with The Helpful Gardener
Mulch - (Including Bark)
Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.
Next on my list is bark mulch, and this is the stuff the grand majority of us use and with good reason. It’s reasonably cheap, readily available, and we’re pretty used to seeing it around. Another good point is the fairly quick turnover time from mulch to soil. Now many of you out there are shaking your head. “Scott, you big dummy, if it turns over quicker that means I have to mulch more often! That’s why I buy the nuggets!” Yet what’s left of the nuggets in a years time looks so ratty that you end up buying more and putting them on; the only difference between your garden and mine is I’ve gained another inch of rich organic matter and I’ve hauled a few more wheelbarrows than you. The price of those nuggets is more expensive than my bulk bark so we end up spending the same amount and I get better coverage. That’s if your paying for the bulk mulch at all; I get it for free at the town transfer station where my town accepts garden waste, tub grinds it and puts it in a big pile for us to take away for free! That used to be hundreds of dollars in a year for me; now I get it for my tax dollars and the town retains soil by keeping it at home. I love win-win stuff like that! Some barks are better than others (more on that in a moment) and I get whatever people have thrown in the pile, but it’s also got a compost component (from the grass clippings and such), so I’m happy as a pig in … well, compost!
Some wood mulches are good, some not so, and some have little use as mulch. The worst offender of the bunch is one I see used all the time and I suspect is even more prevalent than I know; trail chips. You know the stuff that comes out of the business end of a wood chipper. It’s called trail chips by most folks ‘cuz that’s all its good for. The bark mulch is okay because it breaks down fairly easily. The heartwood needs to go through a few changes before it breaks down; these entail conversion by critters in the soil that actually use nitrogen for fuel. So if we put trail chips in the garden, we’ve actually introduced an organism who will compete with our plants for food! Might as well throw grass seed in there too! Hardwood mulches suffer from much the same problem. Softwoods like pine, spruce and hemlock incorporate into the soil easily and add nutrients, so there’s the obvious choice in the wood category (although free is good, those wood chips from the tree guys come at a high but unseen price, as your plants dwindle away to nothing).
The stuff I like the least is the stuff y’all seem to like the best; the red “cedar” mulch (which is really ground up pine pallets died red; I occasionally run across the real deal, but it’s rare and expensive). This is heartwood with all the attendant problems and what’s more, when the color starts to fade, you put on another layer. And the next year another. And another. I’ve been called in to find out why a garden is going south and found four and five layers on top of each other like rings on a tree. No water penetrates, the heartwood uses up the available nitrogen, and the plants croak. I don’t care how cheap it is or what color they dye it (those colors compete with the plants!), you are doing yourself no good by using this stuff. Mulches that incorporate help the soil and plants. Ones that don’t hurt it. Period.
There are other mulches that I am seeing more and more availability on. Buckwheat hulls seem to be catching on; I am leery of the anti-fungal properties it possesses as it could hurt healthy soil flora (and they blow around too easily). Cocoa mulch is a fantastic organic component; too good really as it will grow those healthy soil fungi I was just talking about on top of the mulch (a tad unsightly, but I still buy them to add to my bonsai soil and to throw into my compost; good stuff!). I can’t say I’ve tried the licorice root yet, but I hear good things. There are rubber mulches and stone mulches, but these do nothing to help your soil and will eventually fill up with organic content, and then what? You have to remove everything and start over. And you thought organic mulch was too much work?
Just remember all the good and bad that mulch can do, and find the one that you like and that works for you (I know a mulch is working for me when the worms start getting more populous and stronger; a sure sign). In a few years your soil will start to get as black as night and the worms will do all the tilling you need. All will be well in the garden. So get out there and frost the cake (you’ll be glad you did).
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