7 Soil-Savvy Tips and Tricks for Mulching Your Yard

Katy Willis
Written by Katy Willis
Updated March 4, 2022
A woman mulching a flower bed
Photo: ronstik / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Keep your yard healthy with these pro mulching tips

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Mulching is a great way to build healthy soil and keep your plants in tip-top condition. Applying mulch helps control weeds, reduce evaporation and conserve moisture, adds organic matter and valuable nutrients to the soil, and more. Read our expert mulching tips to learn how to do it right to avoid accidentally hurting your plants.

1. Make Sure You Use Enough (But Not Too Much)

You need to apply a layer between 2 and 3 inches thick. Any less than this, and there really isn't enough mulch for it to be effective. More than this, and you end up encouraging your plants to grow shallow root systems, making them weaker and needier in terms of food and water. 

2. Only Lay Mulch Over Wet Soil

One of the primary uses for mulch is to conserve water, so, to make sure your mulch is the most effective, water and, if necessary, fertilize before you lay the mulch. This way, it immediately starts to protect the soil from evaporation. 

3. Mulch Trees and Shrubs Far Enough Out to Be Effective

Many people make the mistake of applying loads of mulch to trees, but they pack it in mounds centered around the trunk. Instead, use the general rule of a single 2- to 3-inch thick layer, and spread it loosely in a circle, extending roughly as far out as the tree canopy. You can use the same method for mulching large shrubs. 

4. Test Your Soil

A simple home soil test costs as little as $15. At its most basic, this type of test can tell you your soil’s pH, while other, more comprehensive kits can give you insight into your soil's nutrition profile and composition. With insight into whether you have neutral, acidic, or alkaline soil, you can work out what type of mulch to use or not to use, and what, if any, amendments you'd like to make.

Similarly, if your soil lacks nitrogen, you can choose a mulch, such as horse manure, or mix in some feather meal, bone meal, or horn and hoof meal. If potassium is the key ingredient you're missing, adding home compost primarily made from food waste is an excellent way of replenishing potassium. You can also supplement your chosen mulch with wood ash or kelp meal. 

If it's phosphorus you're lacking or, if your soil is just in pretty poor shape all-round, farmyard manure is the best type of natural mulch and, once well-rotted and applied to your yard, it doesn't smell bad, either.

5. Apply Mulch Twice a Year

 Mulch in the backyard with the rake on top of it
Photo: annick vanderschelden photography / Moment / Getty Images

Some people choose to only mulch once a year, but you'll have better results and healthier soil and plants if you do it twice per year. Apply your first layer of mulch in spring after the ground thaws. Then, in late fall, around or just after the ground freezes, apply a second layer. This second application protects any plants still alive or going into dormancy. It also helps to insulate both plants and soil, keeping ground temperatures a crucial few degrees higher. 

6. Use the Right Mulch in the Right Place

All mulch is not made equal; some varieties are easier to work with than others. To save your sanity and reduce labor, use woody and other harder mulches only in areas where you don't dig too much and where you don't want to have to reapply it too frequently. This is a good choice for ornamental perennial beds and around mature trees and shrubs. 

However, in flower beds that you dig over and plant every year, or in the veggie garden, you'll be better off with a mulch that's easier to dig in and faster to break down. Straw mulch, manure, and green manure are all excellent mulch types for these locations.

7. Don't Let Mulch Touch Woody Plants and Shrubs

When mulching trees and shrubs or any plant with woody stems, give the base a little room. Avoid putting the mulch right against the plants or trees. If you do, the mulch can easily burn the trunks and stems, causing lasting damage. Additionally, because mulch holds moisture, it can quickly cause rot and mold to set in, killing your trees. Instead, leave a 3- to 6-inch gap around the tree's base and the beginning of your mulch layer.

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