February 1, 2023

Mulching Your Flower Garden

Flower Garden Mulch

flower garden mulch
Mulching the flower garden helps to protect the plants and can improve the looks of your garden. Nature uses mulch all the time by way of fallen leaves, animal droppings, and dead plant material laying about the forest floor. What nature does well, we try to improve on. By using the right amount of mulch, applying it at the appropriate time, and using high-quality materials that decompose quickly.

Before you start tossing mulch into your flower garden you really should think about the soil that you are planting them in. Poor soil means poor plants and although mulch by itself will eventually improve the quality of the existing planting bed it can be done faster if you do a few things before planting. Adding compost to the garden best and mixing it with your soil will lighten and make it flower-friendly.

Compost will help both with drainage and water retention. Add a couple of inches of compost and mix it into the top 6 inches of soil. While you’re tilling you should be removing rocks and breaking up dirt clods. Finally, rake the soil smoothly with a slight grade going out of the bed. Adding a slight grade to the bed will help water to run off and not pool in the area and potentially drown your flowers.

If you are mulching a bed that is already planted this is the perfect time to clean up your plants. Once you get that pretty layer of mulch down you don’t want to have a bunch of yellowing leaves or flower droppings messing things up. Cut off any leaves that look damaged and deadhead your flowers.

If you do this before you mulch and your garden cuttings are not diseased you can toss them on the bed prior to mulching and no one will ever know it is there. If you do have diseased plants – get them out of there. These diseased plants should not be used as compost or mulch. They should be sent off with your trash pickup.

When to Mulch Your Garden

mulching time
The proper time to mulch is a strangely controversial subject. You’d think everyone would agree on this but they don’t. Everyone does agree that you should mulch but when to mulch can get you into trouble with gardening gurus. My personal opinion and experience tell me that bare soil is bad. I mulch a bed that isn’t going to be planted for a while, I leave mulch on in the winter, and I replenish mulch in the spring, summer and fall. I’ve got some good dirt. This is how I do it but you may develop your own mulching philosophies.

The next thing to do is decide which mulch you want to use. I like to use only organic mulches. There are synthetic mulches available but I love what mulch does to the soil. My preferred mulch, if I can get enough, is simple shredded leaves. I like to use these because it is a cheap mulch that decomposes within 1 year. Bark can hang around for many years and get in the way of my planting pursuits.

If you decide to use a certain color of mulch and then a few years later change colors you’ll be hard-pressed to get rid of all the old stuff. You’ll be finding chunks of red bark in your black mulch for years to come. Cocoa bean hulls are another quick-to-decay mulch option. It’s just a bit more expensive than leaves.

Applying Mulch

Mulch should be applied 2 – 4 inches deep. Try to keep the mulch from touching the crowns of your plants. Many plants are prone to crown rot and placing the mulch right up to the plant can cause you problems later. Because mulch is used as a water-conserving agent you should water your flower garden before and after mulching. By having a well-watered garden before mulching you won’t have to deal with trying to get water through the mulch later. Watering the mulch itself will help to keep the mulch in place until it settles in.

A garden fork is a great way to get the mulch around your flowers. It works better than a shovel for scooping and transferring mulch from one place to another. Once you have the mulch in the bed just spread it around either with your hands or a rake. Try to get even coverage.

You don’t want lumps in some areas and bare soil in others. After it has been in place for a few months it can settle and compact. Don’t be afraid to fluff and clean your mulch if it seems to be keeping the rain out or plastering itself to your flowers.

The magic in the mulch is that it vanishes over time. After a few months or a few years depending on the type, mulch becomes compost. Compost is one of the most desired and useful gardening ingredients. When you notice that it is getting a little thin just add some more on top. Get it back to 2 to 4 inches.

Mulch isn’t a fertilizer. It does contain some of the same nutrients as fertilizer but will not be a balanced fertilizer on its own. Depending on the type of flowers planted you may need to add fertilizer a couple of times a year. Many native plants won’t require this but for some of the fancy varieties to get the best bloom you need to add at least some fertilizer. Research the plants in your garden to determine what you need.

Mulching your flower bed for winter can help some of the more tender plants to survive. One of the big causes of winter die-offs in the garden is the freezing and thawing of the ground. This can cause plants to heave out of the ground to become too wet and rot.

The main reasons that people choose to mulch their flower gardens are to conserve water, prevent weeds, improve soil, and improve the looks of the flower bed. The fact that you can get one thing that does all 4 of these at the same time makes using mulch the best thing you can do for your flowers.

Cheap Mulch Options

When it comes to mulch – more is better and cheap is the best. If you want to skip the fluff and jump straight into the cheap mulch options I won’t be insulted. When I say more is better I don’t mean you should pile 6 feet of bark chips on your prize-winning roses. What I do mean is that mulch breaks down and helps to turn poor soil into great soil, so if you can get a lot for cheap – You Should!!!

The problem with adding a lot of mulch (or any organic soil amendment) to your garden is that the more mulch you add the less money you seem to have left in your wallet. Finding low or no-cost mulch is the life’s work of many a cash-strapped gardener. You could go to any of the popular chain stores and get 30 or 40 bags for 3 or more bucks per bag or you can be a bit more frugal and use what is readily available.

Available Options for Cheap Mulch

cheap mulch option
Many cities collect and shred garden waste. This is a fantastic resource if your city lets you come and “load your own” for free. The last town that I lived in let you come and you could take as much as you could load away for no charge. They charged something like 50 bucks for a half dump truck if you wanted it to be delivered. Now that’s a lot of mulch for cheap. The town that I currently live in takes your garden waste but doesn’t give it back. How’s that unfair?

Leaf scavenging is another great way to get some free mulch. You start out in your own yard and kind of work your way out. If you have mature trees just rake’em and shred’em and you’ve got some nice mulch. If your trees just don’t produce all that you need (or won’t) you have to start getting a little creative, strange, and brave. Just let your neighbors know that you’d be willing to take those leaves that they are planning to send to the dump-off hands.

You might get a lot of strange looks but I get those anyway. Few people will say no to you and you’ll have all the mulch that you need. If you end up with too many leaves just put some in the compost pile and some in bags. You can get some fantastic leaf mold from damp bagged leaves with little effort.

If you’re not using a mulching lawn mower one of the best things to do with grass clippings is to use them as mulch. Grass clippings can be a little tricky because you don’t want to pile a bunch of them up. You need to let them dry before you have too large a layer on your garden beds. I used a mulching mower for a while but decided that I liked my flowers more than the grass so started bagging and using my grass clippings on the beds instead of the lawn. I don’t have any grass now but I gotta a lot of leaves and that’s a fair trade-off.

Follow that tree trimmer. Now don’t be a stalker but if there is a tree trimmer working the area just ask them what they are planning to do with the chips. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to just get them to dump the end of the day’s work in your yard. They don’t normally use them but send them off somewhere. You’ll get more refusals here than with the neighborhood leaf hunt. You can get massive amounts of free wood chips with this method.

Cardboard boxes are a good weed barrier for a bed that is not yet planted. If your garden bed is planned out but not yet executed just start flattening and stacking a few layers of cardboard where you know you’ll be planting in a year or so. Cardboard will normally break down in 1 or 2 years. I wouldn’t suggest buying boxes for this because you can get them (sometimes) for free at many stores. Just ask the stockers if they’d mind if you took a few of their boxes. As long as they are generic “throw away boxes” the stocker will appreciate not having to clean up at the end of their project.

Recycle your newspaper. Use the black and white sections of the newspaper as mulch or weed barriers. The only cost you’ll be putting out here is the subscription to the paper which you might get anyway. You can shred or just weigh down full sheets to get the job of weed suppression done. This is another place where you can often get more than you bargained for by talking to people. This goes for all types of paper that you get. You can use junk mail and paper sacks from the grocery store also.

Befriend a woodworker. Sawdust makes fine mulch if allowed to age for a while. If you know someone who does a lot of sawing or live near a place that creates sawdust start being neighborly. I don’t put sawdust straight on my beds (unless I have just a small amount) I like to let it age for a bit first. I pile it up for a year and use it then.

garden mulch
Homemade compost can be used too. The problem with homemade compost is that you generally can’t make enough to use as mulch. If you only have a small amount from your bins it’s best to just add it to the planting holes and use something else for mulch.

One thread that seems to be running through the cheap mulch options is being willing to put yourself out there and just ASK. There is so much stuff that just goes to the landfill and if you are willing to accept a few odd comments and strange looks you can get all the free stuff you can use. Don’t be shy.

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