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Boonville Daily News - Boonville, MO
  • Ask the Gardener: The magic of mulch

  • If you've read my articles over the years, you may know I'm a huge fan of mulch, so much so that the Mulch and Soil Council named me its paid spokesman a few years back, a position I still hold.

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  • If you've read my articles over the years, you may know I'm a huge fan of mulch, so much so that the Mulch and Soil Council named me its paid spokesman a few years back, a position I still hold.
    Yet I believe it was my unpaid and unsolicited endorsement for using it, and explanations about all the good it does, that led to my appointment than anything else.
    Here's what I said then -- and still today.
    Mulch offers many benefits in the landscape. I especially like adding it at the end of the fall season, after I've raked shredded leaves into my beds and before they're covered in a blanket of snow for the winter. Mulch is primarily used to keep moisture in the soil; it slows evaporation but it's also a collector. During a rain event, mulch traps falling water and lets it drain slowly into the ground, rather than running off and eroding soil away. It also acts as a full-time weeding crew. It's difficult for weeds to get started when mulch robs them of light.
    Mulch keeps soil cooler in the heat, and warmer in the cold. It buffers temperature changes, giving plants a chance to adjust to the extremes. During winter, quick thaws and subsequent refreezes cause frost heaving, which can actually push a plant's roots out of the soil and allow them to dry out. A good layer of mulch will keep the ground frozen during brief winter warm spells.
    Besides retaining moisture, organic mulches like bark, compost and grass clippings slowly add important organic matter and nutrients to the soil as they break down. These naturally released products of decomposition are great for plants and the countless other critters -- from earthworms to microorganisms -- that are present in all healthy soil.
    Choosing the right mulch is a matter of taste; but there are some pros and cons to consider with each type. Organic mulches break down over the years and eventually must be replaced. Bark mulch is the most common and comes in several sizes and types. The larger the pieces, the more slowly it breaks down. Shredded wood is fuzzy, so it will cling to itself. It's great for slopes. But here's something to consider when purchasing bagged wood mulch; the Mulch and Soil Council offers a certification seal on bagged mulch products that are certified to be free of unacceptable materials such as arsenic from pressure-treated wood. To learn more, visit www.mulchandsoilcouncil.org.
    Other forms of organic mulch include pine needles, which look great in beds and can help to acidify soil; use them around acid-lovers like blueberries and azaleas. Another favorite is wheat straw. The large bales are easy to work with and I like this best for use in a vegetable garden.
    Page 2 of 2 - You may prefer a more permanent solution such as gravel, stone or brick chips. They don't add nutrients to the soil, but they don't break down with time, either. Crushed oyster shells neutralize acid soil and alkalize neutral soil. Brick chips, crushed stone, gravel and poultry grit are pricy, but last for many years.
    Whatever your mulch of choice is, the idea is to create a blanket over the soil. Even sheets of plastic are considered a form of mulch since they perform many of the same functions of more traditional mulch.
    With the exception of plastic, if you can see soil, applying a 2- to 4-inch layer is usually enough. When planting seeds, mulch around the bed, but leave the soil just above the buried seeds free of mulch until the seedlings have sprouted and put on some growth. Spread mulch completely around the root zones of new transplants to stabilize temperature and moisture, but keep it back about an inch from stems and leaves. And be sure to apply it out to the drip line of newly planted trees. By all means, avoid piling "mulch volcanoes" up around tree trunks. Covering the bark will limit air circulation and encourage insects and disease.
    Mulch should be an everyday part of a gardener's arsenal. It's as vital a tool as your shovel or pruners, protecting your investment and hard work and keeping the garden looking great all year.
    Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.
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