Organic, hardwood, recycled: What is the best mulch?

Looking back to last year in late March and early April, our weather was almost identical to this year: Temperatures were cold in the 40s with some nights in the low 20s and upper teens.

This year, the only difference is the copious amounts of rainfall. Regardless, warmer spring temperatures are on the way.

Besides the weather, the other identical occurrence as last year is the arrival of pallets of mulch. Pallets of mulch are showing up at gas stations, hardware stores, grocery stores, big box stores and garden centers. Typically, these pallets of mulch are comprised of organic material containing cypress, hardwood and recycled pallets or a combination of these materials.

Organic mulch, such as aged, hardwood bark mulch, is a wonderful thing. It moderates soil temperatures, preserves soil moisture, suppresses weeds and, as the mulch slowly decays, contributes to the organic content of the underlying soil. If used properly, mulches enhance landscape aesthetics.

How do I know what organic mulch is best for my landscape? There are so many choices. Organic mulch is derived from once living plant-based products. When selecting a mulch, consider not only cost and color, but also where it came from. Durability is another important consideration. Organic mulches decompose over time. As they do, they settle, reducing the depth of the mulch layer.

Cypress mulch is harvested from the cypress trees in the swamp areas of the South. One of the reasons these trees can grow in flooded conditions is that their wood repels water. Cypress mulch is ideal for use around walkways and driveways, but not flower or vegetable gardens, because of the tendency to repel water away from landscape plants.

Recycled ground-pallets mulches are often dyed to add red, brown, black or gray color to your landscape. According to the University of Massachusetts Extension, the dyes used in coloring wood mulch are primarily of two types: carbon-based dyes and iron oxide-based dyes.

Iron oxide, the most used dye often used in the floriculture industry to dye flowers. is simply a compound of iron and oxygen. As the compound oxidizes iron is released to the soil. The other type is the carbon-based dyes. These carbon-based colorants are like those used in ink and cosmetics. Dyes that are not absorbed into the wood correctly may come off with contact especially if the mulch is wet such as after a rain event causing staining of sidewalks, and other areas. At this time, there is no evidence that the dyes used to color pallet mulch is toxic.

Hardwood mulch is comprised of many different hardwood and softwood species. In general, hardwood mulches have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio. This means that in the process of decomposing, they may temporarily reduce the supply of soil nitrogen fertilizer to mulched plants. Compared with other mulches, hardwood mulches tend to lose more of their decorative appearance over time, weathering to a gray or silvery gray color.

The proper application of mulch around trees and landscape plants starts with creating mulch rings or areas as large as is practical. Keep in mind that organic mulch is an effective substitute for leaf litter found naturally under trees and shrubs. It is also a great way to reduce direct competition between turf and tree roots; however, the mulch should be applied to a depth of no more than 2 – 3 inches. Mulch that finds its way onto the tree trunks should be pulled away from the trunk flare, the area where the tree trunk and the roots are forming giving the trunk a flared-out appearance.

Avoid piling mulch high around trees and shrubs, a practice that has been coined Volcano mulching. Excessive mulch, more than 2-3 inches around trees and other landscape plants, can cause bark damage. The excessive mulch retains water that causes the living tissue of the bark of your plants to decay. This allows insects and other plant pathogens to cause further damage. Of course, the pests and diseases get blamed if a tree or shrub declines and dies, but not the mulch that was applied too heavily in the first place.

Above and beyond the pitfalls of mulching incorrectly, mulch goes a long way in tiding up the appearance of your garden and keeping plants looking their best. Mulching also creates curb appeal.