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Insects & Critters Mulching is a big treat for your plants

By Tim Lockley for Sun Herald
They remind me of volcanoes with trees growing out of them.

I'm talking about mulch.

I've seen people pile up chips over 12 inches high around the trunk of a tree. That pile of mulch keeps the moisture high and, over time, will lead to all sorts of insect and disease problems. Never let mulch touch the bark of a tree. Make a doughnut around the tree, leaving 4 to 6 inches clear of the bark.

Don't get me wrong. Mulching is one of the best things you can do for your plants. Look around - Mama Nature doesn't like bare dirt and does her best to cover it up.

Mulching preserves the moisture in the soil by reducing evaporation. It also moderates soil temperature both in the summer and in the winter. It keeps dirt from splashing onto lower leaves, preventing soil-borne fungal diseases. And, over time, organic mulches decompose and add important nutrients to the soil, keeping the top layer loose and airy. Roots have to breathe, too, you know. Mulching isn't rocket science, but there are common mistakes people make when applying mulch. As mentioned above, the most common is adding mulch layers up the trunk of trees and shrubs. Apply a layer of mulch 3 to 4 inches deep and a yard out from the trunk. Too deep a layer will allow weed seeds to germinate and take hold on top of the mulch.

Another mistake is thinking that the simple act of piling on mulch will kill the weeds that are already there. Sorry. You're going to have to get down on your hands and knees and dig up or spray the weeds before you put down anything. If you use a herbicide, read the label. Most take a minimum of a week to work. You can't expect to spray in the morning and mulch in the afternoon.

Mulching your shrubs is similar to mulching around trees. The depth should be the same. However, when possible, shrubs look best when they are mulched in beds together. When planting shrubs, avoid making them into islands in your landscape. Flowers and vegetable gardens should also be mulched. Around 3 inches will be a better depth for them.

You might want to use a finer mulch in flower beds than around your trees and shrubs. Your perennials won't mind as much as your annuals about having mulch around their base, but it has a lot to do with the plant and its growing habits.

When it comes to the types of mulch, there are a lot of choices. The most common is bark. You can get it shredded or in large or small chips. This is my personal preference for use under trees and shrubs. It breaks down very slowly. Some research has shown that the larger chunks give better weed control. If you have good soil already, this is an excellent choice, since the slow decomposition of bark means that it doesn't supply much in the way of humus for your soil.

In flower beds and vegetable gardens where you will be adding plants, dividing plants or planting seedlings, other mulch materials are more appropriate. Commercially available compost, laves and even partially decomposed sawdust make good mulches. Read more.

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