There are no easy answers with mulch
Phil Gibson, instructor of horticulture at Gwinnett College, said, many years ago, "Ask a gardener a question and they'll have an answer. Maybe not the right answer, but always an answer."
If you ask about mulch in your landscape, you're correct to expect an easy, no controversy answer. But the biggest mulch questions - what type and how much? - are both controversial.
For aesthetic reasons, I chose pine bark mini-nuggets for my first landscape. Preserving moisture and preventing weeds with such elegance was a treasure. Then, while I was working in the landscape that first February, I discovered a slimy horror show underneath.
The underside of each pine bark nugget was providing a safe haven for slugs to have wild, slithering sex. Pine bark nuggets, it turns out, are sex shacks. They also attract termites and sometimes arrive with termites.
Luckily, pine straw mulch has neither concern.
Next, how much mulch should you spread? No more than 2 to 21⁄2 inches. Beyond that depth you create shallow root growth, and a cushion
so thick a mild rain shower
of 1⁄3 inch will not reach the soil.
One reputable resource has said to use 3 to 5 inches of mulch, making me wonder about the "reputable" designation. During drought conditions, plant roots in 5 inches of mulch will grow to the surface level, becoming prime candidates for death during extreme temperatures and drought. During unusually wet conditions, 5 inches of mulch creates an environment that never dries out, promoting fungus, disease and death. Thick mulch is also a haven for rodents.
New on the market are rubber mulches made with crumb rubber from car tires. The mulches have a theme-park, commercial look and the obvious stench of, well, car tires. Google rubber mulches and you'll discover stories of industry obfuscation over a period of decades. Rubber mulches made from crumb rubber contain zinc, arsenic, lead and more, almost all toxic to people, soil and the water supply.
One resource indicated that the fumes of rubber mulch are toxic to breathe. Other resources say rubber mulch is not toxic in the least. Each of us must choose how strongly we believe, "buyer beware."
A great, very rich looking, mulch for annuals is Nature's Helper soil conditioner. It can be tilled into the soil for improvements and used as mulch. It is much easier to spread amongst your new annuals than pine straw and looks extremely polished and high-end.
When an emergency gardening phone call arrives - yes, they do happen - it's typically someone having a large party within the week. They've discovered their garden, suddenly, doesn't look good. They'll list ideas for the quick fix. Oh, the magic they dream of conjuring in a mere matter of days.
The bottom line is when you're preparing for a party, prep your landscape with fresh, colorful annuals, remove weeds and spread fresh mulch. Those three items are, indeed, magic.
What are your thoughts and experiences with different mulches and mulch depths? Gibson is sure, like me, you'll have an answer.
Stone Mountain resident Tara Dillard designs, installs and writes about gardens. Her most recent books include "Garden Paths and Stepping Stones" and "Perennials for Georgia." E-mail her at TaraDillard@agardenview.biz or visit www.AGarden View.biz.