Dawn Seymour is a garden coach, garden designer, freelance photographer, and freelance gardener in the Central Ohio area. Dawn has instructed, installed, and inspired gardens in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and North Carolina for almost 20 years.

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Mulch Madness
by Dawn Seymour    

May is Mulch Madness month! Each neighborhood has a house that everyone watches for the signal to begin spring cleanup. When they have completed their spring cleanup and put a fresh layer of mulch in their yard, the rest of the neighbors get busy to do the same. When it comes to mulching, I have a little bit of OCD. There is a way that looks nice and a way that looks great. So let me give you some pointers to help you along the way. 

The Prime Purpose     

Mulch has multiple purposes in the garden. First, it benefits the plants as it breaks down. Second, it prevents or retards weed growth when it is applied at the correct depth. Third, it retains moisture, conserves resources and labor. Lastly, it just plain looks nice. 

Proper cleanup makes a tidy end result.

Clean lines make or break the finished project. Mulch spilling out on the sidewalk or sloppy lines and clumps along the foundation have a huge impact on a well done mulching job.

Proper Preparation     

When you prepare a bed for mulching, you need to clean out any dead plants or piles of dead leaves and prune back any shrubs that may need it before mulching and apply a pre-emergent for weed seeds from the previous year that are lying in wait for perfect germination conditions. Next, edge your beds and remove the edgings prior to mulching. This way the grass and weeds you are edging back out of the beds will not take root and grow through your mulch. Now, some landscape professionals do not agree with removing all the debris and the edgings from the beds but they are looking at cutting down labor costs and processing as many properties as they can in a given day or week. I like when a mulched bed has the mulch laying nice and smooth and there are clean edges, no debris poking through and the lines against the building are straight. When putting the mulch in the back of the beds and behind shrubs, etc., it can be a tight spot and perhaps the mulch gets thrown back there just so it covers the area. It gives a much cleaner line when you are finished putting the mulch against the building, if you take a broom and sweep any mulch off the siding or brick work so that the line is straight and not sloppy. Take the moment, clean it up and then proceed to mulching the rest of the way to the edge of the bed. 

A tree buried under 10 inches of mulch will send up suckers and feeder roots to try and get oxgen and water. 

Here is a good example of the end result of a tree that suffocated under too much mulch. (Note the exposed roots)

Tidy Tips

— Mulch that is spilled on sidewalks and grassy areas needs to be raked up, swept off or hosed off to give a clean, finished and professional look to your beds.

— Remember that any shrubs that bloom in the spring get trimmed after they bloom otherwise you will wind up trimming off the blooms before they ever have a chance.

Depth Perception     

Probably one of my biggest pet peeves is a mountain of mulch around the base of a tree. Those of you out there who have a tree with a mountain of mulch around it, go out and pull the mulch back from the trunk until you get to the true base of the tree called the flare. You will see that the mulch is causing the bark to become moist, insects to move in under the bark, fiberous roots to be present above the flare of tree and very possibly the presence of frost cracks in that area due to the moisture retention. The proper depth of the mulch is important for success in lowering your maintenance. General rule of thumb is 3 inches. Get out a ruler or tape measure and take a good look at how deep that is. It applies to plants, open areas, shrubs, and, yes, even trees.     

When you mulch around your trees, don't slant it down away like a pyramid, just level it out flat all the way around so the rain will soak in better and it is more evenly distributed over the feeder roots of the tree. The mulch will act as an inhibitor for weeds.     

Weed block is a good idea if you have pervasive weed issues but mulch applied at the correct depth, with the correct preparation, will work very well and be more beneficial for your garden. The weed block can be a bit of a challenge if it is not installed correctly. There are weed blocks out there that are like plastic bags with holes punched in them and they cause significant plant loss because of moisture and disease issues. The product does not breathe and is usually too close to the base of the plants, causing ill effects. Keeping mulch evenly applied over top of the fabric is equally important so that the fabric is not picked up by the wind or a rake and all ascew. A misconception here is that when there is weed block and a little mulch on top, that there will not be weeds. However, weed seeds blow into your garden beds from fields, neighbors yards, surrounding plants, bird feeders and such, and then germinate in your decomposing mulch or whatever little bit of soil may be lying under the mulch and on top of the weed block. So no matter what, you will still have some level of maintenance involved. 

Stone mulch is fine in the right application.

Too Many Choices?     

You can go on the Internet, type in “mulches” and come up with 2,480,000 hits. There are many stone mulches from lava rock (in varying colors) to river rock to pebbles or marble stone. I have even seen a bed mulched in pink quartz that would glow in the full moonlight. There are hardwood, pine fine, pine nugget, pine needle, eucalyptus, cocoa shell and rubber mulches. Mulch is a personal choice and I think every landscaper has their standby favorite. Mine favorite is triple-ground hardwood mulch. It has great natural ingredients that break down and give nutrients, no chemical dyes and it won't slide off even a steep slope because it knits together nicely to seal moisture underneath and keep weeds at bay. It spreads smoothly, has few large pieces of wood in it and doesn't smell like tires when it warms up in the sun. Colored mulches, which are made from ground up “whatever” wood (like pallets), never bind together very well and they blow all over in the wind getting chunks of mulch in the grass and pavement. 

Wrap Up

So when you get out there and roll up your sleeves, remember to 1) clean as you go, 2) consider the proper depth, 3) choose what is best for your location and needs. Make it a great year in the garden.

Photos courtesy of Dawn Seymour


Posted: 05/20/13   RSS | Print


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Irene A. Seadale - 01/31/2016

Most enjoyable article.  It is always nice to read what others are doing and get some new ideas.  I seem to always end up with straw.  I have plenty from the long-needle pine trees that I have in my yard.  And it smells so wonderful when it is fresh and it can always look neat.

Irene Seadale

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