The Good, The Bad & The Dangerous.

Gardeners who live in hot climates are used to hearing the advice; mulch, mulch, mulch. But is it the best thing to do in YOUR garden?

The main types of mulching material are;• • • •

Organic materials which decompose readily. For example, straw, hay, leaves, manures and seaweed. Organic material that decomposes more slowly, for example, pine bark, wood chips, twigs and thin branches. Minerals such as pebbles, gravel and crushed bricks, just to name a few. Synthetic material such as weed mat. You can also use ground covers as a living mulch.

The idea of using a layer of mulch around your plants or throughout your garden is to reduce the loss of water from the soil via evaporation. Mulch can also protect the soil surface from heavy rain and reduce the risk of crusting and erosion. It can slow the flow of water across the soil surface and increase the amount of water moving down through the soil profile. Mulch can change the temperature of the soil beneath it and it can sometimes suppress weed growth. Organic mulches that decompose rapidly also help to improve the soil structure. All in all, mulching sounds like a good thing to do. So why is the title of this blog post ‘Mulch. The good, the bad and the dangerous?’ Well, some mulching material can be detrimental to your plants.

If mulch is spread too thickly and forms a watertight layer, it can prevent gases leaving and entering the soil around plants. Carbon dioxide levels can build up in the soil and plant roots can ‘suffocate’ from lack of oxygen. The same situation can occur if you are using plastic mulching material. Plants may develop Nitrogen deficiency when certain materials, such as sawdust and straw, decompose rapidly. If you intend using these types of material that are high in carbon, place a layer of nitrogen fertilizer on the soil before applying the mulch. Mulches can aggravate anaerobic conditions in soil where the drainage is poor. This can lead to denitrification (loss of Nitrogen) in the soil which will show as a yellowing of older leaves in some plants. Many types of mulch are used to decrease the soil temperature in hot climates, so the plant roots that are growing near the surface of the soil don’t ‘cook’. But air temperatures are more extreme just above the mulching material. Young seedling plants growing through a layer of mulch in the summer can be injured by the higher temperature. The opposite is also true for night temperatures. Organic mulches are not good at absorbing heat during the day and the surface of mulch cools very quickly under night radiation, sometimes being three or four degrees colder above a mulch than above bare soil. Another factor to watch out for is the possibility of toxicity or phytotoxicity. Not all plants get along with each other (much like people) and some plants even cause other plants to get really sick if they are in close proximity to each other. If material that has been designated for mulch has not been composted properly, it can cause toxicity to other plants once spread around the garden. Bark and sawdust from certain trees have been reported to be toxic to other plants. Some examples are Eucalyptus, redwood, cedar, larch and spruce.

The toxic substances from these trees can be removed through proper composting. So there you have it. The Good, The Bad and The Dangerous.

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