The lone voice of horticultural reason

Don’t use wood chips or shredded bark as mulch in perennial beds.

Trust me, as you gain some years as a gardener, you’ll wish you hadn’t. Though I can see the reasoning – wood chips or bark fit the bill, they keep weeds from growing in our flower beds, and shade the soil so midday sun doesn’t evaporate moisture. And if you put a healthy layer of bark down, it lasts for several years, which is a much easier way to go than using cocoa bean husks or dried grass clippings, which need replacing at least every season.

Ah, but there’s the flaw: wanting everything to be easy (see RG Tenet #5). If you want an easy hobby, collect commemorative quarters.

Problem is, perennials expand year to year. They need division, they need replacement, they need to be moved. New gardeners plant their first whiff of perennials and think, there, that’s done, I’ll never go near that bed again, failing to realize that in two years they’ll see their initial effort as laughable, and realize that almost nothing is in the right place.

Now go and try to scratch some granular fertilizer into the soil. Try lifting out plants with your perennial fork. Try to divide them. Try to dig a hole. You have hunks of wood everywhere, mixed in with the dirt, impaled on your fork, and floating two feet in the air amidst the branches of an aster that has tripled in size.

Landscapers are notorious for finishing off a new perennial planting with a layer of shredded bark or wood chips. All they want is for a year to go by without the homeowner seeing weeds growing up in the garden. They don’t have to come back in three years when the whole thing needs major surgery. And needless to say, shredded bark or wood chips looks like hell spilling out around a flower bed. What’s this wood doing in here?

Remember a simple rule: use a one-season, biodegradable mulch in your flower beds, such as cocoa bean husks, dried grass clippings, shredded leaves, compost, whatever. A minimum two-inch layer, it will last a season then compost down into a nice organic additive to your topsoil. You need to dig a hole or dig up a plant, you pretend it isn’t there, it’s the same as your soil. The next year, you add more. This is gardening.

Use shredded bark/wood chips only around trees and shrubs; you don’t need to dig them up and divide them, you leave them alone. Unless two years later you realize you really blew it.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener