by Aaron Graves

As we drove away from a job yesterday afternoon, I looked out the rear view of the truck. I admired the finished look of the home we had just left. The finely ground, dark brown, hardwood mulch we had just put down truly set off the beauty of the colonial white two story. We didn’t install the landscaping. We simply provided the maintenance. The customers had all of the right plants in all of the right places. All we did in this case, was to come in, clean up the beds, and lay a nice thick layer of dressing over any bare dirt. “It’s the icing on the cake.” said Wes, one of Red Hawk Landscaping LLC’s senior team members.

The strange thing is, as good as icing tastes (and I love icing to a fault), we all know it is NOT healthy. Mulch however, IS.  And your plants love it! Mulch not only beautifies planting beds with an attractive layer of material over bare soil, it also has several positive benefits.  It prevents weeds from growing in a bed. It promotes soil moisture retention. It aides in soil temperature control. It suppresses any weeds that might have already sprouted in beds. It breaks down and provides nutrients for the soil. And finally it protects your landscape’s largest investments… your trees.

Mulch prevents weeds from growing in a planting bed. Mulch not only beautifies planting beds with an attractive layer of material over bare soil, it also has several positive benefits, such as making garden maintenance easier while improving the health of your plants. Organic mulching materials, like straw, wood chips, leaves and grass clippings, offer great benefits. However, these are not typically what you might see in formalized landscape beds. What is typically found here is the traditional hardwood mulch, made from the leftovers of hardwood trees.

Most plants need constant moisture for proper growth. Mulch keeps the soil moist for longer than uncovered dirt. The material absorbs water from rainfall and irrigation and slows the evaporation of moisture from the soil. The improved water retention may reduce the need for frequent irrigation, allowing you to space out the plant watering longer to reduce water consumption. A layer of mulch also slows erosion by preventing water from washing soil out of the garden or beds.

Mulch serves as an insulating layer for the soil so the temperature of the ground changes more slowly. It is not different than the premise of insulation in your home. Mulch applied in the spring or early summer keeps the soil cooler for longer. The mulching material absorbs some of the sun’s rays and slows the temperature increase of the soil. As the temperatures drop in the fall and winter, the layer of mulch allows the soil to retain heat. The warmer soil allows plants to grow longer than they would otherwise, and helps protects plants’ roots from harsh winter temperatures.
My favorite reason for mulch is weed suppression. Who wants to pull weeds anyway? While healthy plant growth pushes out some weed growth, a layer of mulch suppresses even more unwanted weed growth in your gardens and planting beds. Mulch prevents sunlight from reaching germinating weeds so they aren’t able to grow. When weed seeds land on top of mulch, they aren’t able to root themselves deeply into the soil, so even if they grow they are easier to remove.
I mentioned early, that mulch is healthy. It really is. Organic mulch materials, such as wood chips or leaves, break down over time. The decomposing mulch adds nutrient-rich organic matter to the soil. These nutrients feed the plants and organisms living in the planting area covered with mulch. The decomposed materials also improve the structure of the soil by adding space between particles in the soil. The added space in the soil better supplies plant roots with water, oxygen and nutrients because the roots aren’t compressed in hard, compacted soil.

Most emotionally laden is the protection of our landscape’s largest investments… our trees. Mulch protects trees by doing all of the things we have previously mentioned. It insulates the soil helping to provide a buffer from heat and cold temperatures,  retains water helping to keep the roots moist, keeps weeds out to help prevent root competition, and prevents soil compaction. But mulch around trees does something very significant for anyone that has tragically lost a tree to a mower or a string trimmer. Mulch builds the space between the mower deck /trimmer head and greatly reduces the chance of damage in this way. It is king of like putting a bicycle helmet on your kids before sending them out to zip down the street. You know they could still get hurt, but you have prepared them for the possibility of the crash.