Best mulch for roses

rosecatsDecember 5, 2009

I'm now working on mulch for my roses, and I've love to hear what you prefer to use for mulching. I'm in Northern CA, with rather mild winters, so my current plan is to augment the existing wood chip/compost mulch, with the hope of providing the bulk of the nutrients in this fashion, using the winter rains (I'm crossing my fingers that we have a lot & may start exploring rain dances, etc) to work the nutrients into the soil. Wood chips are required for drought tolerance over the long, hot, dry summers.

So, the current plans are to include wood chips, leaf mulch, compost, & rose food.

I'd love to hear what you use! (I may also post this question on the soil & compost forum.)

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Oops, I forgot to mention - the compost will be homemade & it'll include copious (I really do mean copious!) amounts of horse manure & a lot of coffee grounds. I may also add alfalfa.

I guess I'm wondering - should I include anything to promote bloom?

Thanks for any input!

    Bookmark   December 5, 2009 at 10:15PM
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rosecats, mulch, like soil amendment and potting soil, is a local product...aptly described by someone in the business as "freight in a bag." Use what you can find at a reasonable price close by. You didn't mention how much mulch or how many roses you need material for. Look at landscape materials business to see what's out there. Consider these factors.
-Cost is the biggest factor: from free to $35 a yard for "landscaper's bark," the small, dark bark that looks like orchid bark. If you go for free tree service mulch, ideally it should include not only wood chips but green organic matter.
-Appearance next. Most tree service mulch is a little light on the greens and, sadly, is often a pale gray color, as opposed to the beautiful rich russet brown "cedar chips" which is actually made from fir bark.
-Speed of decomposition. In my NorCal garden, I consider .75 inch material to be about the ideal size: it will suppress weeds and break down, but not so quickly that you're doing it every year. The tree service mulch I was able to get was much larger, with many chunks in the 4 inch range.
-Soil improvement. It will take a number of years for your mulch to actually start "giving back," meaning release nitrogen instead of requiring it to break down. So be sure to lightly dust the mulched areas with some cheap nitrogen fertilizer (law fertilizer) for a few years to compensate for the nitrogen the mulch is absorbing from the soil. I think it took about 5 years for my soils to register adequate nitrogen for general garden use based on mulching alone.
-Slopes. If your yard isn't flat, then the type of material is more important. Many mulches avalanche down hillsides, leaving bare patches. I have some steep areas that have "gorilla hair" shredded redwood on the bottom, covered with a more attractive mulch on top.

I use 4 inches of landscaper's bark everywhere I can. Because of the size of my garden, I buy it by the truckload to get the best price. Up in Sonoma County, many training stables will provide composted stable bedding for the cost of delivery only. Both are excellent, though stable bedding can be problematic if you live in a low rainfall area.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2009 at 10:26PM
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Hi Rosecats, I mulched my roses with Lucerne Hay.
The first lot of hay was bought from a garden nursery and it was so old that it was not a good buy. Then I bought straight from a grower at nearly half the price, and excellent Lucerne hay for mulching my garden. I did some beds and then give the rest of my rose's hats ( just some hay put around them ). It keeps the soil moist around them for alot longer. Also a few of my more established bushes have had pretty blooms on them for ages, eventhough it is dry here, because of the thick mulch on that bed.
We have lots of chooks and a few turkeys now, as well as some cattle and sheep, so one day I will start fertilizing my roses, which I have never done yet, but I have good soil.
I did use a bit of pea straw but just recently th black birds worked out there is pea seeds in it and they keep flicking it away from the base of the roses every time I put it back.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2009 at 11:06PM
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Lucerne Hay is what we in the USA call "Alfalfa."

I use a combination of compost, leaf mold, worm castings (from our worm bin, horse manure, rabbit manure, and alfalfa.

Then I top it with a heavy lawyer of free wood chips that tree cutters are happy to give away. Water is scarce here in drought stricken Southern California, and the heavy mulch really helps retain moisture in my hot climate.


    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 12:12AM
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I use hay (often old and half rotten) as my mulch and sole fertilizer. What you need on top depends partly on what's underneath: we have extremely compact gray clay which requires a lot of organic amendment but makes a good fat soil. Also I grow mostly old and older roses that are relatively thrifty, and I suspect I would have to fertilize more if I had Hybrid Teas and David Austin roses and such. We put the hay down four to six inches deep and renew it when it gets thin. The roses grow and flower satisfactorily. The big limiting factor here is water, not fertilizer.
The big drawback of hay is that it contains grass seeds, but it's local and cheap and does the job, so I'm quite happy with it.
I agree with the comments others have posted here.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 12:25AM
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Ok, it sounds like it may be simpler than I was making it out to be. Many of my roses have been in place under 2 years, after transplanting from bands, so I'm probably expecting too much from them! I guess I'm on the right track for the most part. My inner baker must be looking for a recipe: 2 parts hardwood chips, 1 part softwood, 10 parts goat manure, 1 part lama, 1 scant part guano, 1 part expresso grounds, a pinch of yarrow & comfrey & a packet of yeast. Moisten & mix thoroughly, cover w/ a thin layer of mulch if you don't want neighbors to complain & allow to rest until steaming. Turn weekly....

Berndoodle: I'm lucky in that I have ready access to a lot of free mulch & compost ingredients, bark & manures of varying kinds. I started mulching last year, and I just want to be sure I'm being kind to my roses.

It sounds like it isn't necessary to add nutrients to promote bloom, as long as the roses are otherwise healthy?

Thanks for your speedy replies.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 1:33AM
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The only way to know if you need to add nutrients to the soil is a soil test. Unfort., in California, soil testing is big business. One way to get general information is to research soils in your geographic location. If you live in an agricultural area, there may be a lot of information online. The local Master Gardener at the Extension Office also knows a lot about the local soils. Remember that for ornamental garden use, your soils don't have to be as nutrient-rich as agricultural soil because you are not harvesting two or three crops a year.

In my part of NorCal (Sonoma County), at initial planting I apply one-time amendments to the soil using a recipe supplied by a well-compensated soils scientist. After that, the only additions are annual applications of gypsum to add calcium to compensate for excessive magnesium, which is why epsom salts are strictly avoided, lime to buffer the effects of excessively acid soils with a native pH around 4.9, and nitrogen. Your soils may be very different.

Soils science isn't really a recipe, although I use that term to describe the proportion of amendments that I add. One way of thinking about it is that everything you add to soils alters the chemistry of everything else already in the soil. So because we don't start with the same soil chemistry, the same recipe won't produce the same results.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 12:34PM
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I practice a two-layer approach. In the spring after pruning I scatter an organic fertilizer, often using alfalfa meal. I usually do not fertilize again (except in my vegetable garden). Then the first layer goes down. Each year I alternate, one year using composted city yard waste, the next year a high quality composted stable manure available nearby. If I lived in a higher rainfall area, I would use the stable manure every year, but I don't want the salts to build up in my soil. On top of the compost goes a mulch of mixed tree trimmings. As Berndoodle mentioned, it is large and coarse. However, much of it breaks down over a year or two. The remnants of the previous year can easily be raked aside to put down the compost, then replaced on top.

The purpose of the mulch is to preserve water, moderate temperature, shade out weeds, and very importantly to protect the compost. It breaks down slowly and eventually improves the texture of the soil. Once upon a time there was a lot of concern that wood-based mulches would rob the soil by tying up nitrogen as it decomposed. It is now believed that this only happens at the contact layer so long as you don't mix it into the soil. Furthermore, by using wood material that includes greens (leaves), this is greatly reduced. I get my wood-based mulch free from a local tree-trimming service. You do have to take a truck load of you go this route, so it may be necessary to purchase it if your garden is small.


    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 2:40PM
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Campanula UK Z8

if you can, get a good chipper. we finally bought a petrol wood chipper which will shred branches 75mm thick - anything bigger and we would use a saw. We bought this because we are jobbing gardeners and we were struggling to afford tipping charges for green waste but mostly wanted to make better compost. The chipper now provides me with a quick turnover in the composting process and mulch from trees and bushes which I know are clean and healthy. Best investment ever! We have had a manure scare over here in the UK so I have been reluctant to use any for the last 2 years. It was a toss-up whether we got chickens (for the compost, mainly) but the chipper won out because we don't have to truck down to the allotment to feed it every day.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 3:48PM
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I would love to have a wood chipper. Some day! I recently borrowed an electric leaf shredder, and I think that's the extent of my foray into power tools for awhile.

I applied around 4" of coarse wood chips last spring, which shrank down to about 2"! This year, I belong to a community garden that allows tree trimmers to pile up their wood chips in an open area, so I'll be able to mix up pine, redwood, oak & other mystery chips. Some of the heaps are steaming, & I'm looking forward to bringin them home!

My yard is fairly big w/ around 100 roses, so I hoped I wouldn't have to rake up the existing mulch too much...then again, I'll end up messing with the mulch anyway to pluck up oxalis, so perhaps I can do both at the same time.

Thanks for the heads-up on the salt content of manure. I wonder if all manures have significant salt contents...I had no idea before. So many garden books say "be sure to give MIP plenty of manure; she deserves it". No mention of salt!

Berndoodle, I had heard that magnesium tents to accumulate near the base of foothills. Do you think I need to worry if I'm not very close to the hills?

Thanks, everyone, for your informative & useful replies.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 9:53PM
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A moooooooo moooo here and a moooo mooooo there here a mooooo there a mooooo everywhere a moooooooo mooo

Even old macdonald would use cow over horse not that it's bad but the cow is just sooooo much better, has something to do with the tummies. A cluck cluck here and a cluck there is also very good. Folks up the St. use to let me clean there coops for free eegs, yes cheaper by the dozen sits there just waiting in a bags most of the time. Guess who gets free roses now and then

Hay hmmmm prefferance ? I guess thats up to you. I got a bag on my mower, A bail or so of moo moo & nayy nayy hay is what I did though. A touch of left overs I make it into tea steep it over winter our ice will break it up right on time for fishing.

hug a tree and rake them leaves, cuts down on that smell

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 11:08PM
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So, I know chicken is more potent than horse, but is cow stuff also more potent? Do tell!

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 11:49PM
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rosecats, I've read that California soils are rarely deficient in magnesium, but I don't know that is true from personal research, apart from the soils in my gardens in Marin and Sonoma counties which are both located in foothills.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2009 at 1:17AM
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Well, my thoughts are taking another direction at the moment: I have a few dozen buds that looked like they wanted to open, including a bright, huge Paul Neyron bud that hasn't had a nice flower during its 2-year stay in my garden. However, we have 26 degree temps predicted for tonight. I don't think any more of these buds are opening soon!

Thanks again for all your advice and insights.

BTW: a poster in the composting forum recommends rabbit manure - it contains alfalfa, so you get that free, plus it's not hot!

    Bookmark   December 7, 2009 at 10:35PM
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Cow manure has low N P K numbers and is usually not high in salts . Dairy manure is preferable to steer manure .
That means - lactating dairy cows ( female bovine are called cows ) produce manure that is better for gardening than steer ( neutered male bovine ) manure .

I raise beef cattle and grow my own hay . I place dried manure patties around the roses and lay a thick blanket of used hay over that . By used I mean the hay has been in the pasture and the cattle have pooped and peed on it .

When I prune or deadhead the roses the cattle get the trimmings . They adore roses ! A full circle here except - we do not eat our cattle . The roses are healthy and happy and so are the cows .

I use these by-products because they are easily available and fairly cheap . I would say free but raising cattle is a very expensive proposition . Use what is easily available to you and fairly cheap as well as easy to apply .

I think we all agree that hay makes a fabulous mulch .

    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 5:47PM
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I use pine bark and pine straw, which are readily available. I don't think what one uses for mulch matters much, as long as it's permeable by air and water.

A few years ago I was out of town for two months in the summer. We had exactly one day of rain (several inches), more or less exactly in the middle of my absence. We I came back, the ground under a few inches of mulch was still dark and moist. The dirt in the lawn was beginning to crack. The difference was amazing.

But there's a huge difference between the hot & humid South and the extremely dry air on the California coast. Here well-mulched plants can endure our summers, if they know how to go dormant. It sounds like from sherryocala that there's a huge difference between our clay and Florida's sandy soil.


    Bookmark   December 10, 2009 at 8:16AM
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Is there any problem with using Eucalyptus material (leaves, chipped branches and bark) as mulch in the rose beds? We always have piles of it when the tree people trim our huge Eucalyptus trees. I have been hesitant about using it.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2012 at 1:18PM
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