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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

Mulch 

As the weather warms for spring and homeowners and landscapers become active, questions begin to arise about mulching landscape beds and gardens. We hope this helps! What is the purpose of using mulch in Landscaping and the Garden? Mulch can provide a range of benefits for landscape beds. Here are just a few: Conserve soil moisture. Mulch reduces evaporation from the soil surface and helps to ensure that water reaches plant roots instead of going back into the atmosphere. Reduce soil temperatures. In a research trial in southwest Michigan, the University found that 3 inches of wood chip mulch reduced midday soil temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Add organic matter. As mulch breaks down it adds organic matter to the soil, which aids in the soil’s ability to retain important plant nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron. Weed control. Mulch can help to control weeds, reducing the need for herbicides or hand-weeding. Appearance. Neatly applied mulch can improve contrast between beds and lawn, providing a cleaner-looking edge. Avoid lawn mower blight and string trimmer trauma. Providing a buffer between mowers and weed wackers reduces the likelihood of trunk damage to trees. Not mulching at all The benefits of mulching far exceed the decision not to mulch.  Mulch plays a fundamental role in promoting healthy plant growth.  Mulch helps to reduce loss of moisture from the soil through evaporation thus enabling soil water retention. The soil can experience considerably cooler temperatures arising from the presence of mulch especially during the hot summer months. Mulch also helps in minimizing the growth of weeds.  Decomposition of mulch reduces soil compaction that open areas for roots to expand through the soil seeking out nutrients.  Decomposition returns micro-nutrients and minerals into you plant bed, including carbon, an essential element for plant growth. What makes good mulch? This can be very confusing, particularly because what’s sold as “mulch” in many cases isn’t really very suitable for performing the full range of duties that I think mulch should accomplish (above). Briefly, I look for a material that is: An organic substance (meaning deriving from some living or formerly living matter); Fine- to medium-textured so it will break down into the underlying soil… …but substantial enough to stay put; Preferably aged before I use it; Dark in color, like soil is (if for the ornamental beds); Available locally at a good price, preferably in bulk delivery unbagged; Not a source of contaminants, pests or diseases. To elaborate: Any mulch I use in my ornamental beds must be fine-to-medium textured and dark colored so it looks good. Forget anything that’s going to sit there and never break down, like big hunks of bark (which I call “baked potato mulch” because they look like giant spuds sitting on the ground to me), or anything that’s bright orange. I am completely opposed to dyed mulches. One caveat: Very fine-textured materials like sawdust do not make good mulch as they cake and fail to decompose. Why use a product that has been aged or composted before you use it as mulch?  That extra step really makes a difference in the mulch being ready to do its job as a soil-improver. I used to use bagged mulches, including cocoa hulls and various bark products. I have since switched to local materials I can have delivered in bulk, sans plastic bags (and minus all the fuel used in processing and trucking of bagged stuff across the nation to my local garden center). Environmentally, it’s important to buy locally when you can, especially with bulky items. Technically, plants can serve as a sort of living mulch as well; that’s why certain ones are termed ground covers. What’s the best material to use for mulch? To a large extent, the “best” mulch material is in the eye of the beholder. Most organic materials such as ground bark, ground wood chips or shredded leaves can provide the key benefits of moisture conservation, weed control, thermal insulation and organic matter addition. Therefore, cost, aesthetic appearance and availability are often the deciding factors. Inorganic mulches such as rock or shredded tires do not need to be replaced, but do not add organic matter to the soil. What about lawn clippings as mulch? Lawn clipping are a poor choice for mulch since they tend to mat together and impede water penetration if they dry out. In addition, they are unsightly and can produce an unpleasant odor as they decompose. Michigan State University Extension says a better alternative is to compost your lawn clippings and then use the compost in your garden or as a top-dressed amendment before you apply mulch. Or use a mulching mower that returns the clippings back into your yard. Wood chips are not mulch. Wood chips are not recommended as a beneficial mulch, although many people find them acceptable as mulch.  Chips made from limbs and branches from tree trimmings decay at an accelerated rate.  Once again, just like green mulch, wood chips that have not been aged properly can rob your plant of beneficial nitrogen.  What areas do you deliver to?  Anywhere in the Chicago or St Louis metro area. See below: St Louis Area Afton MO Arnold MO Ballwin MO Belleville IL Brentwood MO Chesterfield IL Chesterfield MO Clarkson Valley MO Clayton MO Cottleville MO Crestwood MO Creve Couer MO Dardenne Prairie MO Des Peres MO Edwardsville IL Eureka MO Fenton MO Florissant MO Frontenac MO Glen Carbon IL Glencoe MO Glendale MO Grover MO                Is there a delivery fee? Delivery is included within 25 miles of Center city of Chicago or St Louis.   Do I need to be home when delivery is made? No.  The delivery can be arranged ahead of time, we just need the spot marked where you want the mulch to be placed. What do you use for mulch in your garden? On my ornamental beds, I use a composted stable bedding product–a local agricultural byproduct from horse or dairy farms that has been allowed to age first. It’s simply wood shavings (not too fine, not too coarse, as you can see in top photo) that farmers spread on the floors of animal stalls to absorb manure and urine, and then muck out and compost afterward to recycle it. I expect you can find a local source via your county cooperative extension office; this website give a sense of the kind of product I am talking about, though I buy from a local farmer. Leaf mold (partially rotted and shredded leaves) would also be great, if your local landfill offers it, or start a leaves-only compost pile in fall and pre-shred it like this. In my vegetable garden, I use straw (which is of course not dark-colored), preferably chopped. In rough areas such as along the roadside outside my fence, I will use wood chips from the power or phone company, or from a fallen tree. I will also use wood chips or bark chips on utility-area pathways (behind sheds, between vegetable rows).  I pile up wood chips and let them age before using them. For more details about pros and cons of different mulches, try this fact sheet from Cornell Extension When do I apply it, and how much should I use? I mulch my perennial and shrub beds in spring, but not until after the soil has a chance to warm and dry a bit. I also am conscious of areas where I want biennials and other self-sown plants to have a chance to do their thing; mulching these too soon may prevent successful reseeding. You want a 2- or 3-inch layer, generally speaking, and if you use the right stuff, about half of that will work into the underlying soil before you go to replenish in fall or the next spring. Keep the mulch a couple of inches away from trunks of trees and shrubs; never pile it up, volcano-like, against them, as that can invite pests and diseases. Anytime I work in an area and disturb the mulch, I add a bit more rather than leave bare spots. I apply mulch to new beds whenever I plant. Mulch is sometimes also used in winter in cold zones to help keep newly planted things in the ground, or to shield tender plants from damage (such as the graft union on roses). For that purpose, materials like evergreen boughs (which would not normally be good for mulch) may also be used. Mulching at the base of a tree, avoid placing excessive mulch around the trunk or stems.  Adequate space has to be available so that the plant can breathe.  A common practice is to pile the mulch up around the base of a tree also know as a mulch volcano because the tree trunk sticks out of a mound of mulch.  This practice traps moisture against the tree bark and encourages bacterial and fungal disease.  Deep applications of mulch around tree trunks encourages rotting of the cambium or bark of the tree.  Possibly even killing the tree!  The proper method is to place the mulch in the shape of a doughnut.  This also allows the cavity to capture and retain rainwater.  Mulch must be tapered away from the trunk of trees before applying the recommended depth of 2-3".   Do I have to move the mulch before adding compost and fertilizer? If you use a mulch that has the correct texture and has been composted first, this should not be a problem. I simply “topdress” (spread compost and all-natural organic fertilizer right on top of last year’s partly decomposed mulch) then replenish the mulch as needed. The problem with most mulches, even bagged shredded bark, is that they haven’t been composted before they are sold and/or are too coarse, so they don’t break down very well, but rather form a sort of coating on top of the soil. Good mulch, on the other hand, breaks down and improves the soil below. I don’t mean it breaks down in a week or a month, but over the course of a season or two. If you have a thick layer of mulch that’s not breaking down nicely, and the layer is just getting thicker and thicker each year, rake some away and then add your amendments and start using a new, better-quality mulch this year on top of that. Are cocoa hulls good for mulching? I used to use bagged mulches, including cocoa hulls, many years ago. I have since switched to local materials I can have delivered in bulk, minus the plastic bags. There is no cocoa-processing plant nearby and hence no local source of this recycled product. Cocoa hulls can be very high in potassium, which can be a problem for some plants in some soils, and they may be toxic to pets (particularly dogs) if they are swallowed. So those factors added to the “buy local” environmental argument put them on my “no” list today. Additionally, cocoa hulls are hard to spread and either blow away or clump together if the bag got wet (sometimes they can be moldy in damp weather, too). However, they have many of the qualities I want in a mulch: They are dark in color and fine textured and look good on the beds. Can I use mulch made from recycled tires? To me this seems a real environmental no-no–yet another wacky thing that is being tried out on us unsuspecting consumers. Yes, it’s re-using worn tires…but putting them into the landscape, and nature, in shreds is as bad or worse as piling them up at the dump whole. They don’t break down and become incorporated into the soil, so they’re no good, and even dangerous. Remember that animals and much smaller living organisms interact with and inhabit the soil–I don’t think a worm wants to process tire shreds while making worm castings, or a robin wants to rustle around in the tire litter (though they love the leaf litter!). My rule: To be a mulch, it must be organic (a living/formerly living material) so it can decompose over time and return to the soil, not taint it. The one exception to my mind re: the organic rule would be some stone materials used in certain zones and certain types of landscapes. Is black plastic or landscape fabric a good mulch? Black plastic can be used to heat up an area (such as for sweet potatoes or pumpkins) but should not be left in place as it prevents moisture from entering the soil and otherwise interferes with soil health. Roll or fold it and reuse the plastic year after year. Landscape fabric, or so-called geotextiles, are not a substitute for mulch. They should not be used in garden beds, though they may have a role as a weed-block beneath gravel of pathways or patios, for instance. Placing plastic weed barrier beneath the mulch, plastic weed barriers negate the organic benefit of mulch.  Moisture is limited in penetrating this barrier.  While we do offer a fibrous weed barrier product, to receive the optimal benefit from mulch we recommend that you do not use a barrier. What about Ruth Stout’s mulch methods? Long before phrases like “lasagna garden” were making the rounds of the as-yet-uninvented internet, Ruth Stout (author of “Gardening Without Work,” 1961) was layering all her organic materials on top of her soil—sheet composting, as it might be traditionally called. Her tactic served to thwart weeds, reduce the need for fertilizers, conserve moisture and spare her the work of composting in a conventional heap with all the toting and turning of materials. Her approach to gardening starts with the foundational principle of applying mulch, mulch and more mulch, and then simply moving it back a tiny bit each year a bit to make room for a row of seeds rather than all that turning and tilling (and weeding). She said the “aha” came one spring when the plow man hadn’t come yet to till, and she was eager to get planting. She saw that the asparagus (a long-lived perennial vegetable crop) was already up and growing, right through the layers of fallen leaves and such. “I walked over and said to the asparagus, ‘We don’t have to plow for you; why do we have to plow for the other vegetables?’” Stout recalls. “And the asparagus said, “You don’t.’” Where do you get all that mulch? The garden creates it, or at least some of the raw material that becomes it: spent cornstalks and uprooted pea vines and the like, to which Stout added fall leaves and also bought-in straw or hay (“spoiled” hay was fine, and cheaper; don’t worry about a little decay, she said). Do you mulch your pots and other containers? I do apply mulch to the soil surface in my containers, to help keep roots cool and keep moisture in. Depending on the plant, I may use composted stable bedding or a small stone (pea stone).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

Mulch 

As the weather warms for spring and homeowners and landscapers become active, questions begin to arise about mulching landscape beds and gardens. We hope this helps! What is the purpose of using mulch in Landscaping and the Garden? Mulch can provide a range of benefits for landscape beds. Here are just a few: Conserve soil moisture. Mulch reduces evaporation from the soil surface and helps to ensure that water reaches plant roots instead of going back into the atmosphere. Reduce soil temperatures. In a research trial in southwest Michigan, the University found that 3 inches of wood chip mulch reduced midday soil temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Add organic matter. As mulch breaks down it adds organic matter to the soil, which aids in the soil’s ability to retain important plant nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron. Weed control. Mulch can help to control weeds, reducing the need for herbicides or hand-weeding. Appearance. Neatly applied mulch can improve contrast between beds and lawn, providing a cleaner-looking edge. Avoid lawn mower blight and string trimmer trauma. Providing a buffer between mowers and weed wackers reduces the likelihood of trunk damage to trees. Not mulching at all: The benefits of mulching far exceed the decision not to mulch.  Mulch plays a fundamental role in promoting healthy plant growth.  Mulch helps to reduce loss of moisture from the soil through evaporation thus enabling soil water retention. The soil can experience considerably cooler temperatures arising from the presence of mulch especially during the hot summer months. Mulch also helps in minimizing the growth of weeds.  Decomposition of mulch reduces soil compaction that open areas for roots to expand through the soil seeking out nutrients.  Decomposition returns micro-nutrients and minerals into you plant bed, including carbon, an essential element for plant growth. What makes good mulch? This can be very confusing, particularly because what’s sold as “mulch” in many cases isn’t really very suitable for performing the full range of duties that I think mulch should accomplish (above). Briefly, I look for a material that is: An organic substance (meaning deriving from some living or formerly living matter); Fine- to medium-textured so it will break down into the underlying soil… …but substantial enough to stay put; Preferably aged before I use it; Dark in color, like soil is (if for the ornamental beds); Available locally at a good price, preferably in bulk delivery unbagged; Not a source of contaminants, pests or diseases. To elaborate: Any mulch I use in my ornamental beds must be fine-to-medium textured and dark colored so it looks good. Forget anything that’s going to sit there and never break down, like big hunks of bark (which I call “baked potato mulch” because they look like giant spuds sitting on the ground to me), or anything that’s bright orange. I am completely opposed to dyed mulches. One caveat: Very fine-textured materials like sawdust do not make good mulch as they cake and fail to decompose. Why use a product that has been aged or composted before you use it as mulch? That extra step really makes a difference in the mulch being ready to do its job as a soil-improver. I used to use bagged mulches, including cocoa hulls and various bark products. I have since switched to local materials I can have delivered in bulk, sans plastic bags (and minus all the fuel used in processing and trucking of bagged stuff across the nation to my local garden center). Environmentally, it’s important to buy locally when you can, especially with bulky items. Technically, plants can serve as a sort of living mulch as well; that’s why certain ones are termed ground covers. What’s the best material to use for mulch? To a large extent, the “best” mulch material is in the eye of the beholder. Most organic materials such as ground bark, ground wood chips or shredded leaves can provide the key benefits of moisture conservation, weed control, thermal insulation and organic matter addition. Therefore, cost, aesthetic appearance and availability are often the deciding factors. Inorganic mulches such as rock or shredded tires do not need to be replaced, but do not add organic matter to the soil. What about lawn clippings as mulch? Lawn clipping are a poor choice for mulch since they tend to mat together and impede water penetration if they dry out. In addition, they are unsightly and can produce an unpleasant odor as they decompose. Michigan State University Extension says a better alternative is to compost your lawn clippings and then use the compost in your garden or as a top-dressed amendment before you apply mulch. Or use a mulching mower that returns the clippings back into your yard. Wood chips are not mulch, wood chips are not recommended as a beneficial mulch, although many people find them acceptable as mulch.  Chips made from limbs and branches from tree trimmings decay at an accelerated rate.  Once again, just like green mulch, wood chips that have not been aged properly can rob your plant of beneficial nitrogen.  What areas do you deliver to? Anywhere in the Chicago or St Louis metro area. See below:  St Louis Area                Chicago Area Is there a delivery fee? Delivery is included within 25 miles of Center city of Chicago or St Louis.   Do I need to be home when delivery is made? No.  The delivery can be arranged ahead of time, we just need the spot marked where you want the mulch to be placed. What do you use for mulch in your garden? On my ornamental beds, I use a composted stable bedding product–a local agricultural byproduct from horse or dairy farms that has been allowed to age first. It’s simply wood shavings (not too fine, not too coarse, as you can see in top photo) that farmers spread on the floors of animal stalls to absorb manure and urine, and then muck out and compost afterward to recycle it. I expect you can find a local source via your county cooperative extension office; this website give a sense of the kind of product I am talking about, though I buy from a local farmer. Leaf mold (partially rotted and shredded leaves) would also be great, if your local landfill offers it, or start a leaves-only compost pile in fall and pre-shred it like this. In my vegetable garden, I use straw (which is of course not dark- colored), preferably chopped. In rough areas such as along the roadside outside my fence, I will use wood chips from the power or phone company, or from a fallen tree. I will also use wood chips or bark chips on utility-area pathways (behind sheds, between vegetable rows).  I pile up wood chips and let them age before using them. For more details about pros and cons of different mulches, try this fact sheet from Cornell Extension When do I apply it, and how much should I use? I mulch my perennial and shrub beds in spring, but not until after the soil has a chance to warm and dry a bit. I also am conscious of areas where I want biennials and other self-sown plants to have a chance to do their thing; mulching these too soon may prevent successful reseeding. You want a 2- or 3-inch layer, generally speaking, and if you use the right stuff, about half of that will work into the underlying soil before you go to replenish in fall or the next spring. Keep the mulch a couple of inches away from trunks of trees and shrubs; never pile it up, volcano-like, against them, as that can invite pests and diseases. Anytime I work in an area and disturb the mulch, I add a bit more rather than leave bare spots. I apply mulch to new beds whenever I plant. Mulch is sometimes also used in winter in cold zones to help keep newly planted things in the ground, or to shield tender plants from damage (such as the graft union on roses). For that purpose, materials like evergreen boughs (which would not normally be good for mulch) may also be used. Mulching at the base of a tree Avoid placing excessive mulch around the trunk or stems.  Adequate space has to be available so that the plant can breathe.  A common practice is to pile the mulch up around the base of a tree also know as a mulch volcano because the tree trunk sticks out of a mound of mulch.  This practice traps moisture against the tree bark and encourages bacterial and fungal disease.  Deep applications of mulch around tree trunks encourages rotting of the cambium or bark of the tree.  Possibly even killing the tree!  The proper method is to place the mulch in the shape of a doughnut.  This also allows the cavity to capture and retain rainwater.  Mulch must be tapered away from the trunk of trees before applying the recommended depth of 2-3".   Do I have to move the mulch before adding compost and fertilizer? If you use a mulch that has the correct texture and has been composted first, this should not be a problem. I simply “topdress” (spread compost and all-natural organic fertilizer right on top of last year’s partly decomposed mulch) then replenish the mulch as needed. The problem with most mulches, even bagged shredded bark, is that they haven’t been composted before they are sold and/or are too coarse, so they don’t break down very well, but rather form a sort of coating on top of the soil. Good mulch, on the other hand, breaks down and improves the soil below. I don’t mean it breaks down in a week or a month, but over the course of a season or two. If you have a thick layer of mulch that’s not breaking down nicely, and the layer is just getting thicker and thicker each year, rake some away and then add your amendments and start using a new, better-quality mulch this year on top of that. Are cocoa hulls good for mulching? I used to use bagged mulches, including cocoa hulls, many years ago. I have since switched to local materials I can have delivered in bulk, minus the plastic bags. There is no cocoa-processing plant nearby and hence no local source of this recycled product. Cocoa hulls can be very high in potassium, which can be a problem for some plants in some soils, and they may be toxic to pets (particularly dogs) if they are swallowed. So those factors added to the “buy local” environmental argument put them on my “no” list today. Additionally, cocoa hulls are hard to spread and either blow away or clump together if the bag got wet (sometimes they can be moldy in damp weather, too). However, they have many of the qualities I want in a mulch: They are dark in color and fine textured and look good on the beds. Can I use mulch made from recycled tires? To me this seems a real environmental no-no–yet another wacky thing that is being tried out on us unsuspecting consumers. Yes, it’s re-using worn tires…but putting them into the landscape, and nature, in shreds is as bad or worse as piling them up at the dump whole. They don’t break down and become incorporated into the soil, so they’re no good, and even dangerous. Remember that animals and much smaller living organisms interact with and inhabit the soil–I don’t think a worm wants to process tire shreds while making worm castings, or a robin wants to rustle around in the tire litter (though they love the leaf litter!). My rule: To be a mulch, it must be organic (a living/formerly living material) so it can decompose over time and return to the soil, not taint it. The one exception to my mind re: the organic rule would be some stone materials used in certain zones and certain types of landscapes. Is black plastic or landscape fabric a good mulch? Black plastic can be used to heat up an area (such as for sweet potatoes or pumpkins) but should not be left in place as it prevents moisture from entering the soil and otherwise interferes with soil health. Roll or fold it and reuse the plastic year after year. Landscape fabric, or so-called geotextiles, are not a substitute for mulch. They should not be used in garden beds, though they may have a role as a weed-block beneath gravel of pathways or patios, for instance. Placing plastic weed barrier beneath the mulch, plastic weed barriers negate the organic benefit of mulch.  Moisture is limited in penetrating this barrier.  While we do offer a fibrous weed barrier product, to receive the optimal benefit from mulch we recommend that you do not use a barrier. What about Ruth Stout’s mulch methods? Long before phrases like “lasagna garden” were making the rounds of the as-yet-uninvented internet, Ruth Stout (author of “Gardening Without Work,” 1961) was layering all her organic materials on top of her soil—sheet composting, as it might be traditionally called. Her tactic served to thwart weeds, reduce the need for fertilizers, conserve moisture and spare her the work of composting in a conventional heap with all the toting and turning of materials. Her approach to gardening starts with the foundational principle of applying mulch, mulch and more mulch, and then simply moving it back a tiny bit each year a bit to make room for a row of seeds rather than all that turning and tilling (and weeding). She said the “aha” came one spring when the plow man hadn’t come yet to till, and she was eager to get planting. She saw that the asparagus (a long-lived perennial vegetable crop) was already up and growing, right through the layers of fallen leaves and such. “I walked over and said to the asparagus, ‘We don’t have to plow for you; why do we have to plow for the other vegetables?’” Stout recalls. “And the asparagus said, “You don’t.” Where do you get all that mulch? The garden creates it, or at least some of the raw material that becomes it: spent cornstalks and uprooted pea vines and the like, to which Stout added fall leaves and also bought-in straw or hay (“spoiled” hay was fine, and cheaper; don’t worry about a little decay, she said). Do you mulch your pots and other containers? I do apply mulch to the soil surface in my containers, to help keep roots cool and keep moisture in. Depending on the plant, I may use composted stable bedding or a small stone (pea stone).
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