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Earth Sense: Make your own mulch with leftover plant debris
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A lot of plant debris accumulated during the winter. What to do with it all?

Simply piling up the twigs and broken branches in a quiet corner of the yard isn’t a good idea. We’ll see plenty of lightning storms this year, and lightning is a prime starter of forest fires. The spaces between the branches supply good aeration for a wildfire, and piles of dry plant litter will burn quickly as well as hot. Burning them yourself isn’t advisable either because it adds unwanted carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, in addition to the annoying smoke.

Those fortunate enough to own a chipper can produce useful mulch with it. The chipped wood debris makes a great cover for plant beds, keeping them moist and shaded. Reduced soil temperatures, in turn, are beneficial to the plants.

One drawback is that “mulching with chipped wood adds nitrogen demand,” says Don Linke of the Hall County Master Gardeners.“If you observe some yellowish color in the plant leaves, the plants are being deprived of nitrogen by the rotting process in the mulch.”

Along with phosphate and potassium, nitrogen is a prime nutrient needed for plant growth. Many gardeners recommend working manure into the soil prior to mulching, which is an excellent source of nitrogen. If manure isn’t available, adding some high-nitrogen fertilizer can also help restore the needed balance.

When laying the mulch down, one needs to be careful not to let it touch the trunk of the tree or the plant stem. You don’t want to introduce bacteria and fungi that make the wood chips rot into the live plant.  The Hall County Cooperative Extension Service provides excellent information in more detail. 

Rotting isn’t limited to plant beds. This is a good time to walk around the foundation of the house and check for siding and corner posts that are becoming soft. Water can get wicked upward from the soil, or carried into woodwork through rain splash. In addition to deterioration of the house, this can also provide a favorable place for termites, who love to eat moist wood. Termite tunnels are easy to spot.  Look for soil-colored tubes going up on beams, cinder blocks or concrete. Knocking the tunnels down is an immediate remedy, but a licensed exterminator should inspect the location and suggest long-term measures.  Rotting woodwork is best replaced right away before the moisture can spread into adjacent areas.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. 

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