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Sunday, February 24, 2013

It's never the wrong time to mulch your plants. Even now!

My favorite mulch;  free leaves
   We’re approaching the season of dry, relentless Texas heat, so it’s an especially good time to mulch your landscape plants. Actually I recommend that new plants not be planted at all after the start of May, unless you apply a healthy layer of mulch to the entire root zone.

Mulching your plants is a method that’s as natural as you can get. For as long as shrubs and trees have grown on this earth, their leaves have fallen to the ground yearly and formed a natural protective layer of mulch.  As the leaves decompose, they become extremely fertile, water-retentive organic matter to naturally augment and enrich our soil.

       I’ve had easily the best results with organic mulches. These are mulches derived from natural materials (usually plants) that were once alive. Over time, organic mulches will decompose and become part of the soil. Inorganic ones won't. Decomposition adds “humus” to our soil, helping it retain water and adding nutrients. This means, however, that organic mulches need to be replenished every few years. 

There are several types of organic mulches; they’re ground to various sizes, and they have a variety of names. Often, city landfill’s (like Denton’s) sell them.
Shredded leaves. When dead leaves are shredded they're often used as a mulch; they decompose quickly and greatly improve the soil. I use them exclusively on my own yard. You’ll never see shredded leaf mulch advertised or sold because it’s abundant and totally free.  I just mulched up the leaves on my lawn, so I won't have to fertilize this spring. These ground-up leaves contain a lot of carbon and other nutrients, so it's a shameful waste just to bag them up and discard them.

Bark. Bark mulches are made from the by-products of logs. Most common are shredded bark and bark chunks. Bark mulches resist compaction, will not blow away easily, are very attractive, and are readily available. Pine bark tends to float away, but bark mulch made from native trees is highly prized.

Wood chips. Wood chips are made from ground-up trees and shrubs. They stay in place, and weather to an attractive gray color. The process is the ultimate in recycling since mulch is made from trimmings and old lumber that you and your neighbors throw out. Several sizes are available. Colors are available too – but I avoid using them since they look unnatural and are easily messed up. Most mulches have been properly aged or composted (self-heated) to kill unwanted seeds or diseases.

Cedar chips. These are a popular kind of wood chip, but I steer people away from them. Thed mulch may smell nice temporarily, but the harvesting of the cedar trees is often done at the expense of dwindling wildlife habitat.

Sawdust. Sawdust makes a poor mulch for most situations since weed seeds easily sprout in it. It also tends to cake, making it harder for water to soak into the ground – a big disadvantage in our climate. It also robs nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, so more fertilizer may be needed. However, a little bit, mixed in with another kind of mulch, is okay.

Straw. Straw makes a good mulch for gardens. It is inexpensive, suppresses weeds, conserves moisture, and insulates well. On the other hand, it is not very attractive, may contain crop seeds, and is extremely flammable. Some may even contain growth-retarding chemicals. It’s important to use "straw" rather than "hay," since hay contains many viable weed seeds. 

Pine needles. Pine needles are attractive, decompose slowly, resist compaction, and are easy to work with. However, they are notorious for washing away in a rainstorm. They are often available commercially or are free if you have pine trees on your property.

 For newly-planted trees and shrubs, spread mulch evenly underneath the plant, about 3 inches deep. For trees and shrubs that have been in place a long time, I’d recommend a 2 inch layer of mulch on the root zone. For trees and shrubs within a lawn, I’d strongly suggest reshaping the lawn if you can. (Lawns and trees have very different water needs.)  Otherwise, mulch a wide ring (extending from 3 to 6 feet out from the trunk) around each tree (the "root zone"). Be careful not to pile mulch up against tree trunks.  Don't let mulch build up to depths greater than about 4 inches.

For areas of flowers or ground cover, mulch should be applied up to 2 inches deep (after settling), but should not come in contact with any plant stems, leaves or branches. Any unwanted plants that grow through the mulch layer can easily be pulled out by hand.

 When is the best time to put down mulch?  There’s no season or time when it shouldn’t be done, so the very best time is to do it today! Especially if there's warmer weather coming.



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