By: Harvey Burniston, Jr.
Why in the world do a lot of people wait until spring to clean up and mulch their landscaping beds? In spring, flowers are popping out of the ground everywhere and trying to avoid damaging those flowers while mulching makes the job a lot slower and more tedious, and no matter how careful you are, some of those flowers will get stepped on or smashed.
We at Mountain View Nursery and Landscaping, LLC recommend mulching in the fall and winter after the leaves have fallen. This will also make your yard look a lot neater and cleaner over the winter. Start by cutting off perennials that have already died back and gone dormant. It is also a good idea to trim and clean up most shrubbery right before mulching. The only shrubbery you may not want to trim are spring blooming shrubs like azaleas, Rhododendron and forsythia, to name a few. They should be trimmed right after they bloom. Trimming shrubs in the fall and winter is also easier because you don’t have to worry about cleanup of all the leaves etc. as much, because you are going to mulch right over them and therefore add organic matter to your soil.
This brings me to another pet peeve of mine. Do not use landscape fabric, plastic, etc. under your mulch in your landscaping. This does not deter weeds and many times they are more difficult to pull because they root into the fabric. You are also creating a barrier between the mulch and the soil, which prevents you from enriching that soil with the organic matter the mulch creates as it decays. When you put down fabric or plastic you are creating an environment where the soil is the best it’s ever going to be and will just get heavier and more lifeless after that point. The plants we pull up after being planted in fabric or plastic for several years have very few of the healthy fibrous roots which take up nutrients and water. There are also no earthworms or organic matter. Oxygen levels are also very poor. Try digging in an area where you have mulched for several years and see how many earthworms you find! You are also creating healthier soil rich in organic matter. Organic mulches provide food for earthworms, microbes and other beneficial creatures in the soil. Weeds are fewer in mulched areas, and the ones that do come up are easier to pull.
In some cases, mulching in the fall can make the difference between a plant that lives or dies. Mulch acts as an insulator, regulating temperatures and keeps frost from heaving it out of the ground. Mulch also helps hold moisture, reduces weeds, prevents erosion, and contains the soil by keeping it from splashing on your plants or home siding. Mulch also protects trees from lawnmower and weed-eater damage, which is their number one enemy in the landscape. It also helps keep grass away, helping the trees grow faster because of less competition for water or nutrients. Always mulch out to the drip line of trees if possible. When mulching around trees, avoid creating a volcano effect by piling mulch too high around the tree. Try to keep mulch pulled away from the trunk of the plant. A mulched landscape is also more attractive and adds better curb appeal to your home.
We highly recommend a two to four inch layer of organic mulches, which are also environmentally friendly. The most common are hardwood bark or pine bark. Also popular are dyed mulches (red, brown or black). Many materials can be used for mulch, including chopped leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, paper, straw, wood chips and sawdust. When using wood chips or sawdust, just remember to add some extra fertilizer because the breakdown process involving these mulches depletes the nitrogen in the soil. Sometimes you will notice a yellowing of leaves when someone mulches them with fresh wood chips or sawdust.
We are highly opposed to using inorganic mulches such as fabric, plastic, rubber mulch, brick chips and gravel. These mulches do not improve the soil. They also reduce organic matter, oxygen and possibly water getting to plant roots.
Remember that mulch occurs naturally in nature. In the woods you find layers of leaves adding to the organic matter and acting as nature’s fertilizer and insulator. In the end, using mulch will help you produce happier, healthier shrubs, flowers, trees or vegetables. This article concentrates on mulching of plants and trees in the landscape. In case of vegetables production, many times plastic mulches are okay, because they are taken up each year and organic matter is added to the soil.
In Johnson County bagged mulch can be purchased at many locations that sell garden products. If you are interested in bulk mulch that is loaded directly into the bed of your truck or trailer, there are two locations open to the public. Bulk mulch is usually sold in greater quantities and not bagged, therefore less expensive. Shoun Lumber in Butler sells reground mulch and playground chips. The Garden Barn in Mountain City sells dyed red, brown and black mulch and hardwood reground mulch. Both businesses will deliver mulch.
Taking care of your landscaping beds by covering them with organic mulch in the fall or winter, thereby increasing your organic matter in the soil, will benefit your flowers, shrubs and trees far into the future, and increase your enjoyment of nature at your home.