By JENNINE ZELEZNIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
No garden or yard is complete without layers of that flaky brownish stuff surrounding the plants and trees.
You know, mulch.
Betcha didn't know, however, that this garden supplement is more than just shredded bark and wood chips. It comes in a variety of types, textures and even colors.
"It's like frosting on a cake," said one employee of Green Leaf Landscape Supply in Austintown. "It comes in all colors -- blue, green, brown, even purple."
The most popular colors in this area seem to be red and black, said Chris Altiere, owner of CBS Topsoil in North Jackson. He added that the dyed mulches "are really catching on."
The mulches are colored using a vegetable dye, according to Carrie Lane of Landscaper's Material Store in Cortland.
Texture: As far as texture is concerned, mulches can be either single-, double- or triple-shredded tree bark, cocoa shells, pine needles, leaves, straw, even newspapers, stones or brick dust -- what type to use generally depends on a customer's preference, said Doug Smith of Sticks & amp; Stones in Lisbon.
Mulch's main purpose is to help keep moisture in the soil, though most people use it more for its looks than its gardening benefits. Mulches also help hold down weeds.
"If a weed seed lands in the mulch, it may not grow -- it's too far from the soil," Altiere said.
Another benefit is maintenance of a constant soil temperature, which is good for root growth, and as mulch decomposes throughout the season, it adds organic matter, which replenishes the soil's nutrients.
Mulches should be applied in the mid to late spring after the soil has warmed and begun to dry from winter precipitation. Mulching too early can delay the soil's drying time and retard root growth, according to the Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Agent.
According to Lane, people will sometimes use stones or gravel instead of mulch as a soil aggregate to save time -- then they don't have to worry about turning or replenishing the mulch every year.
For those who do decide to stick with the organic mulches, be warned: they require maintenance.
"You should rake it over -- fluff it up -- to keep it fresh," Lane said. Even then, it should be replenished every one to two years.
Be careful, however, not to mulch too deep. Tim Ruane, owner of Green Leaf Supply, says five to six inches is too much; two to three inches is the recommended amount.
"We tell our customers that 21/2 inches is usually all you need," Smith said. "If you go any deeper than that, you may run into a fungus problem."
Lane said that if there is a spore problem, the mulch should be stirred and dried. She said your nose can provide an early warning to a spore problem: If your mulch smells sour, then it ought to be turned.
When applying the mulch, take special care not to allow any mulch to build up on the base of the plants. This will rot the bark and eventually kill it. Another problem to watch out for is too much packing of the mulch. If a layer of fine mulch -- for example sawdust -- becomes too packed down, it may not allow a soil to breathe. This can also lead to fungus growth or even the degeneration of your plants' roots. A good rule: the less porous and more compactable a mulch, the thinner it should be spread.
Insects: Smith warns that all wood mulches tend to draw insects -- even cypress mulches. Those especially attracted are earwigs and termites, though more beneficial bugs, such as earthworms, like mulches, too.
Altiere adds that some mulches can affect the pH of soil. For example, the continuous use of oak leaves, pine needles, pine bark and sphagnum peat moss will increase acidity, which plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas and strawberri es like.
Another benefit of mulch is that it can be made of recycled materials, such as wood pallets, composted municipal sludge and newspapers. "This way, it's not wasting materials," he said.
XFor more information on mulching on the Web visit www.nhq.nrcs.usda.gov/CCS/Mulching.html or www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~ohioline/hyg-fact/1000/1083.html.