Uses For Cattail Plants: Information On Mulching With Cattails

Uses For Cattail Plants: Information On Mulching With Cattails

By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer

It’s a common tale, you planted a few cattails in the shallow edges of your backyard pond and now you have a dense stand of cattails blocking your view and access to your shrinking pond. Cattails spread vigorously through underground rhizomes and seeds that seem to germinate as soon as they land in the water. They can also choke out other pond plants with their aggressive rhizomes and tall height that shades out smaller plants. On the plus side, cattails are one of the best natural filters for ponds, lakes, streams, etc. As they filter waterways, they take up valuable nutrients that can be used as soil amendments and mulch. Continue reading to learn about mulching with cattails.

Uses for Cattail Plants

Many species of cattails are native to the U.S. However, a lot of the more aggressive species we see in waterways now are introduced species or species that came into existence by natives and introduced species cross pollinating. For centuries, Native Americans used cattails for food, medicine and as a fiber for various items like shoes, clothing and bedding.

Leftover remnants of the plant were then worked back into the earth. Presently, cattails are being researched for use as ethanol and methane fuels.

Cattail Mulch in Landscapes

Cattails as mulch or compost provide carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen to the garden. Cattails grow and reproduce quickly, making them a valuable renewable resource. As natural pond filters, they absorb fish and amphibian waste, which also benefit garden soil.

Another benefit is that cattail seeds will not germinate in the garden, like many plants used as mulches can unfortunately do. The main drawback to making mulch from pond plants is that it can be rather unpleasant smelling to work with. Also, cattails are considered protected species in some areas and invasive species in other locations, so know your local laws before removing or planting wild plants.

Cattails have a history of being used as a durable fiber. What this means when considering mulching with cattails is that it does not break down quickly or easily. If you are planning on using cattails as mulch or in the compost pile, you will need to chop it up with a mulcher or mower. Mix in wood chips and/or yarrow plants to speed up decomposition.

Cattails growing in ponds will probably need some manual control once a year. The best time to do this is midsummer when the plants have had time to store up valuable nutrients but are not yet spending them on seed production – if you are planning to use them as mulch or compost.

Cattails can be pulled out by hand or cut below water level to control and utilize them. If you have a large pond or plans to mulch/compost cattails on a grand level, they can be dredged out with heavy equipment. Again, be aware of local laws regarding cattails before doing anything with them.

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Mulch has been called the gardener’s friend—and for good reason. In winter, mulch protects bare soil, prevents erosion, and protects plants. In spring, mulch locks in moisture, suppresses weeds, and feeds the soil. Learn how to mulch, when to mulch, and about the many different types of mulch to use in your garden.

Mulching is a fundamental part of gardening to plants looking beautiful and productive through the year. If you don’t already know how to mulch, it’s important to learn when to mulch, the right depth for mulch, and the right type of mulch.

What Is Mulch?

At its simplest, mulch is any material that covers the soil’s surface. In nature, mulch is simply fallen leaves and plant debris. In the garden, mulch can also include compost, wood chips, rotted manure, cardboard, or even seaweed.

It’s only recently that we’ve come to appreciate mulch’s sustainable and ecological benefits. Done correctly, mulching feeds our soil’s living microorganisms with nutrients and the waste from these tiny microbes creates healthier soil structure for plants, limiting compaction.

Benefits of Mulching

  1. Reduces weed growth by keeping light from reaching the soil surface.
  2. Reduces water loss from the soil surface, which helps maintain soil moisture.
  3. Moderates soil temperatures, keeping it warmer on cold nights and cooler on hot days.
  4. Protects bare soil, reducing erosion and soil compaction.
  5. Protects plants from the harsh conditions of winter freezes, thaws, and winds.

There are many other benefits of mulch:

  • In winter, soil under mulch will be warmer than unprotected soil. This protects plants from the cycle of freezing and thawing (which can heave them out of the ground).
  • Prevents crusting of the soil surface. Water moves more readily into soil covered with mulch instead of running off.
  • Keeps soil from splashing onto leaves keeping soil off leaves reduces the chance of plants getting fungal and bacterial diseases.
  • Breaks down and feeds the soil (if organic mulch).
  • Improves the structure of clay soils and the moisture-holding capacity of sandy soils.
  • Slowly increases soil fertility (if organic) and may make micronutrients already in the soil more available.
  • Warms the soil in spring, allowing the gardener to plant days or weeks before the soil would normally be ready.
  • Keeps plants clean and off the ground, especially tomatoes and melons, to avoid plant disease.
  • Limits the chance of damaging trees’ trunks when mulch is placed around them instead of grass.
  • Improves plant health and growth (due to fewer weeds and more consistent moisture and soil temperature).
  • Makes gardens “spiffed up” and attractive, giving a uniform appearance and rhythm to garden design.

Disadvantages of Mulching

Although using mulch has many benefits, in some cases, its use can be detrimental to the garden:

  • TOO much mulch (a layer more than 3 inches deep) can bury and suffocate plants water and oxygen can’t reach the roots. A layer of 2 to 3 inches of mulch is ample. Do NOT overmulch.
  • Mulch can contribute to rotting bark if piled up around the trunks of trees and shrubs. Keep mulch 6 to 12 inches away from the base of woody plants. No more “volcano” mulching around trees! Keeping mulch away from the trunk discourages wood-boring insects, gnawing rodents, and decay.
  • Mulch near plant stems is the perfect place for slugs, snails, tunneling rodents, and more pests to reside. Sprinkle wood ashes or diatomaceous earth around the base of precious plants to keep the slugs and snails at bay.
  • Mulch can bake your plants with excess heat in midsummer if not done properly. (See more below.)
  • Light-colored, wood-based mulches, like sawdust or fresh wood chips, can steal nitrogen from the soil as they break down. Counter this effect by adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as soybean meal, alfalfa, or cottonseed meal, to the mulch. (Learn more about soil amendments.)

How Much Mulch Is Needed?

With most organic mulches, a layer of 2 to 3 inches is plenty. The finer the material, the thinner the layer needed.

Inorganic mulch is often more shallow. For example, a mulch of small stones usually only needs to be an inch deep.

If You Want Mulch This Deep… …You Will Need This Much Mulch to Cover 100 Square Feet
2 inches 18 cubic feet
3 inches 27 cubic feet

1 cubic yard = 27 cubic feet

Dry mulches—including sawdust, woodchips, peat moss, and dry straw—can be a fire hazard. Keep them away from buildings to be on the safe side.

Types of Mulch

The ideal mulch should be dense enough to block weed growth but light and open enough to allow water and air to reach the soil. Factors to consider when purchasing mulch are cost, availability, ease of application, and what it looks like in the garden. There are lots of materials of various colors and textures to choose from.

Both organic and inorganic mulches can be used effectively in the garden.

Organic Mulches

Organic mulches are natural products from leaves, trees, grass, and other plant material, often from your own yard. They mimic nature, breaking down gradually over time. The advantage is that they are truly adding organic matter to the soil. The disadvantage is that they must be replenished periodically.

  • Compost is readily available and breaks down rapidly to improve soil. If you don’t have your own, often towns make it available from their leaf composting facility. The disadvantage is that it must be replenished and can contain weed seeds.
  • Shredded or chipped bark. Softwood bark mulch is attractive, resists compaction, and breaks down slowly. Hardwood bark is attractive but breaks down quickly and needs to be properly composted to avoid sour mulch and nuisance fungi.
  • Shredded leaves and leaf mold are readily available and, if chopped, eventually break down and feed the soil with beneficial materials. The disadvantage is that leaves can mat if wet which reduces the oxygen and moisture in the soil. Avoid matted layers of wet leaves.
  • Straw and salt marsh hay are inexpensive and a helpful covering however, they decompose more quickly, may harbor rodents, and are easily blown away by the wind.
  • Grass clippings are ready available but should be dried first or spread thinly to keep them from becoming a hot, slimy, stinky mess. Also, you can not use clippings from grass treated with chemicals in a food garden.
  • Pine needles are attractive and stay in place better than most mulches. They are slow to break down and aren’t as acidic as you might expect, so don’t worry about them chaning the soil’s pH.
  • Local byproducts, such as spent hops from a brewery, cocoa hulls, ground corncobs, coffee grounds, newspaper, or cardboard can also be much. Get creative!

Image: Mulching around salvia. Credit: Mark Herreid/Shutterstock

Inorganic Mulches

  • Black plastic mulch helps warm the soil in spring, reduces water loss, and is convenient. This can make a big difference in short growing seasons. However, it’s not permeable so it’s more difficult to water it also breaks down when exposed to sunlight and the soil under the plastic becomes very hot in the middle of summer if not shaded by leaves or covered with another mulch.
  • Silver plastic mulch excels at warming soil in spring but doesn’t control weeds the soil becomes even hotter with clear plastic in midsummer and plants can be damaged if the plastic is not shaded.
  • Crushed stone, gravel, marble, or brick chips provide a permanent mulch around shrubs and trees. That said, these mulches are expensive, hard to move, and can get into the lawn. Weed seeds and soil can still find their way into the stones an underlayer of landscape fabric will help prevent this.
  • Landscape fabric smothers weeds while allowing air, fertilizer, and water to move through them and into the soil. They are treated to resist decomposition and they help retain soil moisture. It’s important to fasten the fabric down so perennial weeds do not push them up.

How to Apply Mulch

Mulching in Autumn

We do not generally use mulch in the fall, except for in bare, unplanted garden beds to prevent erosion. If you did not plant a winter cover crop (which you would till under in the spring), you should spread a thick layer of soil-conditioning compost or well-rotted organic matter over the bare soil. You could also use shredded leaves. Lay it at least four inches deep.

Otherwise, do not apply mulch to your landscape in autumn. The soil will not cool down quickly and plants may continue to grow. New growth may not harden off and can be damaged by winter cold. Also, mulching in the fall keeps the soil wet, which can lead to root rot and plant death.

Note: If you’re setting out new areas, start by clearing the surface of any debris and any rocks larger than a hen’s egg. Mow down grass or cut back weeds to the ground. Fast forward a few months and any grass and weeds below will have rotted down, while earthworms will work to gradually incorporate the organic matter into the soil below.

Mulching in Winter

Once you’ve had several freezes (often around Thanksgiving or after), then apply winter mulch around the base of any tender perennial plants or new plants. Grafted plants, like hybrid tea roses, benefit from being mulched heavily.

Shredded mulch, straw, pine needles, or shredded leaves are all good winter mulch. Apply 3 to 4 inches. It’s important to apply enough mulch in winter to keep the frozen ground completely covered so the plant remains dormant until spring no matter what type of warm or cold spells occur.

Take care NOT to put mulch next to the trunks of trees or crowns of plants, as this invites bark-gnawing rodents.

Protect branches and buds of evergreen or semi-evergreen shrubs such as rhododendrons and viburnums by wrapping them with burlap or protecting them with a tree guard filled with shredded leaves for insulation.

WARNING : Do not mulch like this! “Mulch volcanoes” will encourage rot at the base of the plant.

Mulching in Spring

Remove winter mulch in the spring when all danger of a hard frost is past so that the ground can warm and new growth won’t be inhibited.

If there are lots of weeds on the ground where you want to grow, consider a permeable landscape fabric on many of the beds.

Image: Permeable landscape fabric.

Or, lay down a layer of cardboard before adding your organic matter. Thoroughly wet the cardboard to help it break down. The cardboard will serve as a further barrier to weeds, exhausting and eventually killing most of them off. Once the growing season gets underway, you’ll find that any weeds that do manage to make it through will be much easier to remove.

After a few spring rains, when the soil has warmed, we lay down soaker hoses in each bed.

Then we cover the hoses with a fabric to speed up the change in soil temperatures and warm the soil for earlier planting.

Planting holes are cut at different spacings for different crops. Watering is efficient, and maintenance of a large area is made much easier.

Once the plants get some size on them, the fabric is covered and does not look so bad! We also use organic mulch including straw, leaf mold, grass clippings, wood chips, and shredded leaves for crops that like it cooler.

Regularly mulch with organic matter. Replace old mulch as it rots down or becomes incorporated into the soil, so that the ground is being constantly fed and gradually built up.

Free Online Gardening Guides

We’ve gathered all of our best beginner gardening guides into a step-by-step series designed to help you learn how to garden! Visit our complete Gardening for Everyone hub, where you’ll find a series of guides—all free! From selecting the right gardening spot to choosing the best vegetables to grow, our Almanac gardening experts are excited to teach gardening to everyone—whether it’s your 1st or 40th garden.

If the mulch is a wood mulch that has been dyed, you should know what that dye is. Many black mulch products made using wood use black coming from a carbon process, similar to the color from coal. In most cases, this coloring is harmless. Other dyes may not be. Sticking to a natural coloring process helps ensure the coloring will be harmless to other living things, including plants.

  • Black mulch serves both function and style in complementing a garden or landscape.
  • The product is capable of not only providing a unique look to gardening or landscaping, but can also help protect plants from reflective light and keep root systems warmer.

For something on a smaller, more manageable scale, consider a patio water garden. Many water plants can be grown in a tub of water on your deck, and you can even add fish or a fountain. Use an ordinary whiskey barrel lined with plastic, or purchase a plastic tub that is specially designed for a water garden. Miniature water lilies, lotus and many other water plants grow beautifully in as little as 20 to 30 gallons of water.. Place your container where it will receive at least 6 hours of sun a day for best plant growth and flowering. In hot climates, containers do best with afternoon shade.

Water gardens should include floating plants, submerged plants and edge plants. Some water plants are invasive, however, and should only be grown in containers. Reputable garden centers and on-line sources will sell only approved plants in your State. Check with your State's Natural Resources Agency for a list of banned water plants, if you have questions. At the end of the growing season, discard water plants in your compost and never place them in lakes, rivers or streams. Floating plants shade the water and absorb dissolved nutrients. By doing so, they help to suppress algae and keep the pond clean. A few of the many examples of floating plants include duckweed, American frogbit, water hyacinth, water lettuce and water lilies.

Hardy water lilies are available in an array of colors from white through yellow, pink and red. Many bloom from late spring until frost and will survive the winter in deep ponds as far north as USDA zone 4, as long as their roots don't freeze solid. Plant them in sturdy containers that can be submerged 10 to 18 inches deep. Otherwise, remove the pots from the water in late fall, place in a bucket of water, and store in a protected, non-freezing area over the winter. For container water gardens, choose a miniature variety that will spread only two to four square feet.

Tropical water lilies look similar to the hardy varieties, but the blooms are larger and held several inches above the water. Many are also fragrant. Tropicals are hardy only to Zones 9-10, and can bloom year-round in warm climates. They will not flower, however, unless they are grown in full sun and have water temperatures above 70 degrees F. Some are day-bloomers and some are night-bloomers. Night-bloomers are best for viewing during the evening and early morning when most people are at home. Miniature varieties are available for patio tubs, too.

Lotuses are another beautiful choice, though they are not true floating plants as they usually hold their leaves and flowers 1 to 8 feet above the water surface, depending on the variety. Each lotus blossom can be as much as 10 to 12 inches across, although miniature varieties are much smaller. After blooming, lotus flowers leave behind a large and distinctive seedpod. They are generally hardy to USDA zone 4 or 5, if their roots are not allowed to freeze. Plant them in wide, sturdy containers without holes that can be submerged 10 to 18 inches deep. Otherwise, remove the pots from the water in late fall and store in buckets in a protected area over the winter. Take care in handling, as their growing tips are very delicate and can be damaged easily.

To bloom abundantly, water lilies and lotus grown in pots must be fertilized throughout the growing season. Insert water plant fertilizer tablets into the soil near the roots once a month, following the package instructions. Plants grown directly in the mud at the bottom of ponds do not need fertilizer.

Submerged plants spend their entire lives growing beneath the surface of the water. They are usually called oxygenators. They obtain their nutrients from the water directly through their stems and leaves and do not require soil or special fertilizer. By absorbing nutrients, they compete with algae and help keep your water clear by consuming dissolved nutrients. Submerged plants also provide a spawning area and hiding place for fish and other water creatures. Common submerged plants include: anacharis, hornwort, cabomba, hairgrass and sagittaria.

Edge plants grow on a "shelf" 5-to-10 inches below the surface of the water or in the moist soil next to the pond, providing shelter for fish, frogs and other plant life. Shelf plants include sweet flag, canna, water plantain, marsh marigold, pickerel rush, sedges, cattails and arrowhead.

Plants that thrive in the moist soil next to a pond include filipendula, Japanese and Siberian irises, trollius, liatris and ajuga.

Important Tips While Planning a Feng Shui Garden

According to Feng Shui principles, there are 9 zones that must be filled: They are the southeast (wealth), South (fame), Southwest (partnership), East (family), center (energy),West (children), Northeast (knowledge), North (career), Northwest (friends).

The entrance should be at the South and must be well-lit at all times. Avoid cluttering the entrance, it obstructs the flow of good energy that brings money and success.

Avoid planting cacti or any other plant with pointed leaves at your entrance. They imply tension and aggression in the surroundings. You can create a harmonious look of the garden with a variety of plants of different shapes, sizes and different colored flowers.

Light up the dark areas of your garden which create more yang energy. It is important to create a balance of light and dark in your garden.

Just as you work towards attracting energy towards your garden, it is important to retain it too. To ensure this, keep the hedges and fences clean. Make repairs if any, to keep the energy contained.

Keeping the space clutter free is an important principle of feng shui. It ensures a stability in the flow of positive energy. Thus, trim the bushes, remove dried leaves, cut out dead weeds, and keep the space well manicured at all times.

Add elements of earth with rocks, stones or pebble beds. You could add a small rock garden in one of the corners of your garden.

While decorating your garden, according to feng shui principles, use the bagua, or energy map of your home. A bagua essentially gives you nine life areas (represented by squares) in the map. Use these divisions as a guideline to decorate your garden and draw maximum benefits. To sum it up, a feng shui garden comprises a harmonious blend of mountains, greenery and water, which are symbolically represented by ancient rocks, evergreen lush plants and free-flowing water bodies.

Recovering Resources

Wood chips and sawdust are each byproducts of other activities, so finding good-quality, local resources is your first step. If you live near a sawmill, you can probably get sawdust cheap, though you’ll need assurance from the sawmill operator that it doesn’t include black walnut sawdust, which releases a toxin that can be murder on tomatoes and other sensitive vegetables. Also avoid sawdust from plywood and painted or treated wood in your garden because of the glues and other chemicals. With sawdust, the lower you go on the production chain (a sawmill that handles whole logs), the more likely you are to get garden-worthy sawdust. For soil-building purposes, coarse sawdust is better than fine because it’s less likely to pack into a mat, and it lasts longer as organic matter in the soil.

If kept moist, sawdust can decompose surprisingly quickly. In a study at Ohio State University, sawdust rotted faster than newspaper or straw, both of which were still recognizable after 16 weeks. To speed up rotting in a pile of sawdust, simply add moisture and nitrogen. This can be done by mixing up a big batch of fish emulsion, pouring it into an already damp, doughnut-shaped sawdust pile, and then covering it with a tarp or an old blanket to retain moisture. After sawdust turns black, you can use it to lighten up any soil — including potting soil — for seedlings and container gardening.

Most of the more recent studies with wood chips used what are called ramial wood chips, which are what you get when you put live, leafless hardwood branches, 2 to 3 inches in diameter, through a chipper to create pieces that are a half to 1 inch wide and 1 to 4 inches long. Ramial chips have relatively little bark and heartwood because of the size of the branches used, which is part of what makes them so attractive as a soil amendment. Superior batches also contain few leaves, cones, or other prickly parts.

You can get ramial wood chips for free by connecting with tree-trimming crews working in your area. In some towns, such as Oshkosh, Wis., you can take small limbs to a chipping center on certain Saturdays and go home with your own homegrown wood chips. Wherever you live, a few phone calls to local utility companies or tree service companies should be all it takes to find a free supply. Wood chips often end up in landfills let’s put them to use enriching our garden soils instead.