With the arrival of the cooler autumn temperatures, many gardeners are now focusing on how to best prepare their gardens and perennial plants for winter. It includes cleaning up their garden spaces, removing and storing bulbs, and, of course, mulch application. With so many different types of mulch currently available on the market, as well as many types that can be made for free or low-cost at home, you may be feeling overwhelmed. What is the best mulch for your flower or vegetable garden?
As a gardening nut myself, I have tried many different options over the years, ranging from commercially available shredded bark mulches to nutrient-rich home compost options. In this guide, I’m going to share a variety of winter mulch ideas that have worked well in my own garden spaces, including how to create and best use them to take your gardening efforts to the next level.
If you are looking for an aesthetically pleasing mulch option for the garden spaces on your property that are visible to your guests or have an impact on your home’s overall curb appeal, wood chips are a great solution. There are many commercial options available at your local garden center or home improvement store with wood mulch. However, these are often overly processed.
If you prefer a more natural approach, you can instead create your homemade wood-based mulch. It is easy to do and offers you a great opportunity to use up some of the yard waste you may have from maintaining your property. Plus, it’s also a great excuse to pick up the woodchipper that you have been eyeing.
Despite the name, there is more to a wood chip mulch or wood-based mulch than just the woodchips themselves. For best results, you want to create a mixture of leaves, bark chips or shredded bark, and wood chips from different species of trees. By including different species, you can make the nutritional benefits of your mulch last longer as each species will decompose at its rate. It will help you to grow stronger, healthier plants in the resulting soil.
With the autumn weather upon us, there is one simple mulch option that is freely available. Fallen leaves and pine needles are a great choice for gardeners to cover perennials for the winter months, insulating and protecting them until the spring weather returns. Not only is leaf mulch a cheap option that helps to clean up your yard, but leaf compost is also a source of nitrogen, improving the quality of your soil.
For best results when using leaf mulch, don’t just rake up the leaves from your yard and drop them on your garden in a pile. Instead, gardening experts recommend using shredded leaves to help speed up the rate of decomposition. Rake your leaves up into a pile and then run over it with a lawnmower a few times, shredding the leaves into small pieces. Take your shredded leaves and place them in and around your perennials, creating a 3-to-6-inch protective layer. Any additional leaves can be tossed in your compost pit to make high-quality leaf compost for next year’s gardening season.
Compost as Winter Mulch
Those who have already committed to composting in their own home will be happy to hear that compost can be used for more than just improving soil quality during the planting process in the spring. By using your compost as a mulch option, you can insulate your plants from the winter temperatures, reduce the evaporation from the soil, maintaining a healthy level of moisture, and continue to improve upon the available nutrients as your compost continues to break down.
To create your compost, you will need a mixing container of some form. It should be large enough to contain your compost pile and be able to rotate and mix it. There are commercially constructed compost bins available, or you can create a square with freestanding walls in your backyard close to your garden space.
What You Need:
Soil or Manure, Organic Material (see list), Water, Compost Bin/Pen, Shovel.
Organic Material – Garden Clippings, Fruit and Vegetable Peelings, Leftover or Spoiled Produce, Corn Cobs, Egg Shells, Coffee Grounds, Branch Prunings, Grass Clippings, Hedge Trimmings, Leaves, Straw.
Avoid including weeds in your compost to avoid allowing these weeds to sprout in your gardening space.
- Set up your compost pen and create a 12-inch base layer of dry materials such as straw and dry leaves.
- Add a 2-inch layer of soil or manure. Water down the surface of this layer and tamp it down.
- Add a 12-inch layer of organic material. Include dry materials (leaves, straw) and wet materials (vegetable peelings, grass clippings).
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until your compost pile reaches approximately 5 feet tall.
- Water the compost pile bimonthly to keep everything moist and promote decomposition. It will cause the pile to shrink in size quickly. Stir it with your shovel every 6 weeks to help it evenly decompose.
- Cover the pile with a tarp in the event of rain to avoid flooding your compost.
- Your compost pile is ready for use when the organic materials are crumbly and brown or black.
- To use your compost for mulch, place a 2-to-4-inch layer of compost on top of your garden and flower beds.
Hay or Straw Mulch
If you live on a farm or have connections with a local farmer, hay and straw are great choices for cheap winter mulch. These organic materials compost very slowly, meaning that you can apply your mulch to cover crops effectively at the start of the season, and it will remain, protecting your plants and their root systems until the following season. A blanket of mulch made from hay or straw will work to insulate the soil and maintain warmer soil temperatures even when faced with snow cover, making it an excellent option for winter mulching.
At the same time, during the spring/summer gardening season, it can be used around the base of your plants to reduce mud and splashing onto your plants, encourage beneficial insects and spiders, and slowly add nutritional value to your garden as the year progresses.
Unfortunately, this mulch has two major drawbacks to consider. First, the lightweight of hay and stray means that it can easily be blown away across your yard by the wind. It could create a mess in your yard or even annoy the neighbors if it isn’t addressed quickly. Additionally, straw and hay have been known to attract rodents as it offers a warm, comfortable place for them to hide. If you live in an area where rodents may be a problem, this wouldn’t be recommended.
Shredded Paper Mulch
While the paper isn’t going to add nutrients to the soil in the way that many of the other options on this list will, it’s a great option for insulating and protecting the area. It is a good opportunity to recycle paper that otherwise would positively go to the landfill.
To create this mulch option, you need to start by shredding any paper that you plan on using. It can be done using an electronic shredder or simply cutting the paper into thin strips by hand. To add some nutritional value to your mulch, mix in some organic materials such as leaves or compost.
Additionally, you can wet the paper down slightly with compost tea. It will allow the paper to stick together, preventing it from blowing away on a windy day. Avoid using too much and making your paper soggy as it will cause your mulch to collapse upon itself, becoming matted and eliminating the important air pockets that work to insulate your plants.
Cardboard Sheet Mulching
It is less of a recipe and more of a process. However, cardboard sheet mulching can be a valuable tool in your gardening efforts. Also referred to as lasagna composting, this refers to the use of cardboard and organic materials in layers to improve the soil structure, create new perennial borders and eliminate grass and weeds for new garden beds.
What You Need:
Carbon Materials – Cardboard, Newspaper, Wood Chips, Leaves, Straw, Pine Needles, Cornstalks.
Nitrogen Materials – Manure, Kitchen Scraps, Fresh Green Weeds, Used Coffee Grounds, Fresh Grass Clippings.
- Mow the grass or cut back vegetation in the area that you are working.
- Loosen the soil in the area by ‘pooping’ or digging into it with a spading fork. It will break up the soil, which has been compacted over time, allowing for better drainage in your finished garden.
- Cover the space with 4 to 6 layers of cardboard and newspaper, creating a solid barrier that will prevent sunlight from reaching the surface and smother the grass and weeds.
- Wet the area thoroughly.
- Add a layer of nitrogen materials approximately 1-inch thick. It can be one of the options listed above or a mixture of nitrogen materials.
- Cover the nitrogen layer with a 1-inch layer of carbon materials.
- Continue to alternate between 1-inch layers of nitrogen materials and carbon materials until you reach your desired height. The recommended height is between 18 inches and 3 feet. Always end with a carbon layer as this will discourage flies from settling in your mulch.
- As your lasagna mulch breaks down and decomposes, you can continue to add layers (always ending on a carbon layer).
- Wait for the sheet compost bed to decompose enough to make it suitable for planting your new garden. It can take 6 months or longer, depending on the depth of your compost and the weather in your area.
Grass Clippings (in Moderation)
It is a type of mulch that’s easily accessible and beneficial to your garden, but only if used in moderation or combined with other mulching options. However, it’s arguably the easiest option to come by on this list as it simply uses the grass clippings that are generated each time that you mow your lawn. Simply gather up your grass clippings and spread them over your garden soil, creating a thin layer of mulch.
Avoiding adding a large pile of these clipping from your lawnmower to your garden as you could harm your gardening efforts. Grass clippings are nitrogen-rich, meaning that they will help to increase the level of nitrogen in your soil, fertilizing the plants you are growing there. Vegetables grow well in nitrogen-rich, slightly acidic soil. If you add too many grass clippings, it can interfere with the ability of moisture and oxygen at the surface to reach the soil below. Stick to a thin layer for the best overall results.
A great option for those looking to insulate their perennials with minimal work, evergreen branches can be used to mulch smaller and tender plants and provide an insulating wrap for larger shrubs that need a little extra protection. You don’t need to cut up or chip the branches.
Simply take them as they are and place them gently in your garden space. They are strong enough to hold up under the weight of the snow and large enough to stay in place in the wind and other elements. When spring rolls back around, all you have to do is remove your branches from the garden, and you’re ready to start gardening.
Why You Should Avoid Gravel, Stone, or Rubber Mulches
While landscaping mulches like gravel, stone, or rubber made solely for aesthetic purposes will look great in your yard, they won’t provide the benefits to your garden spaces offered by organic mulch. These rock/stone-based mulches and those made from inorganic materials are designed and used largely because they don’t decompose (or take a long time to decompose). It means that they will remain in their desired location without having to add mulch again every year.
If you are looking to cover a space where you have no intentions of gardening or planting, they are an ideal solution. However, if you were to place these products on a garden bed, you would have to remove them again in the spring. It is both difficult and time-consuming. On top of the wasted time, the lack of decomposition means that they are adding nothing nutritionally to your garden soils.
For these reasons, our best gardening advice is to stick with organic mulch for all flower and vegetable gardens around your home.
Choose the Best Mulch for Your Gardening Efforts
With so many great options readily available, there is sure to be a good option for any garden, yard, or outdoor space. Start by considering the benefits that you hope to obtain from your mulch. Are you simply looking to provide some winter insulation, or are you interested in boosting the quality of your soil?
From there, consider which of these options are readily available to you and how much work you are willing to put into your mulching efforts. When you’re done, you can start counting down to the beauty of spring and getting back into your outdoor gardening once again.