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Which Mulch Should I Use?

When the subject of mulch comes up there are several imperfect choices and each of us must make our own decision.

Two types of mulch are available from the City of St. Petersburg Sanitation Department. One is called "recycled". It is made from all the material taken to the brush dump and ground up. It’s quite fine in texture, dark in color, often contains interesting bits and pieces of plastics or whatnot, and degrades quickly. I’ve used this product in one client’s garden and for 7 years in my own garden with no mishaps. I have never experienced a weed problem, perhaps because the City mulch pile must build up enough heat to kill seeds and weeds. The cons for using this mulch are the bits of trash you have to take out, and exposing your garden to whatever was placed in the dump. The pros are improved soil texture, water- and nutrient-holding capacity, and the low cost (this mulch is free from the City, the only charge is for delivery).

The second type available through the City is called "log mulch" and is made from all large logs taken to the brush dump. If a diseased or insect-riddled tree is taken down and makes it to the dump, then it will still be ground up into log mulch. So the con is the possibility to spread disease or insect problems. (I have used this product in several projects and have not any problems to date.) The pros are log mulch is cleaner than the recycled mulch; it is coarser in texture and so will break down more slowly; it looks much like cypress mulch in color; and the price is right. As of July 2005, log mulch costs $7 a yard plus the delivery fee.

A great use for a pest tree is Melaleuca mulch. I know they make it but have yet to find a source in St. Petersburg.

Bagged Eucalyptus mulch works fairly well, and I like the color and texture. However, it does seem to form a bit of a "crust" over time, which does not allow water to penetrate the soil.

The red-colored mulch appeals in certain garden color-schemes, but I have not yet received an answer from the manufacturer as to what type of dye they use. What would have been a good recycled hardwood mulch, in my opinion is of questionable value because I don’t know what’s in the dye that leaches into our soils.

Pine needle mulch is a natural product, reasonably priced by the bale and available locally. It looks especially appropriate with a natural or native plants garden. It’s soft underfoot and really easy to spread. In my opinion the only con might be that the pine needles are a little informal-looking for some settings.

Cypress mulch is of medium texture, and most people seem to like the color. It’s certainly widely available. However, the Florida Native Plant Society states that using cypress mulch may have a negative ecological impact. The following information is taken from a brochure written by Barbara Waddell and the Pepper Patrol of Ruskin, Florida, and distributed by the Suncoast Native Plant Society, Inc., P.O. Box 82893 Tampa, FL 33682 www.fnps.org/chapters/suncoast.

"Almost all of Florida’s old-growth cypress forests are gone now. They were clear-cut for lumber decades ago. Most of the cypress stands we see today are relatively young trees…Thousands of acres of cypress are logged every year simply to produce mulch…Cypress mulch is being clear-cut from our native wetlands and the destroyed cypress trees are not being replanted. (Establishing the proper hydrology for cypress seed germination is difficult and rarely accomplished by anyone but Mother Nature.) When a cypress area is clear-cut and bare, that land is easily taken over by invasive pest plants such as Brazilian pepper. Sometimes the land is planted in pine for future logging, or drained for development. Either way, the cypress forest and its wetland and wildlife are lost forever…."

"Several counties in Florida restrict cypress mulch use. This is done by ordinances, land development codes or regulations. Dade County’s code for new developments #1897-15(G) (#) even says, ‘cypress mulch shall not be used because its harvest degrades cypress wetlands’."

The brochure goes on to state that cypress mulch, while visually attractive and readily available, is a poor way to mulch your garden. "There is more evidence that cypress does not make the best mulch. According to the Florida Cooperative Extension Service’s March 1994 Fact Sheet ENH 103, ‘When dry, cypress mulch repels water, making it difficult to wet, particularly if it is on a mound or slope.’ More-over, once it is wet ‘cypress mulch appears to have a high water-holding capacity that may reduce the amount of water reaching the plant root zone’."

I’ve spoken with one local distributor of cypress mulch, to ask what they know about how the cypress they sell is harvested. Their wholesale supplier reassured them that all mulch that they sell is taken from renewable resources.

As always, it’s an imperfect world, so no choice is perfect! You decide which mulch works best for you.

Advanced Art of Gardening Rev 10/04 Mary-Beth Wagner, Horticulturist (727) 743-5543


Roy Anderberg
Roy Anderberg Gardening
39th Avenue North
St. Petersburg, FL 33703
Cell: (727) 612-4265

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