Mulches for the Home Landscape - University of Nebraska
® ®University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural ResourcesKnow how. Know now. G1257 (Revised June 2012) Mulches for the Home Landscape Anne Streich, Assistant Professor of Practice Zac Reicher, Extension Turfgrass Specialist and improve soil structure. In sandy soils they may This NebGuide explains the advantages and dis- increase water-holding capacity. In clay soils they can advantages of using organic and inorganic mulches in improve water drainage. Organic mulches may be incor- home landscapes. porated into the soil when beds are renovated or removed, but nitrogen may need to be added to the soil to prevent Mulch is an organic or inorganic material applied to the nitrogen deficiency in surrounding plants. Incorporationsurface of the soil. An important characteristic of mulch is of organic matter into soils is usually done with compost,its ability to insulate a plant and its roots from the effects which is a mixture of dead and decaying plant and otherof extreme temperature fluctuations. Ideal mulches must organic wastes. Some consumers do not like organic mulchesallow water and air to enter and exit the soil. They should because of their tendency to move out of landscape bedsbe attractive, relatively odor free, and stay in place. during heavy rainfalls or gusty winds. Watering organic Both inorganic and organic mulches benefit the land- mulches after installation will increase their ability to holdscape. They: together and minimize movement. • reduce the amount of water lost from evaporation; Inorganic mulches are materials that come from nonliving sources. They rarely break down, or they break • protect trees and other landscape plants from me- down slowly. Rock (river, pink, white, and lava) is the chanical injury due to mowers and string trimmers; primary inorganic mulch used by homeowners. Although • protect exposed roots from lawn mowers; not considered mulches, landscape fabrics and plastics are used in conjunction with inorganic mulches and are also • reduce soil compaction caused by people and equip- inorganic materials. Since inorganic mulches do not break ment by diverting traffic around landscape beds; • reduce erosion, especially on steep slopes; • reduce incidence of disease by protecting above round plant parts g from splashes that carry soilborne inoculum; • reduce fruit rot by eliminating contact between fruit and soil; • reduce winter injury by minimizing temperature variation; • help control weeds; and • help maintain cooler soil temperatures during the summer. Organic mulches are derived fromplants and include woodchips, bark,grass clippings, leaves, pine needles,straw, and sawdust. They break downover time, add organic matter to the soil, Woodchips are a desirable mulch for home landscapes.
down quickly, they only need to be replenished when they entire-plant mulches need to be removed in the springare worked into the soil or are moved off site. Inorganic when temperatures warm up in order to allow newmulches are difficult to remove when beds are renovated growth. The mulch should not be removed too earlyor eliminated. Many consumers prefer inorganic mulches because damage can occur if an unexpected freeze hap-because of their longevity; however, inorganic mulches will pens. Mulch that is not removed once temperaturesincrease reflective heat and soil temperatures. As a result, increase will keep the soil cool and delay growth.landscapes may be uncomfortable to be in or view on sunnydays, and increased temperatures may damage plants. When Mulchescovered with inorganic mulch, soil in landscape beds warmsup earlier in the year, causing plants to break dormancy and For good plant health, organic mulches are generallybecome vulnerable to low-temperature injury. preferred over inorganic mulches. Some mulches are used for specific applications while others have many uses. Applying Mulches Mulch types are described below. The depth of the mulch depends on the type of soil, Inorganic Mulchesplants, and mulch used. Layers thinner than the recom- Plasticmended depths may need to be replenished more often andmay not give the desired benefits. Thicker layers may reduce Plastic is available in different thicknesses and colors.the amount of oxygen in the soil and encourage plants to root Black plastic can increase soil temperatures by 5oF andin the mulch layer rather than in the soil. Thick layers may effectivelycontrols most weeds because light cannot reachalso shed water and prevent it from moving into the soil. the seedlings. Clear plastic can increase soil temperatures During wet periods, avoid thick layers of mulch around 10oF or more. Clear plastics are used in warmer climatesplants in heavy soils such as clays and clay loams. Thick to pasteurize soils (solarization) prior to planting. This islayers may reduce soil oxygen and injure plants. When not done very often in Nebraska because it takes 45 to 60conditions are cool and wet, mulch should be pulled away days for the soil to reach adequate temperatures to destroyfrom plants to ensure good air and water exchange. weed seed and other pests. Plastics may be used in early Never apply mulches against the bark of woody trees spring gardens to increase soil temperatures and extendor shrubs. This may encourage insect and disease problems the growing season or to help ripen fruit. Tomatoes andto occur on thin-barked (maple, for example) and wounded strawberries are crops that may benefit from increased earlytrees. It also may provide protected chewing access for soil temperatures. Plastic is not recommended in landscapesmall rodents and other animals, which can severely injure beds. It inhibits weed growth but will also inhibit growth ofthe bark and cambium. When next to the house, maintain desirable plants. Plastic restricts air movement, water, andmulch below the top of the concrete foundation. Mulch nutrients to and from the soil. This can result in extremelypiled against wood or siding can increase mold or structural dry or wet soil conditions, both of which are detrimentalinsect problems. to plant health. Organic mulches are usually replenished in the spring.A quick raking of the existing mulch will help determine Landscape fabricshow much mulch should be added. Raking will also break Landscape fabrics are typically a black, woven fabricup water-shedding layers. Generally only light topdressing that contains small holes in the surface to allow air, water,is needed each year. Dropping mulch through a manure and nutrients to move to and from the soil. They are notfork is an easy way to apply a light layer. Although some aesthetically pleasing by themselves and are typicallyplants such as cool-season vegetables will benefit from used with mulches placed on top. Landscape fabrics mayearly mulch and will produce later into the season if soils inhibit the growth of some rhizomatous and stolonifer-are kept cooler, most plants benefit from waiting to apply ous plants. The integrity of the fabric is compromisednew mulch until soil temperatures have warmed up. Prior immediately after cutting it to place plants within theto mulching, beds should be well watered if needed. bed. Any soil that is allowed to stay on top of the liner Late season organic mulches are applied after at least provides a place for weed seed to germinate. In addition,two hard freezes. Applying mulch earlier will insulate perennial weeds, such as nutsedge and dandelions, oftenthe soil and keep plants from hardening off. Late season have enough energy to push through the fabric. Organicmulching is especially important for recently installed mulches used on top of the fabric on sloped areas oftenplants to prevent frost heaving — the freezing and thaw- slide off into unwanted areas. As organic mulches breaking action of the soil that may push plants out of the down on top of landscape fabric, compost is developed,ground. Evergreens, especially broadleaf evergreens, need creating an ideal location for weed seeds to germinate.to be well watered and mulched before winter because Roots often become intertwined with the fabric, causingthe leaves will continue to lose moisture throughout the difficulties when transplanting. Landscape fabrics are notwinter. Some marginally adapted plants require mulch recommended for most settings.over the entire plant before winter to protect them fromtemperature fluctuations that occur in Nebraska. These
Shredded rubber plants. Nitrogen should be added to the landscape bed if a deficiency becomes visible. Avoid using straw as a winter Shredded rubber is a product generated primarily from mulch; mice and other small rodents may overwinter in it.recycled car tires. Colored shredded rubber mulches havebecome widely available for use in home landscape beds. WoodchipsWhile little research has been done with shredded rubberfor landscape purposes, initial research has shown that Woodchips can come from branches, bark, or recycledtoxic materials are leached from rubber as it degrades, wood pallets. Different types of wood are available, includpotentially adversely affecting plant growth. Shredded ing pine, cedar, cypress, and pine. Fresh woodchips mayrubber also exhibits hazardous fire characteristics. Use of contain seeds of trees that can become a weed problemshredded rubber as a landscape mulch is limited and not in landscape beds. Bagged woodchips typically do not haverecommended. a problem with weed seeds since temperatures achieved within the bag during shipping and storage are high enoughRock (lava, river, white, pink) to kill any that were present. Free woodchips are available in many cities. Dyes are Rock mulches increase temperatures around plants, available to color woodchips any desirable color. Althoughresulting in increased plant stress and greater vulnerability it is not believed that woodchips draw termites to a location,to insect and disease problems. In addition, rock mulches they may create access for an existing termite populationmay increase the temperatures in outdoor living areas, the if woodchips are placed against the foundation. A 6- to 12-cost of air conditioning within adjacent buildings, and inch unmulched buffer from wood or siding will reduce theglare if a light-colored rock is used. Using rocks can also likelihood of termites invading the foundation.be dangerous since mowers, landscape equipment andchildren can throw them. Rock mulches are a good choiceunder down spouts or in dry bed streams to help slow waterdown and reduce soil erosion and the washing of organicmulches into turfgrass areas. In areas where rock is used,select a color that matches other elements of the house orhardscape. Organic woodchip mulches are available in a number of dif- ferent colors. CorncobsRock mulches in a variety of sizes and colors are available. Chopped corncobs are generally weed free, lightweight and easy to handle. They decompose slowly and can be used around perennials, trees and shrubs. They can be dyedOrganic Mulches various colors to match other landscape features.Straw Grass clippings Straw mulch is unattractive and as a result is primarily Grass clippings are typically used in perennial andused for short-term projects such as seeding turfgrass areas vegetable gardens. Only clippings from a well-maintainedand in vegetable gardens. Straw is used when establishing turf should be used. Clippings from turfs that have a lot ofseeded turfgrass because of its ability to conserve soil and weeds will contain weeds seeds and may cause future weedplant moisture. It will decompose quickly once the turf has problems. Grass clippings should be dried before using.been established; however, some straw mulch contains Fresh grass clippings are high in water and nitrogen andhigh levels of weed seed that may germinate and compete will readily ferment. The heat and ammonia that is releasedwith the turfgrass. from fermentation can damage plants. Most herbicide labels Straw mulches are also used regularly in vegetable limit grass sprayed with a herbicide to be used as a mulch.gardens to keep fruit from touching the soil, where Grass clippings should be applied in layers no thicker thandiseases can affect fruit quality. Decomposing straw 1 inch. Thicker layers will impede water and air movementmulches may result in nitrogen deficiencies in surrounding in and out of the soil.