‘Living’ mulches is a more healthy al­ter­na­tive to bark

The Progress-Index - At Home - - PAUL ROGERS - By Paul Rogers Paul Rogers is a cor­re­spon­dent for The Worces­ter (Mass.) Tele­gram & Gazette.

We need to con­sider our use of mulch. What is mulch and why is it used? A mulch is any­thing used to cover bare ground. A mulch cov­er­ing is used to sup­press the growth of weeds and pre­vent the loss of wa­ter by evap­o­ra­tion from bare soil.

A uni­form mulch cov­er­ing vis­ually unites the sep­a­rated plants in a land­scape, pre­vents ex­treme swings of soil tem­per­a­ture, pre­vents the soil from cak­ing and dry­ing and pro­vides myr­iad other help­ful func­tions depend­ing on the type of mulch used and the needs of the home­owner.

Prob­lems arise be­cause mulching ma­te­rial is ap­plied in­cor­rectly or the wrong ma­te­rial is used. Forty years ago, the mulch used was the bark stripped off trees at lum­ber mills. It was a waste prod­uct. Over four decades, the dy­nam­ics have changed. Bark mulch has be­come a mar­ketable prod­uct. Wood may be triple-ground and dyed for use ev­ery­where.

We need to be aware that there are few def­i­ni­tions gov­ern­ing the sale of wood mulch. Wood waste can come from con­struc­tion projects, build­ing de­mo­li­tion, ship­ping pal­lets or other ma­te­ri­als that in the past ended up in land­fills. We also should be aware that you are un­likely to see wood mulch used in land­scapes in Eng­land, Ire­land, Europe or the Ori­ent.

What do they use as we use mulch? They make use of living mulches. Think of living mulches as ground­cov­ers that self-re­new, self per­pet­u­ate, per­form en­vi­ron­men­tal func­tions and add eco­log­i­cal and aes­thetic di­men­sions as well. They are sus­tain­able.

Depend­ing on the site and the ex­ist­ing plant­ing, moss can be uti­lized as it is in fa­mous land­scapes in Eng­land and Ja­pan. If an ev­er­green “mulch” is needed, con­sider the use of ivy (hardy English), Vinca (blue or white flow­ers), Pachysan­dra (Al­legheny or Ja­panese Spurge), or na­tive plants like Par­tridge­berry, Bunch­berry (Cor­nus canaden­sis), Gin­ger (Canadian or Euro­pean), heaths and heathers, or visit Gar­den In The Woods to view a living cat­a­logue of na­tive hardy plants.

If you wish to broaden your pal­ette, look to the wealth of de­cid­u­ous ground­cov­ers to use be­tween and un­der shrubs and trees. Aju­gas with white, pink, blue, or pur­ple flow­ers and leaves of var­i­ous colors, Lady’s Man­tle (Al­chemila), Lily-of-the-Val­ley, some of the Astible, Epimedium, ferns, Lamium, Ground Phlox, Veron­ica, Carex, Liri­ope, Wald­steinia (Bar­ren Straw­berry), Thyme in great va­ri­ety, as well as the Se­dums and Hens and Chick­ens that can be used in hot, dry, sunny lo­ca­tions.

Aged saw­dust or co­coa beans may be used, but never more than 1 inch deep, as both form an at­trac­tive mulch for an­nu­als and small peren­ni­als. Clean hay (free from weedy plants) is well used in veg­etable gar­dens, as is thin ap­pli­ca­tions of cut lawn grass.

I do not rec­om­mend fiber mats or black plas­tic, as both in­hibit the free move­ment of wa­ter into the soil and the ex­change of soil gases with the at­mos­phere. A func­tional mulch should be loose and open. For the same rea­son, bark mulches should never be ap­plied more than 4 inches deep and never in con­tact with living plants.

PAUL ROGERS

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