6/23/19: Flower Gifts

Sometimes the scent of chocolate evokes sweet memories; when I use Cocoa Shell Mulch in my secret garden’s flowerbeds, they surface, summoning a smile. 
This most intriguing ‘earth blanket’ adds an ordered, smart look to flowerbeds while emitting, for a brief time, the most wonderful scent of chocolate. 
A natural by-product of the cocoa bean, it’s a renewable resource that can be found at most garden centers. 
But- one caution- a pet might sample some, and come away with an upset stomach, necessitating a trip to the vet. However, this problem lasts only as long as the scent does. In about a week formerly interested animals will ignore it. 
Most, though, ignore it anyway. 
O.K. let's get down and dirty. First, remove all the weeds from the bed you’ll be mulching. Water the earth deeply, or wait until a decent rain happens. Loosen the soil a bit with a hoe, THEN add the cocoa shells an inch or so thick, but NOT right up against the plants’ stems. (Take care not to bury a plant’s lower foliage.) 
Don’t apply on a windy day, as the light little shells will blow everywhere, and not even chocolate-for-real will cheer you up then. 
Now, after you’ve hand-smoothed them evenly, water in with a soft spray. This is important, because the moistening releases natural gums that bind these shells into a porous, rich brown mat that repels weeds, and holds the moisture you’ve already added. 
It’s there to stay. 
Weeds will happen anyway, but it’s blissfully easy to pull them. 
Two other pluses: slugs and cats avoid it. 
Gradually it becomes part of the soil, improving its texture and fertility. Each spring simply hoe it in, or just leave it there, and then, after weeding and watering, ‘top up’ any bare spots. 
In time- maybe a month or so after application- it will go deep black, an elegant topping, indeed. 
When working in your beds, around two weeks after its installation- you may notice a white mold on top of some of the mulch. Don’t worry about it. This is simply a sign of normal decomposition and absolutely won’t affect plants. If the white coating irritates you, gently stir that bit of mulch with your hand or a little stick to keep it aerated. It will, in any case, disappear quickly. 
I rarely bother to mess with the mold. 
The whole neighborhood will know what you’re doing for about 5-7 days: then that delicious odor dissipates, and it’s just cocoa shells minus the ‘Ummm.’ 
Have you ever watered the earth, only to notice it just rolls off, not penetrating at all? Cocoa shell mulch allows your beds to drink in every drop. 
Another huge plus; previously wormless beds are soon thick with them. I was astounded to see the huge population in there when brushing aside the mulch to plant something. Wow. We’re not talking one or two here, but many fat, happy worms. (One worm eats -(brace yourself)- over a ton of earth every year! One Worm. Next time you see one washed up on a wet sidewalk, rescue it, and think respectful thoughts.) 
The bad news? It’s expensive- about $6 or so for a 40-pound bag. If you have a lot of territory to cover, this sort of money could prove a problem. But if your flowerbed is small, you won’t regret using it. 
If you order more than 5 bags the price often drops. 
For those who dislike chocolate, or balk at the cost, consider another product- twice-ground bark. These are the usual bark chips we all know, but run through the grinder twice, making a finer, more quickly re-absorbed product. Often, one can choose between two colors; slightly more red, or brownish. (If you have lots of sun, though, the shredded bark could bleach out...) 
Gasping flowers really appreciate your consideration, no matter which blanket you choose. I love sticking my finger into my flowerbeds on a roasting day to feel dampness an inch deep. (Left bare, that earth would have been dust-dry.) 
Remember! WATER FIRST, then apply. As with the shells, lay the twice-ground bark an inch thick in some places; skip it altogether in others. Certain succulent plants want to be dry; mulch will likely rot their roots. Know where NOT to add any blanket
Mulching always enhances. 
Flowerbeds, especially if you give them a crisp edge, will look really good, and so will you.

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