In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
June, 2005
Regional Report

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1804

This sedum does beautifully in stone mulch.

Choose Mulch According to Your Plants' Needs

Hopefully I'm wrong, but we may be on our way to another dry summer. Many of us are behind in rainfall so far this spring, and gardens are beginning to come on strong. So, (here she goes again) it's time to mulch!

I have certainly seen gardens do well without mulch, but they take a lot of work few of us have time for. A mulched garden means a lot less weeding, watering, and general fussing. The soil doesn't erode, and perhaps most importantly, the soil temperature and moisture stay consistent -- just what plants need to stay healthy.

Mulch comes in many forms: living mulches of grass and ground covers, chipped or shredded wood and bark, shredded leaves, compost, sawdust, and straw. Trees and shrubs do best with chipped or shredded wood. Chipped wood from power companies, tree trimmers, and city forestry departments is inexpensive and lasts a fairly long time since it decomposes slowly. It doesn't look quite as refined as shredded bark, but if you have a lot of area to mulch, it's definitely the way to go.

Shredded bark is quite attractive but considerably more expensive. It comes in bags at the garden or hardware store, or you can have a truckload delivered by nurseries and landscape firms. It also decomposes faster so will have to be replenished more often, usually every one or two years. I tend to spend the extra money for shredded bark for beds near the house that are quite visible, and then use chipped wood in my distant beds.

Perennials and annuals need a finer-textured mulch to keep them healthy. My favorite, which also costs me nothing except time and gas for the mower, is a thick layer of shredded leaves. Doing this every year not only keeps my plants moist in dry times, it also feeds them as the mulch decomposes and improves my soil.

Cocoa bean hulls are another favorite for flower beds although they tend to be a bit expensive if you have large areas to mulch. They lend the nice scent of chocolate to the garden, but they also have a tendency to mold. Boerner Botanic Garden in Milwaukee has solved this problem by mixing in rice hulls (but I'm not quite sure where you get rice hulls).

Compost is another great mulch for flower beds, although I seldom meet a gardener who has enough of his or her own to use just for mulching. Some cities and towns have compost for free if you are willing to haul it. Compost helps feed the plants, looks good, and also helps condition the soil. It will need to be replaced every year.

In the vegetable garden, I find that clean straw works best as a mulch. You can find it almost anywhere, it doesn't cost much, and it's fairly easy to transport. I put it on about 6 inches deep over my drip hoses, and it does a great job of holding in moisture. It's also a deterrent for some insects and keeps vegetables clean.

Do keep in mind that fresh materials, such as sawdust and bark chips, can deprive your soil of some nitrogen as they decompose so your plants mulched with these materials will benefit from some extra nitrogen fertilizer. If you use grass clippings, they really work best lightly dug into the soil. If put on too thickly, they shed water.

So, whatever form your mulch takes, use it plentifully. Regardless of whether our summer continues to be on the dry side, the mulch will benefit your plants.


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