Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Mulches

But wait–didn’t we just talk about mulch? Yes, we did, but that was about whether to mulch. This is about what kind of mulch to use if you choose to use mulch and if mulch is appropriate for your circumstances.

Believe it or not, I do have one or two spots in my yard where I can mulch. I have a shade garden that is 100% sand. I have no idea how this came to be. The Spoiler says there was a shed there when he bought the property. Even so, as far as I dig, I don’t hit my horrible clay. They must have scooped out literally tons of soil and brought in literally tons of sand for that shed. Craziness.

Or maybe it was their depository for all the road sand over the years–and then a shed was placed there. Who knows? All I can tell you is that I’m growing shade plants there now so needless to say, I do need to retain water in that area. So I do mulch that area. Unlike the garden 3′ away, which wouldn’t drain if I put French drains there, this one will dry out.

What do I do about drought? I don’t worry. I’ve put drought tolerant shade plants there. No astilbes or hostas. Most everything has made it. And the things that haven’t I’ve learned are not really “dry shade” plants after all.

But back to mulches. Back in my days of retail gardening–and remember I’ve done two types, independent garden center gardening and big box store gardening–I saw folks buying all sorts of mulches by the yards full–literally–every spring.

Needless to say, at the independent garden center we sold a different type of mulch–and of course much pricier mulches–than at the box store. But it didn’t really matter in one sense. Most folks wanted very dark mulch for the garden. I’m not sure why that is. The last thing I want my mulch to look like is mud. Can anyone enlighten me on that?

At the box store, we sold tons–and I mean tons–of that dyed red stuff. We didn’t sell it at the garden center and for good reason. It has nothing to do with aesthetics, which has no place in this discussion. You either like the dyed red “mulch” or you don’t.

But you’ll notice that I put the word “mulch” in quotes. That’s because it’s not really “mulch.” If you take the word at its most basic–“a layer of material applied to the surface of the soil”, according to Wikipedia, then technically, yes, it qualifies.

But when you use the dyed red–or dyed brown or dyed any color mulches, what you are getting is not a mulch that will in any way enrich you soil or your garden. You are getting ground up, cheap wood, most often from wooden pallets (like the kind they use to store those mulches, and bagged stone, and fertilizers, and who knows what else on in those box stores) that has been dyed a color to make it pleasing to you, the unsuspecting home owner.

Why is this not good? Well, first of all, you do not know the source of that wood. Therefore, if you’re going to buy colored mulch, make sure the bag carries the mulch and soil council certification so that at least you know the wood does not contain anything toxic.

Next, these mulches, more so than the hard woods, tend to break down oddly (because let’s face it–we don’t know what wood, or combination of woods is in there) and may give off a fungus known as “artillery fungus.” These little guys have been known to shoot black spores that adhere to everything they come into contact with–and they are not removable, even with power washing. I know of homes and cars that have had to be repainted after being near a dyed red mulched bed.

The takeaway here: If you do mulch, make sure your mulches are quality mulches. You don’t want the mulch doing more damage than it fixes.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Mulches

  1. bridget March 16, 2014 / 1:59 pm

    The only mulch we use is what we make here on our place…shreddings…leaves and grass mowings.

  2. gardendaze March 16, 2014 / 5:20 pm

    That’s great–very sustainable. I do use a lot of my own leaves as well. We leave the grass clippings on the lawn because we still have too much of that and at least the clippings feed the lawn that way. But as I heard an otherwise dreadful speaker say yesterday, if we all made just one change, we’d have an amazing habitat.

    I know you are more than doing your part. Let’s hope we can make up for the folks who haven’t quite caught on yet.


  3. michele March 17, 2014 / 4:33 pm

    We mulch with old shredded newspaper (after checking the ink was ok), our own compost, & certified cedar only when necessary. It seems to be helping our high clay soil become a bit more loamy. It’s a never-ending process!!

  4. gardendaze March 17, 2014 / 5:09 pm

    That’s exactly right–it is a never ending process, particularly with clay soil. It sounds like you’re a great job!


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