Generally, mulch needs very little attention to function as it should, and some mulches can last 10 years or longer before needing to be replaced. It’s most important to occasionally check the depth of your mulch and make sure it falls between 2 to 4 inches deep. Nevertheless, mulch color naturally fades over time from sun exposure, and sometimes weeds rear their tiny heads no matter what you do. Here are top tips to care for your mulch year-round — you’ll have lots of time left over to relax and enjoy your garden!
1. Refresh Mulch Color
Over time, mulch colors fade due to frequent exposure to sunlight. Regular non-dyed mulch may become a grayish color in one to two months, while dyed brown or black mulches may keep their color for a year or longer. Eventually, all mulches will fade without maintenance. So, what’s the trick to brightening pale mulch?
The easiest way to take care of faded mulch is to add a thin layer, or an inch or less, of fresh mulch to cover up the gray mulch. However, before adding new mulch to old layers, examine the existing mulch. How deep are the old layers? How long has it been since you’ve replaced mulch? Is the mulch soggy or decomposing?
If the old mulch is rotting, it’s time to replace it altogether. Otherwise, try to remove as much mulch as you can before adding a new layer, because you do not want too many layers as this could kill your plants. When mulch layers build up beyond 4 inches, they become water-repellent, or hydrophobic. Too much mulch can also suffocate plant roots. When you have the old mulch layers down to an inch or two, it’s safe to add an inch or two of fresh, colorful mulch.
2. Remove Weeds
Despite mulch’s amazing ability to ward off weeds, they still manage to emerge now and then. Fortunately, there are ways to keep even the peskiest weeds under control.
First, if you notice weeds growing from your mulch, you may need to add more mulch. Try to keep mulch layers at least 2 inches deep to block sunlight and keep weeds from growing. Mulch must block sunlight to prevent weed growth. Choose coarse chipped or shredded bark mulches because they decompose slowly and are less likely to blow away.
Second, make sure to pull weeds by hand as soon as you see them before they take over. A single weed can produce thousands of seeds in a season. Weeds compete with neighboring plants for water, sunlight, and nutrients, so try to remove weeds when they are small before seeds form.
You could apply a pre-emergence herbicide to prevent germinating weed seeds. However, pre-emergence herbicides do not control weeds that have already sprouted. To apply a pre-emergence herbicide, rake the mulch away, pull any existing weeds, and apply the product following the instructions on the package. You can also try corn gluten meal as an organic alternative. Replace the mulch after applying the pre-emergence herbicide.
For existing weeds, you can use a post-emergence herbicide spray. Organic options include vinegar or clove oil sprays. Be careful not to harm nearby plants, and speak with a nursery to choose the right herbicides for your needs.
If you have not yet added mulch or are in the process of replacing mulch, you can skip herbicide altogether and instead install landscape fabric to keep weeds from growing.
3. Mix and Turn Mulch
Every season, you’ll want to mix and turn your mulch a couple of times to break up clustered pieces and make sure it hasn’t formed a compacted layer on top of the soil. To turn the mulch, grab your rake and gloves and take the following easy steps:
- Rake the beds, breaking up clumps
- If needed, spread new mulch over the bed, so it’s no more than 2 to 4 inches thick
- Make sure mulch is a few inches away from plant stems and tree trunks to prevent plant damage
- Rake or turn over with your hands a few times a season
- As the mulch decomposes, add fresh mulch to keep the layer at 2 to 4 inches
4. Mulch Twice a Year
You’ll want to mulch once in the Spring and again in the Fall.
You should add mulch whenever layers thin out for any reason. You’ll also want to replace mulch if it breaks apart in your hands like dirt because it’s no longer effective at that point. Otherwise, you’ll want to add mulch twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall.
In the spring, add more mulch to either replace old decomposed mulch or to replenish mulch that has washed or blown away, making sure to maintain a thickness of at least 2 inches. Wait until mid to late spring when the soil is warm and moist to apply new mulch to keep moisture in and help prepare plants for the summer heat. If you add mulch too early or when the soil is cool and wet, it could slow seed germination.
In the fall, apply fresh mulch to insulate plants and protect roots from harsh winter temperatures. Wait until after the first freeze to apply mulch, but add mulch before temperatures get too cold. If you add mulch before the ground freezes, you might attract critters looking for a winter home. Choose loose material like straw, hay, or pine boughs to insulate plants without compacting under the snow. By adding mulch in the fall, you help reduce the freezing and thawing process which, in turn, reduces the risk of plant injury.
Also, regardless of the season, always mulch around new plants right after you plant them for the best results.
5. Keep Mulch From Washing Away
If you’ve stepped outside to find mulch tossed all over the yard, you’re not alone. Sometimes, even the toughest mulch can’t stand up to strong gusts of wind or torrential downpours. There are all kinds of reasons mulch layers thin out over time, and they need to be replaced to protect nearby plants and trees effectively, deter weed growth, and keep your garden looking great. Here are tips to help make your mulch stay put:
- Choose the right mulch: Heavier mulches, like hardwood mulches, are less likely to wash away than pine mulch. However, pine straw works well on slopes because the needles twist around each other, helping them stay in place.
- Avoid landscape fabric on slopes: Landscape fabric or plastic sheeting creates a slippery surface for mulch to easily slide down and wash away. Remove plastic fabric from slopes and consider using newspapers to control weed growth instead.
- Create a border: Protect mulch from storms by building an edge around flower or garden beds. There are many ways to create an edge around your gardens. Some examples include edging the bed with pine straw, stones, wood, metal, or plastic. Make sure the edging is a few inches high to keep mulch in. You can also dig a small trench around flower beds to catch mulch before it washes away into the grass.