Mulching is one of the most beneficial practices a homeowner can use for better tree health.
Mulches are materials placed over the soil surface to maintain moisture and improve soil conditions. Mulching is one of the most beneficial acts a homeowner can do for the health of a tree. However, improper mulching materials and practices may have little, or even negative, impact on the trees in your landscape.
Benefits of Proper Mulching
• Helps reduce soil moisture loss through evaporation
• Helps control weed germination and growth
• Insulates soil, protecting roots from extreme summer and winter temperatures
• Can improve soil biology, aeration, structure (aggregation of soil particles), and drainage over time
• Can improve soil fertility as certain mulch types decompose
• Inhibits certain plant diseases
• Reduces the likelihood of tree damage from "weed whackers" or the dreaded "lawn mower blight"
• Gives planting beds a uniform, well-cared-for look
Trees growing in a natural forest environment have their roots anchored in a rich, well-aerated soil full of essential nutrients and soil microorganisms. The soil is blanketed by leaves, organic materials, and living organisms that replenish and recycle nutrients. This environment is optimal for root growth and mineral uptake. Urban landscapes and new developments, however, are typically harsher environments with poor quality soils, reduced organic matter, and large fluctuations in soil temperature and moisture. Applying a 2- to 4-inch (5- to 10-cm) layer of organic mulch can mimic a more natural environment and improve plant health.
Types of Mulch
Mulches are available in many forms. The two major types of mulch are inorganic and organic. Inorganic mulches include various types of stone, lava rock, pulverized rubber, geotextile fabrics, and other materials. Inorganic mulches do not decompose and do not need to be replenished often. On the other hand, they do not improve soil structure, add organic materials, or provide nutrients. For these reasons, most horticulturists and arborists prefer organic mulches.
Organic mulches include wood chips, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, cocoa hulls, leaves, compost mixes, and a variety of other products usually derived from plants. Organic mulches decompose in the landscape at different rates depending on the material, climate, and soil microorganisms present. Those that decompose faster must be replenished more often. Because the decomposition process improves soil quality and fertility, many arborists and other landscape professionals consider that characteristic a positive one, despite the added maintenance.
Not Too Much!
As beneficial as mulch is, too much can be harmful. The generally recommended mulching depth is 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm). Unfortunately, many landscapes are falling victim to a plague of overmulching. "Mulch volcanoes" are excessive piles of mulch materials applied around the base of trees. While organic mulches must be replenished over time, buildup can occur if reapplication outpaces decomposition or if new material is added simply to refresh color. Deep mulch can be effective in suppressing weeds and reducing maintenance, but it often causes additional problems.
Problems Associated with Improper Mulching
• On wet soils, deep mulch can lead to excess moisture in the root zone, which can stress the plant and cause root rot.
• Piling mulch against the trunk or stems of plants can stress stem tissues and may lead to the development of insect and disease problems or stem girdling roots.
• Some mulches, especially those containing fresh grass clippings, can affect soil pH and may eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies or toxic buildups.
• Mulch piled high against the trunks of young trees may create habitats for rodents that chew the bark and can girdle the trees.
• Thick blankets of fine mulch can become matted and may reduce the penetration of water and air.
• Anaerobic "sour" mulch may give off pungent odors, and the alcohols and organic acids that build up may be toxic to young plants.
The choice of mulch and the method of application can be important to the health of landscape plants. The following are some guidelines to use when applying mulch:
• Determine whether soil drainage is adequate and if there are plants that may be affected by the choice of mulch. Most commonly available mulches work well in most landscapes. Some plants may benefit from the use of slightly acidifying mulch, such as pine bark.
• For well-drained sites, apply a 2- to 4-inch (5- to 10-cm) layer of mulch (less if poorly drained). Coarse mulches can be applied slightly deeper without harm. Place mulch out to the edge of a tree’s crown or beyond. Remember, if a tree had a say in the matter, its entire root system (which usually extends well beyond the drip line) would be mulched.
• If mulch is already present, check the depth. If sufficient mulch is present, break up any matted layers and refresh the appearance with a rake. Some landscape maintenance companies spray mulch with a water-soluble, vegetable-based dye to add color to faded material.
• If mulch is piled against the stems or tree trunks, pull it back several inches/centimeters so that the base of the trunk is exposed. Composted wood chips can make good mulch, especially when they include some bark and leaves. Fresh wood chips also may be used around established trees and shrubs. Avoid using fine, non-composted wood chips, as soil nitrogen may be taken up by the roots as the wood chips decompose.