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Mulch covers more ground than ground cover

By Joshua Siskin  

The longer you garden, the more you hate ground cover. Ground cover is a category of spreading plants that includes ivy, iceplant, gazania, pink clover (Polygonum cuspidatum compactum), trailing lantana, asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus Sprengeri) and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides).

While I would be the first to admit that each of the plants on this list has its merits — and any one of them would be an excellent choice for confinement in a container or hanging basket — none of them brings happiness when planted in a garden bed. Ground cover is a maintenance nightmare. Even when planted by itself, without perennials or shrubs to strangle as it grows, there are problems. After a few years in the ground, thatch accumulates, making it difficult to get water to the roots, and die-out occurs. Over-watering is also frequently an issue, inviting fungus diseases. Ivy and iceplant eventually become havens for rats, and star jasmine sends up tendrils that wrap around each other, necessitating constant pruning to keep an even look.

Moreover, with ivy and asparagus fern, elimination of it several years into the future is not simple. You may pull and dig it out and spray it with powerful chemicals yet, absent soil sterilization, you will have it forever.

Enter mulch, the ground cover alternative. A layer of mulch conserves water, suppresses weeds, prevents erosion, fertilizes as it decomposes, decompacts poorly drained soil and fortifies delicate,
vital microbial soil life.

What is mulch?

In rural areas, mulch commonly consists of hay, straw, dried-up cornstalks, chopped-up orchard or vineyard prunings. In urban areas such as ours, mulch takes the form of garden and landscape take-aways, an amalgam of what is produced from mowing, pruning, sheering and trimming. The mulch or compost you buy in bags at the nursery or in bulk from a recycling yard is usually derived from the wood and leaves you see shredded in the back of a tree trimmer's truck. The only difference in the purchased product you bring home is that it will be aged or composted and of a finer texture than the original, rougher material.

Sharon May works for Agri-Serve, a company that turns landscape and tree trimmings into mulch. She provided me with some vital guidelines for would-be mulchers.

How much to buy

If your primary concern is water conservation, put down a two-inch layer of mulch. If your concern is weed control, three inches of mulch are recommended. If you have an erosion problem on a slope, four inches of mulch should be used. For covering 1,000 square feet with a 2-inch mulch layer, you will need 6.2 cubic yards of mulch,; for a 3-inch layer, you will need 9.4 cubic yards; and for 4 inches, 12.5 cubic yards. Mulch breaks down over time and needs to be replenished once a year.

To prevent fungus problems, do not allow it to pile up against plant stems or trunks.
Joshua Siskin


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