Mulching around trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables makes good gardening sense, especially if you use the right mulch for the job. We’ll compare a few mulch choices for common garden tasks.

You’ve carefully chosen the perfect spot for your new fruit tree, prepared the soil and set up a watering plan. Next step? Mulch around the base of the tree to help keep water in and weeds out. But how do you choose the best mulch for your new prized tree?

Organic choices

First, take a look at organic mulches vs. inorganic ones. Any organic mulch will break down over time. It’s made from living materials, such as bark, compost, wood chips or pine needles. A benefit of organic mulches is that they slowly enrich the soil, though some have more nutrients than others. You don’t want to work it into the soil; just spread the mulch on top and let Mother Nature do the rest. In the meantime, a good two inches of organic matter in about a three-foot ring around your tree trunk will help hold in moisture and cut down on weeds. In sunny spots, you might have to double the depth of the mulch to keep weeds out.

Bark mulch may come in ground, shredded or chip form. The choice is personal taste or a matter of wind. Ground mulch may blow away. Dark brown pine bark mulch is a classic. In addition to pine, fir and cedar, some nurseries offer processed hulls of cocoa, buckwheat or cottonseed, or pecan shells. These byproducts can cost more but add a rich look to the garden. And using pecan shells can be more eco-friendly than bark from trees.

Be warned – pecan bark invites plenty of birds and squirrels, at least until they deplete any remnants of nut meat left in the shells. If you don’t want critters or a little bit of mess near the area you’re mulching, go with a wood bark. And cypress mulch has a rich color but its use is controversial; the bark generally is not a sustainable product, but comes from bald trees in Southern wetlands.

Pine needles and leaves are about as natural as a mulch can get, but small or thin leaves compact and break down quickly. Oak leaves last longer and pine needles can add acid to soil. Grass clippings also can compact and introduce weed seeds, or even grass seeds in areas you don’t want. Straw is inexpensive, but breaks down quickly and often has weed seeds.

If you’re planting a bigger plant, like a fruit tree, you probably want to choose the larger mulch, such as pine bark nuggets. They’ll match the look better and break down more slowly. In your flower bed or containers, choose a smaller ground or shredded bark.

Many gardeners recycle newspapers and cardboard, especially as a slightly organic approach to weed control. Weeds have a hard time penetrating the materials, but the paper eventually breaks down. Organic gardeners prefer paper to landscaping fabric, which often is petroleum based, but some boxes are treated with chemicals.

Inorganic mulches

With all of the organic choices, why would you use something that doesn’t break down into the soil? Maybe you need a walkway or want to add some bling. And in some cases, it’s best not to retain water. Many plants need hot, dry conditions. They’re better off with rocks, pebbles or glass around the base to reflect heat than with mulches that retain moisture. Another benefit? They’re fireproof and more or less permanent. So, a native cactus – go with white pebbles or lava rocks. Roses? Surround them with wood bark.

Rubber mulch is a favorite for a child’s play area or a pathway. It also is a great addition under your favorite garden bench. And that black plastic is a great insulator. If you want to extend the growing season for your melons, lay black plastic over the soil to hold in warmth. Just remove the plastic each season before it breaks up in your soil.

Remember, before choosing any mulch, check to make sure it does not affect the pH balance of your soil.

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