Pine straw or bark mulch? Not an exciting topic, but to hands-on gardeners and plants it can make a difference.
It’s especially timely to me right now as my garden gets prepared for my being gone all summer to my garden in northern England. It’ll have to fend for itself with just an occasional visit to make sure everything’s OK. And mulches are central to its survival.
In addition to using hardy plants proven to tolerate cold, heat, rain and drought, I mulch a lot, deep enough to completely cover the dirt but not so deep that it prevents air and water from getting down to roots. Mulches also keep dirt fluffy, moderate its day/night temperatures and help keep weed seedlings down. And they look good.
Oh — and they are life savers when it comes to keeping mowers and string trimmers off tender shrub and tree trunks. And by the way, mulch works best in a uniform layer or ring, not a volcano piled up on shrub and tree trunks.
Most folks go with organic materials, such as pine straw, hay, or chipped or shredded bark, which break down to “feed” the soil. You can, however, also use inorganic materials, including gravel, rocks, slate and pulverized brick, and, with varying approval from neighbors, even crushed beer cans or Mardi Gras beads.
Whatever. I’m a bark man myself, not that I have anything against plentiful, inexpensive pine straw. But pine needles need to be four or more inches deep, and because of its waxy covering they don’t decompose quickly and feed the soil, and can pack down tightly.
For my money and effort, I’d rather spread chipped or shredded bark over the ground and between plants, and which decomposes over time rather than building up and packing down. My rule of thumb for how much to use is simple: 2 or 3 inches is enough to completely cover the ground and enough extra to allow for settling.
So, to get my garden ready for this coming long, hot spell, I spent a few minutes during the cooler parts of the past few days pulling winter and newly emerging summer weeds, planting a few annuals for summer and fall color, and covering everything up to its gills with bark mulch, tucked under shrubs and around flowers. I even mulch my potted plants to keep the soil cool and moist.
This is in addition to using mostly hardy plants. Over the years, I have settled into a few dozen really dependable trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, annuals and bulbs that actually like Mississippi’s soils and weather. If something died or looked pretty bad part of the year, or needed regular pruning or pest control, I simply sunned its roots and planted something else in the hole.
Not so surprisingly, a lot have been around a long time, scattered in small town and country gardens and established landscapes in older parts of town. Even in cemeteries — I mean, if dead people can grow them, that’ll do for creaky, lazy, busy, gone-a-lot old me, too.
Many have unusual descriptive folk names, like making them hard to look up. And I have a hard time recommending them because many aren’t readily available in today’s fast-food gardening world of azaleas, holly and crape myrtles.
But they’re there, the altheas and flowering almonds, the milk-and-wine crinum lilies and magenta hardy gladioli, the grancy graybeards and cedars. Because they are survivors, and offer a distinct Southern sense of place, they’re getting popular again.
And, given a little mulch, they keep cruising along, doing their things til I get back home.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.