Grow your own – February 2014 – mulch

Why use mulch in your garden? Seems like a simple question, but there’s more to it than just making your yard more esthetically pleasing. It’s a smart gardening practice for a lot of reasons.

Oak Leaf MulchFirst and foremost, mulch retains moisture, reducing the need to water plants. The University of Florida recommends a two to three-inch layer of mulch, stopping an inch or two away from base of the plant. For trees, don’t mulch within 12 inches of the trunk, and don’t mulch citrus trees at all.

Mulch thicker than the recommended depth may reduce airflow and cause the retention of too much moisture. “Volcano mulching,” where material is piled up against the base of the plant, isn’t recommended because it can cause disease or fungal infections.

Got weeds? Most weed seeds need sunshine to germinate. If seeds are buried under a layer of mulch, you should have fewer problems. If weeds do sprout in mulch, they are much easier to pull. Some people find that putting down a layer of 4-5 sheets of newspaper (no color circulars) under the mulch makes an even stronger weed barrier. Newspaper used in this way lasts a year or two before it breaks down.
Pine Straw around Vegetable Plants (T. DelValle)Mulch helps moderate the soil temperature. In the summer, it helps protect plant roots from the scorching heat of the sun. In winter mulch helps hold the sunshine’s warmth, protecting plant roots during cold nights. If freezing temperatures are expected for an extended period, you may wish to apply a thicker layer of mulch in advance of the freeze. Remove the excess mulch after the danger of frost has passed.

If you have pine trees or oak trees in your yard, you can use fallen pine straw and oak leaves as mulch. If you’ve priced a bale of pine straw lately, you know you can save a bundle by making use of on-site plant waste. A little extra effort is well worth it if you can save money and reduce the amount of yard waste you place on the curb for pick up.

As mulch breaks down, it adds compost and nutrients to the soil, making the area a better overall environment for your plants. It also reduces the need for supplemental fertilization.

If you buy your mulch, you’ll want to ensure you are purchasing by-product mulches made from pine bark, pine straw, eucalyptus, or melaleuca, which is an invasive tree in south Florida that has become a great source of mulch in recent years. As melaleuca trees are removed from the environment they are chopped and processed to make the mulch safe to use in your yard.

Mixed Yard Waste and Pine Bark MulchBe aware that some mulch products may not be a smart choice in the long run. The popularity of cypress mulch has resulted in an increase in the harvesting of cypress trees in Florida’s wetlands. Cypress cannot replenish itself at the same rate it is being harvested, which may cause environmental problems in the future. In addition, cypress does not break down as quickly as other organic mulches. It can actually become a barrier to water absorption! Dyed mulch is not as desirable because of the chemical content in the dye, and while rubber mulch provides a use for recycled tires, it doesn’t improve the soil like the organic mulches do. Stone mulches tend to sink into the ground over time, and like rubber, stone mulch doesn’t add nutrients to the soil. For more information refer to

Using mulch in your yard can make growing your own a less expensive and more successful experience!

About Aline Clement

Aline Clement is a master gardener with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.