Protect Your Plants With Mulch

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Homeowners and professional landscapers depend on mulch in their ornamental plantings for several reasons. Functionally, mulches discourage weeds from growing, conserve moisture during drought periods, allow better use of water by controlling runoff and increasing water-holding capacity of light, sandy soils. Mulches help maintain a uniform soil temperature also. A 3 to 4-inch layer of mulch can add to the aesthetic value of a garden while protecting the base of plants from being injured by mechanical equipment.

Mulch can be applied just about any time of the year when trees and shrubs are being planted. The ideal time to apply mulch in established bed areas is in mid-spring when soil temperature has warmed up enough for sufficient root growth. If applied earlier, the mulch may keep the soil temperature lower and root growth possibly delayed.

Mulch should be applied to relatively clean, weed-free soils if possible. It is better to eradicate the weeds before covering with mulch or you will be struggling to control them as they grow through the mulch. You can direct spray the weeds with a recommended herbicide, allow to dry, and then cover. There are many granular pre-emergent herbicides that you can apply on the mulch to prevent weed seed germination as well.

When fertilizing, it is not necessary to pull the mulch back. You can apply fertilizer on top of the old or new mulch, or incorporate it if you would like. When you fertilize, apply 2 to 4 pounds of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of mulched area. This is especially true if you are using decayed wood chips, sawdust, and shredded bark.

Many organic mulches are available for you to use. Pine bark, hardwood mulch, decomposed leaf mulch and pine needles are the most common organic mulches. Tree care professionals sometimes provide free wood chips as well. Care should be taken to keep wood chips away from plants if it has not decayed or broken down. Fresh wood chips tie up nitrogen as they decompose. If applied too thickly, the heat generated during decomposition can injure plans, particularly herbaceous plants.

Several inorganic materials are often used as mulches. You might want to use gravel, rock, or black plastic. Black plastic can discourage weeds but at the same time will interfere with normal oxygen and water supply to the roots. Therefore, it is recommended not to use plastic around plants. There are several landscape fabric mulches that can be used that allow for normal water and oxygen exchange. After installing the landscape fabric, you can apply the mulch over top.

Keep in mind that the deeper the mulch the more problems you might have. Allow old mulch to break down before applying another 3 inches. You can reduce air (oxygen) exchange in the soil with excessive mulch. Try not to pile the mulch on the trunk of trees and ornamentals either, because this can cause the base of the plant to start rotting in many cases.

For more information, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office in Franklin County at 919-496-3344.