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How to mulch a tree. Mulching around trees with these lawn mulching tips.

Mulching is one of the best things you can do for your trees – and one of the easier garden chores to tackle. When you add mulch to a tree, you're protecting and promoting the tree's health, along with beautifying your landscape. Take the guesswork out of mulching trees with our back-to-basics guide.

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      What Mulch Does

      In a forest, a tree sinks its roots into soil enriched with organic matter, microbes and vital nutrients. As leaves fall from trees and decompose, they replenish soil, creating a rich, fluffy, well-aerated base ideal for root growth.

      The typical yard doesn't usually offer the same cozy amenities to tree roots. Soils are typically nutrient-depleted, short on organic matter and subject to temperature and moisture extremes. Mulch remedies these problems, along with others.

      A Mulch Layer:

      • Insulates soil and helps moderate temperature swings
      • Slows water evaporation from soil
      • Reduces soil compaction that occurs during hard rains
      • Interferes with weed seed germination and reduces weed growth
      • Makes weeds that do appear easy to pull
      • Keeps fungal spores and other disease organisms from splashing from soil onto the tree
      • Buffers trees from lawn equipment damage
      • Gives planting beds a manicured appearance
      • Protects against soil erosion and water runoff

      Secrets To Mulching

      It's not hard to succeed with mulch. Follow a few simple rules to give your trees the royal treatment.

      When to apply – You can apply mulch any time of year, although it's nice to have it in place before summer heat arrives. In coldest regions, wait until soil warms in spring before applying (or refreshing) mulch.

      Where to apply – Place mulch in a ring that extends outward from the trunk at least 3-6 feet. Some homeowners place mulch at least to the tree's dripline (the edge of the outermost leaves). It's okay to apply the mulch beyond tree's dripline, because roots extend beyond that point. It's also okay to apply it inside the dripline, especially with large, mature trees.Do not pile mulch directly against the tree trunk. Pull it back a few inches from the trunk, creating a doughnut-hole effect that allows air to reach the trunk. Remove existing turf or weeds before applying mulch.

      How deep to apply – A good rule of thumb is to apply mulch 2-3 inches deep. With sandy, fast-draining soils, you may want to apply a layer up to 4 inches deep. On soils that drain slowly, you may only need a 1-2-inch layer.

      How often to apply – Organic mulches, like shredded or ground bark, pine straw, compost, wood chips or cottonseed hulls, break down over time and need replenishing. Check mulch at least annually – twice annually in warmest regions. Refresh mulch as needed, but always check the existing depth before automatically piling on more.

      In cold regions, refresh mulch as needed after the ground freezes to provide some winter protection, especially for newly-planted trees. Learn about other winter care tips for new trees.

      Mulch Gone Wrong

      A few myths persist about mulching trees. Avoid these common pitfalls when mulching your trees.

      • Mound the mulch – Piling mulch into a volcano-shaped mound is frequently done, but it's damaging to the tree because the mulch is too deep.
      • Pile it high – More is not better with mulch. Layers that are thicker than 3 to 4 inches can cause problems for tree roots and also lead to rot, disease or insect issues.
      • Touch the trunk – Mulch heaped directly against the tree provides a hiding place for insects, rodents and diseases, which can attack the tree through the trunk.

      Types of Mulch

      Organic Mulch

      Wood Chips, Nuggets & Bark

      Attractive and commonly used in beds and around trees. When applying around trees, do not allow it to touch the trunk as it is not meant to be covered (invitation for decay and pest that can actually kill it.)  Can be purchased in various colors and textures.

      wood chip mulch

      nugget mulch
      bark mulch







      Pine Needles

      An attractive mulch and if you have your own pine trees it is “no cost”.  They are light so layer them at 3-4 inches to prevent weed germination; just be aware they can be displaced by wind. Be prepared for occasional repositioning after strong winds. They are acidic and can have an impact on the pH of the soil. Commonly used around trees and in beds, they can also be used in vegetable gardens. Some municipalities prohibit their use due to potential fire hazards. Check your local regulations if in doubt.

      pine straw mulch


      Traditionally used in vegetable gardens. It breaks down slower than shredded leaves or grass clippings. One thing to watch out for is using straw with weed seeds in it.  The last thing you need is the straw causing more of a weed problem than it prevented.

      straw mulch

      Grass Clippings

      Normally used in vegetable gardens, layer fresh clippings at ¼-inch thick. This allows it to breakdown before beginning to smell or rot. Dry clippings can be added at thicker layers. Be cautious not to use clippings collected from areas recently treated with a lawn herbicide. Avoid contamination of vegetable plants.

      grass clipping mulch

      Shredded Leaves

      Simply mulch them using your lawn mower and then collect and place them into the garden, bedding area or around trees.  A 2-inch layer will suppress weeds, retain moisture, and insulate the soil from temperature extremes. 

      shredded leaves mulch

      Newspaper or Cardboard

      Can be used as a great way to conserve water and prevent weeds, while recycling at the same time. With newspaper, whole sheets or shredded is just fine. Layer 2-4 sheets between rows and water so they stick to each other and the soil. With cardboard, avoid using paraffinized material which prevents water from penetrating. Moisten the soil first then lay the cardboard along the rows (overlapping approximately 6 inch). With either add a layer of straw, dry grass clippings, or shredded leaves which gives an attractive final touch. Can be used anywhere in the landscape.

      newspaper mulch

      Cocoa Chips

      Can last up to 3 years. It is eco-friendly, unlike peat moss, as harvesting it does not hurt the environment. It also also does not carry disease organisms that could be transmitted to plants. For best results, add about 2 to 3 inches to your beds and around trees once the soil has warmed up.

      cocoa mulch

      Composted Animal Manure

      Should be used as a mulch for trees and shrubs only in late fall or early spring. Mulching in the growing season can produce tender growth that will not harden off before the dormant season. The amount of manure used for mulch should be limited to 1/2- to 1-inch per year.

      composted animal manure mulch

      Inorganic Mulch

      Rock or Crusher Dust

      Almost never needs replacement, making it less expensive and can keep weeds away longer. A great choice for rock and cacti gardens. It will increase soil temperature without compromising plant/soil health. Rocks, however, create alkaline soil and can harm trees. Eventually wind-blown soil collects between rocks creating areas where weeds can grow. If you decide to remove, it must be done manually.

      rock and crusher dust mulch

      Landscape Plastic or Fabric

      Plastic is impermeable thus more difficult for weed roots to penetrate than fabric. Black sheeting deprives weeds of light as well as moisture. It helps warm the soil for early planting. It's commonly used with drip irrigation for growing vegetables to reduce evaporation. Plastic can help control insect pests and promotes earlier maturation with greater yields. A downside for home use is that plastic reduces oxygen to the roots of trees and other landscape plants. Plastic sheeting traps moisture in the soil which can cause tree roots to rot.

      Landscape Fabric is more expensive than plastic, but it breathes, allowing oxygen and moisture to circulate. It allows rain, a sprinkler or hand watering to reach your plants' roots better. It is a better choice for use near trees and shrubs.

      landscape plastic mulch


      Better for insulating plants from heat compared to wood chips and other organic materials. Unlike soil and wood, rubber isn’t attractive for insects to build nests in or gnaw on (especially ants and termites). Since it does not absorb water, it can help prevent fungal growth in plants. Because it is non-porous, water and fertilizer pass through it to the soil. Weeds can’t get through the mulch layer down to the soil. Since it does not decompose it does not give the soil any organic material. It also contains chemical residues which can be harmful to plants. 

      rubber mulch