For as long as trees have grown in forests, leaves and needles have fallen to the ground, matted together, and formed a natural protective layer over the soil. This protective layer is beneficial for trees. You can do something similar for your landscape trees by mulching around them.
 
Mulching can help trees by:
 
providing a root environment that is cooler and contains more moisture than the surrounding soil
   
reducing competition from surrounding weeds and turf
 
providing some food for the tree as it decomposes into the soil
 
preventing mechanical damage by keeping machines such as lawnmowers away from the tree’s base
 
reducing soil erosion around the tree and contributing to healthier soil structure
 
In one study comparing various mulch materials with bare soil, soil moisture percentages in mulched plots were approximately twice as high, summer soil temperatures were reduced by 8 to 13 degrees, and the average amount of time required to remove weeds was reduced by two-thirds.
 
When and How to Mulch
 
To get the best results from your mulch, layer it two to four inches and cover the entire root system, which may be two or three times the diameter of the branch spread of the tree. If you cannot mulch the entire area, try to mulch as much of the area under the drip line of the tree as possible. Do not cover the actual trunk of the tree with mulch. Leave a one or two inch space to avoid overly moist bark conditions that cause trunk decay. More than five inches of mulch can cause a problem for your tree, as it could inhibit gas exchange.

Before covering an area with mulch, bring the site to its desired grade. Mulches applied for winter protection should be laid down in late fall, once the soil has cooled but before it has frozen. Summer mulches are normally applied in mid-spring, once the soil has warmed enough for active root growth.
 
Mulches that are left around trees and shrubs year-round should be pulled away from the trunks in the fall to allow proper hardening of the bark.
 
Thoroughly cover an area to a uniform depth to be most effective. Low or bare spots are prone to weed problems. Uneven mulch does not properly insulate the soil.
 
Although there is no supermulch, knowledge of the characteristics and uses of different mulches allows a gardener or landscaper to use mulches to benefit the entire landscape.
 
Characteristics of a Good Mulch

There are many different natural and synthetic mulches available. Mulches can be made or purchased.

The ideal mulch is:
   
Economical.
   
Readily available.
 
Easy to apply and remove.
 
Stays in place.
 
Supplies organic matter to the soil.
 
Free of noxious weeds, insects, and diseases.
Correct Mulching Technique
Poor Mulching Technique
 
It also suppresses weeds, conserves soil and water, and moderates soil temperatures. Does such a supermulch exist? Not really. Consider:
 
Black plastic, which warms the soil in spring, also heats the soil in summer, possibly to levels that are lethal to plants.
   
Straw, shredded leaves, pine needles, and wood chips are effective insulating blankets in winter, but they slow soil warming if left on in the spring.
 
Although black plastic effectively prevents the evaporation of water from the soil, it also blocks the entrance of water into the soil.
 
Mineral or synthetic mulches do not contribute beneficial organic matter to the soil, but some organic mulches may contribute weed seeds and diseases to a site.
 
 
Selecting the Right Mulch
 
There is not one perfect mulch. But understanding the attributes of different materials can help you choose the best mulch for a particular location. The first choice to make is whether a situation calls for a summer or a winter mulch.
 
Winter mulches are used primarily as insulation for woody plants, laid down in late fall to keep the soil evenly cool throughout the winter. Straw, shredded leaves, and pine needles are all effective winter mulches.
 
Summer or growing mulches are normally applied after the soil begins to warm in the spring. The primary roles of summer mulches are to warm the soil, reduce weed growth, and retain soil moisture.
 
Another consideration is choosing the right mulch for the location:
 
Straw is commonly used in vegetable gardens or small fruit plantings.
   
Wood chips, bark chunks, and pine needles are appropriate mulches for shrub beds or around trees.
 
Fine mulches, such as bark granules, wood shavings, cocoa shells, and buckwheat hulls, are attractive when used in annual or perennial beds.
 
Fine gravel or crushed stone mulches look most natural when used in rock gardens.
 
Other considerations in selecting mulch are cost and availability. Although cocoa hulls and buckwheat hulls make very attractive mulches, they may only be sold in regions where these commodities are processed. Even when available, these mulches are normally more expensive than wood chips or bark products. On the other hand, some municipalities stockpile wood chips from tree-trimming work and offer the chips free to anyone willing to haul them away.
 
Types of Mulch
 
Bark mulches
 
Commercial bark mulches are generally the by-products of milled fir, Douglas fir, pine, redwood, and spruce logs. Three grade standards have been adopted for landscape use based on particle size:
   
Bark chunks (decorative bark)
   
Bark granules (soil conditioner)
 
Shredded bark.
 
Some bark mulches may be toxic to young plants, particularly if the bark is fresh or if it has been improperly stockpiled. Toxins can be leached from bark by heavy waterings or can be evaporated by thorough aeration.
Bark mulches are most likely to cause damage to plants if the mulch particles are small, if the mulch is too deep, or if high proportions of plant roots are in the surface layer of the soil.
 
If you are concerned about the toxicity of fresh chips, spread them thinly under young plants. Bagged bark mulch products have usually been allowed to weather for long periods of time to remove any toxins and are least likely to harm plants.
 
Among the most desirable characteristics of bark mulches are their excellent resistance to compaction and blowing in the wind, their attractiveness, and their availability.
 
Wood chips
 
Wood chips are derived from many different hardwood and softwood species. They are often available from municipalities or utility companies involved in pruning or clearing trees.
 
In general, wood chip mulches have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio. This means that in the process of decomposing they may temporarily reduce the supply of soil nitrogen for plant uptake. You can compensate for this loss by adding nitrogen fertilizer to mulched plants.

Compared with bark mulches, wood chips tend to lose more of their decorative appearance over time, weathering to a gray or silvery gray color. Because of this, people often renew wood chip mulches each year by adding an additional 3 to 4 inches of chips. This over-mulching not only wastes mulch but can suffocate the roots of shallow-rooted species and cause cankers to develop around the bases of susceptible trees and shrubs. A better practice is to renew mulches every 2 to 3 years and churn up the existing mulch before adding a light renewal layer
 
Sawdust
 
Sawdust is often recommended for blueberries, rhododendrons, and other acid-loving evergreens. Sawdust mulch has an acidifying effect on the soil as it decomposes, and like wood chips, it can rob the soil of nitrogen.

In addition, sawdust layers are characterized by severe compaction and decomposition over a single growing season. Thus, it is necessary to fluff up and renew sawdust mulch each spring.
 
Hulls of cocoa, buckwheat, cottonseed
 
For a more decorative mulch, you can use hulls that are the processing by-products of various crops. These materials help impart a delicate, richly textured appearance. As such, they are especially useful around highly visible shrub borders, flower beds, and rose gardens.

Processed hull mulches are more expensive than other mulches. They also are prone to blowing in strong winds and washing out after heavy rains. Cocoa hulls, which have a strong chocolate aroma, also have a high potassium content and may be toxic to some plants.
 
Straw
 
Straw from wheat, timothy, oats, rye, or barley is widely available and comparatively inexpensive. It is used as a winter mulch around tree or shrub roots and as a summer mulch in vegetable gardens and strawberry plantings.

Straw has some potential problems that you should be aware of before using it. Straw:
 
is highly flammable.
   
contains grain seeds that can germinate.
 
lowers the soil nitrogen supply as it decomposes.
   
must be renewed annually.
 
is easily blown by wind.
   
lacks the attractiveness of other mulches.
 
On the other hand, it is cheap and effectively suppresses weeds and reduces soil water losses. As a winter mulch, it protects tender roots from cold temperature injury.
 
Pine Needles
 
Pine needles have a pleasing appearance and acidify the soil around acid-loving plants. They are also available in different colors, created with environmentally safe dyes that greatly slow down the pine needles’ decomposition, compared to uncolored pine needles or conventional wood chips.

Pine needles decompose slowly, are resistant to compaction, and are easy to work with. They provide excellent protection around newly set or tender ornamental plants. If left on year-round, pine needles should be renewed annually.
 
 
Shredded leaves
 
Leaves that have been shredded with a composting mower are sometimes used as a summer mulch. If not shredded finely enough, however, the leaves tend to mat together and form a barrier that blocks free water and oxygen movement into the soil.

For best results, allow leaves to partially rot before using them as a mulch. They will finish decomposing in place, contributing humus, nitrogen, and other nutrients to the soil.
 
 
Crushed stone, gravel, volcanic rock
 
Mineral mulches offer some advantages over the organic materials described thus far. They are not blown about by wind, they do not harbor weed seeds or diseases, and they do not rob the soil of nitrogen.

Mineral mulches are used in shrub beds, driveways, walkways, and in steps. Depending on the material used, they can be fine textured or coarse.

Crushed stone and gravel are appropriate mulches for rock gardens. Some mineral mulches can be colored to blend in with features of the home, patio, or landscape.
 
A couple words of caution: mineral mulch particles can work free of beds and be thrown by rotary lawn mowers, potentially causing injury. Unless underlaid with a synthetic fabric or plastic mulch, they migrate down in soils over time.

Limestone chips raise the pH of the soil and thus should not be used around acid-loving plants.
 
Black plastic
 
The best features of black plastic, and the reasons for its continued popularity, are its abilities to suppress weed growth and retain soil moisture. It is commonly used in vegetable and small fruit plantings and is often applied as a layer under wood, bark, or mineral chips.

Unfortunately, although black plastic prevents water from exiting the soil, it also prevents water from entering the soil. This is acceptable in crop plantings, where rows covered with black plastic are normally alternated with rows of bare ground, but it is a problem in wide landscape beds.
 
 
Geotextiles (or Landscape Fabrics)
 
A geotextile is a fabric mat that allows water to drain through it. It supports material placed on top of it and makes removal of that material easier. These woven and nonwoven fabrics of polypropylene or polyester are an improvement over traditional black plastic. They not only block weed growth and reduce surface evaporation but also allow water, fertilizer, and oxygen to penetrate easily through to the soil.

Used alone as mulches, geotextiles can be degraded by the ultraviolet rays of the sun. They are used more frequently as mulch underliners, enhancing the weed-suppressing ability of the mulch while separating the mulch and soil.
 
Nonwoven polyester fabrics generally last longer and have greater resistance to chemical and temperature degradation than do polypropylene materials. Polyester mulches, however, are usually more expensive.

Polypropylene fabrics are manufactured by either weaving fibers together or bonding short or continuously spun fibers together. The nonwoven fabrics are bonded by needle punching, melting with chemicals or heat, gluing, or molding.

With so many different geotextiles on the market, it can be difficult to choose the right fabric.
 
Some factors to consider are:
   
Ease of applying the material to the landscape.
 
Ease with which water penetrates.
   
Effectiveness of the material in suppressing weed growth.
 
Relative cost.
   
Before a geotextile is applied, the area to be mulched should be cleared of all weeds. Most manufacturers direct the applicator to lay down the fabric and cut slits where plants are to be installed.
 
Landscapers who have worked with geotextiles, however, have found that application is easiest when shrubs are planted in weed-free soil first. Then the fabric is laid on top and slits are cut that just allow the fabric to be worked around the base of each plant.
   
The final step is to apply a 1- to 3-inch layer of mulch on top of the geotextile to improve appearance, reduce wear, and decrease deterioration by the sun's rays.

Although geotextiles are a great advance in mulching technology, they don't prevent all weed growth.
 
Weeds that germinate and grow in a bark or wood chip top mulch can grow right through the fabric. Especially troublesome weeds are grass or grass-like species such as nutsedge and bermuda grass. To maintain a bed mulched with a geotextile effectively, remove weeds when you see them.
 
To learn more about mulching, click here.




About Greening Milwaukee | Adopt-a-Tree Initiative | Mayor's Landscape Awards | Greening Milwaukee's Schools
Greening Milwaukee Resources | Tree Gift Program | Volunteer Opportunities | Investment | Contact Us