Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How's Your Mulch

What is mulch, why use it or why not use it in your landscape - these are the pressing questions on every gardener's mind, right? For some yes, other gardeners are thinking about the darn rabbits that have already spied their spring lettuce. Others are thinking about chocolate, any kind of chocolate - that includes me. Okay, back to mulch.

Simply put, mulch is anything you put on top of the soil in a landscape. It can be organic which means it will break down over time. These types include bark mulch of all sizes, shredded wood in various sizes, plus assorted wood types and colors (more on that later), arborist wood chips, straw, pine needles, chopped leaves and grass clippings. Inorganic or inert mulches generally don't break down (in our lifetime) and include rock, gravel and most weed fabric (more on that too).

New Mulch in our Landscape (almost done)
There are some lesser used mulches including newspaper, cardboard (organic since they break down) and biodegradable rolls or sheets made from plant starches. Some people use old carpet remnants or strips or chunked up rubber tire bits for mulch (read more here). Perhaps they break down in the next century.

There is one more mulch type - synthetic or plastic. Only one use in my book - for temporarily warming up vegetable beds or over tunnels as a cold frame. 

What's the mulch point? The obvious is that organic mulches replicate what's going on out there in nature land. You know the whole cool web of life in the forest where trees drop their needles and leaves which then blend together and form a nice, natural protective layer for the soil. Underneath the layer the soil is kept moist while lots of nature's organisms and critters use the fallen organic manna for life, liberty and their happiness - that may be a stretch but you know where this is going. 

It's a glorious circle - what drops to the ground is used to feed the tiny soil dwellers which is then used by the plant from whence the materials were dropped to nourish it until a freak lightening storm or time saps its life (pun intended). Is this happening in your own backyard? Sure, unless you're using carpet for mulch, the soil critters might not be too happy with circa 1960 lime green shag carpet.

Here's a list of more good outcomes from using mulch.
  • Erosion control - keeps soil on slopes or flats from moving and blowing away.
  • Conserves soil moisture and reduces surface evaporation.
  • Acts as a plant root insulator for weather and temperature shifts, something we're very aware of here in Colorado. 
  • As an insulator it reduces plants with shallow roots from possible frost heaving. 
  • Reduces soil temperatures, a very good thing during hot, dry summers.
  • As organic mulches break down it adds organic matter which improves soil quality.
  • Keeps weeds down and much easier to pull from mulch...NOT mulch over weed fabric which only acts as a weed gripper.  I'll just write it more LOUDLY - "weed fabric does not work long term." Soil (or dirt) eventually blows in over the mulch, then weed seeds blow in and find any spot suitable (which is everywhere) to put down roots. Years ago, soil fabric left the soil in our shrub border gray, lifeless and mostly on life support until I painstakingly removed it and started over. Read more on landscape fabric here.
  • Keeps soil splash back from hitting lower foliage - soil may harbor disease, especially in vegetable beds. I use light layers of herbicide-free grass clippings all summer.
  • Lastly, but certainly not the end of the list of positives, it gives the landscape a finished appearance, ties it all in and says "hey, I'm looking good and polished, got good flow and cohesion."
Clearly you know by reading this far that I'm a landscape mulch fan. What if you can't stand mulch, can we still be garden friends? Absolutely! My dear Mother never used mulch in all the years she gardened - 92. I doubt she gardened at the age of one, but she had tough parents who needed help growing food so I bet she picked up her first trowel by two. Over the years I suggested mulch so she could cut down on watering (she always hand watered her corner, tiered perennial beds). She always said no, said she didn't like it and then she would change the subject to Roy Orbison. 

I often hear gardeners say that if enough plants are in the bed or border they shade the ground and each other's plant roots. That makes sense, but our newish landscape doesn't have scores of perennials anymore. Six years ago we chose to go with more shrubs, trees, patio rooms and open areas in the side-yard where we hang out with guests plus our four-legged friend Ferris, and his friends who come by to play. They need mulch for play, we need it for all the reasons bulleted above. 

When I replace a plant or redo an area, I find the soil to be very cooperative and easy to dig. I believe the mulch in our yard is copying nature - works for our family! 

Dyed Mulch - Black
Just as in life, we gardeners should keep our opinions to ourselves when it comes to garden taste. That's difficult for me when I see brown, black, gold, or red dyed mulch. It just doesn't look or seem natural to me. Some of the bags of dyed mulch clearly state it is made from recycled hardwoods. I like the recycling part, but what are they recycling - discarded dirty building materials or pallets? 

Dyed mulch appears shiny and gritty when it is new out of the package, I wonder if it helps hold in soil moisture or actually repels water? I don't have the answers and have not queried or investigated bagged mulch, so these are just my opinions. 

I plan on asking reputable landscapers and garden center owners the next few months what they know of dyed mulch. I'll do a follow up blog later in the summer. Our expert, experienced landscape contractor who just re-mulched our entire landscape said this about dyed mulch - "doesn't look right."

Not a good red look
For additional mulch information - types of mulch further explained, how deep to apply and more -

Mulches for the Home Grounds

Mulching with Wood/Bark Chips, Grass Clippings and Rock 

Mulches for the Vegetable Garden

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