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Lawn & Garden

Mulch 101

4/15/2010 - West Side Leader
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By Dayle Davis

Mulching is a great way to help prevent weed growth, conserve moisture in soil, stabilize soil temperature and reduce soil erosion — and it looks good, too.
Photo courtesy of Jupiterimages
GREATER AKRON — Traditionally, folks mulch their shrub and flower beds in spring. Mulching is a great way to help prevent weed growth, conserve moisture in the soil and stabilize soil temperature, reduce soil erosion and keep our flower and veggie beds tidy and neat looking. Mulching also helps to reduce plant heaving caused by alternate freezing and thawing of the soil in the cooler seasons.

Which mulch to use is basically a matter of personal choice and aesthetic. But with so many different types of mulch on the market, it can be hard to choose just one. Perhaps you’d like to have different mulches for different areas of the yard. Perhaps it needs to be pet friendly. And once you choose the type of mulch, how do you know how much to order if getting a truckload? Hopefully the following information will help you with those decisions.

There are basically two types of mulch — inorganic and organic. Depending on which type of mulch you use, it can add organic matter to the soil as it decomposes.

Inorganic mulches are natural or man-made materials that either don’t decompose at all, or decompose very slowly, such as stone, gravel, lava rock and pebbles. These materials are often used outside commercial buildings and should only be used in your landscape in areas where your plantings are permanent and you don’t plan on routine cultivation. Gardens that have a top layer of gravel or rock are very hard to garden in. Be aware also that gravel can detrimentally alter the pH of your soil.

Another inorganic mulch is shredded tires, which is often used for playground surfaces. Inorganic mulches offer no value to the soil because they do not decompose.

Organic mulch consists of materials from plant or animal residue and breaks down over time, such as pine bark, shredded cypress, compost, composted leaves, hardwood chips, animal manure and more. Also, other mulches can be made from waste wood pallet material or can be a blend of products, such as finely ground compost mixed with tree barks. Here’s a closer look at organic mulch:

• Shredded, chip, or chunk bark is the most popular mulch, such as pine bark and shredded hardwood and cypress bark.

• Waste wood such as used pallets and other wood is shredded and dyed to mimic traditional bark mulches. This material decomposes faster than bark and depletes the soil of nitrogen, so it is important to add nitrogen fertilizer at the same time that you apply the mulch. My personal preference is to not use mulches that have been artificially dyed.

• Composted municipal sludge made from municipal garbage, paper pulp, yard wastes and many other by-products is another type. I use this product in my flower beds, but choose not to use it in the vegetable garden.

• Hulls, cobs and shells comprise a group of food by-products such as cottonseed, buckwheat, cocoa-bean, peanut hulls, crushed corn cobs and similar products. All can be used as mulch. Be aware that cocoa-bean mulch can be life-threatening to your pets if they ingest it.

• Sphagnum peat moss, which comes from mosses such as sphagnum and hypnum, contains long fibers that resist decomposition and is quite acidic.

• Muck peat is well-decomposed material that is dark brown with almost no fiber. Muck peat usually is neutral to slightly alkaline. It has a fine texture, dries quickly and can blow away in the wind. It is of somewhat limited value as a mulch.

• Pine needles make an excellent mulch, particularly for plants that thrive in acidic soils.

• Straw and hay can be used in winter for protection of perennials, strawberries and small plants. It decomposes readily and needs the addition of a nitrogen fertilizer.

• Wood chips or shavings mulch consist of sawdust and more wood than bark. This material decomposes rapidly and should be supplemented with nitrogen fertilizer at the same time as the mulch is laid down.

Apply mulch in mid- to late spring after the soil has warmed and is drying from spring rains. Mulching too early can actually delay the drying of the soil and affect the root growth of your plants.

The recommended mulching depth, depending on the material selected, is 2 to 2-1/2 inches. When adding more mulch to an existing bed, the total depth of all mulch, both new and old, should not exceed 2-1/2 inches. Mulch applied in a thicker layer than this can lead to water-logged soil.

To determine how much mulch you need for your garden, figure out your square footage, then take: total square feet times the depth desired (in feet), divided by 27, equals the cubic yards needed. There’s 27 cubic feet per yard (3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet = 27 cubic feet). One cubic yard will cover a 324-square-foot area with 1 inch of soil or mulch.

For more information, call The Ohio State University Summit County Extension Hotline Tuesdays or Thursdays between 9 a.m. and noon at 330-928-4769, ext. 3, and request FactSheet HYG-1084-00, “Mulches for the landscape,” and FactSheet HYG-1083-96, “Mulching landscape plants.”

Dayle Davis is a freelance writer and avid perennial gardener, with a B.A. in communications and course work in botany, geology and wildflowers. Davis is certified as a Master Gardener under The Ohio State University’s Horticultural Extension.

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