Making the Most of Mulch

mulching tips

A light layer of new pine straw freshens the landscape

Now is a great time to tidy up the garden area with a fresh application of mulch. Mulching offers several benefits. These mulching tips practically guarantee improved gardening. First, and most importantly, mulch is essential in conserving soil moisture. The amount of moisture lost to evaporation is greatly reduced when the soil is shielded from moving air as well as the sun’s direct rays.

Mulching is also a great way to control weeds. This benefit is enhanced with an appropriately-timed preemergence herbicide application. It is imperative to mulch rather than cultivate around shallow-rooted plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias.

Controlling soil temperature is another advantage of mulch. Reduced and more consistent soil temperatures during the summer promote root growth and beneficial bacteria activity in the soil. The presence of mulch is also a helping hand in the winter months. It helps to reduce frost penetration as well as prevent soil water from freezing and becoming unavailable to plants.

When used as mulch, organic matter can enhance soil structure and tilth. As decomposition occurs, the mulch material moves down into the topsoil. This decomposition also adds nutrients to the soil.

There are a few disadvantages that should be mentioned regarding mulch. First, depending on what mulch product you choose, material cost may be prohibitive to large-scale mulching. Additionally, some materials may not be readily available.

If you choose to use sawdust or wood chips, be aware that nitrogen starvation may occur. This problem is easily corrected with additional nitrogen applications.

Heavy mulching over a period of years can result in soil buildup over the crown of plants, causing plant decline, and even death. Keep a check on the depth of your mulch. After a couple of years, you may need to remove all of the old mulch before applying a new layer.

Pine needles, shredded tree leaves, and bark are just a few mulch materials that are available. Do a little research to find the material that works best for you.

By Bethany O’Rear, Regional Extension Agent, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.  Contact Bethany at

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. ACES is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity and the diversity of its workforce.  Educational programs of ACES serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.

Alabama Extension

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System operates as the primary outreach organization for the land-grant functions of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities and answers home-gardeners' questions each week on Birmingham Gardening Today.

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