I’ve come a long way on garden mulch. As a teen, my parents would order a big stinky pile of wood chips for me to spread when I got in trouble. I hated every minute of it, but nevertheless our garden beds were never bare.

A decade later I’m standing in my driveway giddy with excitement as a Pacific Topsoils truck backs in with 8 cubic yards of Pacific Garden Mulch. Now why, given my history with mulch, would I do this to myself? Well, after years of working at a nursery and tinkering in my own yard, the benefits of mulch are too great to ignore.

What is mulch?

Think of mulch as a verb, not a noun. To mulch is to spread a substance over the surface of your lawn or garden beds. It can be wood chips (aka beauty bark), leaves, compost, rocks, plastic sheeting, little green army men, marbles – you name it. However, I strongly recommendan organic substance like the first three options. Mulch is also known as top dressing.

Since I’m a big fan of Pacific Topsoil, here’s their list of Barks & Mulches.

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What does it do?

The benefits of mulch are numerous! Organic topdressings basically mimic natural growing conditions, where organic matter falls to the ground, decomposes, and recycles into new growth. As a nursery professional, I recommended the use of compost or wood chips as a topdressing to customers every single day. Among other things, organic mulch:

  • Slowly returns nutrients to the soil and increases biological activity
  • Amends sandy and clay soils, often found in Pacific Northwest gardens
  • Retains moisture, reducing water loss to runoff and evaporation
  • Suppresses weeds and creates weed barriers
  • Creates habitat for beneficial garden insects
  • Keeps plant roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter
  • Covers exposed roots, and provides a cushy landing for falling fruit
  • Oh, and it looks nice, too!

Before: Messy, lifeless, not “lit” as the kids say.

After: Sharp, full of life, the next Martha Stewart?

Happy plants, happy gardeners

Organic mulch clearly benefits plants and the soils they grow in. But how does it help the gardener? Well, go look in your garden shed or garage. I’m guessing there’s a mess of fertilizers, weed killers, sprinkler heads, and insecticides. There certainly is in my shed.

Okay, now bring them to a hazardous drop-off site and kiss them goodbye! By the way, just the fact that these products need to be disposed of at a hazardous drop-off site says quite a bit about them. Garden chemicals often contain a host of substances harmful to humans and wildlife. Here’s a quick summary of what might be lurking in your shed. Organic mulch all but eliminates the need for garden chemicals.

Interested in natural lawn care? Check out our tips from the CEO of In Harmony Sustainable Landscapes.

Mulch also saves water, which is at a premium during the growing season. By running a soaker hose or drip line under a layer of mulch, gardeners can water deep and infrequently, using 80% less water. On the other hand, sprinklers can run for hours and only penetrate the top inch or so of soil and a good portion will be lost to evaporation. Further, the water that does soak hardly reaches the plants’ roots!

The other method, hand watering, is a giant waste of time. How long does it take you to water your entire yard? How much of that water runs off and ends up in no-man’s land? Is the water reaching each plants’ root zone?

Think of the time you spend each year pulling or spraying weeds. Imagine the money you’ve spent on synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals. Shed a tear for the plants killed and water wasted by using a sprinkler instead of a soaker hose and garden mulch.

Now what about weeds?

Weeding is the worst part of gardening and a fresh layer of mulch can give you a much-needed break from it. A couple inches of mulch applied early in the season suppresses the first round of weeds and prevents them from spreading. You’ll still have to pull a few weeds as you seem them, but you can say goodbye to those three hour rage-weeding marathons.

Between garden chemicals, water savings and time, mulch more than pays for itself. Let’s break it down with some math.

Mulch, money, math

Okay, I paid a local business $404.80 for 8 cubic yards of Pacific Garden Mulch, which they delivered right to my driveway the next day. No plastic packaging, no loading and unloading my car. My house is on roughly a quarter-acre plot with about 1,283 square feet of garden space. I probably could have managed with 6 cubic yards and kept my total under $300. But hey, I got excited and overshot it.

According to Reddi Lawn Care, organic mulch typically lasts 5-6 years; less for finer mulches and up to 10 years for coarse, sturdy wood chips and barks.

I have a relatively fine mix, so let’s say it will last four years. For $101.20 per year I’m saving:

  • $52.90 (plus tax and shipping) on 30 pounds of Gardeners Best All-Purpose Organic Fertilizer – based on my yard size.
  • $24.99 (plus tax and shipping) on one gallon of Green Gobbler natural weed killer – based on a low estimate.
  • Plastic waste and shipping emissions from buying garden chemicals.
  • Up to 80% on my garden watering bill by using a soaker hose and mulch. If I save $23.31 on water each growing season, I’ll break even. Keep in mind, water rates are often higher in summer.
  • Countless hours of hand watering, pulling/spraying weeds, applying fertilizer and replacing dead plants.
  • The financial (and emotional) cost of replacing plants lost to under-watering or general stress.

Environmental benefits of mulch

Now, I’ve hinted at this throughout the article, but on top of benefiting your plants and budget, organic mulch is the eco-friendly option. Not only does it eliminate the need to introduce chemicals into your backyard ecosystem; it actually creates habitat for life in your yard and protects local habitat from chemical-soaked runoff. In fact, it reduces garden runoff in general, allowing water to penetrate and filter through the native soil.

The Pacific Garden Mulch I ordered is made from locally recycled materials. According to a Pacific Topsoils representative, it’s “is made from the different yard and garden waste that gets brought to our different locations and processed.”

What does that mean? That means the food scraps, paper towels and compostable packaging I threw in my kitchen compost bin were locally composted, broken into nutrients, mixed with shredded bark and are now returning to the Earth and nurturing new life!

It’s so local and Earth-friendly I could sing!

Iiiiiiiiiit’s the circllllllllllle, the circle of liiiiiiiiife!!!