Wood Mulch: An Air Conditioner for Plants

Bark Mountain

What a crazy, hot summer we’ve had! Seattle had 10 days of 90 degree or plus weather as of July 30th. Virtually no rain. People are sweating, dogs are panting, plant leaves are sagging. My toughest shrubs like spiraea and sambucus have drooped in the baking afternoon sun. When it gets this sweltering, even diligent watering can’t neutralize the fatigue plants feel.

Which is why I’ve been making visits to bark mountain. Bark mountain is my nickname for the huge pile of wood chips a local arborist unloaded in my driveway a couple weeks ago. During an usually hot summer, wood chips are really the best way to combat drought. Of course, compost is the best choice, giving plants the nutrients they need while suppressing weeds and retaining moisture, but it’s expensive. (And with three kids and a job, I don’t make my own.) I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t spread compost over my entire yard every year. So now I choose to compost beds that contain young plants or mostly perennials. For the rest of the yard, I rely on wood chips.

Arborists are always looking for free places to deposit their loads of chipped material at the end of each day. Sometimes homeowners take them, sometimes not. And so they often deposit them at schools and parks. But there’s still plenty to go around. Just call any reputable tree trimming company in the morning and chances are good you’ll have bark chips by the end of that day. Free. The most important thing to remember is the load can sometimes contain laurel, holly, or other bully plants you don’t want to introduce in your yard if you don’t have to. It’s best to ask about that before accepting the load. Well known and reputable companies will tell you upfront what they have in their truck and whether you may want that load or not.

Wood material doesn’t have the rich variety of nutrients compost has but it has some and it will still create the microbial activity soil needs to thrive. Plus, mulch acts as an insulator, so if you put down a 2-3″ inch layer, you’ll reduce the soil temperature, sometimes by as much as 15 degrees. It’s like air conditioning for plants.

All it takes is a space to store the chips, a sturdy wheelbarrow, and several hours to scoop and spread them. Once you get started, you’ll be surprised how quickly bark mountain will disappear and your plants will perk up.

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