Much ado about mulching

Published 2:12 pm Sunday, April 8, 2007

When spring makes way for sizzling summer, you can see the difference in your garden. Expect the size of rose blossoms to diminish as soaring temperatures stress the bushes. Fragrance dissipates on the hot breezes and red roses quickly crimp and burn.

But don’t despair. Roses are tough plants. A little tender loving care will help them through the dog days of summer and enable them to bounce back with a brilliant display of blossoms in fall.

One of the most important ways to help your roses (and all your garden plants) is by mulching, which is simply covering the top of the soil with an organic material. These can be homemade compost (well-aged), commercial soil amendment or compost, even straw or newspaper, and spread on top of the garden soil in a layer at least three to four inches thick. Since I began gardening more than twenty years ago, I’ve tried all different types, including various types of barks, pine straw, and commercial mulches.

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My hands-down favorite is cocoa mulch. This aromatic and attractive product consists of hulls from cocoa beans. These hulls are brown and redolent of luscious chocolate. Whenever I use it, I make sure that I have some chocolate handy to satisfy my ever-present sweet tooth. The reason I prefer cocoa mulch to all others is that it’s easy to spread, retains soil moisture and is very attractive in the landscape. Best of all, for me, is that it breaks down during the fall so I don’t have to rake up leftover mulch and remove it. Because soil microorganisms break it down, the result is that soil texture is improved. My Natchez garden is young and I’m diligently adding organic material to it to encourage earth worms, important garden residents still in small supply in my garden. This year, I’m glad to see some, and by next year I expect significantly more.

Cocoa mulch is very popular in Southern California and is easy to obtain in two cubic feet bags. When I moved here, I tried for a year to obtain it locally and made numerous requests at local stores. Fortunately, Ricky Smith, owner of Bug Busters and The Garden Place in Vidalia, agreed to bring in 650 bags as a test. He hopes to replace cypress mulch with cocoa mulch. I purchased 100 bags and spread it in the beds already planted for the year. More will be applied in the coming weeks. Cocoa mulch retails for $5.00 per two-cubic foot bag. Although it’s just a little more expensive than other mulches, I’m willing to make the investment because I like its landscape appearance. There is a cautionary warning about it—in very rare occurrences, dogs have eaten the mulch and because it is a byproduct of chocolate, it’s harmful to them. In my California gardens, there were never any problems. Also, cats avoid it because the surface is sharp and they don’t like to walk on it.

Whatever mulch you choose, the method of application is the same. Cover the exposed soil, but be sure the mulch is at least six inches away from the bud union so insects won’t attack this region where the rose is grafted to its rootstock.

Mulching retains water in the soil, cools soil temperature, and has the added benefit of reducing weed growth. You’ll discover that you won’t need to water your plants as often since soil won’t dry out as fast.

Karen Dardick writes a monthly column about growing roses in the South.