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Common Mulching Mistakes

Updated on June 1, 2016
The Dirt Farmer profile image

Jill volunteers at community gardens & learns about gardening through the MD Master Gardening Program & MD Master Naturalist Program.

Want a healthier yard? Stop the mulch madness! Use mulch wisely.

Note the diseased bark on this sad tree, the victim of a mulch volcano. Sometimes, in desperation, tree roots grow up into the mulch, seeking water.
Note the diseased bark on this sad tree, the victim of a mulch volcano. Sometimes, in desperation, tree roots grow up into the mulch, seeking water. | Source

What's a drip line?

When it rains, water drips off the tips of the outermost limbs of trees. Imagine drawing around the tree right below those tips. That's the drip line. Most of a tree's small roots are located there rather than at the base of the trunk.

Mulch Volcanoes

In order to grow, trees need oxygen as well as nutrients, water and light. What they don't need are suffocating piles of shredded bark at their base.

Mulch volcanoes deprive roots of air, prevent trees from getting the water they need, provide a haven for insects and pests, and encourage disease.

So why do people pile mulch around their trees year and year, creating mulch volcanoes? Perhaps they like the way a giant cone of mulch looks. Or maybe they see the volcanoes as a way to protect tree trunks from weed eater damage.

Whatever the reason, mulch volcanoes are a bad idea. A spread of one to three inches of mulch, however, is a great way to promote tree health.

Mulch should extend out to the tree's drip line. Not only will that protect the trunk from mower and trimmer damage, but it will also eliminate the tree's competition with turf for moisture and nutrients. And it will look good--far better than a mulch volcano surrounding a sick tree.

Best of all, a two to three-inch layer of mulch that extends to the drip line will help rather than hinder the tree's growth, well being and longevity.

Ah, that's better! A layer of shredded bark two to three inches deep is just right.
Ah, that's better! A layer of shredded bark two to three inches deep is just right. | Source

Top 10 Reasons to Mulch

  1. Mulch helps soil retain moisture.
  2. Mulch suppresses weeds, especially when used in conjunction with landscaping fabric, black plastic sheeting or newspaper sheets.
  3. Mulch can be aesthetically pleasing, making flowerbeds, pathways, landscaping islands, sidewalk edges and other areas of the garden look neater.
  4. Mulch helps soil maintain an even temperature.
  5. Mulch helps protect plants from cold temperatures and ice damage in winter.
  6. Organic mulches like grass clippings, shredded leaves, pine needles and shredded bark add nutrients to the soil, improving it and increasing its ability to hold moisture and support germinating seeds.
  7. Mulch can slow down water run-off, diminishing the amount of fertilizer, dirt and debris that pollutes waterways.
  8. Mulch slows down erosion.
  9. Because mulch creates space between trees and turf, it reduces damage from weed eaters and lawnmowers.
  10. Organic mulch reduces soil compaction.

Too-Thick Layers

Depending upon their type, loose mulches should be applied in layers one to three inches thick.

Applying almost any mulch too thickly can result in the same problems that occur when plants are "volcanoed."

One-Inch Layers

Lava rock, river rock, stones, gravel and sawdust (aged one year, minimum) should be applied in one-inch thick layers.

One to Two-Inch Layers

Spread compost and grass clippings in layers of one to two inches.

One to Three-Inch Layers

Wood chips (aged one year, minimum) are best applied in layers from one to three inches thick.

Two to Three-Inch Layers

Shredded leaves, pine needles and shredded bark work best if applied in layers two to three inches thick.

Natural Hickory Sawdust (5 LB)
Natural Hickory Sawdust (5 LB)

Old sawdust is excellent mulch for blueberries & other acid lovers.

 

The Wrong Mulch

The best mulch around tomato plants? Red or silver plastic sheeting, compost, or nothing at all.
The best mulch around tomato plants? Red or silver plastic sheeting, compost, or nothing at all. | Source
TYPES OF MULCH
grass clippings
gravel, river rocks, lava rock
compost
sawdust
straw
pine needles
shredded tires
shredded leaves
plastic sheeting
landscape fabric
cocoa hulls
wood chips

Are you using the right type of mulch?

All mulch isn't the same. Some works best for certain plants.

Like sawdust and wood chips, shredded bark is a poor choice for an herb garden and will cause plants to wilt. Neither should it be used in a vegetable garden.

Garden Accessory Mulch SRM Red 4 Feet Wide x 100 Feet Long by David's Garden Seeds
Garden Accessory Mulch SRM Red 4 Feet Wide x 100 Feet Long by David's Garden Seeds

Plastic mulch is a good choice for tomatoes & bell peppers.

 

Red, silver and/or black plastic mulch are among the best mulches for vegetables, as is a one-inch dressing of compost, particularly around heavy feeders like tomatoes.

Blueberry bushes, azaleas and other plants that grow best in acidic soil benefit from mulches like pine bark and pine needles.

Which Mulch is Best for Your Plants?

Plant
Best Mulch
Worst Mulch
Blueberries
sawdust, compost, pine needles and/or bark
mushroom compost (has high pH)
Herbs
organic matter and/or white gravel
sawdust or wood chips
Small fruits, such as strawberries & grapes
straw, sawdust, shredded leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, compost
 
Azaleas & rhododendrons
pine needles and/or bark
mushroom compost
Tomatoes & peppers
red plastic, organic matter
wood chips, shredded bark
Not all mulches are alike. Be sure to choose the best mulch for your specific plants.

Mulching Everything

Mulch really is great. It protects plants, suppresses weeds, conserves moisture and more.

But that doesn't mean gardeners should use the same mulch (such as shredded bark) throughout their landscape.

The Best Time to Mulch

It's best to mulch when the ground is damp. Perennial herbaceous plants (plants that die down in winter & come back up in spring) should be mulched in late fall to protect them from the freezes & thaws of winter.

Not only should gardeners avoid using the same mulch throughout their landscape, but they should also consider leaving some soil either lightly mulched or completely free of mulch in order to provide a home for ground-nesting bees, which pollinate fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Brush away mulch from emerging bulbs for healthy, colorful spring plants.
Brush away mulch from emerging bulbs for healthy, colorful spring plants. | Source

Old Mulch

When spring arrives, mulch that was used to protect plants over the winter should be removed.

Mulch on Bulbs

Mulch on spring bulbs like daffodils, hyacinths, crocus and tulips should be brushed off in early spring after danger of freezing has past.

If mulch is left on bulbs, their new shoots may be pale or even colorless. They may also break.

Mulch on Perennials

Likewise, brush mulch away from perennial plants. Mulch that's piled heavily on their crowns could lead to rot.

If voles are a problem, avoid mulching the crowns entirely, especially on small fruits like blueberries and blackberries.

What type of mulch do you use?

See results

Dirty Mulch

Pest-free mulch that does not stink is the best kind to use. Mulch that has a chemical smell (such as sawdust and/or wood chips that have not been aged) should be avoided.

Also, mulch that's teeming with ants or other insects should not be used, particularly if it will be applied around foundation plants or other plants near homes.

Source

About the Author

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.

© 2012 Jill Spencer

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks, W1totalk! Lately, I've been trying to "think outside the bark" a bit more in my mulching for variety's sake. Nice to hear from you! --Jill

    • W1totalk profile image

      W1totalk 4 years ago

      Mulch and the various ways in which mulch can be used is extremely important. Great article.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Glad to hear from you, seh1101. Good mantra! Thanks for the link. --Jill

    • seh1101 profile image

      Sean Hemmer 4 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Great hub! I see the mulch volcanoes way too often. I use my own goofy memory device of "Do not pile it - Donut it!" referring to the shallow ring around the tree.

      Up vote, and I linked it to the mulch section of my Soil Preparation hub.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey, daisyjae! So happy the hub was useful to you. Spread the word: Just say NO to mulch volcanoes. All the best, Jill

    • daisyjae profile image

      daisyjae 5 years ago from Canada

      I have seen so many people do the mulch volcano, I thought it was a good thing! Glad I read this hub before I did that to my own trees.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey, savingkathy! Glad the info was of use to you--and that I found another mulch-volcano hater! Take it easy, Jill

    • savingkathy profile image

      Kathy Sima 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I found this hub to be very interesting and informative. I appreciate you sharing all of your tips and knowledge about the different kinds of mulch and how they are best used. I don't like the look of mulch vocanoes around trees - I was glad to hear there's a good reason to avoid them, other than aesthetics! Voted up and useful.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the vote, moonlake. Glad you found the info useful! --Jill

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      We mulch but never in our vegetable garden. Just around flowers and trees. Your hub has lots of good information. Voted Up

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks for commenting, Peggy W! For a couple of years, we used red plastic mulch around our toms and peppers, but ... this year, like you, nothing at all. It was just easier--and I like easy! Glad you stopped by. Take care, Jill

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      We use pine bark mulch around our shrubs that like acid like our azaleas, etc. I learned the hard way not to use the same mulch in the small garden area. Now I only use compost or leave it bare. I'm having better results. So...as you say...not all mulch is the same. No tree volcanoes in our yard! Voted up and SHARING.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey Lynn3! I know what you mean. Putting on layer after layer of mulch--it's sort of like applying more makeup instead of washing your face. Yew!

    • Lynn3 profile image

      Lynn3 5 years ago from USA

      Good information. I have to laugh at the mulch madness I see around my area-I just don't undrestand the thoughts behind it.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Always great to hear from you, Derdriu. I'm enjoying your recent foray into cooking hubs. I just love to read cookbooks & and enjoyed your savory macaroni & cheese cupcake recipe especially, although I'll probably try making the potato salad first. Take care, Jill

    • profile image

      Derdriu 5 years ago

      The Dirt Farmer, What an elucidating, enjoyable, excellent write-up on the life and times of mulch! In particular, you do a great job of differentiating between the various organic and non-organic mulches. Also, I like how you break the two groups down further into plant-group specific categories. Additionally, I appreciate the tips about caring for mulches and the plants they're supposed to protect as well as the top 10 reasons for mulching according to proper procedure.

      Voted up + all!

      Respectfully, and with many thanks for sharing your gardening genius, Derdriu

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey, Maren Morgan M-T! Always glad to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for reading! --Jill

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Good advice here!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hi, bac2basics! Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by! --The Dirt Farmer

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 5 years ago from Spain

      What an interesting and informative article. Thanks

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      @ rebeccamealey--You're so lucky! Pine needles are such an attractive mulch--or maybe it's just that I love that rustic look. Glad you stopped by. Take care, Jill

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hello, bythewhat. (I love your name!) Glad you stopped by. Thanks for commenting.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      What an informative Hub on mulching. You seemed to have covered everything! Pine needles are my favorite mulch, it is so plentiful here!

    • bythewhat profile image

      bythewhat 5 years ago from USA

      Nice tips! Its nice reading articals about something that I share an interest in.

      Thanks

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks, RTalloni. I tried to be organized so the hub would be user-friendly and learned a lot while doing the research. Thanks for commenting. Take care, Jill

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      This is a super guide to mulching. It will definitely help people avoid mulching mistakes!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      @ leahlefler-- Your neighborhood too? That's what inspired me to write this hub--all the buried trees in our neck of the woods. So sad! Thanks for reading! --Jill

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hey, cheapstuff. I agree: gardening's great! Glad you stopped by. --Jill

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Hi Robie! Thanks for commenting. Grass clippings are fine, so long as you don't use too much, as they are high in nitrogen and may result in leafy tomato plants with little fruit. Also, if your lawn in chemically treated, I would not use the grass clippings from it on any vegetable or fruit crop you intend to ingest. Take care, Jill

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      What a fantastic hub! I love the breakdown of which mulch is best for various plants. We use mulch to help stop the spread of weeds and to give the emerging plants a bit of a "blanket" in the spring, when the air temperature can fluctuate wildly. I shudder when I see those mulch volcanoes around the trees in our local parks. Sometimes they pile the mulch 2 feet high around the trunks of our local trees!

    • cheapstuff profile image

      cheapstuff 5 years ago from California

      This is amazing. A very extensive guide you have put together about mulching. Plants are one of the best hobbies imo, very tranquil and cheap if you do it right.

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Great tips, and right on mulching season!

      I herd of people mulching tomatoes with grass clippings from mowing the lawn, I wonder what's your take on that?

      Voted up and useful.

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