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Using Mulch in Your Flower Garden (Simple Tips & Tricks)

If you’ve read any posts here on Gingham Gardens, you will know that I’m a big fan of mulching my flower beds. In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about using mulch in your flower garden. Let’s get started!

A flower garden with fresh mulch, colorful flowers and a small fountain.

The Benefits of Using Mulch in Your Flower Gardens

Mulch serves as an invaluable ally in maintaining a healthy and vibrant flower garden. It offers a variety of benefits that enhance not just the soil quality but also the overall gardening aesthetic.

Mulch Can Help to Control Weeds

The #1 reason to use mulch in your garden is for weed control. Mulching helps suppress weed growth by blocking sunlight from reaching the soil surface, hindering weed seeds from germinating and growing. A thick layer of mulch acts as a barrier, making it more difficult for pesky weeds to invade your flower beds.

Soil Temperature Regulation

In the heat of summer and throughout the growing season, mulch serves to shade plants’ roots in your flower bed. It can also help to insulate plant roots from temperature fluctuations during the winter months. 

Soil Moisture Retention

Mulch helps to preserve soil moisture by reducing evaporation. This lessens the need for frequent watering, ensuring plants stay hydrated for a longer period of time. Maintaining soil moisture is crucial for plant health, especially in dry conditions.

Mulch Can Improve Your Garden Soil

A good organic mulch will break down over time and can help to improve your garden soil structure. In some instances, mulching can help prevent soil erosion.

Flower Garden Aesthetic 

Mulch can dramatically enhance the visual appeal of your garden. Mulch is generally available in various colors and textures, it can be used to create a cohesive look that complements the flowers and overall design of your garden space. And like I always say, “mulch is like the icing on the cake.” It adds the perfect finishing touch.

A mulched shade garden showing half with mulch and half without mulch.
Comparison of mulch vs. no mulch

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Different Types of Mulch for Your Flower Beds

Mulches are categorized into two main types: organic and inorganic. Although most homeowners choose mulch based on their aesthetic preference, it’s more important to consider the best mulch for the health of our garden beds.

Organic Garden Mulches

Organic materials decompose over time, thereby improving soil fertility and structure. Examples include:

  • Shredded hardwood mulch is my preference and an excellent choice for flower gardens. You will see shredded wood mulch sold as cypress mulch, cedar mulch, pine mulch, bark mulch, etc.

  • Pine needles or pine straw make a beautiful, natural mulch and are popular in the South.

  • Cocoa bean hulls is another organic mulch that is very popular. It smells great if you like chocolate. In some areas, it can be expensive and it needs to be spread thick for it to do its job, so that makes it even more expensive.

  • Although I don’t recommend them, wood chips are a popular choice by homeowners because they like the look of them. They decompose very slowly and don’t really offer many benefits either to your plants or your garden soil.

  • Straw: Although I would not use straw in my flower beds, I want to mention it because in many places it’s easily accessible and inexpensive. Straw can get really ugly as it ages and breaks down, but if it’s all that’s available to you it will do the trick. Be careful not to use hay or straw that is full of seeds.

  • Many experienced gardeners simply use compost to mulch their garden beds. Compost is rich in nutrients and it supercharges the soil as it breaks down. Although I use compost in all my gardens, I cannot produce enough compost myself and have to purchase it, plus I don’t think it has as many benefits as a good shredded wood mulch.

  • Untreated grass clippings and shredded leaves make wonderful mulch and the best part is they are free. I prefer using this natural organic matter in my vegetable garden.

Be responsible and do your homework when selecting the best type of mulch to use for flower gardens in your area. Select a variety that is sustainable in your area.

A flower garden mulched with pine straw
South Carolina garden mulched with pine straw

Inorganic Mulches

Although I don’t recommend their use, I feel the need to at least mention inorganic mulches. Many homeowners are stuck with rock and landscape fabric from previous homeowners or landscape designers. Inorganic mulches are non-living materials that do not decompose and they’re mostly used for longevity and low maintenance. Options include:

Stone or landscape rocks are often used by landscapers, along with landscape fabric or plastic sheeting. For anyone who wants to garden or change their landscape, this can be a total nightmare. I won’t go into all the reasons I discourage the use of landscape fabric (a/k/a weed cloth) or plastic in a flower bed, but if you are considering it, please read this article before you proceed.

Rock mulch can create a very unhealthy environment for your soil and plants. Stone or gravel can heat up considerably in the sun and fry the roots of perennial plants or shrubs. If you find yourself in this situation and don’t have the ability to remove rock, at least pull the rock away from the base of your plants by at least a foot and fill that area in with wood mulch. Also cut away any landscape fabric or plastic from the base of your plants.

Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. Although as gardeners we love the word recycled, don’t use rubber mulch in any garden bed. It isn’t good for your plants or the soil. A great use for rubber mulch is playgrounds.

Dyed wood mulches are another very popular mulch and it’s likely you may use dyed wood mulch in your gardens. I’m including it in the inorganic section because of the dye. The dye will leach into the soil, possibly damaging the good stuff in your soil and creating an unhealthy environment for your plants and flowers. I will admit that when it’s fresh and applied thick it is very attractive, but as responsible gardeners we have to think beyond aesthetic appeal.

Flower garden mulched with cedar mulch
This garden is mulched with premium cedar mulch

How to Apply Mulch to Flower Beds

When applying mulch in flower gardens, it’s important to consider the best time in the season to apply and the amount necessary for effective coverage.

Timing and Frequency of Your Mulch Application

I prefer to apply mulch during late spring or early summer, after the soil has warmed up, and before summer to help retain soil moisture. I like to have all of my planting done. Mulch is sort of the last thing I do to get my gardens ready for their summer show. 

For many gardens, refreshing mulch annually is sufficient. Some years, I will apply a fresh layer of mulch to the entire bed. Or simply touch up areas that have thinned out through the year.

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Brightly colored flower garden image with text overlay - Elevate your Flower Garden Aesthetics by Using Mulch

Prep the Area for Mulching

First of all, clean up the garden area. Pull all weeds and rake or fluff up any existing mulch. If existing mulch has formed a hard mat, be sure to break it apart. Although this is ideal for blocking weeds, it can also prohibit moisture from adequately reaching the soil.

If I’m working in a new garden area, I will sprinkle a product like Preen to help keep weeds from germinating. Please note that Preen is a pre-emergent and does not kill weeds, it keeps seeds from germinating. Don’t use it if you are trying to grow flowers from seed.

Add any other soil amendments like fertilizer or compost before applying the mulch. If the soil is dry, I suggest watering the area well before mulch is applied.

Trailer load of fresh mulch to spread on gardens.
Bulk trailer load of shredded bark mulch

How Much Mulch Do I Need

For flower gardens, I recommend a layer of 2-3 inches of mulch. In the case of mulch, more is never better. Yes, you can overdo it with mulch. Too much mulch can rob your plant of much needed oxygen.

This step requires a little math but don’t worry it’s easy.

For Bulk: 

Since I have lots of gardens, we purchase mulch in bulk. If you have access to a trailer or a pickup truck this is usually the cheaper way to go. Bulk mulch is measured in cubic yards.

  • First measure the area in feet. You will need the square feet of the garden area so multiply the width by the length. 
  • Next, determine how deep you want to spread your mulch. I recommend around 3 inches deep. So multiply the square feet of your garden area by 3. 
  • Take that total and divide by 324 and that gives you the cubic yards of mulch you will need.

By the Bag:

  • Bagged mulch is measured in cubic feet. There is usually 2 or 3 cubic feet per bag.
  • For bagged mulch, the math gets much trickier, so I suggest using a mulch calculator.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say the flower bed we are working on is a kidney bean shape and it’s approximately 15 feet long by 6 feet wide. So this flower bed is approximately 90 square feet. If you have an odd shaped flower bed, just do your best with the measurements.

For bulk mulch: 90 x 3 (depth in inches) = 270 ÷ 324 = .8333 cubic yards. Round up and you will need 1 cubic yard.

For bagged mulch, using the calculator linked above, if the bags contain 3 cubic feet, we will need 7.5 bags. If the bags of mulch container 2 cubic feet, we will need 11.25. When buying mulch, I always round up.

If you are refreshing mulch in a bed be sure to take into consideration the depth of mulch that is already there.

Fresh mulch around a hydrangea.

Tips for Spreading Mulch in Your Flower Bed

This is definitely not one of my favorite gardening jobs, but I do it because of the benefits and because I love the way it makes a flower garden look. Mulch seems to make the plants pop!

To spread mulch, I alternate between using my garden fork and my hands. Simply apply the mulch evenly and distribute around your plants. Never pile mulch against the stems of your plants and leave a little breathing room around the base of your plants. Do not pile mulch up around tree trunks. This is called volcano mulching and can cause many problems for trees.

Now step back and take a look and admire your hard work. It’s lovely isn’t it? Fresh mulch is just like the icing on a cake!

A Few Things to Remember When Mulching Your Gardens

I want to make sure you leave with these few reminders:

  • Do not over-mulch your gardens! Too much mulch is not a good thing and can suffocate your plants. 3 – 4 inches is sufficient to reap the benefits of mulching.
  • Over time mulch can form a mat. This is great to keep weeds out, but it also stops water from absorbing into the ground. Be sure to fluff up compacted mulch at least once a season.
  • Watch for pests. Some say mulch will harbor pests but I have not found this to be the case. Cedar mulch will actually repel some pests.
  • Don’t pile mulch up around the base of plants. Go thinner at the base of your plants.

I hope you’ve learned some tips for mulching your flower beds. What do you think? Do you apply mulch to your flower gardens? Leave a comment below and share your experience.

Happy Gardening and DIYing, 

Check out more Flower Gardening articles on Gingham Gardens:

Flower Gardening 101
How to Plant Perennials (the Right Way)
Simple Flower Garden Design

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