The telltale signs of Spring are of course the sound of birds, the feeling of warm sun and the smell of mulch.
It’s that time of year again when the mad rush to the garden centers begins and the looming pile of mulch in the driveway tests your strength and endurance. Most of us succumb to a love/hate relationship with this yearly chore: We love the way it looks, but do not enjoy the process. But do we even know why we are doing it? Has it just become an automatic task? Let’s refresh ourselves on the reasons we use mulch, the do’s and don’ts of mulching, and of the issues to be aware.
While there are many different types of mulch, for the purposes of this discussion we will primarily be referring to the qualities of organic mulch, specifically bark mulch.Benefits of mulch:
Aesthetic quality. We like the way it looks! It gives your landscape beds a clean, neat, uniform look.
Moisture retention. It holds moisture to prevent over-drying of the soil and reduces the amount of water needed for your plants.
Soil temperature moderation. It acts as a blanket to regulate soil temperature changes that could affect plant growth.
Weed control. At proper depths, mulch can inhibit weed growth. Ditch the landscape/weed fabric and just maintain a 2-4 inch depth of mulch.
Erosion control. Mulch helps minimize soil erosion caused by precipitation and steep topography.
Soil improvement. As it decomposes, mulch can add vital nutrients back into the soil.
Be aware of:
Over Mulching. As great as mulch can be, an excess of mulch can be detrimental to your plants. If you are adding mulch every year (typically for the sake of the color), a buildup of the mulch can often retain too much water, causing root rot. Prevent this by limiting your mulching to every other year, or longer if possible. During off years, just rake out and till the mulch you have to freshen it up.
Placement. Mulch piled-up against tree trunks and shrubs can lead to rotting of the trunks and stems fostering disease and/or rodent issues.
Color. As dyed mulches have become popular in the marketplace, the question is whether or not they are safe. Most often the coloring is a vegetable based coloring, which is generally safe. However, wood that is dyed is often colored for a reason…because it is not natural bark mulch, and instead is chipped-up old lumber. If the source of wood is pressure treated lumber, the chemicals can leach out of the mulch and into the soil. Always ask for the source and type of wood being used if you prefer the dyed mulch look.
Flammability. All organic mulches (and some inorganic mulches) carry the risk of combustion. It is vital to homeowners and landscape professionals to understand how flammable these materials can be. In fact, the MA Board of Fire Prevention Regulations prohibit the use of mulch within 18 inches of any residential buildings with greater than six dwelling units (527 CMR 17.00). Minimize fire risk by keeping your mulch at least 18 inches away from flammable building materials (decking, siding, etc.) and clear from electrical devices that may generate heat. For smokers, dispose of your smoking materials safely and/or provide smoking receptacles.
With this knowledge, hopefully you can tackle that mulch pile with a newfound sense of purpose, determination, and efficiency!