CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The quest in my yard is to get rid of the need for mulch. I don't put rings of mulch around my trees (and I'm not sure why this is a good idea?). I plan the beds so the plants grow nicely together to eliminate bare spots. In many mature beds, this is happening. But in a few new or redone beds, I've added mulch atop the compost to tidy up the bare spots until green stuff grows.
I use hardwood mulch, plain brown. It looks natural. While some folks like the red stuff, I don't like to be reminded of the red clay soil that I work so hard to eliminate!
Calvert Armbrecht wrote recently to remind me about the perils of using cypress mulch. A couple of visits to the Gulf Coast's fragile wetlands have made me aware of the issue, and it's a fight that's been waged for years. With the damage from the large oil leak looming, the area faces an even larger ecological threat.
The National Wildlife Federation reports that even before Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast's wetlands and their swampy cypress forests were disappearing at an alarming rate. More than 1 million acres disappeared into open water between 1930 and 2005. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that another 64,000 acres were lost in the hurricane. Cypress trees are a critical part of the coastal ecosystem and its wildlife habitat. Gulf Coast cypress trees, however, have long been prized for mulch because of their resistance to insects and rot.
Cypress trees take as much as a century to reach maturity, and when harvested, one is very unlikely to be replaced by a new, healthy tree. Because mature cypress trees have been logged at unsustainable levels, cypress mulch now most often comes from immature trees that have not yet developed the rot and insect-repellent qualities valued by gardeners, according to Lisa Swann of the National Wildlife Federation.
This means that most cypress mulch is simply wood chips that do not contain the rot and insect-repellent or durability that gardeners want. Further, beneficial garden mulch should contain an even mix of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. Because wood chips and bark are virtually all carbon, they tie up the available nitrogen in the soil as they decompose, leaving plants without the nutrients they need to grow.
The most nutritious garden mulch is something most gardeners already have on hand: yard waste. Researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research Center found that composted yard waste (a mix of kitchen scraps and yard trimmings) increased the number of flowers on rhododendron plants by 300 percent over plants grown without mulch. Wood mulch gave no such benefit.
In 2008, a campaign from the Gulf Restoration Network saved tens of thousands of acres of cypress swamps when Lowe's and Home Depot stopped selling cypress mulch from coastal Louisiana, and Walmart no longer sells cypress mulch from anywhere in Louisiana. The Save Our Cypress Coalition continues to call on Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe's to immediately stop selling cypress mulch in favor of sustainable alternatives.
In 2004, the governor of Louisiana commissioned a Science Working Group to assess the state's coastal forests and to identify what is necessary to sustain their long-term health and usefulness. The final report (April 2005) can be viewed at www.coastalforestswg.lsu.edu.
The report confirms what has been long suspected: Up to 80 percent of the areas being logged will be unable to regenerate. This is due to changes in elevation and water flow over the past century. Many cypress forests are permanently flooded and can't regenerate.
In the past, cypress mulch was a byproduct of lumber mills. This is no longer true. The mulch purchased today comes from widespread clear-cutting of entire ecosystems.
Reach Sara Busse at sara.bu...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.