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Mulch - it's vital stuff ...spread it around!

Greenworld feature writer Elizabeth DeFriest examines the burgeoning market in garden mulches.

By now, following years of drought, there would be few people indeed still not aware of the virtues of mulch as the great weed suppressor, moderator of soil temperature and above all, reducer of water evaporation. And as the knowledge of the power of mulch has grown, so has the market for it and the range of materials available.

When you talk to companies who've been manufacturing the stuff for many years, you soon appreciate mulch isn't a new idea. As an integral part of the horticulture industry for more than 30 years, David Nichols of Debco knows the benefits of mulches. "They've always been advocated, though with the last five years of drought, people have become more focused on mulches." And, as David explains, while there isn't data specifically based on gardens to support the use of mulches, there's certainly been enough generated over the years by researchers studying commercial fruit and vegetable growing."

They've suffered and they know...
There's also plenty of long term expertise and proof in the results if you look at what's been going on in the West. Richgro has been around for 88 years and from Western Australia, the company covers a national market with products ranging from manures, garden chemicals, fertilisers, potting media, soil wetters and, of course, mulch. Joe Bovell points out how Richgro's west coast base has given the company a great foundation with water conservation products. "Let's start with the soil type - over here we garden on beach sand. It's hydrophobic and holds no nutrients or water. So we've been developing ways to deal with this and in a climate where water conservation has always been an issue to the WA gardener, mulches and wetting agents are necessities not luxuries."

Richgro's Watersaver Mulch
One such product is a mulch based on composted green waste - dark in colour, no issues with nitrogen draw-down, and the ability to act as a soil conditioner when it's dug in annually prior to the application of a fresh load of mulch. Known as Watersaver Mulch, it's been around nationally for nine years - making something useful from material which would otherwise go to landfill. As well as Watersaver Mulch, Richgro also produces and sells pine and red gum chip mulch, predominantly to the eastern states market. "The mulch category is constantly developing for good reason. Stage one involves educating the public and getting them to use it. The stage which follows is one where they see the physical benefits to the garden (stress-free plants) and begin to experiment with different types of mulch and the way they look. Overall, the message is spreading - mulch not only looks good, but does a lot of good too."

Basset Banks
Set on 100 acre site at the foot of the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland, the Basset Barks company processes 400,000 cubic metres of bark each year into both mulches and potting media. Sue Joseph told us: "Our business split is about fifty-fifty, with 80% of our products being split three ways - bulk potting mix to the wholesale nurseries, bulk mulch to the yards and finally bulk supply for bagging. We don't deal in wood-based mulches or recycled green waste - instead we take the by-product of milled plantation timbers and by varying the size, age and other characteristics (some are dust and cellulose-free), we produce around 40 different types of mulch. Bark is better because it lasts longer than wood-based mulches and with no cellulose it is more resistant to pests." As for the question of which is better - bulk or bags - Sue offers some basic advice. "Quality is quality whether it's in a bag or by the truck load. A bargain bag of mulch with no Australian Standards accreditation is not quality."

Which brings us to quality...
David Nichols of Debco has been part of the process which has established guidelines for an Australian Standard for composts, soil conditioners and mulches. Set in 1997, revised in 1999 and now again under review, the definition of the standard deals with, among other things, potential toxicities to plants and pH.

"As with our product - Mulch & Feed - any mulch which meets the Australian Standard will have a pH of between 5 and 7.5. The Standard set maximum levels of ammonium, boron, sodium and heavy metals in order that mulch would not prove toxic to plants or pass on toxins into the food chain - even phosphorous levels are monitored so that they suit native plant species." Obviously not all mulches on the market come with accreditation. Some, by virtue of their make-up, couldn't comply if they tried - for example scoria, pebbles or recycled glass.

The retailer's point of view...
Milton Vadoulis of Vadoulis Garden Centre stocks a range of materials as mulch. "We're a retail garden centre in a rural area where a country town has been caught up in the urban sprawl (Gawler, South Australia), resulting in a broad range of socio-economic groups." Mirroring this range is the number and types of mulch Milton stocks - from bottom-end pea straw to recycled glass. "We also carry lucerne straw, pelletised mulch based on a mix of pea and lucerne with gypsum and fertiliser added in, pine bark, pine chips, red gum chips, scoria, pebbles and a composted humus. They all have their strengths and weaknesses - for example the cost of the glass makes it good for pots, while the bark and chips are a better option for larger areas.

Mulch in production.

"Making a decision on what we carry is based on consumer demand. We deal with bagged product only, a decision made years ago and supported by the fact that this community has easy access to bulk suppliers down the road. What we do decide to carry must be in demand - either because it's fashion-driven and the customer comes in having seen it in magazines, or because the company's advertising has created the demand. On top of this we may decide to carry a product - like our humus - because we think it's a fabulous product which we're happy to recommend."

In South Australia, the customer's need for mulch, and expectation that a retail garden centre is where you get it, is not a recent trend. "I've been in the business for 26 years and while in the early days mulches such as scoria or pine bark played more of an aesthetic role, for many years now the shift has been towards mulches that conserve water." Which is not surprising when you consider the conditions under which South Australians garden. "It was 44 degrees yesterday - people are used to gardening in this very hot dry climate. We understand high temperatures and low rainfall - the drought hasn't freaked us out." And while it may sound like Gawler is a tough place to run a garden centre, business keeps ticking along with water-wise sales of products like mulch and carefully selected plants.

How to sell the stuff...
As for Milton's tips on how best to sell mulch, he starts with his staff. "They have to know what they're talking about - which ones are non-hydrophobic, which ones compete for nitrogen and which ones don't; why rose growers should use lucerne over pea straw. Basically it's the reason customers decide to shop at a good garden centre - the expert advice we make available which comes from training staff and keeping them informed."

In terms of display and positioning mulch to promotes sales, "If you make a nice pyramid display, people won't touch it. They need to see it stacked on a pallet so that they think, "This must be cheap." It also helps to put it in with the other bulk products on the customer's way to the cash register so they are prompted, "Oh I need some of that." And when we're warned of a promotional campaign, (surprisingly not often enough by the companies who supply us) we move the pallet of product near the entrance for as long as the campaign runs. This works because people see the ad, see the product and buy it.

Dawson's Garden World
In Western Australia, retail centres like Dawson's Garden World have had their mulch sales supported by The Water Corporation, water supplier to the city of Perth and hundreds of towns and communities spread over 2.5 million square kilometres. Fondly known as the Watercorp, one of its major aims is to encourage the conservation of water. Gavin Dalton, Dawson's store manager took part in a Watercorp training course, and with their support, he set up an information display within the garden centre. Importantly, explains Gavin: "Watercorp has provided the push to get the word out there. They're helping the mulch to sell itself."

With promotion well taken care of, Dawson's focus is on what to stock, and how to display and promote it within the 3-4 hectares of the 100 year old business. Dawson's have established display gardens with different themes. "It's in the display gardens that we have the best promotional opportunities for products such as mulch. The gardens give people ideas, so we use our various mulches in different ways and people tend to follow our lead. At the most basic level, we mulch the beds because we don't want them to think, Dawson's don't so why should I?" As well as this, bagged mulch is displayed on pallets positioned so that you can't miss them as you walk through the shop.

Spunky packaging...and support for the retailer
"There's an art to the design of the bag", says David Nichols, "right down to the inks that don't fade in the sun or rub off on people's clothes. We've worked to build Debco as a known brand, so that together with promotion, customers walk in and walk out with a bag. We offer high levels of service to our retailers - we have to give extra because our product is dearer. But they've done their sums and know that there's a lot of space-value in a pallet of mulch. It moves quickly and makes money."

Gavin Dalton of Dawsons, WA says their display gardens provide the best promotional opportunities for mulch.

Yates entered the mulch market roughly 18 months ago in response to the drought. Initially known as Yates Water Saver Mulch, it was recently renamed Waterwise Mulch and repackaged in it's new distinctive blue as part of Yates new Waterwise range. Judy Horton explains, "We've grouped all our products together under distinct categories and the benefits have been obvious. As part of a range, any promotion gives a spin-off to all the products within it. And the waterwise packaging looks so much better that it has made a significant difference. The makeover has lead directly to extra ranging - more retailers are happy to jump on board."

Victoria and New South Wales currently top Australia in sales. "We're very happy. It's done quite well considering not long ago we didn't have a mulch or a Waterwise range of products." Much of this positive response has been due to support offered by Yates. "We've been running competitions for retailers who stock the range. Our staff have provided training in product knowledge and display, though I have to say most are very good at doing this kind of thing themselves."

And finally for some mulch myths and trivia...

  • Choose carefully when stocking mulch - "I choose not to stock a cheaper pea straw but carry instead a weed-free version which has less potential for a negative effect on the environment." (Milton Vadoulis - Vadoulis Garden Centre).
  • Wood-based mulch brings with it a responsibility to use it wisely in areas where there is a risk of fire - keep it away from structures, irrigate where possible, or use an alternative non-flammable material such as scoria or gravel (David Nichols - Debco).
  • Mulch material which is made up of a range of particle sizes, as opposed to a finer uniform mix, allows more water to pass through to the soil beneath (Gavin Dalton - Dawsons).
  • Even if the soil is dry underneath, it's worth adding mulch because it reduces fluctuations in soil temperature and keeps the dust down (Gavin Dalton - Dawsons).

    Suppliers of Mulch products

    Amgrow Garden King
    Amgrow Superior Mulches-an extensive range of specialist mulches which conserve moisture, protect plants from extremes of hot and cold and add organic matter to the soil.
    T: 1800 682 221
    E: sales@envirogreen.com.au
    Bassett Barks
    Customer focused and service driven. Bassett Barks produce quality mulches and Landscape Barks. We also produce professional quality Potting Media for the Nursery Industry.
    T: 07 5496 9133
    W: www.bassettbarks.com.au
    Biogreen Products Pty Ltd
    Moisture + Mega Mulch Block is a concentrated block of mulch that will, when moistened, grow magically up to 60 litres of garden mulch or decorative dressing.
    T: 03 9866 2305
    Web: www.Biogreen.info
    Case-Tech Australia Pty Ltd
    Your Choice Coir Garden Mulch with 'Snapback' technology, hydrates to 60 litres of Mulch in minutes. Holds 5 times its own weight in water and deters birds.
    T: 03 9791 2060
    E: case.tech@optusnet.com.au
    Debco Pty Ltd
    Debco offers a range of mulches including: Mulch 'n' Feed, a compost incorporating mulch and nutrients, Debco Pine Bark Mulch and Green Wizard Bark Mulch.
    T: 03 5977 4755
    W: www.debco.com.au
    Farmers Choice
    Peanut Shell Garden Mulch, a newly available mulch. Fantastic presentation with excellent water retention properties. Lasts for up to 3 years and is high in nutrients.
    T: 07 4093 3577
    E: webwatch@bigpond.com.au
    Fud Products
    Breakfast in Beds Landscaper's Mulch ľA hard working certified organic nourishing mulch which looks great and stays in place while allowing moisture to penetrate down to the roots.
    T: 0412 202 281
    E: fudcomposts@earthlink.net
    Grange Growing Solutions Grange Growing Solutions specialise in professional growing media including a range of quality mulches. Tailor made to your requirements.
    T: 02 4579 8333
    W: www.growingsolutions.com.au
    Greenfingers Potting Mix Customised Potting Mixes, Organic Garden Soil and Compost Blends. Premium mulches available bulk and bags. Speciality mixes (Cycad, Orchid, Cacti etc) available bulk and bags.
    T: 07 5578 3264
    Growers Gold Organics Growers Gold Organics Soil Conditioner. A recycled organic power blend suitable for all garden applications This product promotes strong root growth and has no odour.
    T: 0418 472 767
    E: jgouskos@optusnet.com.au
    Jeffries Jeffries manufacture a wide range of high quality recycled green organic mulches and composts for the SA market. A Mulch Express Blower can apply mulch directly onto the garden.
    T: 08 8349 5588
    W: www.jeffriesgroup.com.au
    Sales Force Agencies JT Johnson and Sons of Kapunda SA supply the following specialist mulches: Soil Improver and Mulch, Pea Straw Bale, Lucerne Bale and Garden Grunt Fertiliser and Mulch.
    T: 03 9794 9733
    E: sales@salesforceagencies.com.au

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