Mulch is magic to any garden, especially during a drought. After all, what is mulch but an insulator? It cools and moderates the soil temperature during hot days and cold nights. It encourages beneficial microbial activity and aids in fighting disease. And earthworms like it, too – they work their way through the comfortable soil, breaking up organic matter and improving aeration, water percolation and nutrient movement throughout.

Canna leaves

Once your cannas have seen better days, cut up the leaves and use them for mulch.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Dried grass mulch

Use dried grass clippings as mulch around your flower beds.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Leaf mulch

Instead of raking all of your fall leaves into your compost pile, consider using some around your plants as mulch.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Bradley Lenet

Mulched landscape

For a more finished look, you can use a little store-bought mulch to lightly cover up your homegrown version.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Want more good news about mulch? Mulching your garden hastens root growth, conditions your soil and decreases water requirements by up to 50 percent! The simple act of covering the bare dirt also prevents the germination of unwanted seeds and reduces your weeding time by up to two-thirds! (And those seeds that do sprout are much easier plucked out of deep, soft mulch than dirt.)

The downside of mulch is the increasing cost of transportation and its affect on global warming (some mulch products involve deforestation). So what can you do to maintain the benefits of mulch while offsetting your carbon credits in your garden? The answer’s easy: Get some of your mulch from your own garden plants.

As you whack away at your overgrown hedge or yank those tall herbaceous weeds from your garden, think “instant mulch!” Plants with large, lush leaves – like cannas, comfrey and hydrangeas – are especially useful for mulching, and they’ll turn any dry, cracked soil into loamy love for your parched plants. That said, do steer clear of plants with seeds ripe for the planting – unless you want that particular plant to grow in another area of your garden.

Rather than just laying the leaves right on your soil, use hedge clippers to cut up the larger leaves into big handfuls. Or consider going over them with your lawn mower – especially if you’ve got large, fleshy leaves or small branches. (Be sure to wear protective goggles, closed-toe shoes and gloves when using the mower to mulch large piles of leaves.) Save the large stems and branches for fire kindling, or rent a chipper to turn those branches into bark mulch for paths and plants at a fraction of the cost of store-bought materials.

And did you just mow your lawn? Consider letting the clippings dry right on top of it. Then just collect and spread them around your flower beds. Or maybe it’s time to clear out your rain gutters. Don’t throw away those dry pine needles or leaves you pull out – they’ll make great mulch for your planter beds, especially those that like acidic soil. (Do throw out anything moldy, though. Such leaf litter may encourage disease or spread a disease that’s already present.)

When autumn rolls around, consider using the fallen leaves from your deciduous trees for mulch – they’re great for your garden! Almost all leaves will work wonders – just watch out for walnut foliage, which can inhibit plant growth. Also, check with a knowledgeable garden center employee or a Cooperative Extension agent for more information on any local invasive plants to beware of so you can keep those species from spreading in your yard.

Laying your homegrown mulch is easy enough: Just spread it out evenly around your beds. Do your best to keep the mulch from piling up around the trunk of trees or at the base of smaller plants. And be careful not to overwater freshly mulched areas – you don’t want them to get moldy, especially in shady spots.

Now pat yourself on the back – you’ve just made your garden sustainable, helped the environment and kept all your money in your savings account at the same time!