Saving Cypress Trees, or ‘Mulch Madness’

Compiled by Helen Hamilton, president of John Clayton Chapter of VNPS,

Are we killing the cypress forests?  According to information from National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, particularly the Louisiana chapter, the manufacture and sale of cypress mulch is seriously reducing cypress forests in the south.  Resistance in the state of Florida has driven the industry to Louisiana, where clear-cut forests were slowly recovering, due to natural reforestation and replanting and protection.

Now harvesting is reducing these embryonic forests, which are important for restoring wetlands, and serving as hurricane buffers.  It has been reported that St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas that suffered the worst damage from Katrina, had previously lost nearly all of its cypress forest and was left completely vulnerable to the worst of the storm.   Further, cypress forests filter pollutants and serve as reservoirs for floodwater, as well as providing irreplaceable habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife. 

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is the state tree of Louisiana; acres are being ground up for packaging and distribution as home-garden mulch and animal bedding materials.  People think cypress mulch is an effective use of lumber byproducts, when the reality is that WHOLE trees, some as small as three inches in diameter, are harvested indiscriminately.   In the past, cypress mulch was a by-product of lumber mills, but now entire forests are being cut down.

There is no evidence that cypress mulch is any more resistant to weather and insects than pine bark or pine straw.  In fact, pine straw can suppress weeds for up to one year, but cypress mulch and others work only 2 or 3 months.

The protective ability of cypress involves the “heartwood” – the older, nonliving central wood of a tree that usually is darker and harder than the younger sapwood.  Only mature cypress trees have it, and trees harvested today are too young for this to work.  Cypress trees take 75 to 100 years to grow to maturity.  But some loggers harvest trees that are only 15 to 20 years old. 

Wood chips are not the best choice.  Mulch should contain an even mix of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. Because wood chips and bark are virtually all carbon, they tie up the available nitrogen in the soil as they decompose, leaving plants without the nutrients they need to grow.  The most nutritious garden mulch is something most gardeners already have on hand: yard waste.

Researchers have found that composted yard waste increased the number of flowers on rhododendron plants by 300 percent over plants grown without mulch. Wood mulch gave no such benefit.  Fall leaves are a benefit, not a nuisance.  Shred them and use as mulch and within a month they are full of earthworms.

It just doesn’t make any sense to cut down beautiful forests just to place the shredded remnants of trees around the plants in our backyards and gardens.

A call to some of the retail stores in Williamsburg revealed that some do NOT sell cypress mulch whereas some DO sell cypress mulch.  We need to speak with these people.  The website has their corporate contacts with a sample letter.


Gardening Without Guilt

(National Wildlife Federation April/May 2006)
Here are some alternatives to cypress mulch:

Compost: A mix of kitchen scraps and yard trimmings, composted in your own backyard, is one of the best and cheapest mulches around. As the compost breaks down, it will also act as a fertilizer for your plants. This is the best choice for traditional landscapes, but it can be difficult for a household to produce enough compost for even a small garden.

Fall leaves: Composted, they make a wonderful component in fertilizer. But even when they are simply shredded and spread around the yard, leaves make an inexpensive and effective mulch. Many towns in leafy areas will give back to gardeners communally collected and shredded leaves. Leaf mulch applied in spring will last about four months if stacked three to four inches deep.

Well-chosen bark: Bark from plantation grown—and therefore renewable—pine or other conifer trees makes a good, long-lasting mulch, especially when applied with compost or other soil conditioners. Just be sure that you’re not actually buying wood chips or bark from cypress or other environmentally threatened trees.