I knew that I needed to mulch my fruit trees when I first planted them. After you visit any well-tended garden, you will see a circle of mulch spread out around the base of the trees. But what exactly is tree mulch?
Mulch is a protective layer that we put on top of bare soil. Mulching is the process of covering the base of a tree with organic or inorganic materials. This helps to protect the tree and keep the roots moist. There are two main benefits:
- Mulch prevents weeds from sprouting up in the bare soil.
- Mulch helps retain moisture in the soil to help keep trees hydrated.
Mulching does more than just improve the appearance of your landscape. Why just prevent weeds and keep moisture in the soil when a carefully chosen tree mulch can do so much more:
- Some tree mulches can add organic matter and fertility to the soil.
- Some mulches insulate tree roots, keeping them cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
- Some mulches can attract beneficial organisms in the soil that enhance tree health.
- Other mulches repel pests that might damage your fruit trees.
- And amazingly, some mulches can boost your fruit tree’s immune system, helping it build resilience so that they can fight off common fruit tree pests and diseases.
The benefits mentioned below are great for both native and ornamental trees, but they’re even more crucial for fruit trees. Fruit trees are the ones that do the most work in the tree world. Trees have many benefits, including cleaning the air, stabilizing the soil, and moderating the temperature. Fruit trees also provide us with fruit to eat. Mulching our trees with the right materials can help improve their health and the amount they produce.
Types of Mulch
Choose the type of mulch you’ll use before you lay it down. Organic mulches packed with organic matter are the best option because they will improve the nutrient content of your soil over time. This is an advantage over synthetic mulches which can be harmful to the environment.
Great organic mulch options include:
- Wood chips: These can often be obtained for a low price or even for free if you contact an arborist or a recycling center and ask for them.
- Straw: Straw is lightweight and decomposes at a fast rate, so vegetable gardeners favor it but can certainly be used for trees and shrubs. You’ll need to renew the layer frequently because of its quick decomposition. A downside is that it may contain seeds that will germinate.
- Shredded leaves: Trees make leaves, so why not return them to the tree? If your own trees don’t make enough, your neighbors will probably appreciate you taking them off their hands. Shredding is crucial so you can prevent compaction.
- Pine needles: Similar to shredded leaves, these are an excellent free resource. They decompose slowly, so you’ll only need to refresh the layer once or twice. They’ll acidify the soil, which may cause a pH imbalance.
- Crop remnants: Hulls and remnants from cocoa, cottonseed, and buckwheat are a beautiful mulch choice, but they do have problems. They’re expensive and may attract pests in humid regions. Cocoa hulls will have a chocolatey scent but may be toxic to pets.
If you want to, you can put synthetic materials or mineral mulches around trees and shrubs, but be aware that they have some disadvantages. Gravel and rocks can help prevent compacted soil and stop weeds, but you may break a window if you hit them with a lawnmower.
Types of synthetic mulch that are commonly used include black plastic, rubber, or geotextiles. These materials are effective at stopping weeds and water evaporation, but can also cause water to pool. They will also degrade from UV rays or contain contaminants that will harm the soil. As they break down, they don’t add anything back to the ground.
Why Should You Mulch Around Trees?
Mulching provides many benefits for trees. Mulch can help prevent unwanted grass and weeds from growing near a tree, as well as help the roots receive more oxygen.
Reduction of Soil Moisture Loss
The tree needs moist soil to prevent it from drying out and dying. One key to retaining moisture around trees is to put mulch in their vicinity. The sun evaporates water as it beats down, especially during the heat of the day. This results in the water being drawn up into the atmosphere where it eventually condenses and falls back to earth as rain or snow. A layer of mulch blocks the sun from reaching the soil and helps retain moisture.
Mulch can help reduce water evaporation from the soil and help the ground absorb more water. If the ground is compacted, water can’t get absorbed close enough to the tree. Mulch will help contain water around the tree.
Prevention of Erosion
Soil helps prevent erosion by keeping the ground compact. If you’ve ever stubbed your toe on a tree root that’s been pushed up by the weather, you can thank erosion for that. Wind, rain, and soil settling will eventually reveal tree roots. Mulching will help protect tree roots and prevent falls. Thanks, mulch!
Reduces Soil Temperature
People and trees don’t like being too hot when the sun is out. A thick layer of mulch will help keep the soil cooler. This will help the roots function better and promote root growth.
Reduction of Disease
Mulch promotes the growth of beneficial fungi. Fungus in your garden is actually a good sign that your soil is healthy and the mulch is doing its job. Some fungi can help prevent disease in trees by suppressing disease pathogens.
The physical barrier created by the thorns also prevents diseases from spreading by acting as an obstacle course that inhibits the movement of disease-ridden pests. Trees with reduced mobility are more difficult for pests to reach.
Protection From Weather
Mulch protects tree roots from direct weather damage, in the same way that it prevents erosion and hot soil. Mulch keeps roots covered so they aren’t exposed to the sun, heat, or cold. The tree’s roots will stay safe this way.
Mulch can prevent grass, weeds, and other plants from growing and taking up nutrients that the tree needs. Grass and weeds that are left untouched can prevent the tree’s roots from growing. Not only is it beneficial for the tree, but it also makes the area look nicer.
The three primary nutrients that trees need in small amounts are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and can be found in compost. Mulching your trees with compost in the spring will help to insulate the roots, prevent weeds, and add nutrition and organic matter to the soil over time. The podcast below will teach you more about how compost can help improve your soil.
Manure can also be helpful. Although manure typically contains nitrogen, it doesn’t have a lot of phosphorus or potassium. Fresh manure can burn tree roots and contain pathogens that are toxic to humans. The manure that you buy from your local garden center will be composted and so it will break down and be safe to use. An alternative to using composted manure is to buy dehydrated chicken pellets.
These elements are an important part of the plant diet Leaf mold is similar to compost in that it contains small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These elements are necessary for plant growth. Soil bacteria produce compost while beneficial fungi in the soil produce leaf mold. This is an amazing product to mulch with because it’s inexpensive and easy to make. Leaf mold not only provides food for beneficial microorganisms in the soil, but also improves soil texture and water retention.
To make leaf mold, all you need to do is collect fallen leaves from your neighborhood. You should avoid using diseased leaves in your garden as they can introduce a pathogen into the soil. The leaves of oak trees take a long time to decompose. Put the leaves in a heap in a spare part of your garden, give them a light spray with water from the hose, cover the pile with a tarp, and then let the helpful fungi do their thing!
Fungi will break down the leaves into a dark brown, crumbly mulch within one to two years. This mulch will have a pleasant, earthy smell. Don’t want to wait that long? Shred your leaves before adding them to the pile. This text is discussing how to create leaf mold, which is a type of compost made from leaves. The leaf mold will be ready to use in either one year or less, depending on how often you turn it.
Problems With Mulching
You can use too much mulch, and that can create problems. If you are careful to use only the appropriate amount, you will have little to no problems. We will discuss how much to use in the next section, but for now, let’s look at the things that can go wrong.
While mulch can help to retain water in soil, it is possible for it to hold too much water which can then lead to problems for plants. If you put too much mulch on your plants, it might prevent oxygen from reaching the trunk or root system and hurt the plant. Young trees copy more water than developed trees, yet they should never sit in wet ground.
If there are too many wood chips around the tree trunk, it may attract pests like termites, bark beetles, and borers which eat tree bark and cause damage to the trunk. To protect the health of your tree, keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk.
Fungal and bacterial diseases can thrive in wet environments. Although there are beneficial fungi in mulch, bad ones can also appear. It’s very important to make sure that the ground around the tree trunk is not too wet, and to put something like a wall around the base of the tree to keep the mulch from being too close to the trunk.
Mulch will help regulate the temperature of the soil unless the layer of mulch is too deep. It may make the soil too hot and will harm the roots. If you use too much mulch, it can mess with the pH balance of your soil, which isn’t good for your tree.
Nature, pets, and kids can all disturb your mulch. Mulch can stay in place better when there is landscape edging or a tree surround.
When you are growing strawberries, it is often useful to put straw mulch around them. The basket protects the berries from coming into contact with the ground, retains moisture, and safeguards the plants’ roots from extremely high or low temperatures. Straw mulch is also beneficial for fruit trees. Although it is not as full of nutrients as compost, it will eventually decompose and give some nutrition to your fruit trees. The difficult part is making sure your straw doesn’t have any seeds in it! It is ideal to harvest the plant before it produces seeds. If mulch is not harvested early enough, it may result in more weeds rather than preventing them. If you use straw mulch, be aware that it may attract voles and other rodents who will use the straw as habitat. These critters chew up the bark on our fruit trees. If voles are a problem in your community, you should avoid straw mulch.
Shredded paper can be used as a cheap and effective fruit tree mulch, according to researchers. The shredded paper acts as a barrier that prevents weeds from growing. Shredded paper mulch is a great alternative to traditional mulch because it is lightweight and easy to make at home from paper that would be recycled anyways. To protect your fruit tree’s roots, feed your scrap paper into an inexpensive paper shredder and lay the shredded paper around the roots. Paper decomposes and adds organic matter to your soil. The disadvantage to using shredded paper mulch is that it is low in nutrients, but if you mix it with compost, it could be an easy and inexpensive way to protect your fruit tree from weeds and provide it with nutrients at the same time.
Living mulches are becoming increasingly popular. The term “cover crops” or “green manures” refers to crops that are grown for the purpose of protecting and enriching the soil. They are incredibly flexible, meaning that they can be adapted to a wide range of conditions. Some help us fight weeds. Some stabilize the soil or provide increased nutrition. Organic orchardists will plant living mulches in alleys between trees. The key is to pick the right kind of living mulch for your specific needs. To learn more about cover crops, listen to this radio show and podcast.
Avoid Volcano Mulching
Many people unfortunately think that lots of mulch is good, so they spread it out over the root system rather than creating a mulch volcano around the base of the tree. As we’ve discussed, this is bad for several reasons. A mulch volcano can damage tree bark quickly since it builds up too much moisture and is up against the tree. A tree trunk protector can help prevent mulch from coming into contact with the bark.
Mulch should be spread out evenly around the tree trunk, rather than placed directly on top of the roots, to benefit all the tree’s roots. Mulch volcanoes are not effective in protecting landscapes or reducing weed growth, and can actually create unnecessary risks.