Archive for Thursday, January 17, 2008

The green thumb

January 17, 2008

Want to give your garden a different look? There is more to mulch than wood chips - try something new this year to add a different finish to the landscape.

Mulches can be broken into 2 groups: organic and inorganic. All mulches insulate the soil surface, conserving moisture and modifying extremes in temperature. They make surfaces more usable for paths and play areas, and they suppress weed growth. Organic mulch is set apart in that it actually improves the soil as it breaks down. Since inorganic mulch doesn't break down, it lasts longer.

I have long heard the rumors that certain varieties of wood repel termites or last longer than other types of wood, but there is no evidence this is true. Cedar, cypress, pine bark and mixed hardwoods perform about the same when used around landscape plants. Dyed wood mulches also work like the others - they just hold their color a little longer.

Shredded wood and shredded bark are popular because they are readily available. They also make good use of waste products from sawmills, arborists and from woody debris collection sites. The bark scraps and branches of trees that are too small to be used for paper or wood products are shredded or chipped to make the mulch. Shredded or chipped wood is available from many local arborists and from the city of Lawrence.

If you really want to branch out with your mulching, compost is another good choice for organic mulch. It breaks down quickly, providing more benefits to the soil, but must be re-applied often. You can make it yourself or purchase it at your favorite garden center. The City of Lawrence also offers compost to local residents made from yard waste collected throughout the year.

Straw and hay are more common in the vegetable garden, but they are just as good for the landscape. Use bales that are weathered to eliminate the transfer of weed seeds. I always try to get bales for my vegetable garden a year in advance, and I let them sit next to the garden during that time.

There are other plant waste materials, such as lawn clippings, leaves and pine needles, which will provide the same benefits as these common ones. Most of them simply need to be chopped and composted. Leaves should be chopped and avoid using plant materials that have disease problems. Lawn clippings are better left on the lawn, but compost them if you have to bag.

Inorganic mulch materials include stone, gravel, geotextile weed barriers and black plastic film and are permanent fixtures. You won't have to re-mulch, but it is much more difficult to make any changes. Pick your favorite color or size without much variation in quality, except that white- or light-colored stones reflect sunlight, adding heat to the above ground parts of the plants.

Whatever material you choose to use for mulch, maintain a 2- to 3-inch layer on the soil surface and keep it off of the base of the plant.

With so many options available, there is no reason not to mulch your garden with something new this year.

Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension AgentHorticulture for K-State Research & Extension. She can be reached at 843-7058 or smithjen@ksu.edu.

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