Mulch is a very valuable additive that is added to your flower beds and gardens to bolster their ability to grow and add nutrients to your flowers or plants. Just like anything else, mulch has a shelf life to it.
When that mulch becomes old and has outlived its purpose, you will be left with mulch that doesn’t serve much use for your garden bed anymore. So, the question becomes what should you do with that old mulch that you now have an abundance of?
The good news is that you can take that old much left on top of your vegetable beds or annual flower beds and repurpose it after it has served its use.
First, a Disclaimer
There are two kinds of mulch: biodegradable types and ones that don’t break down so easily.
The latter contains plastic, stone, and other materials that do not break down quickly or easily. The former contains materials such as straw, leaves, and bark that can break down at a much faster rate.
Mulch that doesn’t break down in an easy manner doesn’t have much use after six months of use in your garden or vegetable bed. You can, however, make additional use of that biodegradable mulch down the line, so keep that around.
Is Old Mulch Still Okay to Use?
Even though vegetable beds and annual flower beds don’t have plants in them during the winter, they are mulched in the fall. This is done to protect that soil from the coming harshness that the winter will bring.
After all, if you have worked hard to build up the soil in your garden to fertile levels, you don’t want any gusty winds or inclement weather to carry it away. That would make for a wasted effort and a frustrating endeavor to say the least.
If your old mulch has not decomposed in a major way when springtime rolls around, it is still very much usable. But being able to determine the condition of your soil is what is important here. Thankfully, there are ways to determine if your mulch is still in a usable condition.
Scoop some of that mulch up into your hands and start moving it around. If the soil has broken down into relatively fine particles and looks basically like dirt, it isn’t functional enough to be effective as mulch and should be replaced.
Should your soil still have the feel and look that it had when you originally put it down, you will be able to reuse that mulch. Keep in mind: even if it looks as good as new, your mulch is only good in your garden bed for six or so months, so replace it.
There is one exception, though. If your plants in the garden bed that contained this mulch had problems with disease in the last year that you feel can be traced back to the mulch, you would want to remove that mulch and dispose of it properly.
This can vary based on where you live, so check with your town officials to find out how to properly dispose of diseased mulch in an environmentally safe way.
What to Do with Mulch That Has Not Decomposed Too Much
After inspecting your mulch, if you have determined that it has not degraded too much, you should rake that old mulch aside for now so that you can prepare the bed for planting. If you want to get that mulch out of the way, shovel it into something like a wheelbarrow before transferring it onto a tarp that is off to the side.
Make sure that you apply compost onto your vegetable garden bed or flower bed and till the mixture either under or work it into your soil using a spade. This creates the perfect space for planting your annual flowers or vegetables so that they can receive the proper nutrients and growing space.
This is why you need to rake and remove the old mulch. If you had left it in while spading or rototilling your compost into the garden, you would have to not only buy new mulch, but reapply that mulch. That means a lot of wasted time, money, and energy.
When you are done tilling, you can place the old mulch back onto the vegetable or garden bed. You can complete this entire process well ahead of the actual planting time. When the time to plant arrives, just remove the mulch from the area where you are transplanting plants or sowing seeds.
With your mulch in place, weeds won’t get a chance to pop up, causing you more trouble than you’d like.
What If the Mulch Is Too Decomposed?
Perhaps, you have mulch that has decomposed too much to reuse in your garden bed. You can actually work it into the ground as organic matter. This serves as a soil amendment when paired together with compost. Then, just acquire new mulch to replace it.
When it comes to cover crops – these are known as “living mulches” – there are different uses still. Cover crops is a term that is more common for agriculture than it is for landscaping, but there are some homeowners who have found quality use out of cover crops.
Cover crops are generally sowed into your annual flower or vegetable garden bed in the fall to protect them when wintertime arrives. When spring comes back around and you are preparing to plant again, you would need to get a cover crop out of your way.
To make less work, you can till your cover crops under the garden. This frees up your garden when spring planting rolls around and it also puts extra nutrients into the soil. That’s a double whammy for your garden.
Types of Mulch
It also helps to know that there are many different types of mulch out there and what the differences are between them. Mulch may all seem like the same thing, but they all have different benefits and uses to them (and some can be used again after initial mulching).
Wood Chips/Shredded Bark or Leaves
There are wood chips and/or shredded bark. You can actually get wood chips or shredded bark from local waste collection sites or contacting your local utility or tree-care company. You can also chip down the bark on your Christmas tree before disposing of it.
If you have plenty of trees on your property, you can collect the leaves that fall around your property. You can then shred them to create a nutrient-rich mulch. Best of all, it costs absolutely nothing but a little time and effort.
Shredded leaf or wood chip mulch can be used anywhere on your property. Use it in garden pathways, shrub borders, and flower beds. Wood chips aren’t the best for annual flower beds or vegetable beds since you’ll be needing to dig through those beds every year and the chips can be a nuisance.
This is another form of mulch that you can acquire for little to no cost. Keep in mind that if you take the grass clippings from your own lawn, you will want to return some of them to your grass because they act as a natural fertilizer.
Collecting grass clippings on an occasional basis and using them as mulch is great to provide rich amounts of nitrogen for your gardens. Grass clippings make for a particularly great form of mulch for vegetable garden beds, too.
Straw and Hay
Another way to successfully mulch your garden – particularly your vegetable garden – is weed-free hay, salt hay, or straw.
Not only does it look good, it also has most of the benefits that some of your other mulches have in them that keeps moisture in its soil, adds organic matter to the soil, and keeps the weeds down.
Before using this type of mulch, you will want to ensure that the hay that you use is both seed and weed free. If you don’t, you will be creating trouble for your garden.
Also, don’t pile your straw or hay up to the stems of the vegetables or up to the trunks of your fruit trees. This invites rodent and slug damage to your plants and can really stifle the growing process.
Another common form of mulching is using sheets of black plastic film. If you apply it tightly over a smooth bed of soil, it can transmit heat from the sun into the soil below.
This creates something of a microclimate that is around three degrees warmer than a traditional unmulched garden.
Plastics also tend to remain dry and warm, which protects the fruits of vining crops – things such as melons, cucumbers, and strawberries – from rotting while also keeping them clean. Not only that, it retains soil moisture and prevents the growth of weeds.
There are so many different mulches out there and knowing what they are and what they can do for you can mean all the difference in the world for your garden.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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