So Many Mulches
by Ruth S. Foster
There was a wonderful old book called "Gardening for the Aged, the Indolent and the Infirm." The general thesis was to use 6" of rotting pasture grass on everything. As it decayed, it enriched the soil. It keeps the weeds down. The roots stayed cool and moist. When grass sprouted on top, another 6" was added to smother it. It was not neat but it was easy. There are neat mulches and messy mulches. Today "neatness" is the style.
The Neat Mulches:
Dust mulch which is well cultivated topsoil kept chopped with a hoe, is the most work.
Bark mulch is the most commonly used and most useful. Though expensive it looks neat for about a year.
Wood chips which are basically just chipped and shredded wood, including the bark look pretty neat too. Both of these use up nitrogen as they decompose, so crops growing near them may need extra nitrogen.
Peat moss looks good, but dries out, and being acid, requires extra lime to keep the soil at an optimum pH of about 6.5.
Buckwheat hulls are expensive, look beautiful, but blow in the wind sometimes.
Cocoa hulls are similar, and smell like chocolate. Marvelous for chocoholics but they contain a chemical that disrupts the growth of some plants.
Crushed stone is very neat... at first... but the devil to deal with ever after because of weeds and decaying leaves. It should always be put down on top of a good weed retardant fabric.
The Plastic Mulches:
Weed fabric retardant mulches have minute holes that allow both air and water through and are excellent . They are not cheap, but they do save work and keep weeds down. They can be hidden under neat bark mulch and will reduce work.
Ordinary black plastic is often used, especially on vegetables, but holes have to be punched for water to run through. (Tomatoes like the warm soil.)
Clear plastic is not good because it gets hot in sunlight and cooks plant roots. However, it may be used to warm up cold soil in a seedbed in early spring then removed when the plants grow.
The Messy Mulches:
They are easiest and cheapest.
Newspaper can be applied heavily and early in the season. It smothers even the most vigorous of weeds and eventually decays and can be dug under. There is some question whether the ink dyes contain metals so it should not be used in the vegetable bed. A layer of paper may be covered with an expensive neat coat like bark nuggets, chocolate or buckwheat hulls. Sometimes as the season progresses, and the big annual grasses get out of hand, I just throw more thick newspaper on them. It's messy but easy.
Hay is cheap, but get it without seeds or you'll be weeding forever.
Seaweed smells a bit, but it's not unpleasant if you love the sea and since it has the best nutrients and growth hormones, your garden will really thrive. It has to be well washed to get out all the salt.
Grass clippings are OK but no more than one inch at a time, so each layer can dry out. Extra nitrogen is required as green grass decays. If grass is to be used for growing vegetables, then only fertilizer and lime may be used on it, no herbicides, fungicides or insecticides.
Leaves may be used, but no more than one half inch, for they tend to mat and get slimy. If leaves are first chopped up with the lawnmower before raking, they don't mat as much. Oak leaves stay dry, but are acid, and require lime. Pine needles also are acid. Any combination of all of the above is fine, depending on what's handy.