GARDEN MULCHES FOR YOUR FLOWER BEDS
All about garden mulches will help you sort through mulch options and choose the right security blanket for your flower beds. (Cypress is/was a popular bark mulch because it’s attractive and long-lasting) Popular but still visually appealing is the question.
EAT AND RUN BUGS
Water in the soil doesn’t thaw on sunny winter days, then refreeze at night. That’s good news. The melting-and-freezing cycle makes water shrink and expand, possibly popping shallow-rooted plants right out of the ground — a phenomenon called heaving. Heaving spells the end for plants.
MULCH VS NO MULCH
THE BIG QUESTIONS:
Here are some guidelines:
- In most beds, mulches and soils, start with a layer 2 to 3 inches deep. If it’s quick-drying sandy soil, go for the higher end of the range. For clay that drains poorly, go with the shallower depth. For a dense mulch like newspaper, use a much thinner layer.
- If the soil is dry, water it before applying mulch. Pull any weeds.
- Apply mulch just about anytime, remembering that if you mulch early in the spring, the ground may be slow to warm. If you mulch only in the winter to prevent heaving, wait until the ground freezes. Mulch could delay freezing of the ground, causing roots to go dormant later than normal and possibly damaging them.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT MULCH FOR YOUR GARDEN
- Appearance. In a showy flower garden, you want a mulch that looks good without stealing the limelight: Try bark chips, shredded bark, or cocoa hulls. For a woodland garden, leaves or pine needles are right at home. For a large or no-frills cutting garden, grass clippings or layers of newspaper are budget-smart. You can always top them with something prettier and pricier.
- Longevity. How long do you want the mulch to last? You may want to dig up a bed at the end of the season, in which case compost or another quick decomposer is a smart choice. Around permanent plantings, such as roses or flowering shrubs, a sheet of landscape fabric covered with bark nuggets or river stones will last for years.
- For perennial beds, consider shredded bark, which lasts a long time. As a rule, the bigger the mulch chunks, the longer they last. Soft or green materials, such as leaves or grass clippings, break down faster than dry woody elements, such as straw, pine needles, or bark. Stone or gravel last an eternity.
- Cost. Homemade mulches, such as compost, grass clippings, and newspaper, are just about free. Bark chips run $2 to $3 a bag. Cocoa mulch can cost more than twice that. If you need to cover a large area, try to buy in bulk, or put something cheap under something expensive. When evaluating cost, remember to factor in how long the material will last.
IMPORTANT Q & A’ s WHEN IT’S TIME TO MULCH
QUICK GUIDE TO MULCH
Turn under at end of season to improve soil. Texture is too fine to suppress aggressive weeds.
Turn under at end of season. Can heat up or mold if too thick. Use 1-2 inches if fresh, 2-4 inches if dry.
Loose layer can be about 6 inches deep, will settle down. May contain weed seed.
Use at base of flowering shrubs. Cover with thin layer of attractive mulch. Get good-quality fabric, or weeds and roots will tangle in it. Best type is bonded, not woven.
Leaves composted two to three years. Turn under at end of season to improve soil.
Shred before using if you want them to break down faster.
Use layer 5 to 10 sheets thick. Disguise with thin layer of attractive mulch.
Turn under at end of season. Adds nutrients. Store-bought stuff looks and smells less like the real thing.
Compost Used manure left after mushroom harvest. Can turn over at end of season to improve soil. May contain pesticide residues. Texture is too fine to suppress aggressive weeds.
Use 1-2 inch layer near acid-loving plants. Soak in warm water before using. Never let it dry out completely or it will shed water. Use Canadian peat; Louisiana peat may be dangerously acidic.
Regional product. Last two to four seasons. Pine trees provide ready supply.
Use at base of flowering shrubs. Get kind that lets water pass through. Top with more attractive mulch.
Breaks down quickly. Depletes soil nitrogen, so sprinkle soil with blood meal or other nitrogen source.
Loose layer about 6 inches deep, will settle down. Lasts one to two seasons. May deplete soil nitrogen.
Byproduct of timber industry. Quality varies. Recycled woods from pallets and construction may contain toxins that kill plants and contaminate soil. Don’t use chips if they smell sour; this indicates the presence of harmful acids. Rid fresh chips of acids by letting them decompose in a compost pile or pit before using.
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