Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2007
Regional Report

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When spreading mulch, leave 4 to 5 inches of empty space between the mulch and the stems of shrubs and trunks of trees.

Mulch Now For Summer Ease

Spring is slip sliding into summer temperatures, and gardening season is in full swing. After a winter of casual exercise, my sore muscles protest the hours raking, clipping, bagging, and hauling debris from perennial beds. That's just step one, though. Step two is fertilizing with a slow-release, granular, mineral fertilizer. Enough, you say.

Not quite. While the air is crisp and bugless, take advantage of this weather to mulch. Mulching properly now will mean more fun this summer -- less weeding and less watering. Consider mulching a smart, preemptive strike to stop weeds before they get a roothold. So clean out the wheelbarrow and enlist several strong arms to hoist, haul, and carefully apply a thick layer of mulch between annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees.

My preference is triple-shredded oak bark mulch that I buy by the cubic yard in truckloads for residential mixed beds. For containers and small gardens, cedar bark mulch by the bag is attractive, lightweight, and resistant to insects. Cedar has insect-repelling resins; that's why we use it to line closets as a moth repellant. Many Philadelphia area property owners use licorice root mulch, a byproduct of a New Jersey-based business.

Caution: wood mulch, especially wood chips, may harbor artillery or shotgun fungi known to damage walls, cars, and plants. These fungi shoot sticky spores -- tiny dark spots -- toward light material such as siding, where they adhere tenaciously and are expensive to remove. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station recommends selecting mulches that contain at least 85 percent bark. Avoid mulches with a high proportion of wood because wood chips have a lot of carbon, a food source for the fungus.

If artillery fungus is known to be in your area, consider an alternative mulch, such as black plastic, stone, pea gravel, or marble chips, in spots directly adjacent to homes, cars, or surfaces where the risk of damage is greatest.

For ten years in southeast Pennsylvania, I've never had a problem; perhaps it's luck or the same reputable dealer supplying an excellent product.

Why Mulch?
Mulching with organic material -- decomposed leaves, bark mulch, root mulch, or pine needles -- suppresses weeds, keeps soil moist, feeds soil microbes that supply plant nutrients, buffers plant roots from temperature extremes, and controls soil erosion. For maximum benefit, apply a 3-inch layer that will compress to 2 inches. Be generous or don't bother. It takes a thick layer to keep weed seeds from sprouting. Any errant weeds will be easy to pull out.

Mulching Tips
Leave an empty space, about 4 or 5 inches, between the mulch and plant crowns, shrub branches, and tree trunks. Plant cells will rot where mulch touches them. They cannot take the moisture. Move the mulch with a pitchfork or light, long-handled shovel. Carefully place it by handfuls around plants.

Here's a formula for figuring out how much mulch you need: Nine bags of mulch equal 1 cubic yard. One cubic yard of mulch 3 inches deep covers 108 square feet; 3 cubic yards at 3 inches deep cover 300 to 325 square feet.

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