“What do you think about rubber mulch … stone mulch?” I get these questions often in the spring and fall. I smile and remind myself to be nice.

“Have you sourced your rubber mulch?” I ask. “Does it add anything back to the soil, or do any of the things rotting material will for the ground? Have you ever smelled rubber mulch on a 95-degree day? Phew!”

I don’t think rubber mulch should ever be used in a landscaped area. It’s fit to use in a playground (although that has been questioned lately) or a pathway. There’s nothing “organic” about it.

Stone mulch is also great for a pathway or maybe for an area where the overhang is far out over the landscaped foundation. Rock is organic, right? It is, and it will very slowly add minerals to the soil, but it’s not a rotting substance, giving to the life of the soil. It does a very poor job of regulating soil temperatures, which stresses roots. Pebbles will help suppress weeds, but the ground tends to heave and “swallow” stones over time. A great example of that is our gravel driveway! No, I don’t recommend pebbles/stones for regular landscape covering.

Mulch is Nature’s way of protecting, feeding, balancing, regulating, reusing, and that’s the example I follow. I want to help things grow healthier and stronger, not just survive until they expire.

Years ago, I was presented with this scenario: “Well, I’ve been mulching with fine black mulch around my trees ever since we moved here 6 years ago. They’re oaks, over 100 years old. They’ve done just fine.”

I smiled and congratulated him. Three years later this same man came to me: “Could you come and look at my trees? It seems that they’ve got a lot of dead in them, and I don’t want to lose them.”

I agreed and went to look. The mulch was just as he said. I began to dig around the base of one of the oaks; about 4” into the mulch, against the tree, the bark was spongey and soft. I continued to rake the mulch back all the way around, and found the tree was basically girdled with the dying bark. It was as though a tourniquet had been applied and the flow of life greatly inhibited. He was right. The trees were dying.

I told him what I thought and he said “they were fine til this spring. I’ll bet it was that last load of mulch … it must’ve been bad.”

“How long do you think it takes a tree this old to die?” I asked.

He looked at me blankly, and said nothing.

“It can take ten years or more, after the fatal blow has been dealt, for the tree to completely die. These trees have been dying for years.”

People, know your plants. Don’t try to make them into some magazine’s image. If you’ve inherited a landscape, learn it; decide what is healthy, what works and what doesn’t. If poor practices have been used previously, correct what you can. If you must use “professional” services, ask lots of questions; ask for references; look at their previous work. A nice landscape is a valuable part of the home value and shoddy work can cost you more than once.

If you’re in the process of a new landscape, you’re picking what to plant, don’t pick based on impulses, or plants in a friend’s yard. If you have heavy clay soil, chances are your contractor sold your topsoil and left you with hardpan. So, you either learn what will grow in that, or be content to slowly build it back up. No, you shouldn’t dig it out and replace it with “good” stuff.” You’ll create a bathtub that doesn’t drain well, and will rot roots.

Heavy clay soil can be amended slowly, and with care, one planting hole at a time. Native plants are ones that are acclimated to clay and will do best in that situation. By the way, did you know that clay, the smallest particle of soil, is the most nutrient-packed soil there is? Clay is not bad! It’s just bound up, lacking organic matter … like mulch.

You know, I’m ignorant when it comes to mechanics and I’m very intimidated by hubby’s big tractor. I wouldn’t even begin to try to mess with any of that, unless I learned how first. That’s how I feel about the soil, plants, and all things growing. Learn before you wreck it!

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at velokigate@yahoo.com with comments or questions.

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