What’s the proper way to mulch?


Spe­cial to the Whig

Mulching ap­pears to be an area of con­fu­sion for many peo­ple. As a pro­fes­sional hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, I can find many more ex­am­ples of how not to mulch than ex­am­ples of a well- mulched tree or gar­den. Let’s first dis­cuss the rea­sons why mulching is ben­e­fi­cial for the plants and en­vi­ron­ment and then how to mulch as well as what types are best to use.

Why mulch? Mulch is ap­plied for sev­eral rea­sons, some of which are for the ben­e­fit of the plant, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­nal So­ci­ety of Ar­bori­cul­ture (ISA). When the area sur­round­ing the base of a plant is cov­ered with mulch so there’s no bare soil, it helps the plant re­tain avail­able mois­ture and better sur­vive dry spells. Mulch will also pro­tect the root sys­tem un­der­ground by in­su­lat­ing the soils from ex­treme sum­mer and win­ter tem­per­a­ture shifts and pro­tects the soil from ero­sion and storm wa­ter run-off.

Mulching can also im­prove the or­ganic con­tent of the soils and, since mulched soils ger­mi­nate less weeds, that means less yard work for you. Mulching will give a pro­tec­tive edge from “mower blight” a harm­ful ef­fect from the lawn­mower man, and weed wack­ers. Abra­sions and cuts to the trunk can be harm­ful and deadly to trees, al­low­ing dis­ease and in­sects to en­ter the wounds. When done prop­erly, mulch helps plants re­tain avail­able mois­ture and better sur­vive dry spells.

Fi­nally, top-dressed plants and gar­dens have great curb ap­peal, like ic­ing on the cake.

How do you mulch? Mulch ap­pli­ca­tions are ben­e­fi­cial when prop­erly ap­plied. Here are some “ground rules” to fol­low:

1. Clean a ring around the tree to an area equal to the out­side drip edge of the plants. As the tree ex­pands in girth and spreads its limbs, so will your mulched area.

2. Proper gar­den plan­ning in­cludes plan­ning enough lay­ers of plants to fill in un­der trees. The spac­ing at plant­ing time should also take into ac­count the size of plants at ma­tu­rity. You will use the largest quan­tity of mulch the first year but less in sub­se­quent years as the plants fill in and likely

touch each other. This is the ideal sit­u­a­tion as weeds will not grow, soil will be well held by in­ter­con­nect­ing root sys­tems and you will find lit­tle open space that re­quires mulch.

3. Early spring, as the peren­nial and herba­ceous break ground, is a good time to re­assess your gar­den for mulch needs. It is eas­ier at this time to ap­ply mulch if needed with­out break­ing off ten­der new fo­liage.

4. Al­ways ap­ply a two to four inch dress­ing of mulch to an area.

5. Do not cover the root col­lar of a plant. If you are not fa­mil­iar with plant phys­i­ol­ogy, you can google plant parts on the in­ter­net to iden­tify the root col­lar. You will learn to see this ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent tis­sue ring at base of your plants and

make sure to not bury it un­der mulch.

6. Avoid the tree vol­ca­noes that you fre­quently see around town. These are not mulched prop­erly and this will con­trib­ute to the death of the plant over time as a buried root col­lar al­lows for ex­cess mois­ture to build up, in­sects and dis­ease to ac­cess the trunk and you to waste your valu­able land­scape in­vest­ment.

7. When re-top dress­ing with mulch in sub­se­quent years, if the mulch has not de­te­ri­o­rated, re­move old mulch and re­cy­cle to another gar­den area be­fore adding more so that you re­main at the proper level of two to four inches.

What are the best mulching me­dias? Now that you know the why and how, let’s dis­cuss what mulching medi­ums to use. There are many mulching medi­ums avail­able at re­tail gar­den cen­ters or you can choose to re­cy­cle yard waste such as dried grass clip­pings, pine nee­dles, shred­ded leaves or aged wood chips. The choice is yours as to whether you pur­chase mulch or get cre­ative.

There are sev­eral good rea­sons not to use shred­ded tire chunks or stone for mulch. Both of these choices add heat to the plant ma­te­rial, in­creas­ing soil tem­per­a­ture be­yond the limit of the plants’ tol­er­ance. These two me­dias will never biode­grade or add or­ganic con­tent to your soil, which is an im­por­tant ben­e­fit of or­ganic mulches. I feel some of the best op­tions to use would be: • Re­cy­cling ma­te­ri­als from your yard, prop­erly aged • Pur­chas­ing a hard­wood shred­ded mulch with­out dye. The dyes de­lay the nat­u­ral de­grad­ing of the mulch, which hin­ders the ad­di­tion of or­ganic con­tent that is so im­por­tant to healthy soil. • Buy­ing mulch with Preen, an ad­di­tive that de­creases the chance of weed seeds from ger­mi­na­tion, mean­ing you’ll have less weed­ing to do. Each week, a Ce­cil County Master Gar­dener will write in to share their gar­den­ing ex­pe­ri­ences or an­swer a gar­den­ing ques­tion. To sub­mit ques­tions to the Master Gar­dener, send them to ce­cil­mas­ter­gar­dener@ gmail.com.



Some of the best mulch medi­ums can be bought at re­tail gar­den cen­ters or you can choose to re­cy­cle yard waste.

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