Top Mulching Mistakes

By Sharon Naylor

July 2, 2012 5 min read

Mulch is a protective layer of organic material placed over the soil in your landscaping. A good layer of mulch retains moisture, reduces soil erosion, provides valuable nutrients for your plants and trees, inhibits weed growth, warms the soil below the ground for root health and provides an attractive, uniform color and texture throughout your landscaping and gardens. It's working to protect and nourish your plants, and it also makes your finished garden look even more beautiful, boosting your gardening investments.

Mulch is a very important element to your gardens and beds, so keep these tips in mind to avoid the top mulching mistakes that can actually harm your plants:

--Applying excessive amounts of mulch. If you pile too thick a layer of mulch in your beds or around your trees, the resulting lack of water reaching your plants' roots can cause your plant to send its feeder roots up toward the surface, which will stress your plant during periods of extreme weather, such as late fall and throughout the winter. Too much mulch can suffocate your plant, since it prevents water and oxygen from reaching the root system. Stick to the industry standard of no more than 3 inches of mulch in your layers. Alternatively, too thin a layer of mulch doesn't deliver the essential protection nor nutrients plants need.

--Improper placement of mulch. Don't pack mulch right up against the stems or trunks of your plants or trees. They need to "breathe," with some space allowed for the plant's crown to be exposed to air. Avoid creating a volcano effect with mulch piled up in a cone shape around the tree, which traps moisture against the bark or stem, encouraging fungus or bacterial growth. A better model is to arrange mulch around the tree like a donut shape, with a space in the middle encircling stems or trunks.

--Using the wrong mulch material. Wood chips are not recommended, since their natural decomposition process uses up valuable nitrogen in the soil that your plants need for their own growth. Untreated wood chips may also attract termites, a danger to your garden or your home. Rocks and stones radiate heat within the plant bed and don't deliver nutrients into the soil. Avoid shredded leaves as well, opting for garden centers' recommended organic mulch brands specific to the region's climate and soil type.

David Brill of The Farm at Green Village says: "Choose from mulches made from quality woods, as well as green moss, peat moss, Spanish moss, Perlite, charcoal and potting bark. Our line of Frey Brothers mulches features varieties including pine bark mini and large nuggets; hardwood; red, black and brown dried cedar; and licorice root. Coast of Maine mulches include seaweed and hemlock." Organic mulches may cost more, but they earn their value in protecting and nourishing your gardens.

--Not knowing where your mulch comes from. If you buy mulch from a non-reputable source, trying to save money, you may wind up with construction and demolition material containing plastic, metals and even a type of arsenic used on treated lumber. Be sure to shop at a reputable garden center and ask their experts about the mulch's origins and contents.

--Not reapplying. All mulches start to decompose as soon as you place them, and storm winds and rains can remove some of your mulch cover. Old mulch can also develop fungus, mold and even a slimy or hard layer that will repel rainfall and starve your plant of water. Old mulch also loses its nutritional delivery, so refresh your mulch beds each season for a fresh, new, nutrition-packed cover. Rake out old mulch and replace with the new. Don't just pile the new on the old.

--Not watering enough. When you water your garden beds and trees, follow your plant's watering need instructions to give it the drink amount it requires and so that water will absorb down through the mulch to reach your plant's roots. A mistake is watering just enough to moisten the mulch layer, which can evaporate.

--Placing a weed barrier beneath the mulch. Avoid spreading plastic beneath your mulch layer thinking you'll prevent weeds. That will just prevent your mulch from spreading its nutrients down through the soil to your plants and encourages rotting. Instead, spread an organic layer of mesh weed inhibiter if you'd like.

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