Ever get those tiny dark spots on the side of your house or car? Have you had seemingly healthy plants in your landscape that suddenly die out of nowhere.  Your problem could be as simple as the mulch you used.

Wood mulch is EXTREMELY popular in NJ, and although it looks great, there are some downsides to using it in your landscape.

Wood is made up of carbon and through a process called 'Nitrogen Immobilization" it will look to bond with nitrogen so it can brake down and be added back to the soil.  This is the same nitrogen that your plants are planning on using to grow and stay healthy. Wood mulch can, and will, steal all the nitrogen from the soil. This can kill new plants and hinder the growth and health of established ones.

Mulch that is dyed a color is probably the worst offender. Most of these dyed mulches are actually ground up pallets and other construction debris. They have virtually no nutrients to offer, unlike the more composted or finer ground mulch which usually includes leaf matter and thus it's own nitrogen.

Another common problem with using a wood mulch is "Artillery" or "Shotgun" fungus. This variety of fungi are responsible for those little dark spots all over the side of your car and siding of your house. They can shoot their spores up to 25 feet which can easily be a problem as most homes and cars are right next to the mulched landscape. When the spores are fresh they are easily wiped off, but once they are dry they become impossible to remove.  Artillery fungus loves to live in decaying wood as it's part of the natural process which breaks down the wood over time.

If this wasn't enough, don't forget that mulch around the base of trees and shrubs which touches the plants can eat away at the bark, inviting disease, moisture, and pests to the party. It's natural for trees to have a root flare at their base and mulching to make it look like a lamp post will cause problems later on.

So whats the solution to all this madness?

Just use compost... Done. Simple. Easy.

Compost is natures perfect mulch. In my humble opinion, it looks just as nice as mulch if cared for and reapplied every now and then.  It will feed all your plants gently, retain moisture in the soil, and prevent disease.

Okay, okay. I know that this advice probably wont be followed by the masses. Mulch has become so popular and no one wants to be that weird guy in the neighborhood, ruining the property values for the entire block.  So here are some other tips until the whole 'compost as mulch' movement catches on.

You can try adding a little compost on top and underneath the mulch. If you have a dark brown mulch this really wont be noticed and will help to prevent artillery fungus.  The millions of natural bacteria and organisms living in good quality compost will fight fungi from growing on top and this will also add nitrogen to the mix to help keep the wood chips from stealing that from your soil.

There are other mulches out there such as the hulls of cocoa beans or buckwheat, pine needles, chopped up fall leaves, or straw. These can be used if you can get a hold of them, they wont cause the problems that wood does.  Watch out for that rubber mulch though.  It's pretty nasty stuff from a chemical-leaching-perspective. Plus it will stink in the hot summer sun, and it's expensive. Also, Cocoa hull mulch can be poisonous to dogs if eaten, just like chocolate, as they both contain theobromine. Most dogs wont attempt to feast on mulch, but hey, you might have a little guy that does.

Whichever mulch you choose,keep an eye out for these problems and remember to always keep it about 3-4 inches from the base of your plants. No more lollipop trees! Happy Gardening.

Got a garden question you need answering? Email me at chris.eannucci@townsquaremedia.com or leave one in the comment section below.