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Mulches and Mulching
April 04, 2011

As we slide into the first full week of April, temperatures are still below normal here in my corner of the world, but gradually working there way up.

I planted my Amaryllis bulbs a bit late this year.

I try to plan bloom time for early March when we really need a flower boost around here.

Still, it worked out pretty well for us.

They started blooming in mid to late March and are still going strong.

Signs of spring continue to grow and show.

Certain perennials are popping up, or breaking bud, like Columbine and Tall phlox.

When ever I see rabbits in pairs (maybe an extra male in waiting) I know it is spring, no matter the weather conditions.

Bird songs fill the air from dawn to dusk.

Gone are the Tree sparrows, but replaced by the Song sparrows.

The Junco population remains strong for now.

Few birds are coming to feed right now and that is a good thing.

Not only are they busy with other activities, it gives me a chance to save a few dollars.

The price of bird food has really taken a jump the past couple of months. (cost of fuel and the fact these products are commodities).

I'm busy with other things too and have less time to enjoy them this time of year.

The winter 'Honey Do' is finally done.

Of course that means a spring 'Honey Do' list is just around the corner.

Speaking of things to do..............................

The first of the month also means it is time to give your feeders a good cleaning.

I mean good cleaning.

Soak, scrub, sanitize and rinse well.

If you are more earth friendly, you may consider washing and sanitizing with 'Oxygen Bleach'.

Products like 'OxiClean' or 'Oxy Boost', are all natural products (no chlorine) and wont harm the environment if use properly.

I use this stuff on a regular basis, from cleaning decks to cleaning feeders and nest boxes.

Say, step outside on a clear night and catch a glimpse of the late winter sky.

Stars and Constellations that will soon be gone until late Autumn.

The winter sky is much prettier than the summer skies (more stars).

These same stars that ancient civilizations named and worshipped.

These same stars that mariners and explorers would use to navigate by......

Are the same stars that many experts believe many of out birds follow during migration.

No matter, the night sky is pretty special when you pause to think about the massive beauty, and of all of creation.

As the weather allows, start or continue working in your yard,

Remember, you damage wet or damp soil when you work it or even walk on it.

'Gardening For Wildlife' also means you want to leave some leaf litter and a few small twigs for the birds.

Prim and Proper isn't going to invite the birds you may want to attract.

Last week I asked if there was anything special or a favorite that you relate to spring.

Yes, I am attempting to get some reader involvement.

A couple of you did respond for this letter and both are from my home state.

Lora from Ottawa County, MI:

I think my favorite aspect of spring is watching the magical moments of the earth coming to life. When I first see a swollen bud or a leaf poking through the soil I feel my heart race...knowing that very soon a day will come when I open my door and everywhere around me life will suddenly pop. Every year there is one moment where I feel like Cinderella as she was enveloped with magical sparkles in a head-spinning transformation into a whole new world.

Any day here, I am ready!

Thank you Lora.

As a Naturalist, I can almost see the picture that you painted. Well done.

Welcome to Gardening For Wildlife.

Mary, also of Michigan:

My Favorite thing about spring is that I can once again hang my sheets out on the line to dry and then when dry, bring them in with that beautiful smell of spring clinging to them.

Thank you Mary.

I forgot about that smell when I mentioned mine.

That is a smell most of us grew up with and the nose always knows.

Too bad some locations have nixed clothes lines


What is there about spring that brings a special thought or moment to life for you?

Is it the sounds of spring (birds, kids playing, lawn mowers)?

The colors and new life?

Getting outside into the warm sun or playing in the dirt?

Help me out here.

Send this back to me along with your favorite(s).

First Name (last optional)

City or region:

State or Province:

I understand you may be busy, but a short line between friends???????

Besides, you get a few seconds of fame.

Okay, onto this week's topic.

This is a long one, so give your self some time.

Mulch and Mulching.


You've heard it again and again.............

Mulch for weed control, mulch for water retention, mulch to keep roots warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Neatly mulched beds improve the appearance of any landscape.

Beyond its appearance, a layer of mulch provides many other benefits besides the ones listed above.

Mulch can add much-needed nutrients to the soil.

The right mulch also attracts certain birds as they look for food and nesting materials.

It can also slow down and even deter the erosion of topsoil.

Though applying mulch may seem like a chore, it can actually save you effort later in the season.

Because mulch helps to prevent weeds and retain moisture, you'll spend less time weeding and watering your garden and more time enjoying it.

In order for mulch to work and look its best, you must choose the best material for your garden and apply it properly.

Not all mulches are created equal and not all mulch is for every situation.

Mulch goes well beyond aesthetics.

Yes, some mulches not only keep weeds down and help to retain moisture, but some mulches will add nutrients and offer other benefits to your gardens and your soil.

A few tips about mulching.................

With the proper tools at hand, it is time to get dirty.

The most common mulch is wood chips, shredded back and so on.

The best tool for this is a basic garden fork (pitch fork).

The fork also works well with pine needles and compost.

You'll get the hang of it.

(A cubic yard to coverage ratio is at the bottom of this letter.)

For more help, simply give me a holler.

Here we go.........

It is always wise to keep mulch a few inches from you plants, but more so with wood products like chips, nuggets and shredded bark.

It also wise to put down a nitrogen rich fertilizer before using wood product mulches (more on this later).

One thing that drives me crazy and is a big No, No in landscaping, yet many gardeners and even landscape companies continue to do........................

That is to pile or mound up mulch around the trunk of a tree.

(Picture to your right.)

This is called the Volcano look or effect.

While some may consider this attractive, it is one of the worse things you can do for your trees.

Mulch volcanoes offer a home for insects and fungus that will gradually attack the tree from under the now softened bark as well as from the outside.

It isn't a matter of if..............

It is a matter of when this will happen.

It may take years, but it will happen.

(Pictured to your right is the proper way to lay mulch around a tree.)

Always leave a barrier free zone from all of your plants.

Another thing that makes me cringe is this .........

When I see gardeners and again many of the so called pros, putting down mulch too early in the season.

I can appreciate that you may want to get a leg up on your gardening.

However, you aren't doing your plants any favors by mulching too soon.

For many of us, the soil temperatures are way too cold this time of year, to throw on any type of mulch.

Around here, I still have frozen ground in the shade.

Putting mulch on that now will keep it frozen for weeks to come.

The ideal time for mulch (in Temperate climates) is mid to possibly late spring when soil has had a chance to warm up.

Yes, soil temperatures should be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you put a fresh layer on now, your plants will be slow to take off and grow and may never be quite what they could have been because the soil temperatures never warmed up enough to allow for maximum intake and growth.

As a 'Nurseryman' (Michigan Certified), I can say this to you, because I am not trying to sell you a product or service (it is the truth, however).

I am simply trying to help you, get the most from certain aspects of gardening.

A side Note:

Be sure to water well before you lay any kind of a mulch down.

Okay, on to mulches and mulching.

Organic Mulches:

Compost is one of the best mulches for providing benefits to the soil.

However, that rich medium can also provides a great place for weeds.

Some compost is not very attractive.

If appearance is important, use compost as a soil amendment and find a more visually pleasing material to cover it like.........

Wood Chips or Shavings are visually pleasing and provide all the characteristics of good mulch.

Like sawdust, it is advisable to use older, decomposed material.

Wood mulch that has not been properly aged or turned regularly can contain toxins and acids that are harmful to young plants.

Fungal contamination can also occur with unseasoned wood mulch.

Wood chips and shavings also draw valuable nitrogen from the soil.

This is a nature at work, as nitrogen is required in the decomposition of carbon based products (anything wood).

Bark is also sold as chunks, nuggets, or shredded.

Bark is one of the most attractive (and more expensive) mulch materials, so it may be best used in more visible areas.

Pine, cedar, and cypress are the most common varieties.

In addition to its appearance, bark provides good weed prevention and moisture retention.

Plus, bark nuggets will last for years (and float away in a heavy rain).

Again, wood products draw nitrogen from the soil to aid in Decomposition.

I suggest you shy away from colored barks and mulches.

If you are like me, I don't want any kind of a dye running off or leaching into my soil and eventually water table (I don't care how earth friendly they tell me it is).

Again I say to you.................

If you don't add a high nitrogen fertilizer, many of your young trees, shrubs and flowers will have a weak or sickly look to them, especially if you insist on mulching right to the base of your plants.

Most plants have their root systems (90% of tree roots) within the first several inches of the surface.

If the nitrogen is being depleted to break down mulches, you can imagine the number this is doing on your plants that require a certain amount of nitrogen.

This is why it is so important to leave a gap between plant and mulch.

Especially young trees and shrubs, and all of your flowers and flowering plants.

Hay and Straw:

Straw is the leftover stem portion of harvested grain.

It is lightweight and therefore not always easy to apply.

It tends to blow around and decomposes quickly and therefore needs replacing more often than other mulches.

Its appearance may not make it a top choice for the landscape.

Straw does make a good cover for newly seeded lawn areas, but is full of weed seeds.

Hay is the stem portion of grasses, is often confused with straw.

Hay, like straw, is likely to contain weed seeds, so use it with caution.

Both straw and hay are good plant nutrients (nitrogen and others) and work well in the vegetable garden where weeds can easily be pulled.

Pine Needles are sold in bales like straw which makes them relatively easy to transport and apply, or you may find a surplus at a park or a friends yard.

They are long lasting and attractive.

Pine needles are typically longer and softer than spruce needles.

Once thought to add too much acid to your soil and only recommended for acid loving plants.

Research now shows that this isn't the case and can bee used in most situations.

Cocoa bean hulls are attractive and smell good.

They also are very light weight and have a tendency to blow around or float away in the next rain storm.

There have been cases of dogs liking the chocolate smell and getting sick and even dieing from eating too many cocoa been hull.

Newspapers covered with a mulch of leaves mixed with compost, or fresh grass clippings.

Paper should be no more than two to three layers thick and have holes punched in it to allow water through. It is best to wet the paper before laying it.

Again, a wood product.

Grass clippings provide nitrogen, tree leaves are once again...............a carbon based material.

Sawdust right off the saw can be very acidic depending on the type of wood being used.

A good rule of thumb for fresh sawdust, is to pile it where it will be undisturbed for one year.

The rains and natural decomposition will leach out most of the acid and then it can be used for mulch the next few years.

Leaf Mulch (Also called Leaf Mould) a good organic material but use leaves that have been allowed to rot slowly for about one year.

Grass clippings from a weed free lawn make a great feeding mulch, but use lightly.

They are best when used mixed with other organic matter such as leaves.

High in nitrogen, but have little by way of fiber to improve soil structure.

If applied too thickly, grass clippings can decay into a slimy pulp, which can get very hot, and can burn plants.

Inorganic Mulches:

Plastic warms the soil, plus blocks air and water.

Plant growth is accelerated by the added heat and moisture retained underneath the mulch layer.

Since plastic is solid, moisture must be provided by an irrigation system underneath or by careful hand watering.

Usually sold in rolls, black or clear plastic can be used.

Black is impervious to light, while clear plastic has been known to let weeds germinate and grow beneath.

On the downside, plastic can overheat the plant's roots or retain too much moisture, particularly if the plastic is covered with a layer of organic mulch for appearance sake.

Plastic will freeze, so you may need to take it up in the fall.

If used on slopes, any material placed on top of plastic will wash away or slide off. Plastic is well suited for use in vegetable gardens.

Landscape Fabric is purchased in rolls and provides good weed control.

Plus, unlike plastic, the fabric allows air and moisture to penetrate into the soil and plant roots.

Overall, it's the best inorganic mulch for long-term use.

Roots can become enmeshed in the fabric, making removal difficult, so be sure to remove weeds as soon as you see them.

Brick or Stone offers a neat appearance but may not blend with every landscape design.

They offer some weed control.

Brick and stone (especially lighter shades) will reflect heat back up towards plants, which may be harmful.

This mulch is certainly long lasting.

Be careful - if pieces are strewn into the lawn, they can become potential hazards when mowing.

Great projectiles for kids as well.

Only as a last resort would I recommend stone for any landscape or mulch.

Rubber Mulch made from recycled rubber and tires.

Good for permanent walkways, driveways, or playgrounds.

Make sure it is made from recycled materials first.

Comes in many colors.

Keeps old tires out of landfills.

Not too long ago using used tires in the garden was discouraged because of the possibility of heavy metals leaching into the soil.

Rubber also can not contribute beneficial organic matter to the soil, which in gardening is critical.


There is the colored dye and paint that will end up in the soil.

Applying Mulch:

After you have decided which material to use, it's time to put it down.

Here are some things to remember:

When the weather gets warm, we're always in a hurry to get our landscape looking its best, so we pile on the mulch.

But please, don't put mulch down too early in the spring.

Give the soil a chance to warm.

Once again, mulching too early will actually slow down the warming process.

Normally, mid to late spring is the best time to put down mulch.

The area should to be weed-free before mulching.

One reason we apply mulch is to control and kill weeds.

It can do the same to your desired plants, so be careful not to pile too much on them.

If you are mulching around plants, water them first, and them apply the mulch.

To prevent stems and bark from rotting, pull mulch away from woody stems and tree trunks one to two inches.

Also, if mulch is touching the plants, pests such as mice and slugs can get a great hiding place and a free lunch.

In general, the bigger the pieces or chunks, the deeper the layer needs to be.

Smaller-sized mulches will work their way into the soil more quickly.

Seedlings can work their way through a thin layer of mulch, but too deep a layer could be impenetrable.

Let your plants get off to a good start first. You can always add more after the plants are established.

Mulch that is too deep will stimulate root growth in the mulch layer rather than in the ground. The resulting shallow root system is susceptible to cold and drought damage.

For looks, consider the size and style of the area you are putting the mulch in. For example, pine bark nuggets may be too large for a bed of annuals, but perfect for an area around trees or shrubs.

Pathways, slopes, and areas prone to flooding or high wind need special consideration. Consider using a heavier or larger material here.

You may need to apply mulch in the summer to retain moisture and in the winter to insulate from cold.

How Much To Use?

A single - two inch layer of fine mulch should be sufficient, while a coarser material should be three - four inches deep.

Too much of either type can suffocate your plants.

In areas where you simply want to keep anything from growing, lay it on as thick as you like.

Coverage will vary greatly based on what type of mulch you use and how deeply it is layered.

One cubic yard of mulch will roughly cover 100 sq. ft. at a 3 inch depth and 160 sq. ft. at a 2 inch depth.

1 cubic yard of mulch = 27 cubic feet = (9) 3 cu. ft. bags or (13.5) 2 cu. ft. bags.

Well, it is time to fly for now.

Before I go, here is your positive thought for the week.

God Bless.

"Whatever has your focus also has you."

Dr. Charles F. Stanley

Be very careful where you focus your thoughts and where your heart lies.

Before you know it, it will control you and that can be dangerous my friend.

"Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing."

James 3:16

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers.

Better yet, have them sign up so they can receive their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

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