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'Wood' This Mulch Attract Termites?
Q. Hello Mike! I live nearAnnapolis, but visit Philadelphia often and listen to your Public Radioshow when I'm up there. I live in a townhouse. When I put gardens inthe front and back yards, I purchased many bags of mulch from the localhome store. Now I need some more, and have since learned that I can getit from the township instead—but I have also heard this would be aterrible thing to do because it has not been treated for termites. 
Is it true that I should not use the mulch from the county? They makeit from trees they've cut on the roadside. Is the mulch I bought anydifferent from the county stuff?  If so, can I treat the mulchfrom the county? If it makes any difference I have very wet, claysoil.  I have been adding peat moss and soil conditioner to thegardens.
                              Thank you for your time and agreat show!
                              --Elizabeth; Crofton, MD

A. Well, thank you, Elizabeth!
Now, first things first—I have no idea what the "soil conditioner"you're adding might be, but I strongly suggest you ask your localCounty Extension Agent about the wisdom of doing so before you use anymore of it. And don't use any more peat moss—it will NOT improve yourclay soil, but it WILL greatly change that soil's pH, perhaps enough tomake it very unfriendly to many plants. (Peat moss is best used tolower the soil pH for acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries,and to create lightweight potting and seed-starting mixtures—it is notan all-purpose soil amendment.)
After decades of battling the lousy stuff personally, I've come torealize that the only real way to 'improve' heavy clay soil is to digit up, throw it away and replace it with a nice mix of something likehalf screened topsoil and half compost or mushroom soil.
Now, on to your mulch issues. First, as I trust you've noted fromprevious shows, wood mulches can be a bad idea for reasons other thaninfesting insects. In fact, I'd worry much more about the possibilityof shotgun fungus staining my house and car than about termites movingin. But let's discuss mulches and termites in some depth anyway—withBill Quarles, Director of the BIRC, an organization that helpshomeowners and professionals find the lowest-toxicity remedies for pestproblems. (They publish two journals—The IPM Practitioner and CommonSense Pest Control Quarterly.)

Before I spoke with Bill, I believed, like you, that wood mulches hadto attract the little buggers to framing—which they do, but it turnsout so does just about any mulch. Bill explained that researchers atthe University of Maryland recently found that termites don't careabout 'content'—they just want cover, and even gravel and stone mulcheshelp them greatly to reach their goal. That's because, in this part ofthe country, the only type we have is the subterranean termite; socalled because they must stay under ground or other cover to survive.(The 'mud tubes' [upright tunnels] they build on stone walls and suchto provide cover when they have to leave the ground to reach woodframing are often the first clue that they've entered a home.)

ANY mulch provides the cover they require to approach a home. Yes, woodones also provide food, but that's not as much of an issue as we mighthave thought, explained Bill-- there's generally lots of food in theground for them. What they NEED is something cool and moist to coverthe soil they travel under—mulch. So while mulching does keep moisturein the soil, prevent weeds, etc., it also creates a highway leadingtermites to your home—which having bare ground (again, a bad ideahorticulturally) would avoid.

But don't everybody go pulling up your mulches. Considering that theyare literally everywhere in our environment (if you dig in 100 people'syards in the United States, you'll find termites in the vast majorityof the samples), they don't really to seem to attack homes all thatoften. Bill feels that, thanks to the abundance of woody food in thewild, they don't need to.
But, of course, they sometimes do—and statistics don't count for muchwhen its your home being munched. The best way to protect a homeagainst this possibility is with bait stations: Metal or plasticdevices that you (or a pest control specialist) half bury in the groundin a perimeter around your home. They have a lid you can liftaboveground, and holes for the termites to enter the stations belowground. You put some bait wood (generally pine—their favorite) into thestations and check them monthly. If and when you see termites feedingon the bait, you replace it with wood treated with something that willwipe them out.
The best choices are an insect growth regulator or a boric acidsolution—both are low toxicity to humans, and they're taken back to thenest by workers, where they eventually kill the queen, thusneutralizing the whole colony. All without any spraying of thestructure itself or exposure of toxins to the environment.

It's doubtful that your original mulch was treated with anything—by lawit would have said so clearly on the label. But there IS such aproduct--a boric acid treated wood mulch called "Term-A-Rid" that'savailable at local landscape suppliers and garden centers. If youdecide to go this route, test some in a small, planted area first—therewere reports that it damaged some plantings a few years ago. (Boricacid is a form of boron—which in low amounts is a vital plant nutrient,but in larger amounts a plant killer.)

©2004 Mike McGrath

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