A mulch is essentially a blanket, trapping moisture, buffering plants against drought, and preventing the growth of weeds by depriving them of light and space. Mulching may indeed reduce or eliminate the need for hoeing. Most mulches are organic, and contribute to the nutritive value of soil as well. As such, plants are healthier and require far less attention.
Most organic mulches keep soil cooler in the sun, a boon in summer. If, however, spring growth is slowed by cooler temperatures, wait until summer to mulch, or use plastics or other special fabrics. These can help raise crop yields dramatically, and are very useful in the spring garden; see below.
The simplest and most common mulch is straw, several inches' worth piled onto a layer or two of newsprint, which has been worked around the plants to be protected. This, like any mulch, must be applied over damp and weed-free soil, and should itself be free of weeds and seed. The few layers of (biodegradable) paper help prevent weeds from becoming re-established.
When, the following year, the mulch has sufficiently degraded, dig the remains into the ground and start over again. Again, be aware that weed seeds in straw might sprout and root: choose bales carefully, or use one of the alternatives below.
An even better mulch consists of a few inches of compost spread over soil directly, or over newsprint, though compost may be better used elsewhere. Similarly, peanut shells or buckwheat hulls, if available locally, pine needles, sawdust or dried grass clippings, can all be used. The latter, incidentally, has been found to suppress weeds better than black plastic sheeting.
Avoid leaves, unless fully composted, as phenols may actually inhibit growth. Seaweed can also be used; rinse well to remove salt, before use. Materials such as sawdust, seaweed and leaves can block rain from penetrating, or keep soil waterlogged. Use with discretion.
Natural, more decorative alternatives are stone and bark chips, piled over newsprint or used "raw." Stone tends to absorb and radiate heat, in sunlight, and may again speed spring growth, whereas wood chips may be preferable in a more shaded setting, giving a natural woodland feel to a mixed planting of trees and bulbs. Uncomposted wood, however, may deplete soil nitrogen as it is broken down.
Note: Organic mulches can keep soil too wet, may make the soil more acidic, and can harbour pests. Don't allow direct contact with plants, and if, for example, a straw mulch contributes to a slug problem, compost it instead.
See also the section on synthetic mulches.
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