Gardens for Humanity: The Gifts of Mulch | The Independent Green

When I want to write about the garden, the first thing I do is go out and walk in it. After so many years, we have an intimate relationship. Our garden willingly shares so many gifts! The best way for me as a gardener to give back is to provide enough mulch. Mulch is the key that unlocks the treasures of the garden.

Some will say that my garden is not “tidy”. However, I am inspired by nature to garden and I do what she tells me is most beneficial. While hiking in the high desert, I observe thriving plant communities that survive even long periods of drought. During their natural life cycle, plants drop dead leaves, which accumulate in their understory, providing protection, food and retaining moisture for all life above and below ground.

Natural mulch is the accumulation of dead plant matter left intact over the seasons. We can help with this by adding leaves, compost, manure, wood chips, or even shredded cardboard. Our role as gardeners can be to imitate and work with the natural life cycles of plants. There are six mulch gifts that contribute to healthy gardens.

1 Cover bare soil: Mulch keeps soil cool and moist in summer and warm in winter, providing food and shelter. This protects all life in the soil that recycles essential materials and nutrients. When we think of living soil, it helps to think that its needs are similar to ours – a protected, comfortable, nurturing and safe environment.

2 Habitat for Small Animals and Microorganisms: These hardy workers break down mulch turning it into food for plants. They include countless amounts of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, other tiny creatures and larger ones. Mulch contributes to a healthy soil ecosystem that delivers nutrients directly to plant roots.

3 Water Saver: After being away for over a week during a dry spell this winter with all the water shut off, I came home and checked my garden. Sticking my finger under the layers of mulch, I found the soil to be moist and fluffy with busy earthworms. Covering the ground and flower beds with mulch reduces the need for watering in all seasons. It protects against the blazing sun and the cold, dry wind.

4 Weed suppressor: Weeds are opportunists that take advantage of disturbed bare soil. Their job is to restore the soil by sending roots and bringing nutrients to the surface, creating shade and starting the cycle of decay. Weeds constitute the first wave of plant succession in the soil of buildings. Rich soil covered with mulch does not invite weeds. Looking under the trees in a wooded area, we see very few weeds growing in the accumulated organic matter.

5 A nursery for seedlings: Compacted earth, at the mercy of hard work and extremes of hot and cold, does not favor the germination and survival of seedlings. When I look under the accumulated leaves of last year’s plants, I see many shoots. First emerge wildflowers and perennial seedlings. As the weather warms, new ones grow under the mulch. I always welcome volunteers who add great diversity to my garden.

6 Attractive Ground Cover: A landscape covered in plants and mulch is an inviting habitat and a cool island even on hot days. Bare and rocky landscapes do not invite to visit and spend time. They are heat islands that soak up the harsh, unyielding summer sun, heating our home and living space day and night. Mulch transforms landscapes into an inviting habitat for people and other creatures, and enriches our outdoor experience.

Whether you choose to grow ornamental plants or food, mulch nurtures a thriving habitat rich in biodiversity. If the foods we grow are healthy foods, they provide us with superior flavor and nutrition. Instead of putting last year’s leaves in the dumpster, they can be a great asset to your garden as they turn into a mat of mulch.

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Richard Sidy is President of Gardens for Humanity, a founding member of the Sustainability Alliance and a member of the Verde Valley Food Policy Council. To reach him, email

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