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BACKYARD GARDENER: The scoop on mulch

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KRISTOPHER FANTE, Agriculture Columnist

So you’re at the local garden center or big box store in search for some mulch for your landscape. You see endless amounts of colors, types and sizes. You ask yourself, “What do I choose?” Do you go with what color you think is best, the cheapest, or maybe the easiest to apply? All of those are good questions to ask yourself. After all, you want the best product for the least amount of money and the one that is the least amount of work, or do you?

The basic principle of mulch is to retain moisture and keep out the weeds; we all know that. But when you look at the different types of mulch, they are not all created equal. I have heard people categorize mulch into three types; red, black and rock. But the options span way beyond those basic choices.

The first thing you need to consider is what the mulch will be used for. Will it be for garden paths, trees, flowerbeds or the vegetable garden? All of these situations can call for different types of mulch material to utilize the most potential for your particular application.

For paths you will want to either choose some kind of rock or wood chips. Wood chips can be a good idea because they are larger than most fine wood mulches, they hold up better and for a longer period of time. Wood chips can be relatively cheap in price and you may be able to find them for free from a tree removal service. They’re always looking for a place to unload them, because it saves them time and money. Rock would be most gardeners’ choice for paths, but finding a suitable one can be tricky. There are plenty of beautiful rocks out there, but most do not work well under foot. You will want to use something that’s jagged and not roundish, so the rocks will lock together and pack down. Years ago I made this mistake on a path and used pea-gravel. It looks similar to river rock, though it’s real tiny. Because of its rounded form, it would move all over the place, and it was quite uncomfortable to walk on. Over the years it never packed down and eventually had to be removed.

When mulching your vegetable garden, it’s best to use something that will add good organic matter to your soil. Most garden centers carry mulch that they call “natural;” it’s a blend of finely grounded wood and compost. It’s fantastic for improving the soil and helps hold moisture as well. The only drawback is that it breaks down very quickly, and will just about be completely gone by the following spring. So keep that in mind if you use the natural type in places other than the vegetable garden, like flowerbeds; as you will have to replenish it each year. Another material you can use for your vegetables is straw. That would include straw cut from a wheat field or pine straw mulch that comes from pine trees dropping their needles. Both aid in retaining moisture and keeping weeds from germinating. I personally love to use pine straw mulch. I use it on everything from trees to landscape beds and my veggies too. It will last beyond a year, so all you have to do is remove it quickly with a rake in the spring, plant your vegetables, then reapply the pine straw, and maybe add a little more to it for aesthetics.

When most homeowners think about mulching, they are referring to putting some type of mulch in their flowerbeds or around their trees. These applications are where there are limitless materials to use, mainly in the wood and rock category. Rock is great for landscape beds that you don’t want to perform continuous maintenance on. It looks attractive all year around and only needs to be installed one time. It seems like every year there are more colors and types of rock that are readily available at our local garden centers. Popular choices are red and black lava rock, river rock and white marble chips. Some of the newer ones such as Alabama Sunset, Chocolate Chip, Desert Rose, River Slicks and so on, have given us a vast amount to choose from. The disadvantages of using rock are they can be difficult to pull weeds out of, leaves seem to stick in-between them, and it’s a big ordeal to move them around if you have plants that fail, or you want to move or add more plants to your beds. Rocks can also increase the temperature around your plants, especially when used around a brick home in the summer time. So consider that if you decide to choose rock for mulch, as you may find yourself watering more frequently for plants that require constant moisture. Furthermore, rock doesn’t break down and give your soil any nutrients, so that’s another variable to think about if you have poor soil like hard compacted clay in your yard, and you wish to improve it. But, the no-maintenance factor goes a long way for people who don’t want to spend several days applying mulch each year.

Wood mulch is undoubtedly the most popular choice of all, but don’t assume they are all the same. There are true “grade A” mulches and then “grade B” and so on. Big box stores sell a lot of the dyed black, red and brown mulches at a cheap price. Just about all of these are nothing but chopped up pallets dyed for color, and then sold as hardwood. Companies buy up used pallets that may or may not have had chemicals sprayed onto the wood, then they process them as mulch. I don’t use much of this, but I have on occasion and it does the job, but you do get some really big pieces and possibly some nails and trash. These bagged mulches do very little for adding organic matter to the soil, therefore little improvement is made to your soil over time. The big plus on these bagged mulches is the price; if you’re on a limited budget, this could possibly be the best choice for you. But I would refrain from using it in the vegetable garden just to be safe from any unknown chemicals.

A wood mulch that’s best for your landscape beds would be an all hardwood bark that’s been triple shredded. I’ve only seen these in scoops and they are very expensive. They can run you from $50-$75 a scoop and you would more than likely have to go to Louisville to get it. I don’t know of any garden centers in the Nelson County area that carries it. I would assume there is not a market for it as most gardeners, including myself, won’t pay that price for something that will need replacing every year or two. The only true “grade A” mulch that I’ve seen locally is cypress, which is 100 percent cypress bark. It’s the most popular type and can only be purchased locally in bags. It’s very pricey, but it does hold its beautiful color naturally, with no dyes or chemicals added. But there is a dark side to this mulch — the process of how it’s harvested and the huge negative effects it has on our environment. The fact is beautiful cypress trees and the wetlands they grow in are being pillaged with no regard for the planet. Taking down an entire tree just for the bark is as ludicrous as it gets in my opinion. Not only are the wetlands being destroyed, so is the wildlife that inhabits there. For this reason, I wouldn’t even consider having it in my yard. It just does not sit right with me to put something in my landscape for beautification, while simultaneously destroying a natural landscape that does not belong to humans alone.

To find a middle ground on a quality hardwood mulch for a fair price, you want something that actually comes from hardwood trees, with both bark and wood, that has been double or triple shredded. Local garden centers sell it, and it’s a fantastic mulch at a reasonable price. Most all of these have a colored dye added, and it helps keep the color for over a year. That works well for the areas that may go longer than a year before the mulch gets refreshed. This most often comes in scoops, so if you need a large amount, you can ask them to deliver it for you if you don’t have access to a full-sized pickup or trailer.

As I mentioned before, I absolutely love pine straw mulch. It’s the easiest of all mulches to apply, and I recommend it for the elderly or anyone who has physical limitations. It’s very light-weight and a breeze to install. I love the color and the texture it adds to the landscape. They use this frequently down south because of the availability of pine forests. This mulch is 100 percent sustainable, and has zero negative effects on the forest. The process is simple for the distributors; the trees drop the needles, they rake them up in small square bales, then send them out to garden centers. Pine straw mulch is all organic and has no additives such as dye, therefore the color does not last as long as other dyed mulches and turns to a faded brownish-gray after 3-4 months; that would be one downside that I have found with using it. Another hindrance of pine straw mulch would be the price. The price varies from place to place, and can run as high as $10 per bale, so look around and get the best deal.

Choices for mulch are more abundant now than they ever have been, many more than what I could cover in one article. So do your research and choose what works best for you individually. Remember to think about style, price, installation and maintenance. Choose something that will make you happy and that will express your personality artistically in your garden. After all, gardens are a reflection of ourselves and every little detail of our yard reflects that, even something as diminutive as mulch choice.