Why Does Mulch Get So Hard?

I’ve picked up tons of experience in my years of tending plants and growing gardens–including valuable insights about standard practices like mulching. Therefore, I thought it’d be a great idea to write about why mulch tends to get so hard after you’ve applied it to your soil.

Mulch gets so hard because it’s exposed to environmental factors that bleach and compact the material over time. These factors include elements like wind, sunlight, temperature variations, and human activity, but the mulch might also be hard because you applied too much of it to your soil.

Hard mulch can harm your plants since it doesn’t allow air and water to flow into the soil, but it’s also bad for your garden aesthetics. In this article, I’ll tell you how to loosen hard mulch, properly apply it to your soil, and the best practices for maintaining mulch for a healthy garden. Keep reading to know how to tell if your mulch has gone bad. 

How To Loosen Hard Mulch

Hardwood mulch is the most commonly used mulch in gardening today, and despite its inexpensiveness and benefits, almost all mulch of this type will harden with time. This hardened mulch looks dramatically less attractive than the original material and possesses virtually none of the benefits of the original hardwood mulch. Fortunately, it’s possible to loosen the mulch and restore all of the benefits it offers to your soil and plants. 

Here’s how to loosen hard mulch:

  1. Gather all the tools you’ll need to loosen the mulch. You’ll need a pitchfork and a rake to complete the task, but I recommend you wear gloves during the process. However, loosening the mulch is relatively easy, and you might not always need to wear gloves.
  2. Use the pitchfork to pierce the mulch and flip over as much of the material as possible. Pitchforks have long, slender prongs that can go through even the hardest mulch, so you should be able to do this with little effort. Be careful not to hurt your feet when working.
  3. Move to another section of the garden and repeat the second step above. Remember to be careful if you’re working around plants or plant roots. I recommend using as little force as possible during the entire process.
  4. Use the rake to move the mulch away from plants and plant shoots. Mulch benefits your garden but can cause serious rot problems if it comes in contact with stems and trunks. I recommend keeping the material at least 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) away from vegetation.
  5. Apply some more mulch to areas with less than 3 inches (7.62 centimeters) of cover. It’s important to ensure material uniformity when mulching–even if you’re loosening the soil. This optimal thickness will ensure your garden gets as much benefit from the practice as possible.
  6. Water the mulch to replenish your soil and prevent further hardness of the mulch. Adding water to the mulch can also minimize the chances of infestation by some water-repelling fungi. Ensure you water thoroughly with a hose or watering can.

You can use any pitchfork to loosen mulch in your garden, but I recommend the Fiskars Ergo D-handle Steel Garden Fork (available on Amazon.com). It’s a 47-inch (119.38-centimeter) pitchfork that’s sturdy and ergonomic–perfect for working with even the hardest mulch.

In the next section, I’ll discuss applying mulch to your soil. It’s not unlike loosening hard mulch, and you’ll need similar tools to perform the task.

How To Apply Mulch to Your Soil

Most people never even realize it, but your mulching process–like most other gardening practices–is only as effective as how well you do it. And you’ll get more benefits from the mulch if you apply it correctly. These benefits include better weed control and improved temperature regulation, but I’ve also noticed enhanced soil nutrients and boosted soil moisture conservation by using mulch correctly.

Here’s how to apply mulch to your soil:

  1. Choose the right kind of mulch for your garden or space. Organic mulch, like hardwood mulch, improves soil quality and lasts for years; inorganic mulch, like stone, is low-maintenance and less permanent. Ultimately, you’ll need to evaluate your needs to determine which works best for you.
  2. Determine how much mulch you’ll need to cover the area. The mulch cover will need to be at least 2 inches (5.08 centimeters) deep for most applications, so you’ll need to consider that depth alongside the area your space covers. Remember: it’s better to have too much than not enough.
  3. Purchase high-quality mulch for your garden. The Wood Smith USA Cedar Shavings (available on Amazon.com) is an excellent mulch material for indoor and outdoor use. The product is made of organic cedar chips and will improve soil quality while providing all the cover you need.
  4. Remove all the weeds in the area before applying the mulch. You can pull out the weeds with your hands or use a shovel or garden spade for more stubborn plants. Ensure you uproot as many of the plants as possible.
  5. Create some edging for the area you’re mulching. I know landscaping might be a bit of a hassle for some gardeners, but it’s essential to define your edges to get effective results from the mulch material. You can use a shovel to create a new edge or maintain an old one.
  6. Eliminate any existing mulch in your garden. The old mulch might be a few years old but interfere with the new mulch layer. You can use a shovel and wheelbarrow to remove the existing mulch from the earth.
  7. Use a shovel to add the mulch to the soil. I recommend you start with a few piles to ensure you don’t have too little material in the soil. Spread the piles as far apart as possible before proceeding to the next step.
  8. Use a rake to spread the mulch as evenly as possible. You might need to add some more mulch to the soil, but ensure you keep it away from plant shoots. Keep spreading the mulch until you end up with a nice, thick layer of cover.
  9. Add some water to the applied mulch. As I’ve mentioned, watering ensures the soil underneath gets enough moisture and protects the mulch from fungi infestation and strong winds. However, ensure you don’t overwater the soil to prevent root rot and other overwatering-related problems.

You can apply mulch almost any time you want, but ensure you use high-quality materials for the best results. And while I’m an advocate for organic mulch, you might get better use from inorganic materials like stone in some situations.

But regardless of what material you use, ensure the mulch depth is perfect for the best results.

Still, mulch doesn’t last forever–even if you use organic materials–and you might need to replace it after some time. However, you only have to replace it if it looks bad or if you notice the material has become hard.  

How To Maintain Mulch in Your Soil

I’ve already shared how you can loosen hardened mulch, as well as the best way to apply mulch to your garden soil. However, I thought it’d be nice to share some great tips for maintaining mulch in your soil–regardless of how extreme your weather conditions might be. These tips are pretty straightforward and actionable, so you should have no issues using them to get the most out of your mulch! 

Here are a few ways to maintain mulch in your soil:

  • Remove, replace, or loosen old mulch if you notice it’s sour, bad, or hard.
  • Always remove weeds before mulching to ensure the material prevents overgrowth.
  • Don’t use mulch mixed with soil if you want to get essential nutrients from the material.
  • Ensure the mulch material is completely dry since damp mulch can harm your soil and plants.
  • Remember only to use high-quality products, whether you’re using organic or inorganic mulch in your garden.

These tips are handy if you’re laying new mulch, but you might also find them helpful if all you’re doing is loosening hard mulch.

How To Tell if Mulch Is Bad

It’s essential to be able to tell the quality of mulch when working with the material in your garden or farm. I already explored some parts of this concept in a previous article, and you can check it out to learn how long an opened bag of mulch is good for: How Long Is An Unopened Bag Of Mulch Good For?

In this section, I’ll mention some surefire signs that tell you if your mulch is bad. You can tell if mulch is bad if you notice one or more of these signs:

  • A sour smell from the mulch or areas around the mulch.
  • Pest-infestations.
  • Molds and fungi in and around the mulch.
  • Weed overgrowth.
  • Dead plants around the mulched area.
  • Hardened mulch.

While most of these signs might be symptoms of other problems, the smell of the mulch is the best way to determine its quality. You must check the quality of your mulch as often as possible to ensure it’s still beneficial to your garden.

Final Thoughts

Mulch becomes hard due to exposure to environmental elements, which bleach and compress the material over time. However, the material can also get hard if you misapply it. Fortunately, it’s easy to loosen the hardened mulch without damaging your garden or hurting your plants.

The tips I shared in this article are perfect for amateur gardeners, but you might need them if you’re more experienced with gardening or mulching.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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