Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mulch Ado About Nothing

Last month I met with a woman who stated emphatically that she loved the look of mulch. To emphasize her point she showed me a number of pictures that she had gathered on line. Invariably, each photograph contained an image of a newly planted garden much like the one pictured below, which I took after completing an installation a few years ago.

While I admit that a freshly mulched garden has a certain tidy appeal, I have always considered mulch a means not an end. In my mind there is no aesthetic comparison between the picture above and the one below, which I took of the same property a few weeks ago.

Comparing the first picture to the second is like comparing bare studs and sub-flooring to a finished room. Don't misunderstand me. Mulch serves two very important purposes. It inhibits the growth of weeds and reduces moisture loss. In the winter a thick layer of mulch keeps the soil temperature relatively consistent and protects plants from frost heaves or premature sprouting due to unseasonable warmth. I spend a good deal of time mulching my gardens here in Seekonk every fall.

Given the size of my property, using pine bark would be prohibitively expensive. Instead I use leaves and other garden debris that I run through a chipper. During the summer I re-mulch some of my beds with grass clippings, which effectively smother even the toughest weeds. I've also used well-rotted horse manure shoveled into my truck from a local stable. Recently, I've begun to wonder if the salt in dried seaweed might discourage the snails that continue to plague my gardens. An experiment might be in order this autumn. Undoubtedly, these materials are not as pretty as a dark brown bark mulch. Their look, however, doesn't much matter since as the the growing season progresses the soil is barely visible. And that is as it should be! Ground leaves also break down quickly making it easy to plant bulbs in the fall without having to move a coarser mulch out of the way.

Recent confusion about the proper use of mulch may be attributed to the cheap, colored mulches now available at many garden centers. Personally, I dislike the look of these products, which are made from chipped lumber. Call me old school, but I don't think mulch should be red or black. A landscape's color palette should come from plants or other natural elements, not from a vat of dye!

As for the garden pictured earlier in this post, here are a few more photographs of the property.

Originally the yard was a steeply sloped area of lawn bounded by a fence. Now it has two sitting areas, a fireplace and colorful plantings.

I installed a timber retaining wall to level the yard and removed the lawn completely.

Although there are neighbors nearby, the yard feels quite private. My clients take meticulous care of their property and except for the spaces between the stepping stones, there's hardly any mulch in sight.