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5 Mulch Mistakes That Can Kills Your Trees or Plants

Using too much mulch, piling it against tree trunks, or choosing the wrong type can harm or kill trees and plants. Mulch wisely for plant health!
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Avoid creating mulch mounds around trees and plants as it can hinder air circulation, water absorption, and attract pests.

Apply mulch at the proper thickness (2-3 inches for compacted soil, 3-4 inches for well-drained soil) to prevent water backlog or runoff.
Skip using plastic or fabric weed barriers and opt for proper mulching techniques to suppress weed growth without hindering air and water flow.

Mulch can be an excellent tool to suppress weed growth, help the soil retain water, and add nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil around your trees when used correctly. However, many people commonly make mistakes with mulch that can kill trees or plants despite your best efforts. Discover what these mistakes are, so you can avoid damaging your plants and trees this season and in the future.

Don’t Create Mulch Mounds
Mulch mounded around a tree base

For trees to grow, they need nutrients like calcium, sulfur, and magnesium. Trees also require oxygen, water, and light, and piling mounds of mulch right at their base can make it difficult for them to get adequate levels. These mounds prevent good air circulation, depriving the tree or plant’s roots of air. They also make it difficult for water to reach the soil by creating a thick barrier, and pests love to live in mulch mounds as it decays because it’s an easy food source. It also encourages rot by trapping moisture.

Spread your mulch around your area, keeping a 6-inch space around the tree’s trunk or plant’s stem clear. Doing so will help deter pests because moisture won’t build up and encourage rot. Ensure your plants can get the oxygen and water they need to thrive!

Don’t Apply the Mulch Too Thick
Mulch layered around trees

While mulch can suppress weed growth and offer benefits, this only works well if you apply it at the proper thickness. Many people make the mistake of putting on too much, which can result in the same problems you get with mulch mounds.

Instead, spread a 2 to 3 inch thick layer of mulch around your tree if you have compacted soil and a 3 to 4 inch layer for well-drained soils, keeping it a few inches from the base. A thinner layer helps ensure you don’t create a backlog of water with heavy soil, while thicker layers on well-draining soil can protect the ground from runoff.

Mulch should reach to your tree’s drip line. A drip line extends to the edge of the trees canopy. This protects the tree from damage when you trim and mow while reducing your tree’s need to compete with weeds for water and nutrients.

Don’t Use Plastic or Fabric Weed Barriers
Plastic weed barrier around tree

Many people have historically laid down fabric or plastic weed barriers or tarps before mulching to help suppress weed growth. However, these can have adverse effects when planted around shrubs, trees, or plants because they can end up strangling them as they grow. The mulch weighs down the plastic or fabric, and the trees or plants can start to grow against them. These barriers can also stop air and water from reaching the soil, stunting your plant’s growth.

Skip laying down plastic or fabric weed barriers and go straight to mulch. Proper mulching at the correct depths can suppress weeds by blocking the sunlight and making it difficult for weeds to start. Additionally, it’s much easier to shift mulch around to add more plants than it is to cut holes through the weed barriers to get to the soil for new plants.

Don’t Use Cheap Mulch
Pile of mulch

It can get expensive depending on the type of mulch you use and how much you need. The expense is why trying to find cheap or free mulch may be tempting. Many landfills or waste departments advertise free or cheap mulch, but using it comes with risks. These mulches could have plant or tree pests or diseases, pesticides, or weed seeds that you’d be putting right around your tree or plant’s base and root system.

Get your mulch from reputable sources, like nurseries, garden centers, big box stores, or online retailers. Always make a point to check to see if the mulch you want, especially organic mulch, has a certification from the Mulch & Soil Council. This certification helps ensure the mulch follows industry standards and has no CCA-treated wood. CCA-treated wood contains chromium, copper, and arsenic, and arsenic is very toxic to plants because it can stunt root growth.

Don’t Use Fresh Wood Chips
Hand holding fresh wood chips

You might be considering using fresh wood chips or bark as mulch for your existing plants and trees. However, as your fresh wood chips decompose, it can lead to nitrogen immobilization. As fresh wood chips have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio, it borrows nitrogen from the existing soil to help it decompose. The organisms that break down the wood chips also use the nitrogen in the soil. In turn, this can cause a nitrogen deficiency.
Mulch Correctly for Your Trees and Plants to Thrive

To encourage healthy, consistent growth for your plants, shrubs, or trees, it’s essential that you know how to mulch correctly. Doing so will help you avoid these common mistakes and stunting or killing your plants.

Do you know more mulch mistakes that can cause damage or kill your trees? Comment with your experience below!

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