Get our newsletters

Tips for the Compleat Gardener: March melts and mulchers move


The month of March is generally maddening with intermittent snow and rain, ground thawing but not yet, feet slipping around.

Should stay off the lawn and out of gardens lest they collapse tunnels holding baby bees becoming. The majority of native bees are “solitary,” not attracted to hive life, and they make their own accommodations for hatching young in hollow stems, empty tubes and in the soil where the bee burrows in.

The bee lines the future nest with good things to eat, lays her egg, seals the entrance with her secretions and departs. If she looks back it is unobserved as yet.

With March on the melt mulching mania is sure to follow as landscape crews begin to clean up winter’s detritus and I am suggesting you have a say about what is applied, both liquid and mulch, in your environment. Some choices are better than others.

If you live in a condo situation where choices are made by the homeowners association speak out now, before crews arrive, and ask that poisons not be spread in your environment. Organic alternatives exist and the poisons are bad for you, your pets, the workers and the world. The wholesale extermination of insects is a really bad thing.

Many homeowner associations have banned the use of black-dyed mulch mostly because it is known to host artillery fungus, which throws black, tarry spores as far as 30 feet, marring hardscape and houses but there are more reasons to avoid its use such as the indeterminate quality of wood used and the lack of nutritive value to the soil.

I have noticed over the last few seasons that landscapes mulched with black-dyed mulch are failing to thrive and I wonder if the blackness absorbs too much heat for the health of soil organisms, this is just my observation.

Even just basic shredded hardwood mulch offers little nutrition but it can keep moisture in and suppress weeds but be careful about the depth, rain needs to be able to get through. Many landscape crews pile mulch high around the base of trees to the great detriment of the trees making a space for unwelcome guests who start to eat the tree under the mulch, there should be 8 inches between the mulch line and the tree trunk, insist the crews do it correctly, speak up.

The gardener needs to be aware of the conditions preferred by the plants to be mulched, in xeriscaping where the garden is made of plants that prefer well drained, even dry soil pea gravel is a great choice for mulching. Areas of wildflowers often thrive in less than rich soil and prefer little or no mulch other than a thin layer of compost in early spring or autumn.

The perennial garden usually enjoys a nice top-dressing of compost or mushroom soil in spring but late enough for the gardener to see the emerging crowns of plants, avoid smothering new growth. You can use plants as groundcover and avoid mulch all together. There are many wonderful low-growing, surface covering plants that will keep moisture present and bring pleasure, too many to list. An example would be the use of creeping sedums in sunny, dry spaces or the use of creeping phlox in your woodland wildflower space, each blooming in its time and providing a mat of leaves, natural mulch.

Some of my personal favorite sprawling perennials are: achillea tomentosa, a tiny, lemon-yellow yarrow with tight mats of fuzzy, light green leaves in full sun, ajuga which comes in many leaf-colors these days, many varieties of dianthus, epimediums and creeping Veronica.

I also love the perennial geraniums which tend to delight with both flower and leaf. None of these requires special attention, they just cover the ground, a living mulch.

Happy spring.