Q. Is there any mulch to avoid?
A. Don’t use grass clippings from a lawn that has been treated with a broadleaf herbicide in the past three to four weeks. Also, cocoa hulls, like chocolate, contain a compound that can be toxic to dogs if ingested.
Q. Should I choose an aged mulch?
A. Aged mulch won’t rob the soil of nitrogen as much as new mulch because it’s already starting to decompose. Aged mulch is better for new plants that are just establishing their root systems, as these plants tend to require more nutrients than established ones. Aged mulch, however, will only last half as long as newly chipped mulch. You can usually tell the difference between aged and new mulch by smelling and feeling the mulch. Aged mulch smells and feels like young compost, emitting a pleasant, earthy aroma. Aged mulch usually contains softened, crumbling pieces of wood.
Q. Does it matter if I use softwood or hardwood?
A. Hardwood mulch from trees such as oak, black locust, hickory, and hackberry tends to last a little longer than softwood chips from silver maple, willow, and honey locust. But mostly this choice is about color, texture, and aesthetic appeal. Evergreen chips smell great, especially in the first few weeks after application.
Q. What about using pine needles or leaves from deciduous trees?
A. These materials make good mulch, particularly if leaves are shredded first. In fact, leaf mold (shredded tree leaves) is an excellent addition to the soil. Both pine needles and deciduous leaves can be used for a season, then raked aside and placed on a compost pile. You can also leave them in place to slowly decompose, while adding another layer on top of the old batch.
Q. How deeply should I apply the mulch?
A. For vegetable gardens, an inch of dried grass clippings, straw, chopped corncobs, or shredded newspaper works great. Annuals and perennials grow best with a couple of inches of wood chips on the ground, and trees and shrubs would be well suited with a 2- to 3-inch-deep layer of mulch. With any planting, make sure the mulch is placed between the plants and not on top of the crown or pushed against the tree trunk. Also, keep mulch 12 inches from the foundation of the house to keep insects from migrating from mulch to house.
Q. When should I apply mulch?
A. Because its main purposes are to cool the soil, suppress weeds, and retain soil moisture, mulch is best applied in early summer. Applications made too early in spring delay root expansion of newly installed perennials and annuals.
Q. Should I be cautious of using mulch from a tree or lawn that was diseased?
A. No. Most plant pathogenic diseases are specific to the plant they infest. Mulch from a poplar tree infected with cytospora canker is unlikely to cause a similar disease on dogwoods or coral bells. Grass clippings from a lawn infected with rhizoctonia brown patch will not cause problems if scattered among bell peppers.
Q. Is dyed mulch all right to use?
A. Some of the colors are hideous—electric blue, pink, gold—but the dye used is relatively safe. There are no significant risks to pets or the environment.