To mulch or not to mulch? It shouldn’t even be a question.

There’s wood chip mulch peeking out of all of our landscape beds

One of the popular arguments against mulching landscape and garden soils is that mulch delays soil warming and thus retards plant growth. Given that a well-chosen mulch will moderate temperature extremes – both hot and cold – is this an argument supported with evidence? In today’s post, I’m reporting the data I collected in visiting various parts of my home landscape and gardens and measuring soil temperatures.

My trusty soil thermometer

For measurements, I used a soil thermometer placed at the same depth in every soil tested. This required movement of mulch if mulch was present, so that thermometers were inserted completely into the soil. These thermometers read the entire length of the probe, so readings represent the average temperature in the top 5” of soil. I took close-up photos of each of the areas tested. I took 5 measurements for each location.

Our evening temperatures have been near or below freezing, but the past several days have been sunny and the air temperatures are well into the 50F range. On March 17, it was 68F at 2 pm in the sun, though it was 27F that morning. The morning after (March 18), it was 35F.

There are several interesting trends to see on the box-and-whisker graph:

The variation of soil temperatures is most extreme in unprotected soils
  • Mulched raised beds have the most consistent temperatures, with no differences seen at any time or in any location measured.
  • Unmulched soil mounds have extreme changes, mirroring air temperatures.
  • Bare soil in beds under sunny conditions have extreme changes mirroring air temperatures, but not as great as that in raised beds. They are warmest during the day and coldest during the night.
  • Bare soil in beds under shaded conditions are the coldest soils during the day and even colder at night.
  • Soil under living mulch (turf) and beds with varying depths of wood chip are cooler during the day than bare soil in sunny conditions, but warmer at night.
  • Bare soil in beds that were newly mulched are much warmer than bare soils not near mulched areas.
  • The soil temperature under turf or in beds at least partially mulched did not change at night (data not shown on graph).

Extreme temperature swings can result in the death of germinating seeds, seedlings, expanding buds, and other tissues that aren’t cold hardy. This is especially true of tissues near the soil surface, where temperature are colder than they are at increased depths. Unprotected soil mounds show huge daily vacillations; comparative raised structures under mulch are cooler during the day but warmer at night. And bare soil in the shade is colder than any mulched soils. Consistency is important for young tissues, as they have few protections against environmental extremes.

What my little experiment demonstrates is what mulch research has consistently shown: appropriate mulch materials will moderate soil temperature extremes due to air temperature fluctuations. Just because a bare soil is 55F in the daytime doesn’t mean it won’t be 35F at night.

Landscape fabric – a cautionary tale

This isn’t the first time I’ve ranted about bad mulch choices and it certainly won’t be the last. But this pictorial cautionary tale is too important to pass up.

We already know that sheet mulches can be death to microbes, plant roots and animals living in the soil underneath. Our newly published research shows that landscape fabric reduces carbon dioxide movement between the soil and atmosphere about 1,000 times more than wood chip mulches do: plastic mulches are even worse. Oxygen movement will be likewise affected.  And while gaps and holes in these barriers can lessen the impact, the question remains: why would you use ANY mulch that reduces gas movement? Yet people persist in using fabrics and plastics, usually to “smother” weeds (and that verb should set off alarm bells for anyone thinking about collateral damage to soil life). But weeds are weeds for a reason, and they will eventually colonize the surface of sheet mulches as soil, organic matter, and water collect over time.

So without further ado, here is a case study of what happens when sheet mulch is used for landscape weed control.

These irrigated landscape beds are in Wenatchee, Washington, which has hot, dry summers. As you can see, bark mulch has been used to hide the shame of sheet mulching. And from a distance it looks…okay.

Upon closer inspection, you can see the shroud of death emerging from the bark mulch (which has no means of staying in place, especially on a slope).

And even close you can see the soil that’s blown in, along with the bark and other organic matter. Just add water, and you get weeds!

Weeds, weeds, weeds! Lots of weeds. Sunny weeds!

And shady weeds!

Border weeds!

Rocky weeds!

The weeds are thriving – but the trees are not. The crowns are dying…

…and the trunks are suckering.

But you’ll note that the trees in the first photo outside of the beds are thriving.

And it’s all because of that “weed control fabric.” Which is working so well that this landscape had to be treated with herbicide the day I was there – to control the weeds.