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How to use mulch in 4 easy steps

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

For those who read the blog, this is old hat: I think using mulch and compost are of the two most important things that we can do for our gardens because they are critical in helping grow healthy plants. I love the look of mulch, and it’s so simple to use when following these four, easy steps.

Hand placing mulch on bare soil
Putting down a fresh layer of mulch after cleaning the garden bed

Why use mulch?

If you’re uncertain about why you should use mulch, please check out my earlier blog post on why to use mulch. Mulch not only looks great, but it is an important layer of protection for your soil. Nature likes its soil to be covered, and mulch is like its suit of armor. It protects soil from the heat (keeping more moisture in the soil, and the soil temperature relatively lower), cold (keep the frost bite away from our plant’s roots, please!), and unwanted weeds.

When to lay down mulch

It’s good to put down a layer of mulch at any point, especially if your soil is bare! However, I like putting mulch down in my gardens in the spring and fall. This gives my garden beds “fresh” protection against the upcoming summer heat (it gets really hot here in Manassas, VA, at least for me!) or winter cold (less of a risk for us in the DC/Maryland/Virginia region but still helpful).

Choosing the right mulch

There are a lot of choices to consider. Ultimately, if you’re using organic mulch, I think it’s hard to go wrong and I'd just use whatever you think looks the best. I have two blog articles that may help you decide: what’s the best type of mulch, and is dyed mulch good for my garden? Spoiler—I first fell for the beautiful dark nature of dyed mulches and how cheap they were too! Now, I don't think dyed mulches are the best choice...

How to use mulch

1. Clean up your garden bed.

If you haven’t done this already (e.g. following my spring and fall gardening steps), you’ll want to do this now. It’s time to get rid of any old sticks, leaves, old mulch, and weeds. I still debate about whether to strip out my old garden mulch. Ultimately, I do this and add it to my composting pile. Yes, old mulch adds important organic matter to a garden, but I also add compost (step 3!).

2. Water.

Now that the soil is bare, it’s a great time to give the soil a great drink of water. If there was a good rain recently, I sometimes skip this step since the beds will already have good moisture in them.

3. Lay down a thin layer of compost.

Before I started working at our composting facility in Manassas, VA, I had never heard of this. Now, I see that the difference is night and day. While this step may be tempting to skip, if you do this at least two times—once in the spring and again in the fall—for your garden beds, I believe you’ll see a noticeable difference too.

I’ve seen a variety of thicknesses for a compost topdressing ranging from ¼ inch to 2 inches. Personally, I have some great soil already and so just do a ½ inch layer. For most of my garden beds, this means just one or two bags of compost. For the smaller garden beds, I shake the bagged compost around and then quickly spread it into place with my hand. For larger beds, I use bulk compost and sprinkle it from my shovel. I’ll give it a quick rake in the areas where I accidentally dumped more compost than I meant to.

4. Spread mulch.

I’m more careful with my mulch application than I am when adding compost. I’ll still shake bagged mulch or shovel bulk mulch onto the garden, but I like spreading it by hand so that I’m more precise with getting it into place. I’ve seen research that gives a variety of thickness recommendations, but all of them show 2-4 inches is a great range. If the plants are lower to the ground, I use two inches of mulch. If the plants are taller and/or I’m worried about soil erosion, I use four inches.

Please, please, please leave a few inches of space around the base of plants and trees so that the mulch doesn't touch the stems of any plants, shrubs, or trunks. Not only does this space between the stem and mulch give space for a plant to expand and grow but, if the mulch is too close to the plants, the mulch may help diseases and critters from harming your plants and/or could cause plant rot. This is why I’m a little more careful in putting my mulch down and choose to spread it by hand.

If you’d like, you can also water now too. If there’s an upcoming rain, I’ll skip this step. Sometimes I skip it because I’m now tired, or I've lost track of time getting the mulch down and am running behind. Either way, I just make sure I get a quick watering on top of the fresh layers of compost and mulch within the next few days to help everything settle on top of the garden bed.


That’s it. Getting mulch down makes such a nice difference for a garden. I get such a feeling of satisfaction seeing the work done, and I love the clean, finished look fresh mulch adds to my landscape. And, I know my plants will be happier (and healthier!) for it. Please feel free to reach out with any questions / thoughts!

About us Freestate Farms makes premium landscaping products—compost, topsoil, and mulch—by recycling food and yard waste in Manassas, VA. Our composts, topsoil, and mulches are specially designed to increase the health and productivity of local soils, and with our focus on sustainable practices, this lets the environment and your garden grow good, together. We sell bulk compost, bagged compost, bulk natural mulches, bulk dyed mulches, bagged dyed mulches, and bulk topsoil.


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