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Garden Plot: Not all mulches are created equal

Friday - 2/1/2013, 11:41am  ET

rose_bush.jpg
Rose bushes need a layer of ulch made of composted yard waste to thrive. Mulch from wood or bark can spread disease to plants. (Thinkstock)

Editor's Note: Mike McGrath will answer all of your lawn and garden questions live and in person from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Community Home Show at the Universities at Shady Grove.

Mike McGrath, wtop.com

Seed catalog deal of the week: $25 off from Henry Fields

The Henry Field seed catalog has been around for more than a century, but they always have something new to offer. This season it's a trio of new hybrid popcorns!

They say "Pops the Lid Off" produces kernels so big and fluffy that a normal amount will overwhelm your poor popper. "Mauveless" produces ears of corn whose kernels are a beautiful burgundy red. Yes, like all popcorns, it pops up white. But the gorgeous ears can first do double duty as ornamental corn, and then get popped. And "caramel crisp" pops into an unusual mushroom shape that is considered ideal for making your own caramel corn. Henry Field carries a full line of other edibles as well as fruits and flowers. And they're offering WTOP listeners $25 off a $50 order! Just use the code "HF25FREE" when you check out.

Q: Is municipal mulch any good?
A: Depends on what kind of mulch

Pat in Frederick writes: "What are your thoughts on using the free mulch available at county recycling centers? My gut feeling is to stay clear of it."

Well, Pat, the word "mulch" doesn't actually refer to a specific substance. Mulch just means anything that covers the surface of the soil to prevent weeds and keep moisture in the soil.

If you're referring to wood or bark mulch, my advice is to stay clear of it, no matter what the source. Wood and bark mulches breed plant disease, attract plant-munching mice and voles, and can stain the sides of homes and cars with the tar-like spores of artillery fungus, which are close to impossible to remove.

But if by mulch, you mean compost made from yard waste, it should be exceptional. Two inches of yard-waste compost will prevent weeds and retain soil moisture as well or better than wood. Compost prevents plant diseases, whereas wood mulches breed them. And a mulch of rich black compost won't cover the side of your home or car with little tar-like fungal spores, the way wood mulches do.

Rose care is easier than you think

Mike in Laurel writes: "How do we keep rose bushes healthy and bug, mold and disease-free?"

It's easy, Mike. Give them the right conditions and most roses are easy-care plants!

First, they need to be planted in a spot that gets morning sun and good airflow. Roses that only get late day sun or that are planted in crowded places will never thrive.

Then follow good rose care practices:

  • Prune your roses in the spring about two weeks after new growth begins, removing any dead, damaged and diseased canes. Never prune them in the fall.
  • Then remove and discard (in the trash, not the compost) all the prunings and all the old mulch that was under the plant.
  • Replace the mulch with a one-inch layer of rich, black, yard waste compost. This will prevent disease before it can start. (Warning: wood or bark mulch will breed the diseases that love to attack roses!)
  • Don't feed roses any chemical fertilizers.
  • Don't spray them.
  • Water them only at the base. You shouldn't ever deliberately wet their leaves.
  • Add another inch of compost mulch midseason and you'll have the best looking plants in town.

Protect perennials currently underground from big feet

John in Glen Burnie writes: "We're going to replace our bay window. Underneath the window are my calla lilies. What can I do to protect them from the feet of the construction workers?"

When I received this query, I emailed John back and asked if he was sure they were calla lilies and not the more hardy canna lilies. Callas are not reliably hardy in our area and should be (by the book, anyway) dug up and stored indoors for the winter.

He replies: "Yep. They are callas and several years old. I'll send you a picture when they bloom." Well, good for you, John — sounds like they benefit from being planted close to the house and global warming.

Now, the advice here would be the same for cannas, callas or pretty much any other summer-blooming herbaceous perennial. These plants are now fully dormant and completely underground, and won't wake up until long after your spring bulbs begin blooming. That means you should be able to protect them by laying a thick piece of wood overtop of where the rhizomes are buried. This will spread out the pressure on the soil, and probably provide a more stable surface for the workers.

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