“The end of summer is not the end of the world. Here’s to October!” — A.A. Milne.  

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” — Albert Camus. 

“There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne.

September is gone and the days of October are passing right along. Hotumn is hanging in but cooler temps are on their way. It’s time to spend some extra time in your lawn and landscape. The final touch in curb appeal for your landscape projects is mulching. Through the years, nature has provided mulches on the forest floor as the leaves and needles dropped to the ground, matted together, and formed a natural protective layer on top of the soil.

Many different natural and synthetic mulches are available today which provide curb appeal, reduction of soil water losses, suppression of weeds, and protection against temperature extremes. Mulches also provide other benefits, including the reduction of soil erosion and crusting, and the improvement of water infiltration into the soil profile. For example, when water droplets (rainfall or irrigation) make contact with the bare soil, this impact causes the soil particles to scatter in all directions, which results in soil erosion, crusting, compaction and slow water infiltration. Many mulches buffer this impact from such droplets providing more favorable growing conditions and positive visual results.

In addition, mulches improve the soil structure, which is critical in the growth and development of plants. As organic mulches decompose, they provide organic matter that encourages the soil particles to aggregate or come together into larger aggregates. These larger aggregates increase soil aeration and improve moisture conditions and availability. Such conditions favor additional root development and improved biological activity which further improves soil structure.

A good mulch will be economical (cost effective), readily available, easy to apply, maintain its placement with minimal surface movement, supply organic matter to the soil, and is free of weeds, insects, and diseases. And, it will suppress weeds, conserve soil water, and moderate soil temperatures. A super-mulch does not exist and all mulches tend to have both positive and negative features in the landscape.

Straw, shredded leaves, pine needles, and wood chips are effective in curb appeal and serving as insulating blankets in winter, but they slow the process of soil warming in the spring. Also, pecan shells and cottonseed hulls can be used for mulches. However, pecan hulls attract insects pursuing any minute pieces of pecan that might be left in the hull and birds will scatter the hulls as they search for these insects.

As the pace of falling pine needles increases, so do our efforts on the ground in cleanup. Rather than dispose of these valuable assets, it’s a good opportunity to use them to replenish our landscape beds and provide additional curb appeal. 

There isn’t a definitive answer in the selection of a particular mulch to use. But understanding the characteristics and features of the different materials which are available can help in the selection of the best mulch to use for a particular location and environment.

As a general understanding, wood chips, bark chunks, and pine needles are appropriate mulches for shrub beds or around trees. Fine mulches, such as bark granules and wood shavings, are attractive when used in annual or perennial beds. Fine gravel or crushed stone mulches look most natural when used in rock gardens, xeriscapes or around the foundation. 

Commercial bark mulches are categorized based upon particle size, including bark chunks (decorative bark), bark granules (soil conditioner), and shredded bark. Of these, bark chunks are the most persistent and desirable. However, some bark mulches may be toxic to young plants, especially if the bark is fresh or if it has been improperly stockpiled or mismanaged. Such toxins can be leached from the fresh bark with multiple applications of water, evaporated by thorough aeration through turning and rearranging the stockpile, and allowed to season for at least three months before using them.

Commercially-available bagged bark mulch products have been allowed to weather for long periods of time to remove any toxins and are least likely to harm plants. The most desirable characteristics of bark mulches include excellent resistance to compaction, minimal movement by wind action, attractiveness or curb appeal, and availability.

Wood chips are another mulching choice made available from many different hardwood and softwood species. Fresh chips have a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio, which means that during decomposition they may temporarily reduce the supply of soil nitrogen available for plant uptake. Again, age any fresh chips for about three months before using them in the landscape. 

Pine needles have a most pleasing appearance and acidifying effect on the soil around acid-loving plants. They are available commercially and can be raked up from around pine plantings in the woods or off the lawn. Pine needles decompose slowly (but do discolor quickly in the south Georgia heat), are resistant to compaction, and are easy to work. They provide excellent protection and ornamentation around shrubs and trees. However, if used in deciduous beds, the combination of fall leaf drop and existing pine straw mulch can be an undesirable mix, thus creating more work to address in the fall cleanup process. 

Matching the mulch to the landscape bed (such as pine straw under pine trees) is most critical and should be done after considering all the options. The mineral or synthetic (inorganic) mulches will be discussed next time and do not contribute any beneficial organic matter to the soil as does the organic mulches but they can offer superb curb appeal and low maintenance. Always think of environmental compatibility and sustainability when selecting landscape mulches.

Think in terms of native and sustainable plants in the landscape. Keep your hanging baskets and potted plants refreshed with water and food. Remember to feed and water the songbirds, and give your pets the care they need (better to have a dog on the sofa than one on the chain). Be on the lookout for children playing and bicyclists riding along the streets and roadways throughout our communities. Pay attention to school buses and respect their stop signs and other signals as they transport our children to and from school and home. And remember to safely share the road with motorcycles. Drive alert and arrive alive. Don’t drive distracted or impaired, don’t text while driving, and “click it” or ticket. Let’s keep everyone safe! Help those in need and the homeless as each opportunity arises. Pray for all those in harm’s way as the hurricane season continues. And as you receive blessings, always pay them forward and share with others. Pay for a stranger’s meal the next time you are eating out! And, be reminded of the Sunbelt Ag Expo at Spence Field in Moultrie on October 15-17.

“But let all who take refuge in You be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread Your protection over them, that those who love Your name may rejoice in You.” — Psalm 5:11. 

“For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.” — Colossians 1:13.

Seagle is a Sustainability Verifier, Golf Environment Organization (Scotland), Agronomist and Horticulturalist, CSI: Seagle (Consulting Services International) LLC, Professor Emeritus and Honorary Alumnus (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College), Distinguished Professor for Teaching and Learning (University System of Georgia) and Short Term Missionary (Heritage Church, Moultrie). Direct inquiries to csi_seagle @yahoo.com.

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