Mulch – What Works Best

Fresh pinestraw put down today

Fresh pine straw put down today

Pinestraw installed last summer

Pine straw installed last summer

Fresh pine bark spread today

Fresh pine bark spread today

Pine bark spread last summer

Pine bark spread last summer

The two most common organic mulches in our area are pine straw and pine bark. While both organic mulches eventually decompose, they have very different characteristics and should have different uses. Before I go any further, I will tell you my personal preference is pine straw. Why? It looks better longer, controls weeds better, and tends not to wash on slopes. Now that you know that, I can also tell you I use pine bark in certain situations as a mulch,too. So let me give you my thoughts on both. Pine straw is a good long acting product that can be spread over a large area, either thick or thin depending on what you need it for. I have been using it for years, so a light topping over the old is all I need to keep my mulched areas looking fresh and groomed. If I had a new landscape or am putting it around newly planted trees and shrubs, I like to put it between three to four inches thick. It will quickly pack down after a few rains and will help with weed reduction, and in dry weather holds moisture well. Also, it is the choice of organic mulches for slopes, as it does not wash under normal conditions.
Pine bark comes in various sizes from very fine to course. The courser the bark the more it tends to float or wash in heavy rain. So it is very important to remember it is used best in relatively flat spaces. As with all organic mulches, as it decomposes it enriches the soil which is good. But as it decomposes, it can rob the soil of nitrogen, so it is advisable to add nitrogen to the planted area as the decomposition process occurs (especially if it is fresh). I prefer the medium to fine textured pine bark over the course nuggets, as I think it gives the landscape a more refined look. Because pine bark is ground and then sent directly to the nursery to sell in bulk or to the plant to be ground and bagged, it often contains some weed seeds. Please avoid color mulch, as it is just UGLY, and also puts dyes into the soil which cannot be good for the plants. The way I use pine bark mulch is to incorporate it into heavy soils before planting and occasionally lightly around small annuals. In either case, when choosing a pine based mulch, evaluate it not only on appearance, but how you are going to use it for the most successful application. Is it time to add mulch now? Yes, I am adding fresh mulch to many areas of my landscape now.

John Floyd

John Floyd has been gardening--and learning about Birmingham area gardening--for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was Editor-in-Chief of Southern Living.

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