Originally created 09/25/98

Mulch is last, but essential



Mulch may not sound pretty but it's the icing on the cake after other planting tasks like testing and prepping soil for planting.

"Mulch is the last thing you do," said Charles Phillips, Columbia County agent for the University of Georgia Extension Service.

The organic substance made from cut up trees, tree bark, leaves and grass is placed on flower beds and around trees and shrubs to lock in moisture and enhance root growth and appearance.

There are as many different types of mulch as cake frosting.

Mulch sold in stores includes pine bark, pine straw, cypress mulch and combinations of soil and organic materials.

The city sells mulch by the truckload at the landfill off U.S. Highway 1. It takes the yard debris and cuttings people leave on the street and grinds it up and separates it. Cost for a pickup truck load depends on the size of the truck, $5 for small trucks and $10 for large ones.

Some people make their own mulch from grass clippings, leaves and existing pine straw in their yards.

Unlike pruning or planting bulbs, mulching doesn't need to be done at a certain time, but incorporated as a regular task for gardeners, according to Jenny Addie of Green Thumb West nursery in Martinez.

"Now if you mulch, it not only holds in moisture but protects the roots of the plants during the winter," said Mrs. Addie.

Mr. Phillips said most organic mulches works well in the Augusta and Aiken area. He said the main problem is when gardeners spread mulch too deeply.

"If it's over 3 inches, they'll (plants) try to put in a new root system," he said. Mr. Phillips recommends placing 3 inches or less of mulch around plants or in flower beds, making sure it is loose enough for both air and water to circulate freely.

Ed Hensley of Bricker's Organic Farms in Augusta recommends cypress mulch, which is available in three different grades. He also sells pine bark and hardwood tree mulches. Mr. Hensley doesn't sell pine straw and doesn't recommend it because he said it is a haven for insects and a fire hazard.

Cypress bark is known as the "cadillac of mulches" according to Sid Mullis of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Augusta-Richmond County.

Mr. Hensley said cypress lasts longer -- up to 10 years -- and its cedar base provides a natural insect repellent lacking in other trees. Cypress is also less flammable than mulch like pine needles.

It also prevents weed growth -- although gardeners need to weed before they mulch.

An important tip is to work decomposed mulch thoroughly into the soil. Mrs. Addie advises to do so twice a year, particularly on bedding plants.

Reader's Digest 1001 Hints & Tips for your Garden emphasizes mulching to prevent frost damage. In Augusta the first frost occurs around the end of October or first of November. Placing mulch on plants early adequately prepares them for the shock of cool weather.

About mulching

Mulching is a covering of the surface area around plants with organic or inorganic material. The purpose is to conserve moisture, inhibit weed growth and give a finished appearance.

Gardeners should use between 1 to 3 inches of mulch, depending on the consistency of the material. Looser materials can be placed up to 3 inches above the soil, more compressed materials should be only 1 to 2 inches deep.

The following is a list of common organic mulch materials and important factors of each:

Leaves: Work best when shredded and aged a little before use. Best mulch for attracting earthworms.

Wood chips (such as cypress): High durability, ideal for pathways.

Dried grass clippings: Readily available, decompose quickly and release many nutrients.

Bark nuggets or chips (such as pine): Durable and attractive; packaged and easily transported.

Newspaper: Good weed preventer; cover with dried grass clippings to keep from blowing away.

Pine straw: Refined appearance, will not change soil pH.

Source: Organic Gardening magazine