• Cover garden beds with a layer of mulch to keep weeds down and reduce the need for water. Annual weed seeds are less likely to sprout when the soil is covered with enough mulch to keep the soil surface in the dark.

  • When it comes to water, even a thin layer of mulch -- nature's moisturizer -- will reduce evaporation from the soil surface. Thicker mulches can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent.

  • For a soothing, natural-looking garden, use dark-colored organic mulches made of bark or compost. For a brilliant-looking garden, consider a mulch of bright gravel. In utilitarian gardens such as vegetable gardens, straw makes an excellent mulch. Avoid colored mulch or beauty bark.

  • For maximum effectiveness with only a thin mulch layer, look for fine-textured mulches such as twice-shredded bark, compost, or cocoa hulls. For an airy mulch, try thicker layers of coarse-textured mulches such as straw or bark chunks. Don't apply fine-textured mulches, like grass clippings, in thick layers that can mat down and smother the soil.

    Twice-shredded bark provides a fine texture to the garden bed.
    © 2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Twice-shredded bark provides a fine texture to the garden bed.

  • Kill off sod or dense weeds by layering newspaper, alone or with a thick layer of compost or mulch, directly on the garden site. This treatment cuts off the sunlight to unwanted vegetation, which will eventually decay and add organic matter to the garden. The newspaper decomposes, too. (What a bargain!)

  • Woody mulch, such as shredded bark, uses nitrogen as it decays. Apply extra nitrogen to prevent the decay process from consuming soil nitrogen that plants need for growth.

  • Mulch new plants with straw or chopped leaves after planting in the fall to prevent root damage during winter. A little mulch used immediately after planting can help to keep the soil moist and encourage continued root growth.

  • Add a thick layer of mulch and let it rot to improve the soil of existing gardens. Minerals, released as the mulch is degraded into nutrient soup, soak down into the soil and fertilize existing plants. Humic acid, another product of decay, clumps together small particles of clay to make a lighter soil.

  • The main reason to mulch lies ahead, in winter. Alternately freezing and thawing, expanding and contracting soil can break new roots or even push new plantings out of the ground, a process called frost heaving. By mulching generously with an airy material like straw when the soil first freezes, you can help keep the soil frozen until winter ends, at which point the mulch can be removed.

    In winter, mulch evergreen perennials and ground covers with evergreen boughs to protect them from winter burn (the cold-weather opposite of sunburn). When the soil is frozen, the wind is strong, and the sun is bright, moisture is pulled out of the vulnerable leaves and cannot be replaced by the frozen roots. A protective layer of evergreen boughs, possibly obtained by recycling the branches of a Christmas tree, forms a protective shield over vulnerable greenery. Straw will also do the job, especially in colder areas where there is less chance of rot in winter.

  • Celebrate if you live in a snowy area. Snow is the best mulch of all, and it may allow you to grow plants that won't survive winter in snowless areas farther south.

Don't let difficult soil get you down. With a little hard work -- and the proper soil amendments -- you, too, can have a garden bursting with your favorite flowers.

©Publications International, Ltd.