Area Landscapers Offer The Do's And Don'ts Of Mulching In Autumn

Published: November 11, 2017 at 12:00 am


Piling mulch around the base of a tree can lead to problems for the tree's root system and trunk, professionals in the landscaping business say.
Piling mulch around the base of a tree can lead to problems for the tree's root system and trunk, professionals in the landscaping business say.
While spring may be a busier time than fall for beautifying lawns and preparing gardens, including with mulching, there are advantages to using these decorative, all the while useful, woodchips during the chilly fall months - when done properly, that is.

Eugene Reelick, owner of Hollandia Nurseries, notes that mulching at this time of year is especially beneficial for tender perennial plants such as roses.

"It's a good time to mulch now or as soon as the weather gets colder. It prevents the freeze [and] thaw, freeze [and] thaw of the ground below it. It's like an insulation for the roots of the plant," Mr Reelick said.

Waiting for the first few frosts of the season is also a good idea, Mr Reelick notes, because it allows time for small rodents to build nests elsewhere. Mulching too early in the fall creates a nice place for mice and other small critters to build a home and they will chew on bark, and damage trees, he added.

Certain types of mulch are better than others, Mr Reelick said.

Before you consider making what you think is good use of fresh woodchips from that trunk that came crashing down in the backyard, think again.

"It's the worst you can put on your plants. It's full of ammonia, which dilutes natural nitrogen in the soil," Mr Reelick said of fresh woodchips, adding that this mulch may also contain artillery fungus.

Mr Reelick also disapproves of cedar mulch because it mats and prevents oxygen from getting to the soil, not to mention turns silver in color. Spruce, pine, and hemlock mulches are best, because they break down, he said.

Hardwood mulches, including those they are dyed, are to be avoided since there is no telling what type of wood they are, and sometimes are made from pallets, Mr Reelick said.

"Who knows what it's made up of," he warned.

Mulch can protect plants throughout the winter, but Mr Reelick advises that this does not mean you are set for the following gardening season.

"[Mulch] has to be taken off in the spring," said Mr Reelick, adding that roots need a chance to dry out.

Newtown's Barbara O'Connor, who has worked at the wholesale nursery Planters' Choice on Huntingtown Road for 42 years, also emphasizes the importance of a natural mulch that is not painted and can break down.

"It decomposes. It adds to the soil," Ms O'Connor said.

Mulch should be put around plants in a thin layer.

"It helps keep the weeds down, it helps hold moisture in," and enhances the look of landscaping, Ms O'Connor said.

Piling mulch is a bad idea, and something Ms O'Connor refers to as "volcano mulching" can be very problematic, she added.

"If it is planted up around the trunk it keeps the bark soft, and possibly allows for insect and disease to penetrate the bark," Ms O'Connor said. Volcano mulching is also bad because it creates a place for water to pool around the base of a plant.

"When water freezes, it expands and it will cut into the bark or stem of the plant," Mr Reelick said.

Mr Reelick said "volcano" mulching may be okay in the hot, dry summer months, but that roots need to be allowed to dry out, and other times of the year this system of piling up mulch can lead to too much moisture and keep roots from going deeper into the soil in search of moisture. "You want roots to go deep," Mr Reelick said.

Another thing that is bad about volcano mulching is that, since mulch - if a natural option - breaks down and over time becomes soil, too much will create an abundance around the base of a tree or plant and prevent oxygen from getting to the stem or root zone, he said.

According to a report from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, "First Steps To Healthy Gardening," a subcategory on mulching: "Incorrectly applied mulches can cause many problems: when applied too thick, the mulch impedes water penetration and smothers the roots; when applied too close to the stem, the mulch creates conditions favorable for the development of stem and crown rots."

The report offers the following guidelines for mulching:

"Mulches should be applied approximately one inch from the base of herbaceous plants and 6-12 inches from the base of woody plants; the thickness depends upon the coarseness of the mulch: 1. Fine shredded bark - 1 inch. 2. Coarse shredded bark - 2 inches. 3. Pea gravel - 3 inches. 4. Bark nuggets - 4-6 inches"

Remember, as the temperature drops, it is actually a good time to keep trees, plants, and shrubs protected from the cold with the help of mulch. Just be sure to use the right one, the right way.

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