Helpful Hints

Why Wood Mulches Are BAD for Flower Gardens

Dyed wood mulches may look pretty, if you value uniformity of appearance and don’t otherwise consider yourself as having a gardener’s “green thumb”, but the more you know about gardening the uglier wood mulch looks . . and the less you use it. Based upon decades of experience I can attest that the only place a knowledgeable gardener might use dyed wood mulch is as a cover for a footpath, one where you don’t want anything to grow.

Why is using black dyed root mulch a bad idea and NEVER used to cover flower beds by well school gardeners? (But it is often used by landscapers, to “make things look finishd and pretty”, when dealing with consumers who aren’t gardeners.)

These links lead to articles that spell out why dyed root mulches are bad for flower gardens:  Is Your Mulch Miserable or Magnificant?  and The Best Garden and Landscape Mulches You Can Buy

Here is the shortened explanation of why, given the choice of using composted leaf mulch “as mulch” is the FAR better choice than using dyed wood or root mulches:

  1. Wood mulches “tie up” the available food in the soil, a process known as “nitrogen immobilization”. How? Wood is carbon, which is why it burns so nicely. However, carbon looks for nitrogen to bond with so it can break down. Wood mulch takes nitrogen right out of the soil. That’s the same nitrogen that plants love. I have seen this first hand when I had a stump ground in my hard. The resulting sawdust and fine chips wrecked havoc for years, making it impossible to establish new grass growth in the area.
  2. Dyed wood mulches are also suspect for having old pallet materials ground into their base materials.
  3. According to local gardening expert Mike McGrath (WHYY, Saturday A.M. “You Bet Your Garden; his site “”) his favorite “mulch expert” Ohio State Professor Emeritus Dr. Harry Hoitink, warns that dyed mulch is especially deadly when used around young plants or in brand new landscapes.
  4. Wood mulches can also host “artillery” or “shotgun” fungi, a nasty fungus that can turn adjacent structures black. I’ve seen it. I once shoveled root mulch from a path in our side garden alongside our house into a pile near the house, to begin laying in a brick path. I got busy with other projects and forgot about the root mulch until Carleen noticed black spots forming on the cedar siding. Dummy points for me.

Carleen religiously listened to Mike McGrath’s “You Bet Your Garden” broadcast on local public radio station WHYY, which on Saturday mornings followed the CarTalk show that I listened to – so we ended up with a bit of cross-training. My efforts in building the memorial garden have been guided, in substantial part, by the knowledge I gained about gardening from working directly with Carleen for almost four decades and from my knowledge of her values. When it came to gardening Carleen knew her business. Gardening was her passion and it showed. I have done and will continue to do my best to honor her values in my effort to build and maintain a memorial garden that truly honors her. In this case, on this issue – of whether “uniformity of apperance” (all public plantings on Main Street musl look alike) – I will not yield. This is entirely a case, in the most literal terms, of appearance over substance. Insisting that the memorial garden’s flower beds be buried under 2-4 inches of wood mulch goes against everything I’ve learned about gardening and Carleen’s values.


Helpful Hints

Garden Killing Quackgrass Weed Finds Ally in War on Memorial Garden

Quackgrass - Leathal Enemy of Flower Gardens
Quackgrass – Leathal Enemy of Flower Gardens – Photo Courtesy of the Ohio State University Weed Lab

This is a picture of “quackgrass“. Carleen Libert and I did battle with quackgrass for years. I’ve seen what quackgrass can do to gardens. It kills them by competing for space and nutrients. It weaves its leaves directly into growing plant’s roots and leaf structures, strangling them and competing for sunlight. It is deadly to gardens.

Quackgrass is an invasive weed. It is one of the nastiest invasive weeds known to gardeners and farmers alike and it is currently and vigorously working its way into the flower beds of the Carleen Libert Memorial Garden. In fact, this weed loves the memorial garden for the same reason the hundreds of flowers and bulbs I have planted love it: the soil is very rich in organic nutrients and is loosely compacted, which allows for root growth and air circulation.

What makes it so bad? Quackgrass grows quickly. It has very deep roots that make it hard to extract. Those same deep roots make it hard to eliminate with ordinary surface chemical treatments. They DON’T WORK. Worst, its rizomes – which can run for 2 or more feet in any direction – must be entirely dug up. If you leave any piece in the ground it will begin growing. The ONLY approach that works is a consistent and thorough eradicaton effort. One that requires a rich yet loosely packed (not compacted) soil that you can dig into and manually – slowly and carefully – follow the roots and pull them out without breaking them. This is the only way, and up until the township insisted on laying on inches of root mulch, the garden was in perfect shape to wage the battle – the next stage in building a garden that could last for decades with minimum care.

I also know what it is like to lose a garden to this weed. Our backyard borders on a field. That field is overgrown with this weed. In just 2 years, while grieving and investing my time in building the memorial garden, have lost an entire flower bed, bordering on this field, to this weed. The ONLY way I will be able to recover this lost flower bed will be to dig up all the soil in the flower bed to a depth of 12 inches, carefully remove every piece of the weeds runners, insert a 12-16 inch physical barrier entirely around the flower bed and thereafter to remain vigilent.

It is at this time in Spring and in the memorial garden’s development that I had the best chance to control and eradicate this enemy to the garden. How? By visual inspection of emerging leaves, digging into the soft composted leaf mulch laden soil, and manually and laboriously pulling up entire root networks. That window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

A garden surrounded by blacktop is not an ideal environment for a garden but it is an ideal environment for fighting quackgrass. It can send out rizomes from adjoining lands but I have yet to read where it can send its roots 20 or 30 feet underneath blacktopped roadways.

Why is a quackgrass so bad?

1. It spreads by rizomes (roots) that bury themselves DEEP into the soil. I’ve pulled up rizomes that was 8-10 inches below the surface.

2. You canNOT kill or eliminate this weed by ordinary means. To eradicate or kill it you have to KILL EVERYHING with chemicals. Everything green must die. Sometimes for more than a year as it is a very persistent weed.

3. The ONLY choice for control in established flower beds is to use the type of composted lead mulch base that I was using which ALLOWS the GARDENER to use “mechanical means” to attack the root network. You see, if you don’t get the entire root then each piece – if you only tear at it and rip it – will create a new network of weeds.

So, by covering the flower beds with root mulch I have been effectively thwarted from utilizing the ONLY effective means of controlling this garden killing weed – tracing the shoots, digging down into the soil (which WAS EASY TO DO until now), and extracting the entire root system and every piece of the roots/rizomes.

For more information about this nastiest of weeds you can read here: (The Brits have a different name for quackgrass, calling it “couchgrass”, but the Royal Horticultural Society certainly knows how to write concisely.)

The USDA / U.S. Department of Agriculture (Which tends to take a “douse it with chemicals and kill everything approach”)

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A Brief Photo History of How I Grew A Garden Memorial to Carleen Libert

Step 1 of Memorial Garden - Removed Ugly Juniper Bushes at Ugly Cement Block Wall and Replaced with Colorful Shrubs
Step 1 of Memorial Garden – Removed Ugly Juniper Bushes at Ugly Cement Block Wall and Replaced with Colorful Shrubs

Step 1: In the beginning there were ugly juniper bushes along the cement block wall. I pulled them out and replaced them with colorful shrubs.










Step 2 - I Expand Boundary of Memorial Garden to Allow for Far Greater Planting of Beautiful Drought and Heat Tolerant Perennials
Step 2 – I Expand Boundary of Memorial Garden to Allow for Far Greater Planting of Beautiful Drought and Heat Tolerant Perennials

Step 2: Next, with the help of my neighbor Bill Ditzler and his amazing roto-tiller I began the expansion of the flower beds.

This image shows my pickup truck, parked on the island, loaded with “composted leaf mulch” – which I combined with composted manure and sifted high quality top soil to add extra organic nitrogen and minerals to help build a nourishing and moisture retaining base within which the plants could deeply and firmly root. This “base” will continue to “cook down” (decompose) and compress which requires the addition of addition annual layers of similar organic matter (composted leaf mulch, composted manure, quality topsoil) until the site is bulletproof. In other words, if I die or move, it will take an Act of God well beyond Her ordinary rath to kill off the garden. Either that or the actions of a few hellbent local officials to screw this all up.


Step 3: The Lenghtwise Expansion of the Memorial Garden
Step 3: The Lenghtwise Expansion of the Memorial Garden

Step 3: As I expanded the width of the garden in proximity to the cement block wall I then extended the garden bed to join it to the tip of the island. (I also subsequently removed the “pile of rocks” that were part of the original “design”. Perhaps if the wall was build of river rock this might have lent harmony to the “design” but . . . )








Step 4: I Keep Adding Drought and Heat Tolerant Perennials

Step 4: I Keep Adding Drought and Heat Tolerant PerennialsI keep adding drought and heat tolerant perennials.