Felder Rushing: Time to talk about mulching

By FELDER RUSHING GUEST COLUMNIST,

I can’t imagine a more boring topic than mulching the garden. But I respect it, though in last week’s heat it almost killed me.

I did it though, because blanketing bare dirt is one of the four most important steps for setting out new plants, along with “wide hole, loosened roots, and green side up.” 

But I shoulda known better. I recently helped out my military officer son and his bride settle into their new home right before he was deployed overseas. The mulch I laid down around young trees, shrubs, and groundcovers was getting thin, and my daughter-in-law was throwing a party for other new lawyers from her office. So I decided to spruce things up a bit.

But I waited until the day of the ‘do, and quickly discovered that 96 degrees and humidity so thick I could lick it was too much for this old guy to be throwing dozens of big bags of bark around. I did it in shifts, with a lot of wiping my brow in the shade, drinking from the hose, and occasionally squirting water towards a hopeful lizard eyeing the life-saving liquid. 

Got it done though, and it made the whole landscape look…professional. Cosmetics alone is a great benefit of mulch, as it, along with a shallow border ditch, sharply delineates where grass stops and beds begin, and unifying the beds so they look purposefully related.

A blanket of mulch keeps soil from overheating and wicking dry in the summer sun, helps keep weeds down, and protects roots from freezing and drying out in winter winds. Plus, plant-based mulches “feed” the soil by gradually breaking down into compost so worms can take it down deep around roots.

Mulch should be spread fairly level, including around the base of trees and shrubs. Hate it when even professional landscape maintenance folks pile it up like fire ant mounds, which can cause lower trunks to stay wet and even decay. Better to pull it back a bit into a donut-like ring. And keep mulch off the house foundation on the slight chance it can encourage termites.

My rule of thumb on how much mulch to use is simple: Barely enough to completely cover the soil, and that much more to allow for settling, and later refresh and brighten it as needed with a little more. A year or so after mulch is applied, it can sprout mushrooms. No big deal, they’re from beneficial wood-composting fungi. Ignore ‘em. 

I prefer using shredded or chipped bark mulch because it’s easy, lays flat, and doesn’t form a dense mat underneath like slow-to-decompose pine straw. Sometimes for fun I’ll surround a small tree or cover container soil with smooth rocks, seashells, beer caps, or other ornamental stuff, but in general I prefer organic mulches like bark, compost, tree leaves, pine cones, and even pecan shells. I usually dust mulch with a little cottonseed meal, not just for the natural nitrogen but also to help earthworms bulk up and do a better job of digging the mulch they eat down deep around roots. 

I almost hate to even mention synthetic mulch and weed barrier fabrics, because they cause more problems in the long haul than they solve in the short run, and are a real mess when the bed needs reworking. Worse, they keep organic matter from cycling into the soil, which starves worms and other beneficial critters including bacteria and fungi. Just say no, and go with organic mulches.

Whew. An entire article about mulches. But one last bit of advice: Don’t spread it in the hot summer sun.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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