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Mulch Types for Flowerbeds

Mulches to Improve Your Flower Garden

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Mulch Types for Flowerbeds

Cocoa bean mulch retains its dark color.

Photo © Jamie McIntosh

If you follow the gardener’s adage of spending nine dollars of your ten-dollar gardening budget on the hole, and one dollar on the plant, part of that nine dollars needs to be allocated towards mulch. With so many colors, textures, and materials to choose from, flower gardeners need to invest carefully in this soil-building essential.

Which mulch is best for flowers?

The best mulch is the one you are willing to maintain. Some gardeners swear by compost or manure for their enriching properties; others demand specialty mulches like cocoa bean hulls for their ornamental value. Experiment and invest in the one that suits your landscape and climate.

What is organic/inorganic mulch?

In reference to mulch, organic doesn’t mean the absence of chemicals. Organic mulches are derived from living things, such as shredded bark, grass clippings, leaves, and even paper. Inorganic mulch examples include plastic, rocks, or aluminum foil.

Is dyed mulch a good choice for flowerbeds?

Red, brown, and black dyed mulches are showing up in landscapes everywhere. The product is usually waste wood (like shipping pallets) ground up and sprayed with a variety of dyes. The mulch is 20-40% more expensive than traditional mulch, and the vivid color may steal the show from your flowers. The color will fade over time, making the landscape seem reminiscent of a down-at-the-heels office park. However, some gardeners like the aesthetics of dyed mulch, and the fad continues.

Can I use rocks as flowerbed mulch?

There are pros and cons to rock mulches. Rocks don’t break down, and therefore provide a semi-permanent mulch (even rocks get dispersed over time). Rocks won’t improve your soil, and may look untidy when dead plant material accumulates on them. Reserve rock mulches for alpine flowers, which thrive in rocky sites in nature.

Is rubber mulch good for flowerbeds?

If you’re worried that your mammoth sunflowers or hollyhocks might fall and hurt themselves, use rubber mulch. Otherwise, save this product for playground areas, or if you crave the cushioned feeling underfoot, use it on your garden paths. Rubber mulch does nothing to amend the soil, and the pieces have an unpleasant way of migrating all over the landscape, creating a debris field that never goes away.

Can I use sawdust or fresh wood chips as mulch?

Horticulturists warn of the dangers of fresh wood chips robbing nitrogen from the soil as the wood decomposes. Fresh chips are safe to use as mulch, as long as they aren’t mixed into the soil. Finely ground sawdust can mat in the rain or blow away in dry weather, and may make a better mulch when blended with straw or shredded bark.

Can I use landscape fabric as mulch?

Properly maintained, there’s nothing wrong with landscape fabric in the flower garden. However, gardeners try to camouflage it with wood chips, and the chips will eventually break down. Then, weed seeds can germinate on top of the fabric, creating an unholy mess that’s nothing like the maintenance-free garden the gardener intended when he installed the fabric.

What is a living mulch?

A living mulch is another term for cover crops, most common in agriculture. Plants like clover, buckwheat, annual rye, or alfalfa are grown in an empty garden bed, and then tilled into the soil for enrichment. Also known as green manures, these crops are usually used in fallow vegetable beds. Flower gardeners preparing a new bed may find a living mulch useful to prevent erosion and add organic matter to the soil before planting the flowers.

Can pine needle mulch change the soil pH?

Gardeners with camellia or azalea plants may seek out pine needles to help acidify the soil. In fact, any organic mulch will slightly increase soil acidity as it breaks down, including shredded leaves and compost. Aged pine needles average 6.0 pH, a slightly acidic pH that allow most flowering plants to thrive.

I have access to a range of possible mulch materials. What can I use as flowerbed mulch?

Here is a list of 25 organic and inorganic mulches to experiment with in flowerbeds. Not all mulches will be available in your area; check your region for sawmills or food processing centers for waste products. Save the most expensive mulches on this list for your containers or the front of the border of your flowerbeds:

  • Alfalfa hay
  • Aluminum foil
  • Bark nuggets
  • Black plastic
  • Buckwheat hulls
  • Burlap
  • Cardboard
  • Cocoa bean hulls
  • Coffee grounds
  • Compost
  • Cornstalks
  • Grass clippings
  • Ground corncobs
  • Landscape fabric
  • Lava rocks
  • Leaves
  • Newspaper
  • Pine needles
  • Rice hulls
  • Salt hay
  • Sawdust
  • Seaweed (rinsed with fresh water)
  • Sphagnum moss
  • Stones
  • Wood chips
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