What’s All the Fuss About Mulch?
Mulch has gone beyond being useful, to be its own element in the landscape, adding health and beauty to the garden when done properly.
The purpose of mulching is to cover the roots of a plant with something to hold in moisture and prevent erosion, to keep the roots cool in summer and warm in winter, to reduce weed growth, and to possibly add nutrients to the soil (depending on what is used).
Mulch can be applied in any season and should be installed at least once a year. Some homeowners mulch every six months to maintain a fresh appearance. Always weed, clean out, and trench beds before applying mulch to get a clean look.
All mulches have their good and bad points. It is ultimately up to the homeowner to choose the appearance they most wish to achieve and what mulch characteristics work best for their lifestyle.
There are so many kinds of mulch—how do we choose? By definition, just about anything can be used as mulch. However, not all materials are a good idea. Here are some basics to help you choose between the types of mulch most often used (or discussed) in our area.
Recycled Plant Materials
Recycled plant materials like shredded leaves and compost are a natural way to recycle and are readily available for free in your own yard. The good news: they add nutrients back to the soil. The bad news: they do not always give the tidy, manicured appearance many homeowners desire. Beware: Do not use grass clippings, as they can spread grass and weed seeds into your beds. And do not use leaves from diseased or bug-infested plants because the pests will spread.
Pines straw (pine needles) is a popular choice and is considered to be a bit less formal then wood mulch. Pine straw is a good choice for natural wooded areas, especially if existing pine trees are already dropping needles. The good news: pine needles are healthy for the landscape because they add acid back to our alkaline middle Tennessee soil, feeding azaleas, rhododendron, evergreens, and many other landscape plants. Pine straw also holds together fairly well and does not wash away as badly as wood nugget mulch. It is also usually the least expensive choice of commercially available mulches. Some think it is better for termite prevention. The bad news: pine straw must be replaced more often because it degrades and fades faster.
Pine bark nugget mulch comes in small, medium, and large nugget sizes. The good news: it is an attractive product and since it is made of pine wood, it adds acid to the soil like pine needles. The bad news: nuggets float away fairly easily, so this mulch can wash away, especially on slopes.
Shredded pine mulch is medium brown in color and a very popular premium mulch. The good news: since it is a shredded product, it holds together well and is less likely to wash away. Shredded pine adds acid to the soil, and the natural color fades less quickly than that of some other wood mulches. The bad news: since pine wood also has some light color, it may not be as consistently dark as desired.
Brown shredded hardwood mulch is a mix of hardwoods composted to reach a dark brown color. The good news: this mulch provides an attractive smooth appearance, and because it is a shredded product it holds together well. The bad news: This mulch sometimes has a pungent odor (lasting only a few days) that some people do not like. Hardwood mulch also creates an alkaline base to beds as it decays, so it is no help to acid-loving plants in the landscape.
Midnight Black Hardwood
Midnight black hardwood is a mixed hardwood mulch that is considered the most formal. The good news: its smooth dark color is very dramatic, and it is also a shredded product so it holds together. The bad news: black mulches are often colored with charcoal that can be tracked inside by children and pets, staining rugs and upholstery. In addition, it provides no help to acid-loving plants and also tends to fade more quickly than other mulches.
Artificially Colored Mulches
Artificially color-dyed wood mulches are not recommended since the dye may transfer onto other surfaces and be tracked inside the home. The color in these mulches also tends to fade quickly.
Shredded rubber mulches are not recommended. The good news (not really): rubber mulch will last forever. The bad news: Rubber mulch does not look good forever. It washes away and weeds will grow on top of it as soil collects in its crevices. And it lasts forever. u
—By Ann Jackson
Editor’s Note: Ann Jackson is director of sales, marketing, and creative interpretation for Turf Managers, LLC. in Nashville. An avid gardener, Ann is also a certified lawn and horticultural professional through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and provides design services for commercial and residential landscapes and flower beds. E-mail your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.