, Salem, MA


November 8, 2013

Do cocoa bean shells make good garden mulch?

Q: A neighbor has done her mulching with the shells of cocoa beans this year. I’ve never seen it before. The shells are very rough, even though they are shredded for mulch. It’s still the husk of the cocoa bean, something like chocolate. Will it hurt pets or even squirrels?

A: Cocoa is indeed part of the cocoa plant, which is a toxic plant. So, besides being toxic, cocoa would be very damaging to the intestines and could cause bleeding and vomiting if eaten. The chance of the mulch causing physical harm is minimal, however. A 50-pound dog would have to eat more than 5 ounces of the mulch to cause seizures and rapid heart rate. But is it worth the chance? I don’t think so. There are many substitute mulches you can use.

Caution: a lot is being said about mulch being a fire hazard. Be safe and rake the mulch several feet away from buildings, and wet the mulch thoroughly during dry weather.

Q: I’m planning to plant about a hundred new bulbs this fall. Is there a simpler way to plant than a shovel — that hurts my back. The soil I’m planting in is sort of hard but not rocky, with a few large rocks.

A: You need something to dig the planting holes. If there are only a few bulbs to plant, use a trowel or a bulb digger. Bulb diggers are available in short or long-handled varieties. The longer-handled one is better for use in very firm, rocky or rooty dirt. A shovel will work, too.

But what if you have a lot of bulbs? You need to invest about $20 in a bulb augur or drill. It’s a very large drill bit, which fits in your electric or battery-powered hand drill and drills all the holes in the soil for your bulbs. They’re not terribly expensive, and if you can share the tool with a neighbor, the cost is even less. It’s a tool you won’t use very often, but when you do use it, you’ll really appreciate it. You will use this simple tool now to drill the holes in the earth for each bulb. And you can use it again in the spring to plant a mass of smaller annuals along a garden border.

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