Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mulch Know-how

By Gene and Katie Hamilton

Insulate your plants from the heat and worse with the right mulch. Pine needles can be an inexpensive and attractive mulch for your garden. Mulch insulates plants, protecting them from the heat, the wind, the sun and more.

The benefits of mulch:
Mulch is a ground cover that insulates soil from the harmful effects of the sun and wind and conserves soil moisture by checking the force of rain. In the case of rain, mulch acts as a buffer between downpours and the precious topsoil, allowing water to seep through layers rather than erode them. As for the sun and wind, which work together to dehydrate garden beds and vegetable patches, mulch serves as a great protective barrier.

Other benefits of mulch include the following:
It chokes weeds out.
As it decomposes, organic mulch becomes rich humus, adding nutrients to the soil.
It creates a unified look in garden beds and among shrubbery.
Choosing a mulch:
In choosing your mulch, first consider what is available in your region and what it costs. The best place to look at different types of mulches is at a garden center that has open bins displaying different examples. In general, mulch with course particles remains loose and lasts longer so it's a better choice. Mulches with fine particles can become compacted and matted. They also decompose faster so they do not last as long. Also, spread mulching material about three inches deep around plants but don't pack the mulch against the plant stems or tree trunk.

Organic mulch
Organic mulch is mulch that is natural and decomposes. See if one of the following types suits your needs.

Pine Needles:
If you're fortunate to have pine trees nearby, rake the nutrient-rich needles in a pile and then spread a 3-inch layer throughout your plantings. They're especially attractive surrounding the base of trees and bushes. Pine needles are acidic so they make ideal mulch around acid-living shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons.
Most of us have grass clippings that can be recycled as mulch when they're dry and shredded. A two- to three-inch layer of clippings works nicely, anything thicker can clump and possibly be too much of a covering. Vegetables will benefit from dried grass clippings that are rich in nitrogen. Cut the lawn, allowing the clippings to dry out on the lawn for a day or two. Then shred the clippings by running a lawn mower with a bag over them and then collect them. Do not use grass clippings that were treated with broad-leaf weed killers. You can mulch your lawn as you mow it using mulching lawnmower or retrofitting your mower with a mulching blade.
Leaves are an inexhaustible source of organic mulch, that is, if they are ground up. A lawn mower with a bag does this job just like the grass clippings. Spread a 3-inch covering of this fine mulch over the ground for protection.
Wood Bark and Nuggets:
At your local nursery or garden center you can buy wood bark chips and nuggets in 3-cubic-foot bags, which cover roughly 10-12 square feet spread 2-3 inch thick. This can get expensive for a larger area. A better bet is to buy bark chips in bulk form delivered to your yard. You can save the delivery charge if you have a vehicle suitable for hauling. Bulk bark chips are sold by the cubic yard with a minimum order. For delivery on site the price will vary depending on the quantity you buy and how far you are from the nursery.
In some communities the local tree nursery, park district or utility company offers bark chips at a sizable discount. Always check that you're not getting chips from a diseased tree. Some of the most popular other natural materials include straw, hay or compost.

Inorganic mulches
Inorganic mulches like stones, black plastic and landscape fabric can work well, too. Check out these following options.
Stones and marble chips do the same job as organic mulches with one exception. Since they don't decompose they don't have to be replaced. They lend a somewhat more formal look to a landscape and go a long way to warding off weeds. They're often used with plastic sheeting laid beneath them to stifle weed growth.
Plastic Sheeting:
The pros and cons of black plastic sheeting are always an issue with supporters saying the plastic blocks out weed growth and helps to control the temperature of the soil. Many who dislike sheeting say it looks artificial in an otherwise natural setting, and that it tears easily and disintegrates, too. So why not compromise? Lay down the plastic and then conceal it with organic mulch. It is sold in rolls of varying widths and lengths with or without perforated holes so water can reach plant roots and openings for plants.
Landscaping Fabric:
Landscaping fabrics are an appealing alternative to plastic sheeting that offers a barrier while allowing water to pass through into the soil. They permit the soil to breath and absorb oxygen unlike plastic sheeting. They're sold in rolls from three feet and wider and in lengths from 25 to 250 feet long. Choose landscape fabric with an ultraviolet 'UV' rating, which should make it last longer.
You'll find special use landscape fabrics for vegetables and annuals designed for one-season use, which are less expensive and plant and seed blankets that warm the air and soil temperatures to improve germination. There are also 36-inch circles of landscape fabric designed for new tree plantings.

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