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How to Acquire "Compost Mulch"

Q. I went looking for compostat several reputable garden centers near me, but they all said theyonly sell wood mulches. One added that the house-staining artilleryfungus you've warned about could exist in compost as well as woodmulch; can you dispute that claim? I did find one service that deliversshredded leaf mulch, but I was unsure if that would work the same ascompost.  
            ---Jill inAmbler, PA

A. "Reputable" my red pepper!The garden centers you visited are simply trying to sell you what theyhave, and that's wood mulch because it costs them a lot less to acquirethan compost. A TRULY reputable garden center would not bad mouthcompost; they would have it for sale.

And the explanation for their claim that compost causes shotgun fungusdamage is simple, Jill: THEY'RE LYING, LYING, LYING!  Here arelinks to some University Bulletins and articles* detailing the dangersof wood mulch; and a link to the multi-University study** thatrecommends compostas a trouble-free alternative.



Now, if the {quote}"shredded leaf mulch" you're been offered looks likerich black soil, it IS compost—the very best kind, many experts feel.If it still looks like shredded leaves, it is not compost, but it willmake an excellent mulch (it's what I use). Shredded leaves don't havethe power to prevent plant diseases that they acquire when fullycomposted, but those leaves will prevent weeds, keep moisture in thesoil, cause no problems whatsoever and feed your plants via theincredibly beneficial castings the worms that love living under it willprovide. Composted or just shredded, its great stuff.

Q. I am interested in using"compost mulch". What exactly is it and where can I get it?
            ---Holly inPrinceton, N.J

Mike recommends we purchase compost for use as mulch in our beds, butwe could not find any to buy. Or maybe my husband has been hosing me—headmitted he still wants to use wood mulch even after hearing about theproblems it can cause. Is compost available in nurseries and gardenstores?  He says he doesn't see any.
            ---Lona inSouthampton, Pa

"Compost" is the rich black soil-like substance created when organicmaterials like shredded leaves and yard waste are fully decomposed.Mulching with compost prevents weeds, feeds your garden, fights diseaseand doesn't starve plants or stain your house with fungal spores likewood mulches.
And your best local source is also likely a free source. Mostmunicipalities and townships compost the Fall leaves and other yardwastes they collect and offer the finished product back to theirresidents. Dr. Harry Hoitink, Professor Emeritus Ohio State Universityand internationally recognized expert on mulches, names this 'yardwaste compost' his favorite type—as does Dr. Dan Herms, the Ohio StateUniversity Professor who oversaw the multi-University study that foundcompost to be superior to wood mulches.

Typically, you do have to pick this wonderful stuff up yourself—whichis fine if you have a big old truck and like to haul stuff in bulk. Butmost of us are probably hoping to have something delivered. So callyour local municipality or township office and see what the deal isyour area. Maybe you can pay them to have a load delivered. If not,perhaps the guys who work the site can do it for you on the side. Atthe very least they should be able to recommend a local hauler who canbring you a load. If your municipality or township doesn't have acomposting site, call your local county Extension office to find outwho does nearby; there are over 3,000 such sites nationwide.

And many garden centers and nurseries do have big piles of compost orcomposted mushroom soil for sale in bulk (the reputable ones, thatis!). Of course, you'll have to buy this compost, but they'll almostcertainly have a delivery system in place.

Q. Last year I verysuccessfully used free compost from Lower Merion township to mulch myflower garden. I would like to also use it on my vegetable garden, butI'm concerned about chemicals from the yard waste used to make thecompost.
            ---Sharon inWynnewood, PA

There is a large municipal leaf pile near where I live, but themunicipality sprays it's trees. Are pesticide residues destroyed in thecomposting process? How can I tell if compost is free of pesticides ormunicipal waste, like sludge?
            ---Judith;Newark, Del.

Only VERY large municipalities—i.e., big cities—compost sewage sludge(aka "biosolids"); such compost must be clearly identified andconstantly tested for contaminants. But I still don't recommend itbecause of the high levels of pharmaceutical resides it's been found tocontain.

I DO recommend municipal compost. To make sure that yours is highquality stuff, give it a look—it should be dark in color and crumbly intexture, with few to no original ingredients visible. Then give it asniff—it should smell nice and earthy.

And yes, the composting process does degrade and eliminate anychemicals the original material may have contained—although the leavesthat make up the bulk of this material are rarely subjected topesticides. I'm not sure why a township would spray its trees, but theonly chemical known to have resisted breaking down in composting was alawn herbicide that's since been banned.

Bottom Line: Bulk compost is vastly superior to wood mulch. It is THEbasis for a happy, healthy landscape, and the vast majority ofmunicipal composts, aged mushroom soils and the like are fine stuff.Don't worry about it being 100% perfect; nothing in life is.

…other than ME, of course!

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath

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