Which mulch do I use in the landscape garden?

Mulching the landscape garden—Which mulch to use for a low maintenance landscape?

One of the purposes of this blog is to answer lots of FAQ (frequently asked questions) that I run into on a daily basis.  Today, I will deal with the FAQ, “Which mulch should I use in my landscape garden?”  The main answer is, “It depends.”  Read on…..

fresh pine straw mulch in a natural area

pine straw mulch in a natural area

Mulching in the landscape garden—either around the plants or in bare spaces—is quite beneficial for the plants, as it helps with water retention and erosion control as well as providing a neat, well kept look.  The use of the proper mulch in just the right places can also be an art form, providing a subtle “picture frame” for plantings and natural areas.

The old folks around my home base in North Georgia have always used some kind of mulch for their flowers and gardens.  Some of them have recommended a mixture of newspaper, egg shells, and coffee grounds.  I agree that these are excellent mulching materials but they sort of miss it on the aesthetic level.  I thought about it and took a little ride with my trusty camera.  I started at Willow Creek Nursery in Rome, Ga.  The owner, Russ Head, carries a large variety of mulching materials

Independent nurseries like this one usually offer more expertise and more diversified products.

Independent nurseries like this one usually offer more expertise and more diversified products.

I guess the most popular mulching material in our area is pine straw.  The nursery keeps a trailer or two of pine straw bales on the lot at all times.  I have found that there is large variation in the quality of pine straw with different dealers.  I like the pine straw at Willow Creek because the bales are bigger, tighter, and cleaner (less sticks, leaves, and briars) than the bales at the box stores.  The price for the better bales is about the same, but I found that I can get 60 bales of box store pine straw in my truck and I can only get 50 of the better bales in there.  This means I get much more for my money.  So, if you’re looking for lots of straw, you may wish to shop around and include quality as well as price in your selection.

Over 1000 bales of nice pine straw from the wilds of south Georgia

Over 1000 bales of nice pine straw from the wilds of south Georgia

Hardwood mulch seems to be getting to be a big business these days.  Independent nurseries such as Willow Creek are starting to stock bulk hardwood mulches as well as different kinds of gravel for ground covers.  This nursery sells the wood mulch by the cubic yard and will load your truck or deliver for an additional fee.  This particular product runs about $25.00 per cubic yard and one yard will cover about 160 to 175 square feet.  And, I agree, I don’t like the red mulch, either, but lots of people do. But, then, the mulch comes in brown, black, and natural.

For large areas, you may purchase hardwood mulch by the truck load, picked up or delivered

For large areas, you may purchase hardwood mulch by the truck load, picked up or delivered

There are lots of different types of wood products for mulching packaged in plastic bags.  These products include pine bark nuggets, cypress mulch, ground hardwood mulch, and more. According to material and manufacturer, these bags will range in price from $2.50 up for two cubic feet which will cover about 6 sq. feet of bed area.  I prefer to use the bags on small to medium jobs because it is much easier to transport and spread.

The thing about wood mulch is that it turns to good dirt as it decomposes.

The thing about wood mulch is that it turns to good dirt as it decomposes.

Pea gravel is a popular item.  It may be bought in bags if you only need a little, but a visit to the nursery will save you lots and lots of money.  This gravel costs about $35.00 a cubic yard which is way cheaper than the bags.  If you just want a little bit, take a 5 gallon bucket to the nursery and fill it up.

If you need more than a few bags of pea gravel, buy it in bulk

If you need more than a few bags of pea gravel, buy it in bulk

Pea gravel doesn’t rot and go away like the organic mulches, but the most important thing about using pea gravel as a ground cover is that it needs to be contained.  Otherwise, it will get spread out all over the yard.  Below are pictures of a couple of applications of pea gravel.  Note the containment.

Pea gravel mulch in a pool area.  This ground cover was chosen here to provide ease in cleaning up behind a small dog.  It is more expensive to install, but never rots.  Note the containment

Pea gravel mulch in a pool area. This ground cover was chosen here to provide ease in cleaning up behind a small dog. It is more expensive to install, but never rots. Note the containment

Installation of a pea gravel walkway.  Note the containment border of cemented bricks.

Installation of a pea gravel walkway. Note the containment border of cemented bricks.

A good idea for covering natural areas is to plant a ground cover in your mulched areas so that you will eventually be free of having to add fresh mulch all the time.  One of my favorite ground covers for shady areas is vinca minor, or periwinkle.  (vinca minor has small leaves and is quite “tame”—DO NOT let anyone talk you into the larger leafed ‘vinca major’ as it will take over and become a pest.).  Here is a natural area that effectively uses vinca minor:

just the right groundcover like this vinca minor will soon diminish the need for expensive mulch.

just the right groundcover like this vinca minor will soon diminish the need for expensive mulch.

Here is a close up of the vinca minor.  These plants may be bought in a nursery or you may be fortunate enough to have a friend who will give you divisions.

Perennial periwinkle, or vinca minor as a ground cover in natural areas. It has pretty blue or white flowers in the spring.

perennial periwinkle, or vinca minor as a ground cover in natural areas. It has pretty blue or white flowers in the spring.

Lenten Rose (helleboris orientalis)  is also one of my favorite mulch savers.  One of the developing landscape gardens that I am working on features a hillside with flowering cherry trees, pine straw mulch, and a planting of Lenten roses. After two or three years, numerous seedlings from the lenten rose pop up, and if left to grow this bank will be covered in lovely winter blooming flowers in two or three more years.  At that point, there will be no more need for mulching.  It’s a good investment.

This bed under flowering cherry trees has lots of lenten rose seedlings which will shortly cover the entire bank and negate the need for pine straw.

This bed under flowering cherry trees has lots of lenten rose seedlings which will shortly cover the entire bank and negate the need for pine straw.

Wood chips may be used as a ground cover for many different applications.  A garden flagstone pathway bordered with wood chips is pleasing to look at or to walk on.  The flagstone and chips make for a good juxtaposition of textures.

Wood chip mulch gives definition and erosion control around stepping stones.

Wood chip mulch gives definition and erosion control around stepping stones.

Flagstone stepping stones also work well with pea gravel if installed properly

flagstone stepping stones with pea gravel

flagstone stepping stones with pea gravel

And, finally, since I took some of my pictures in Dot Fletcher’s lovely yard, I thought I might show you one of her window planters that she is rather proud of.  Can you see the little tube that takes the water to the planter from the drip irrigation system?  I can. It sure does make watering much easier.

Mrs. Fletcher's window planter

Mrs. Fletcher’s window planter

One last thing to think about.  If you have a tree surgeon friend who keeps really sharp blades on his chipper, you can get a deal on some really good wood chips.  These serve as a good mulch and as they decompose, the earthworms churn them into the dirt better than a tiller.

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