Mad mulcher bulks up on knowledge

April 24, 1999|By Rob Kasper

IT HAPPENS every spring. I get the urge to mulch. I am overcome with an emphatic desire to buy sacks of mulch, then race home and empty them on my trees and plants.

I have to confine myself to buying bags -- holding a mere 2 cubic feet of mulch -- because I have a small yard. But I fantasize about buying in bulk. I dream of owning impressive of mounds of mulch.

The other morning, for instance, while waiting for a stoplight to change at Charles Street and Northern Parkway, I suffered an attack of mulch lust. My car was in the center lane. Next to me was a pickup truck sagging with a steaming, fragrant load of mulch.

I leered at the truck, coveting its load the way some guys leer at babes in convertibles. I thought of jumping out of my car and overpowering the truck driver (swatting him with my briefcase), then speeding off with the goods. What would I be charged with, mulch-jacking?

Before I could act on my evil impulse, the light changed and the truck turned right, moseying down Charles unaware of the threat it had just avoided.

The encounter at the stoplight only increased my ardor to mulch. I vowed to set aside several hours of the weekend for serious mulching.

Later, in a rare moment of reflection, I wondered why I do it. Why do I mulch?

Some answers came quickly to me. I mulch because it gets me outside in good weather. I mulch because it impresses the neighbors. I mulch because -- unlike so many of my labors -- this one leaves clear evidence that I was there. It might just be wood chips, but I have made a mark on the landscape.

While mulching gives me a thrill, I wasn't sure what it does for the trees or plants. To clear that up, I called the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service hot line (800-342-2507) and talked to a horticulture extension consultant, Valerie Canada. Drawing on files at the office, and on her personal experience, she set me straight on the pros and cons of mulching.

Mulching, she said, can keep the weeds down, can help retain soil moisture, can keep the soil temperature even, can slow erosion, and can improve the appearance of your yard.

While mature trees may not need mulch, a benefit of mulching them is that the mulch serves as a buffer, a no-cutting zone, that keeps the lawn-service armies -- armed with powers mowers and whirling string trimmers -- a safe distance from vulnerable tree trunks.

I learned that there is also a downside to mulching, especially if you apply too much. For your everyday tree mulch, such as pine bark and hardwood, the appropriate level of mulch is 1 to 2 inches, Canada said. For your prize vegetable and flower garden mulch -- chopped leaves or peat moss -- the correct level is 2 to 3 inches.

If you go over that, you could be in trouble. If, for example, you fall victim to competitive mulching -- if you try to make the mounds of mulch under your trees taller than those of your neighbors -- bad things can happen. Too much mulch can encourage the trees to send out new roots in the mulch pile, not down in the soil, a behavior that is harmful to the tree's health.

Moreover, if you lay mulch on too thick, unwelcome critters, like voles, may set up house in your mulch pile and dine on your tree roots.

Mulch should not "choke" tree trunks or plants. Too much mulch, piled up on a tree trunk or plant, could transfer diseases to the tree or plant, Canada said. The tree or plant stem should be given a little breathing room, she added. I got the idea that instead of taking the "turtleneck" approach, the artful mulcher should go for the "open collar" look, giving the tree trunk or plant stem a couple of inches of room.

It turns out that there are myriad mulches -- including organic and inorganic, nuggets and shredded -- to choose from.

The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service has put together a guide to mulches (Fact Sheet No. 553) that it sends out to folks like me who seek the proper mulch.

After comparing the various textures, colors and rates of decomposition for 23 kinds of mulches listed in the guide, I picked one.

I will go with the basic pine bark mulch, shredded rather than nuggets. This mulch doesn't blow away. It has a medium rate of decomposition, and it has a pleasing color, dark brown -- a color the neighbors are sure to notice.

I am going to put an inch or two of it around the trees. I am going to make sure the mulch isn't "choking" the trunks.

As I work, I am going to chant the mantra that the horticulture extension consultant gave me: "Moderation in all things, especially mulch."

And the next time I pull up beside a truck carrying a fetching-looking load of mulch, I will avert my eyes. Maybe.

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