Sweet Gum Ball Mulch
In the past, there were no commercially available products to make mulching materials for gardens. Most gardeners used leaves or grass clippings in their garden beds.
Leaves and grass clippings are not suitable for use as mulches because they don’t hold moisture well and will rot if left outside in direct sunlight. Grass clippings are also very coarse and difficult to work into shape without a power mower or other heavy equipment. They also contain lots of nutrients that could potentially leach out from them during storage.
The first commercial product to come along was called “sweet gum ball” (or “gumball”) mulch. It consisted of pieces of white sugar cane pulp mixed with shredded paper and then dried in the sun.
It had a high water content but it held moisture well so it worked well for gardening purposes. Unfortunately, the gumball mulch didn’t last long after being exposed to sunlight. After only a few days it would turn brown and crumble apart.
Another popular type of mulch was made from crushed up sweet gums such as Prunus dulcis. These types of mulches lasted longer than gumball mulches did since they contained less water content and were easier to work into shape.
However, these types of mulches also broke down quickly when exposed to sunlight.
In the past several years, a new type of mulch has arrived on the market that is proving to be superior to all other types of mulches. It consists mainly of recycled paper products that are mixed with water and then extruded through a machine called an “extruder”.
These machines squish and squeeze the paper product which heats up the mixture and turns it into long strands of gooey material similar to melted cheese. The gooey material is then extruded through a die (a special shaped opening) that shapes the material into a circle, square or other desired design. The circles and squares are then dried in the sun until they are crispy dry. This type of mulch is called “wood chip” or simply “chip” mulch.
The prices for wood chip and other types of mulches have increased in recent years because the demand for these products has skyrocketed. Many homeowners are using more mulch than in the past.
Hardwood tree farmers have also increased their demand for these materials because there is an increased market for wood pellets that can be used for heating homes and other buildings. Many tree farms are diverting some of their trees into chipping machines and generating extra income from the sale of these materials.
The type of wood that is used in chip mulches does not matter. It is the final product that matters.
Some types of wood decompose easier than others. Hardwoods such as oaks and maples tend to hold their shape better than softwoods such as pine and cypress. The type of chip mulch that you find at your local garden center is made up of whatever wood was available at the time that it was manufactured. Most of the time, this consists of pine or other softwoods although some manufacturers are now making chip mulches from recycled paper products or cedar or redwood trees. These types of wood do not break down nearly as quickly as softwoods or pine woods.
Wood chip mulches have many benefits over other types of mulches. They are aesthetically pleasing to the eye since they contain a mixture of brown, gray and in some cases white and red colored chips.
They do not contain weeds because new weeds cannot grow up through the wood fibers. The only type of weed that can grow up between the cracks is a very fine vine called “pokeweed” or “poke” (Phytolacca americana) which some people consider a delicacy when cooked properly.
Most types of chip mulches break down over time and gradually turn into rich soil. They do not need to be replaced nearly as often as other types of mulches since they retain their color and appearance for a very long period of time.
Some types of wood chip mulches contain bark which does not break down as quickly. This type of mulch should only be applied one to two inches thick so that it does not block the necessary sunlight that your plants need. Most professional nurseries and experienced gardeners apply a thin layer of bark mulch around shrubs and small trees since it helps retain moisture and keeps weeds from growing up through the mulch.
Some types of wood chip mulches are colored using toxic colors. Always look at the bag of mulch to see if any mention of a color additive.
Stay away from colored mulches since they could be painted with lead-based paints. This is especially important if you have small children that might put the mulch in their mouths.
When used properly, wood chip mulches can make your jobs as landscape gardeners and homeowners much easier. They can be applied to existing plant beds and walkways to keep weeds from growing and they are ideal as a organic material for growing flower bulbs since they provide both nutrition and moisture to the area.
Some types of wood chip mulches can even be applied two or three inches thick without harming established perennials that grow just beneath the surface.
Most types of wood chip mulches do not require any maintenance other than raking up any excess material that has fallen off into walkways or other visible areas. When using wood chip mulches in existing beds and plantings, apply the mulch a couple of inches thick so that it can break down gradually over time.
Thinner layers of mulch applied more frequently are also fine, but you will have to rake up any fallen leaves or needles before they begin to rot and smell bad. For wood chip mulches that contain bark, apply them one or two inches thick around trees and shrubs since they do not degrade as quickly.
Always look for wood chip mulches that contain a mixture of various colors such as gray, tan and brown. These natural looking chip mulches are more pleasing to the eye and can help tone down an over abundance of one type of plant (such as all purple plants) in a mixed bed.
Dark or black colored wood chip mulches should be avoided since they can attract more heat and sun which could potentially harm plants that have light colored flowers such as some types of petunias.
Some types of wood chip mulches contain chemical additives to help the chips break down more quickly. These mulches can greatly accelerate the breakdown process, but avoid using them around plants that have established root systems since the added nutrients can cause problems for the plants and flowers that are trying to grow there.
As long as you take the time to rake up excess wood chips that have fallen off the edge of walkways and plant beds and apply a thin layer of mulch each year, you should never have to remove old mulch from your landscape beds. Simply rake the excess into a pile and spread new wood chip mulches over top of it each year.
The added benefit to this approach is that the pile of old wood chips will help prevent weed growth and can be left undisturbed for many years without looking untidy.
If you are using wood chips in a landscape area that does not contain plants or flowers, such as a playground or dog park, you can spread the chips very thick since they will not be walked on. Several inches of wood chips will quickly break down and prevent any weed growth for many years to come, while still providing a comfortable surface for children and pets to play on.
The type of wood that is used to make the chips can greatly effect how long they persist in the landscape. Cedar chips, for example, are very aromatic and naturally contain oils that prevent most types of plants from growing in and around them.
They also do not break down as quickly as other types of wood which means you will have to rake them up and replace them more frequently. This also results in finer chips that can blow away in the wind if not applied thick enough.
Wood chips are an organic material and will naturally darken over time as they age. They will not discolor plants or flowers as long as they are applied thick enough to cover their roots.
When chips are applied too thinly, they can increase the chances of plants being damaged by rot and disease since their root systems are exposed to constant moisture. It is important to keep this in mind when planting flowers and vegetables that have roots that do not tolerate wet soil conditions.
Wood chips are a good choice for controlling weeds and preventing grass from growing around trees and shrubs because they will eventually smother the grass completely when applied in a thick enough layer. They are not as attractive to walk on as gravel or bark chips, but wood chips do provide a softer surface than wood mulch or bare soil.
The advantage of using mulches in the garden is threefold. They conserve water, insulate the soil from temperature extremes and prevent weeds from growing.
If weeds do manage to grow through the mulch layer, they will be trapped there and easy to spot and remove.
The types of mulches you can use are almost endless. Some of the more popular ones include:
Some types of wood mulches prevent weed growth as well as help to moderate soil temperature like bark chips do.
Sources & references used in this article:
Easy compost: the secret to great soil and spectacular plants by B Hanson – 1997 – books.google.com
Gardening in Clay Soils by K Wagner, MR Kuhns, G Cardon – 2015 – digitalcommons.usu.edu
Ornamental plants: annual reports and research summaries by …, JR Street, K Danneberger, WE Pound… – 1996 – kb.osu.edu
Tree Care:” That Really Works!” by DW Francis – 2012 – books.google.com