Mulch your Mulch!

Not only does mulch make an impressive weed suppressant, it plays a vital role in keeping your plants healthy. As mulch breaks down, it turns into “black gold” a.k.a. organic matter. This organic matter provides much needed nutrients to your plants, and also protects the roots from too much sun, temperature fluctuations, and moisture control. It’s no wonder mulch has been used for centuries in gardens!

But not all mulch is created equally. Almost all plant material can be used as a mulch, and every material each have their pros and cons. Some mulch such as hay may be cost effective, but also may not be sterile, and will sow its own seed into your garden bed. Hay also breaks down rather quickly compared to other mulch material.

When it comes to selecting your mulch, the best advice given would be to know your environment. Choose local materials, and do not purchase your mulch from big box stores, unless your situation is dire. Reach out to local nurseries and landscape supply companies and see what materials they carry for mulch. Most of the time they will carry mulch material that come from local sources.

Gardening in Central Florida, Zone 9a is already challenging enough, and finding good mulch just adds another layer. I have found the best materials that suit my needs are both southern pine needles, a.k.a pine straw, or wood chips dropped to my property from local arborists and tree shredding companies. In a pinch, I can purchase cypress mulch or large pine bark from local landscape supply companies. I even use the native oak leaves and twigs on occasion!

Any of these materials make great mulch in Florida gardens, but sometimes these materials can be quite large in size, and are not easily spread throughout your garden, especially if you are gardening in containers or raised beds. Some pine straw alone can be over a foot long! So what are you to do?

Mulch your mulch! This is a play on words, as I grew up calling wood chippers “mulchers”. Don’t be afraid to use your wood chipper/shredder to decrease the size of your mulch! I have had excellent results shredding down pine straw, pine bark, cypress hardwood, and free wood chips dropped on my property. Keep in mind as well, that the finer your mulch is, the less overall coverage you will have. Plan on adding another 20% to your total mulch if you are going to run it through your chipper.

Here are some results I have had with mulching mulch:

Pine straw – This material shreds down to a very fine texture. Pine needles do not contain any seed, and break down very slowly. Contrary to belief, pine straw will not impact the pH of your soil significantly. Although pine needles themselves are acidic, when they decompose their acidity is neutralized by the organisms that break them down. If you require a more acidic soil for your plants, I recommend other amendments such as sulfur or aluminum sulfate. Southern pine trees are very common in Florida, and the pine needles can be gathered from properties with pine trees, or purchased from your landscape supplier in the form of bales. My local supplier charges $5.00 USD per bale. This material is excellent mulch, and can be either free or extremely cost effective, depending on your supply source.

Pine straw bales before shredding
Pine straw after shredding
Pine straw in a raised bed

Cypress mulch – I personally feel that cypress mulch is a superior material and is my choice for mulch when I can get it. Cypress is a hardwood and provides excellent moisture retention. It breaks down more quickly than pine straw but that is a benefit, as it will provide nutrients to your plants. Cypress mulch is usually purchased per cubic foot at your local landscape supply company. My local supplier charges $28.00 USD per cubic yard, but allows purchases of 1/2 cubic yards, cutting this price in half. Given the fact that 1/2 of a cubic yard is only $14.00 USD and can cover a very large space, as well as being a hardwood material, this is my preference.

Cypress mulch before shredding
Cypress mulch after shredding
Cypress mulch in a short raised bed

Free wood chips from a local arborist – How can you really beat free?!? Not only is this option free, but usually they drop off 10 yards of wood chips at a time!!! But just as King Midas discovered that turning everything into gold is probably not the best thing, there are some down sides to free wood chips. First, if you would like to acquire free wood chips, there are really only two options in Florida: sign up for Chip Drop, or do your research and contact local arborists yourself. I have had more luck reaching out to companies personally and establishing relationships with them. In either case, sometimes you will not know the material they will be dropping to your house. Sometimes it can be hardwood, other times it can be palm trees. It can also include smaller plant debris such as leaves and branches, or even uncut logs. There are also occasions where there might be some contaminants, like a water bottle or some other plastic debris. The volume of the wood chips is a blessing and a curse by itself. Some homeowners don’t have yard space for 10+ yards of wood chips, but this comes with the territory. If you can’t take the entire load, then they will not drop to you.

The best advice I can give here is to develop a relationship with you arborist. Most are friendly and are more than happy to answer your questions, and will work with you. Their employees may actually have a good idea of the trees they are cutting down, and can let you know what material to expect. TIP the drivers than come to your property to drop off the wood chips. This shows them you care and they will keep your contact information on file for whenever they are in the area and need a place to unload.

My final tips for finding a good supply of mulch and shredding your mulch are:

  • Know your area! Find material to use that is local to where you live
  • Contact local suppliers to see what they carry for mulch
  • Research your cost. Find out what materials cost and how much they will cost you. Some materials may be surprisingly more cost effective than others.
  • Contact and establish relationships to your local arborists and tree trimming companies
  • When shredding your mulch material, make sure the material is dry. Wet material can wear down your chipping blades quickly and stress your engine with more load. If your material is wet, spread out the mulch over a tarp and let it dry in the sun before shredding.
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