Mulch boosts your plants’ health all year long. Save some money by making your own.

Mulching perennials in the fall helps them survive chilly winters, and spring mulching keeps plants cool in summer heat. Mulching also can cut down on weeds. You just can’t beat a good organic mulch, which will break down and improve the soil around your garden’s plants. Of course, when all of that mulch breaks down, you have to replace it. Save some money by making your own mulch.

Leaf mulch

Why not put the piles of leaves you rake up fall after fall to use in your garden instead of in giant plastic bags on your curb? Leaves can make great mulch, but with a few cautions. First, you need to break them up into smaller pieces. If you don’t, the leaves tend to form a sort of mat around plants, trapping too much moisture and too little oxygen in the soil. It’s a yucky breeding ground for bugs and mold. Be sure to rake up any dropped leaves in garden beds with your fall clean-up. You can mulch leaves and other clippings using a chipper/shredder or by running a lawn mower over the pile a few times. Add the grass catcher to collect the chopped leaves.

Make compost

You also can add leaves to your compost pile to make a healthy compost for spring. Just wait to add any that have recently been treated with herbicides or pesticides. And don’t overbalance your compost mix with leaves alone. Leaves are high in carbon, which means mixing in some materials high in nitrogen, such as manure or vegetable scraps, will balance your pile. Alternatively, you could make leaf mold, though it takes a few years for your leaves to decompose into the perfect crumbly mixture.

There is plenty of garden waste that you can add to your compost pile. Pine needles, straw and grass clippings or plant trimmings can break down in compost. Again, moderation is key. And remember a few don’ts: Generally, ashes from your fire pit or fireplace are poor choices because they can pull nitrogen from the mix. Too much newspaper can slow down decomposition. Keep cuttings from diseased plants out of your compost pile. Feel free to use most kitchen scraps, including coffee grounds. Add any twigs and branches no larger than a quarter inch in diameter. This fact sheet explains more about yard and kitchen waste in compost.

Chipped wood

When you trim your lawn’s trees, you might as well reuse the wood. A chipper can break down the branches you’ve cut or that have fallen. You’ll need plenty; it takes a two-inch layer of wood chips to stop weeds and hold in moisture. But wood chips break down slowly, lasting longer than compost and leaf mulches.

Got newspapers?

Many organic gardeners love recycling newspapers and cardboard for mulch and especially for weed control in the garden. Any newspaper or light cardboard will do, except for glossy pages from advertising pages. Otherwise, the paper decomposes slowly. Most of all, by laying the large sheets of paper over the spaces between plants, you can block light to weeds growing and germinating underneath. Be sure to use several pages, up to 10, to keep sturdy weeds from popping through. Although this method can be labor intensive, it beats pulling all of those little weeds. You’ll also need to cover the newspaper with enough organic mulch to keep it from blowing away.

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