James Pinsky: ‘Mulch ado about nothing’

James Pinsky

Chances are Shakespeare wasn’t mulch of a conservationist, which, to be honest, hurts a little. My favorite work by him, “Mulch Ado About Nothing,” a comedy about the unlikely love story of an egotistical man and the sarcastic woman he deserves, has ruined more than one couch cushion from me snorting up chocolate milk in laughter.

Uh Jay, the title of Shakespeare’s comedy is “Much Ado About Nothing.” Not mulch. And, aren’t you a little too old to be drinking chocolate milk?

First of all, you’re never too old to drink the best mixed drink a cow can give you, and secondly – hmmm. You’re right about the Shakespeare title. Still, as important as Shakespeare’s work is, his sharp tongue will do little to help save some trees. Mulch, on the other hand can do just that.

Ye mulch, wonderment of the garden, well-manicured lawn and cityscape, does more than we know. Aye, it serves the souls of trees and plants like a blanket and giveth thine roots buffer from the warmth of the sun and the frigid breath of bitter cold.

Jay. American English please.

Fine. Simply put, there’s a lot more than nothing that mulch can do. You see, mulch helps insulate soil. Properly placed, it helps retain water to keep plant and tree roots moist, fend off weeds, slow or even prevent soil compaction and pulls double-duty as a shield against overzealous lawnmowers. As hearty an addition to your landscape as mulch can be, landowners should be wary of what kind of mulch they use. Specifically, be cautious of the mulches on sale at your local stores that have been dyed. This flavor of mulch could actually be harmful to your landscape and not for the reasons you might think.

According to Ron Kujawski, the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, at The University of Massachusetts – Amherst, the primary concern with colored landscape mulches is not the dyes used for coloring. Rather, it is about the sources of wood chips and the possibility of contamination with toxic substances.

Kujawski said most of the wood used for making colored mulch comes from recycled wood, i.e. wood scraps, wood pallets, and wood reclaimed from construction and demolition (C&D) waste. It has been found that some of the recycled waste wood used for making landscape mulch products is contaminated with various chemicals, such as creosote and chromated copper arsenate, often referred to as CCA, which is the chemical that was used in the manufacture of pressure-treated wood.

There have been bans on arsenic-based wood preservatives in recent years, which significantly mitigate the environmental impact, but there’s still a lot of wood out there with these chemicals in it and it often gets repurposed into mulch. “The bottom line is that CCA and other toxic chemicals have been found to be contaminating soil where colored wood chip mulch has been applied, Kujawski said. “The most egregious source of the contamination appears to CCA treated wood recycled from construction and demolition waste.”

Now, just because mulch is colored, especially these days, doesn’t necessarily mean it is contaminated. Landowners who want to use colored mulch should be diligent with their research regarding the mulch supplier and wood source and if construction and demolition waste is used to be wary of the possibility of possible contamination.

The use of mulch in and around your gardens, lawns and other landscaping needs can be a smart and healthy addition to your local ecosystem. But, if you choose to use dyed mulch, take a little extra time to validate the safety of the manufacturing process so that you don’t accidently do more harm than good with your mulch.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org. Visit us at www.lfswcd.org or follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/lfswcd.