good choice for mulching paths in vegetable beds. Again, you may need to screen it first to filter out other debris. Other leaves can be used as well--oak leaf mulch is another good option, although it is not as acidifying as pine needles.

For a more complete discussion of mulches, check out my book, California Month-by-Month Gardening.

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