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What’s the Best Mulch to Use in the Landscape?

Spring is a time when we emerge outside, poking around the garden to see what winter wrought. What many homeowners find is their mulch is need of refreshing. But what mulch is the best? Following are commonly used mulches and my picks for the best to use in the home landscape.

Shredded wood mulch- By far the most popular type covering, shredded wood mulch can be easily found at any garden center. What I like about shredded wood mulch is the uniformity of the pieces and how they can knit together to hold in place. The double-edged sword with this is the mulch can form a "shell" over time, limiting water and air exchange in the soil. (Cypress mulch is notorious for this) Cultivate your shredded wood mulch at least once a year. Shredded wood mulch also decomposes over time to add nutrients into the soil. (As do all the other wood-based mulches I'm about to mention.) A problem fungus known as artillery fungus can inhabit wood mulch. Why the hawkish name? Artillery refers to the tiny black spores fired by the fungus in the mulch, which sticks to everything from siding, fencing, car paint, and so on. (The artillery fungus issue also applies to all the following wood-based mulches.) One final drawback is shredded wood mulch is often made from trees harvested simply to shred and toss on our landscapes. It seems somewhat tragic to cut a tree down, shred it, then scatter its remains around an invasive ornamental pear.

Bark Mulch – Often bark mulch is a byproduct of the timber harvest process, which makes it preferable in my book. Look for products specifically labeled as "bark mulch".

Dyed Wood Mulch – Commonly found at big box garden centers and convenience stores, dyed wood mulch comes in a variety of colors, but most are red or black. I've found pieces of old door jambs in products like this and lots of wood that was obviously a pallet, 2x4, or plywood in its former life. While recycling is certainly something to be celebrated, the origin of the product is suspect in my mind. I don't know what it may have contained, been treated with, or why I can now find it shredded and stacked in bags next to the fuel pump. I'll admit my bias in that I am not a fan of dyed mulch. My wife called me a mulch snob the other day.

Arborist wood chips – From a sustainability standpoint, this is one of the better wood-based mulches. Arborist wood chips are byproducts from the day-to-day tasks of arborists or municipal tree crews and many are looking for a free place to get rid of this stuff. In Macomb, and many other places, these are free to haul away, all you need is a truck. Arborist wood chips are not as uniform as commercial mulches and may include shredded vegetation. Plus, the tree may have been cut down because it was diseased or harboring some invasive insect, which may have survived the chipping process. Still a favorite of mine. Who can argue with free?

Rubber mulch – Is this still a thing? The EPA designates tires dumped in an unregulated landfill as hazardous waste. How does shredding the tires, dying them red, and putting them around our daylilies change this fact?

Rock Mulch – Rock is not a favorite of mine. Rock adds little horticulturally speaking for plants, and can even contribute to harsh growing conditions. Rock holds heat and radiates it out at night keeping plants warmer. Rocks do break down with time and can alter the composition of soil structure and pH. Moreover, as a landscaper I've hauled countless wheelbarrows of rock mulch, it is not pleasant. Enough said.

Pine needles – In my area, pine needle mulch is rare to come by. Often homeowners will harvest from under their white pines to use the dropped needles elsewhere in the garden. I would argue the best spot for pine needles is to be left under the pine tree as they do a great job suppressing weeds. The other perks of pine needles as a landscape mulch is they are light and don't compact, so air and water easily move into the soil. Pine needles (and pine bark) are believed to acidify the soil. This process takes time, depends on your soil type, and may not really amount to much acidification. Regardless, use them around acid-loving plants like azaleas.

Compost – One of best mulches you can buy or make. It provides nutrients and enhances the soil. There are many different types of composts on the market. Yard waste compost or commercial compost work well in the landscape. Manure-based composts can harbor weed seeds and the nutrient composition varies depending on the animal it was derived, which requires a bit more research to make sure you're giving the plant the correct ratio of nutrients. Compost can also be expensive.

Shredded Fall Leaves – In light of the cost of compost, I often turn to shredded fall leaves in my landscape beds as my mulch of choice. Fall leaves are plentiful in the Midwest and often underutilized. Usually, by the time the summer ends I need more leaves. Fortunately, the deciduous trees in my backyard are happy to supply. Apply caution to black walnut leaves or trees that had a serious foliar disease. The inoculum for the next year can reside in leaves overwinter.

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