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The images above show the progression of a suburban landscape from bare mulch to lush plantings. Unfortunately, too often homeowners think that once they’ve achieved the first stage, their landscaping is complete! While the application of dark brown, fine-gauged mulch makes your planting beds look well tended and weed-free, wood mulches can deprive plants of essential nitrogen. Worst of all is the bright red-dyed mulch, some of which is made from chipped wood that comes from demolished buildings containing CCA (chromated copper arsenate), a preservative that contains the carcinogen arsenic. Use mulch as a temporary fix to fill up a planting bed or help control erosion on a slope until the shrubs, perennials, or groundcovers have a chance to grow in. Ideally, you won’t need to use mulch at all once your plantings are established. A good choice is shredded leaves (usually a local and free option!) or a couple inches of compost, which will provide a slow-release fertilizer as it breaks down.

Before and after images by Virginia Weiler, courtesy of JMMDS.