The Ideal Mulch
A good mulch is one that is light and easy to spread but does not blow away readily or break down too quickly. The material should be absorbent and hold moisture, yet allow rain water to pass through to the soil beneath. It should be something that can be spread thickly enough to inhibit weeds without depriving the soil of oxygen. Two other requirements for a good mulch are that the material be readily available and also inexpensive, or even free. There are lots of materials in your own yard that meet these qualifications. For certain specific situations there are many kinds of commercial mulch products available also.
For more information about materials for mulch go to the file Organic Materials For Soil
Leaves As Mulch
Leaves represent about 30% of the yard waste generated in the average American home landscape where trees grow. Chop them for excellent, free mulch--whole leaves used as mulch tend to mat and prevent uniform access of water and air to the soil and the plant roots.
There are several ways to chop or shred leaves for mulch:
Run them through the lawnmower into a bagging attachment as they lie on the grass at mowing time.
If your mower lacks a bagging attachment, mow so that you discharge the leaves and grass onto the uncut grass. The leaves will go through the mower several times and end up well shredded in a pile in the center of the lawn when mowing nears completion.
Use a blower/vac to shred the leaves into a bag on your shoulder which can be emptied directly onto soil under trees and shrubs or on growing beds.
Rent or purchase a leaf shredder if you have a great volume of leaves.
Rake leaves and put them into a large trash can. Run a string trimmer down among them in the can to shred them.
Pine Needles As Mulch
Pine needles make an attractive mulch and also have beneficial effect in controlling several harmful soil fungi including fusarium. However, they do tend to make soil more acid, so they might not be advisable in some parts of the ornamental garden where neutral or even alkaline soil (a more neutral pH) is desirable. They are especially good around plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, holly, viburnums, blueberries, and strawberries which prefer an acidic soil. The great thing about pine needles is that they decay so slowly. Rake them off one bed, store them in a pile, and use them later on another bed. White pine needles are fluffier than needles of other varieties.
Grass Clippings As Mulch
While grass clippings are best left on the lawn to add nitrogen and organic matter to turf soil, there are some times when grass gets so long that you must collect the clippings or they will clump on the turf. Use them as mulch. Spread them in thin layers--no more than an inch thick--so that the air can dry them before they decay and become putrid. Because grass clippings break down and disappear quite quickly, use them in conjunction with an existing mulch of chopped leaves, rather than as the sole mulch, to prolong their usefulness.
Never use grass clippings that have herbicide residue on them which may harm tender ornamental plants. Grass clippings that have been soaked by at least 1/4 inch of good rainfall after being sprayed with herbicide are usually free of any dangerous levels of the chemicals.
Shredded Woody Materials As Mulch
If you have a shredder the tree branches, hedge trimmings, and other woody materials you process make excellent mulching material. Shredded bark or wood chips spread at least two inches thick around shrubs and trees are attractive and long lasting. They take almost two years to decompose enough to need renewing.
Other Mulching Materials
The materials listed above make up the most common ingredients for an organic mulch available in the yard, but there are lots of other suitable ones. While peat moss tends to crust over and shed water when used by itself, it is very useful mixed with other mulching materials to help them go farther and be more absorbent. Folks near the seashore may have access to seaweed that washes up on the beach. Rinsed first with fresh water, it makes a fantastic mulch containing many valuable nutrients not found in any other organic material. If you have access to a paper shredding machine, shredded paper or newspaper makes an effective organic mulch for vegetable gardens. Straw makes a great mulch for vegetables too. These mulches are not usually attractive enough for use with ornamental plants.