Overhead view into bags of mulch (left) and compost (right) showing the different textures and color.

Shredded leaves, left, or compost both make excellent top dressings for the garden.

Mulch. That five-letter word can make the difference in how much you need to water your garden, how many weeds you’ll have and how well your plants and vegetables will grow.

In a recent online gardening summit, presented by Joe Lamp’l – the Joe in www.joegardener.com – he shared his top 10 reasons for embracing mulch in the landscape.

“Mulching can do so many things for your landscape,” he said. “I generally recommend a 2-inch layer of natural mulch, rather than dyed or synthetic, as best for your soil and plants. And using natural materials is much less impactful to the environment.”

Lamp’l talked about wood chips, leaves and pine straw as excellent sources for mulch. “You can get it much more affordably, or even free, if you know where to source it,” he said. “Arborists often have wood chips left over from tree removal and are more than happy to give a load to you, rather than take it to the landfill.

“You can also collect fallen leaves from your yard and shred them to make a nice top-dressing for plants.”

Some people prefer the look of pine straw, available at box retailers or garden centers. “It tends to break down a bit more quickly but has many of the same benefits of woodchips.”

Here are Lamp’l’s top 10 reasons to apply mulch in your landscape on your gardens and around your shrubs.


  • Protects the soil surface from drying out.
  • Improves water infiltration.
  • Reduces soil compaction.
  • Reduces soil-borne diseases.
  • Reduces weeds.
  • Retains soil moisture.
  • Protects roots from temperature extremes.
  • Improves soil health as it breaks down, adding organic matter.
  • Reduces runoff of topsoil and chemicals, such as synthetic fertilizers.
  • Creates an atheistically pleasing landscape.

A word about compost

Lamp’l is a strong advocate for home-made compost. His statement, “Feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants,” is one of his mantras for successful organic gardening.

“Frankly, you have all the ingredients already on hand, so all you’ll need to do is pick a location near water with a pretty good amount of sunlight, and you’re ready to go. You can build pallet composting bins or keep it in a pile,” he said.

Here are sources for both brown waste and green waste, two of the four ingredients needed:

  1. Brown waste includes paper and cardboard products (shredded paper, paper towel rolls, and other paper products) and leaves, twigs, and yard debris.
  2. Green waste from inside includes vegetable scraps, fruit, salad scraps, and coffee grounds. From outside, add fresh grass clippings, yard debris and poultry manure, if you have it available.

“Water and air are crucial for the compost to ‘cook’ so every time you turn it ­– ideally about once a week – spray it with water to wet all the ingredients to the dampness of a wet sponge.”

Keep adding greens and browns and turning regularly. “You’ll know the compost is ready when the original ingredients are no longer visible,” he said. “It will smell rich and earthy, will clump when squeezed, but break apart easily when you run your fingers through it.”

Visit www.joegardener.com for expert garden information, free gardening guides, TV episodes, podcasts and his Online Gardening Academy.