Maddening mulch myths

A good example of bad mulching

Long-time followers of this blog know that I’ve been researching, writing, and educating on the topic of landscape mulches for over 20 years. So whenever an article comes out in a newspaper or online that directly refutes our current understanding of mulch science, on-line and real-life colleagues quickly call it to my attention. Many times I choose to ignore the article, but when it’s from a highly regarded source with wide readership I feel the need to step in. Before I discuss the problematic statements, I want to explain part of my process in determining whether an expert is really an expert.

Here are two questions I ask:

  1. Is an expert regarded as an expert in the area of interest by other academic experts?
  2. Is there published research provided that supports statements that don’t agree with the current body of knowledge?

If the answer to both questions is no, then the source cannot be considered reliable.

This free, downloadable, peer-reviewed resource can help you learn how to differentiate bewteen credible and not-so-credible information.

To the writer’s credit, she seeks out academic sources for her information. Her source has stellar credentials in researching and educating about compost, but has no publications on mulching or mulch materials (Question #1 = no).  And there are source quotes and author statements throughout the article that are not supported with evidence (Question #2 = no).

I’ve identified the misleading or erroneous statements and quotes below with my rebuttals. I have included linked references at the end that address these points in more detail. And we have dozens of posts on mulches in this blog’s archives.

Just type “mulch” in the search box and find all kinds of good stuff!

1. “In a forest…there is no big heap, just a layer of an inch or two or three, breaking down and returning to the system.”
Observations of relatively undisturbed forest floors reveal deep layers of woody debris, leaves and needles, and other materials falling from the canopy. Research has shown that a minimum of 3 inches of a coarse textured mulch are needed to restrict sunlight from reaching the soil and prevent weed seed germination. Any less than this will enhance, not prevent, weed growth. Deep layers of wood chips have been repeatedly shown to suppress weeds and enhance the health of desirable plants.

This is what an inch or two or three will do for you.

2. “The process releases humates…described as ‘black, gooey liquid’…”
Humates, defined as recalcitrant materials that resist further decomposition, don’t exist in natural landscapes. The only place you find humates are in the lab, where analysis of organic material with an alkaline reagent (pH = 12) produces humus as a byproduct. And on garden center shelves, where heavily marketed humic acids, fulvic acids, and humates are located.

3. “The only difference in mulches, as long as you use organic materials, is the rate at which they decompose”
This needs clarification. Rapidly decomposing mulches release high levels of nutrients in a short period of time; slowly decomposing materials release low levels of nutrients over longer periods of time. Compost falls into the first category, and readily available nutrients from any source can lead to nutrient toxicity in soils and imbalances in plants.

Interveinal chlorosis is often associated with excessive soil phosphorus.

4. “In formal beds…fine- to medium-textured material”
For best oxygen and water movement, mulches should be coarse and chunky. Sawdust and compost, for example, are too finely textured to allow for gas transfer and water movement, plus weeds easily establish on top of compost.

Compost used as a mulch is a weed magnet.

5. “If a bed needs compost, spread an inch before mulching”
This statement needs clarification. The only way you know whether compost is needed is to have the results of a soil test showing an overall low level of nutrients. Then a layer of compost could be added before chips are applied.

If your nutrients are off scale, don’t use compost!

6. “Save…the chunks fresh out of the arborist’s chipper for pathways…Or at least pile them up to mellow before you use them.”
You don’t need to compost your arborist chips. They provide a burst of nutrients during the first month, when leaves are rapidly decomposed. Using older chips is fine, of course, but why waste that early nutrient boost to your soils?

There’s nothing better than fresh arborist mulch straight out of the chipper.

7. “If supplemental fertilizer isn’t applied when your piling on coarse, fresh, carbon-rich wood chips…it can cause some drawdown in soil nitrogen.”
Fertilizer should NEVER be applied unless there is a demonstrated nutrient deficiency, and wood chip mulches do not cause a drawdown in soil nitrogen. This myth has been dispelled by years of research showing no change to soil nitrogen covered with wood chips.

If wood chips cause a nitrogen deficiency, then plants apparently haven’t gotten the message.

8. “Generally, mulch is applied in ornamental beds at a depth of one to three inches”
See point #1. This is not a science-based recommendation.

9. On volcano mulching: “In addition to promoting bark decay, it causes the tree’s roots to grow up into the mulch layer, rather than down into the soil…the tree may eventually die, and even topple.”
This classic correlation-elevated-to-causation is getting tiresome. There is NO published evidence, anywhere, that proper mulches (i.e., coarse arborist chips) are going to injure bark. They do not cause bark decay. Furthermore, tree roots grow where they have water, nutrients, and oxygen. This might be in the mulch layer. Growing deep into the soil is unlikely (not enough oxygen) unless the soil is excessively sandy or otherwise well drained. Any toppling of trees can be directly correlated with poor planting techniques that prevent roots from contacting and establishing in the site soil.

10. “Keep the mulch at least several inches away from tree and shrub trunks.”
Why? Does this happen in nature? No. Per point #9, a natural woody mulch is not going to hurt trunks.

The soil of this lush landscape is completely covered with a thick layer of arborist chips.

11. “And don’t invite rot by smothering the crowns of perennials”
A good arborist chip mulch is not going to “smother” anything. Perennials are quite capable of growing through several inches of woody mulch, which also protects the crowns from freezing temperatures.

Our perennial rhubarb thrives in its deep arborist chip mulch.

If we are going to encourage gardeners to use nature as a guide (see point #1), then points 4-11 are, well, pointless.

Literature

Chalker-Scott, L. 2007. Impact of Mulches on Landscape Plants and the Environment — A review. Journal of Environmental Horticulture 25(4) 239-249.

Chalker-Scott, L., and A. J. Downer. 2020. Soil Myth Busting for Extension Educators: Reviewing the Literature on Soil Nutrition. Journal of the NACAA 13(2).

Chalker-Scott, L., and A.J. Downer. 2018. Garden myth busting for Extension educators: reviewing the literature on landscape trees. Journal of the NACAA 11(2).

Lehmann, J., Kleber, M. The contentious nature of soil organic matter. Nature 528, 60–68 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16069

Plant lists that shouldn’t exist

Nothing drives me crazier than simplistic solutions to complex problems. Given our changing climate, there has been an explosion of “drought tolerant” and “firewise” plant lists in the gardening world. Most of these lists are devoid of science and all of them are removed from reality. The fact is that taxonomy plays a minimal role in determining whether a plant will tolerate environmental extremes.

Lack of irrigation and mulch guarantees a drought-stressed landscape regardless of the selected species.

Let’s start with the most obvious problems with these lists. The goal isn’t to have plants that require less additional water – it’s to have a landscape that requires less additional water. Similarly, the relative flammability of plants is less important than whether the landscape surrounding those plants is protected from fire. Plants don’t exist in vacuum and unless you are strictly a container gardener a single plant’s impact on water use or fire resilience is negligible. So a gardener’s questions should be “How can I make my landscape more drought tolerant? How can I reduce the likelihood of wildfire damage?” And these are questions that can be addressed with knowledge gleaned from applied plant and soil sciences.

Drought Tolerance

Arborvitae can tolerate droughty summers, but they don’t tolerate improper planting and management.

First of all, let’s think about what “drought” really means: it’s an unusual lack of rainfall. It doesn’t mean no irrigation, and it doesn’t mean dry soil. Drought is a climatological term, not one associated with soil water management. Fine roots and their root hairs require water to function. Without sufficient soil water plants will go dormant or die, particularly during establishment. Plants that are drought tolerant can tolerate seasonal lack of rainfall, but they can’t tolerate chronically dry soil conditions.

Even “drought tolerant” species like Sempervivum will die if there’s not enough soil water.

So we need to look at the landscape factors that allow plants to survive droughts. This includes

  • Root systems that are well established. This means no barriers between the roots and the landscape soil system. Barriers include soil amendments and any materials left on roots during transplant (like soilless media, clay, and burlap). Obviously proper planting is key.
  • Adequate water movement into and within the soil environment. Anything within the soil environment that creates a textural barrier, like soil amendments, prevents water movement. Anything on top of the soil environment that creates a physical barrier, like sheet mulches or compacted layers, prevents water movement into the soil. Sheet mulches include plastics, fabrics, cardboard, and newspaper.
  • Adequate irrigation to support all plants in the landscape. The easiest way to determine whether there is enough soil water is to focus on one or two well-established indicator plants that you notice are the first to show wilt in the summer. That’s when the irrigation should be turned on. For our landscape in Seattle, it was a south-facing hydrangea.
  • Properly mulched soil. Mulch is crucial for soil and plant health, especially in terms of soil water retention and temperature moderation. The best choice for a tree- and shrub-dominated landscape is arborist wood chips. The best choice for arid landscapes is stone mulch – but if this landscape is dominated by trees and shrubs, you need the wood chip mulch. Trees and shrubs, by and large, are not the dominant plant form in arid environments. If you are going to grow plants out of place, you need to include the mulch that matches.
The broad, thin leaves of hydrangeas lose water rapidly and make a good indicator plant for water stress.

These four environmental conditions are key to maintaining a drought-resistant landscape. In terms of appropriate plants, just realize that plants with small, thick leaves lose less water than those with broad, thin leaves. If you want a landscape that conserves water, by all means choose plants whose evaporative water loss is the least.

Firewise Landscapes

Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) produces cones that require fire to open and release their seeds.

I’m not crazy about the term “firewise” as it’s not really a science-based concept. There are natural landscapes that routinely experience fires, and plants native to these landscapes have evolved mechanisms to survive moderate fires. Trees with thick bark, for example, can survive fires that are low to the ground and quick to move through. Other plants may perish in a fire, but leave behind fire-resistant seeds that are able to germinate after the next rainfall. This is not what’s meant by a firewise landscape. Instead, the premise appears to be selecting plants that are low flammability. (Jim Downer tackled this one a few years back but the message just isn’t sinking in.)

Failing trees of any species are more flammable than living trees of any species.

Once again, the focus of this approach is mistakenly directed to plant selection rather than landscape resilience. The best way to reduce the risk of fire is to have a landscape filled with healthy, hydrated plants and a soil protected by the least flammable mulch. The two mulches recommended for drought tolerant landscapes also happen to be the least flammable: stones and arborist wood chips.

Despite published evidence that arborist wood chips are not very flammable when compared to all other organic mulches, many governmental groups specifically recommend against them. This is a problem. Stone mulches are great choices IF the plants in question are native to arid zones. Trees and shrubs that are not from arid zones generally require the presence of woody debris to enhance mycorrhizal and root health. Without the proper mulch, these woody plants are less healthy and likely less hydrated than their counterparts under arborist chip mulches. That makes them more, not less, susceptible to fire damage.

A stone mulch in a southwestern desert landscape.

Most of the confusion around arborist chip mulches is probably the result of regulatory agencies confusing bark mulches with wood chip mulches. Bark mulches ARE flammable as they contain waxes and are not great choices for root and soil health. They should be avoided. Agencies associated with fire control methods need to be better informed about the significant differences between these two types of mulches and how they affect plant resilience.

The wildland-urban interface faces the risk of extreme fire danger. [Photo byAnthony Citrano]

And finally, it is important to understand that major wildfires are going to burn anything that’s organic. If you live in such an environment, the best thing you can have in your landscape is no plant material of any sort. A buffer of stone mulch is the only logical option.

When littering is a good thing

Dried leaves shred easily (photo from needpix.com)

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am a neat freak. I work best on desks with little clutter and feel calm and relaxed in spaces that are well-organized. But outdoors, it’s a different story. Dynamism is in charge and it’s refreshing and exhilarating to be surrounded in nature’s chaos. So this time of year can bother me when I see gardeners putting their neatness imprint on their gardens – especially onto their soils.

It may look neat, but it’s not really soil (photo from freeimageslive.com)

If you Google the word “soil” and look at the images that pop up, nearly all of them look the same. Nice, dark brown, granular stuff, often lovingly cradled in a pair of hands, that really looks more like coffee grounds than soil. In fact, the only realistic picture in the first page of images comes from the Soil Science Society of America. THAT’S actual soil.

One of these things is not like the others….
This one.

So gardeners must discard the “tidiness ethic” that seeps out of the house and into the soil. Soils are living ecosystems, and living ecosystems are messy. A living soil will have some sort of organic topdressing (mulch) resulting from dead plant and animal material that accumulates naturally. In temperate parts of the world, this happens every autumn, when leaf fall blankets the soil with a protective and nutrient-rich, organic litter. And what do we do? Why, we rake it or blow it and bag it and toss it. Then we turn around and buy some artificial mix of organic material and spread it on top – because it looks nice and tidy.

Keep the leaves out of the landfill!

Let’s stop this nonsensical cycle. Stop buying plastic bags for leaf disposal. Stop buying organic matter for mulch. Instead, use what nature provides to protect and replenish your soils. This doesn’t mean you have to leave messy piles of leaves that blow around rather than staying put. Instead, shred them! They look nicer, they stay in place better, and they break down faster. The easiest way to do this is to either run a lawnmower over them, or to put them into a large plastic garbage can and plunge a string trimmer into them. (Bonus – if you use a battery-operated mower or string trimmer you reduce your fossil fuel use.)

Likewise, if you have twigs, prunings, and other woody material, save these too. A chipper is a useful, though expensive, purchase. But those woody chips are the best mulch you can use over your landscape and garden beds. Most plants rely on mycorrhizal fungi, and these fungi require a source of decaying wood to function optimally. The chips can go right on top of your leaves to keep them in place and add a slow feed of nutrients.

Lovingly cradled fresh wood chips

So this fall, see how much of your garden’s refuse can stay on site. Compost soft materials; shred dead leaves; chip woody material. You’ll reduce your contribution to the landfill, and improve the health of your soils and plants alike.

Making your landscape fire resistant during wildfire season

Wildfires are increasingly threatening urban areas. Photo from Wikimedia.

This topic may have no relevance to where you live – but it’s very much front and center here in western Washington this summer. Our naturally droughty summers have gotten longer, hotter, and drier thanks to climate change. Wildfires are ravaging all of the west coast, on both sides of the Cascade mountains. And one of the recommendations I see for fire-proofing your landscape is to remove all wood-based mulch. While this might seem logical, it’s not. And here’s why.

Not all wood mulches are equal. Wood chip mulches, which readily absorb water, are different than bark mulches, which can be quite impervious to water based on the type of bark and how fresh it is. The waxy components of bark not only make it resistant to water movement, they also more likely to burn. Likewise, pine needles, cones, straw, and other coarse organic mulches absorb little water and easily ignite. They should be avoided in fire-prone areas.

Pine needles and pinecones are a natural mulch layer in pine forests – but they burn readily. Photo by Pxfuel.

Wood chips are one of the least flammable mulches, and if landscape plants are properly irrigated, the wood chip layer is going to be increasingly moist as you work your way down to the soil. This reduces flammability, while maintaining plant health. And healthy plants are more likely to survive fires than water-stressed plants – because they are full of water. (Oh, and those “flammability lists” of plants you might see? Dr. Jim Downer has already debunked that approach.)

Rubber mulches are the very worst choice you can make for a wildfire-resistant landscape. They burn readily and they burn hot.

The best way to reduce wildfire damage to your planted landscape is to keep it irrigated. Bare soil is a no-no in planted landscapes, regardless of what you might see recommended elsewhere. A well-hydrated landscape with green lawns and healthy trees and shrubs is not going to catch fire from a spark or ember. And it might even survive a fast-moving wildfire.

Yes, it takes water to protect a planted landscape from fire. If consistent irrigation isn’t feasible, you might want to rethink your plantings.

We saw this in eastern Washington this week, where the small town of Malden was 80% destroyed by a fast-moving fire. But some homes were spared – why? Whitman County Sheriff Brett Meyers pointed out “those people that had some green and some buffer around their home were able to maintain their homes.”  

Did these houses survive because of a green buffer?

So while it may seem counterintuitive to keep woody debris on your soil, look at the whole system – not just a piece of it. If you don’t have plants anywhere near your house, then bare soil is the way to go. But for planted landscapes, wood chip mulch is part of the solution – not the problem.

Tools, tips, and terrible traditions for raised beds – Part 3

Young vegetables thrive in mulched, weed-free raised bed.

Over the last couple of months I started a series on raised bed gardens, focusing on materials and preparation. In this final installment, I’ll focus on maintenance activities to avoid in your raised bed systems and remind you of three things you should always do.

Terrible traditions

We’ll start with some practices that damage soil structure and function (GP John Porter discussed this in much detail a few years ago). Tilling, once the mainstay of soil preparation for crops, is increasingly found to cause more damage than good. Grinding the soil into a material with the texture of coffee grounds might look pretty, but it’s devoid of the ped structure that allows water and gas to move through easily. It also increases microbial activity by bringing up microbial spores, which release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as they digest whatever organic material is there. And tilling will increase the likelihood of erosion and compaction.

Soil runoff from tilled, unprotected field. The same thing will happen in your garden. Photo from Wikimedia.

This is the opposite of what gardeners should want: an optimal soil has natural structure which might look messy but allows for good drainage. It’s also more resistant to compaction and erosion, especially when it’s protected with mulch (more on this later).

Speaking of drainage, don’t be tempted to add gravel or some other coarse material at the bottom of the bed. The change in soil texture creates a perched water table, which makes for a soggy planting bed and optimal conditions for soil-borne diseases.

Classic experiment that demonstrates water does not move easily through different soil textures.

While we’re talking about unnecessary or harmful additions to your raised beds, let’s not forget the annual addition of compost or other rich organic material. This is a holdover from old agricultural practices and is not warranted unless you have an organic material deficiency. Without a soil test, you don’t have a clue about what your soil has or what it needs. The problems associated with routine amendments are discussed in this peer-reviewed fact sheet, and are exacerbated by the tillage that is often the means to incorporate compost. Likewise, don’t add fertilizers and pesticides unless you have conclusively identified nutrient deficiencies or pest issues.

If your nutrients are off scale, don’t add any fertilizer!

The last tradition I’d like to see shelved is growing cover crops. This practice originated in the management of agricultural fields, which were otherwise left bare after harvest. Outside of producing some kale or other winter vegetables, what’s the point of planting a cover crop in your garden, when you can protect the soil in other ways? Cover crops require water and nutrients, which eventually will need to be pulled or incorporated. You are forcing your soil system to continue to support plant growth and be subjected to disturbance with the planting and harvesting of the cover crop. Why not let the soil rest over the winter with a nice blanket of mulch? Give it a chance to regenerate its nutrient load while being protected from unnecessary disturbance.

A great arborist chip mulch has leaves or needles as well as wood.

Three tips

Two of these tips have been discussed many times in this forum, so I’ll direct you to longer discussions of soil testing and mulching. Mulching is not just important for protecting the soil bed after the growing season, but should be used on actively producing beds. A deep, coarse organic mulch will promote water and air movement, moderate soil temperatures, reduce weeds, and provide a slow feed of nutrients throughout the season. You’ll have to wait until your seeds are up to apply it, of course, but try to avoid bare soil as much as possible.

Though you’ll need to leave the soil bare during seed germination, you can still protect unplanted areas of the bed with mulch.

Soil testing is really crucial for any garden, but perhaps most important in vegetable gardens where harvesting may decrease key nutrients over time. It will also guide you in identifying potential heavy metal problems. The money you will save in not buying unnecessary fertilizers and other amendments will pay for many soil tests.

There is so much great information in a soil test that will help you make decisions about what to add – and what to avoid.

Sometimes you will need to add material to your existing beds if you are not using a natural soil. Soilless media (deceptively marketed as “potting soil” though no soil is to be found) will decompose and settle over time, leaving you with a sunken soil system. You will need to add more of the same sort of media to the beds, making sure you mix it in thoroughly to prevent a perched water table. (This is why you might consider using a natural soil and avoiding this annual chore – because a natural soil will not subside over time.)

This recommended planting media will decompose down to the oyster shells and lime over time.

The Heat is On!

We are in the dog days of summer! Record high temperatures across the country have been reported. Let’s face it, climate change is real and the planet is getting warmer, despite record cold temperatures in winter in some areas. With climate change, there are more occurrences of extreme temperatures as well as precipitation such as severe drought, flooding, heavier than usual snowfall, etc. So, how does climate change affect gardeners? To understand the concept, we must first understand how high temperatures affect plant growth and development.

Plant temperature tolerance is the ability of any plant to adapt to a given climate at both low and high temperatures. It is obviously important to use species that not only can survive our winter temperatures, but also our hot summers. Similar to the U.S.D.A. Plant Cold Hardiness Zone map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/), the American Horticultural Society published a plant heat zone map (http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map). The heat zones are based on the average annual days with temperatures above 86°F (30°C). For example, up in my neck of the woods in Wisconsin, we have four heat zones in the state; zones 2-5 with the cooler (lower number) heat zones in the northern part of the state and the warmer heat zones in the southern and western part of the state and in urban areas. In comparison, North Carolina has seven heat zones (2-8). California has even more heat zones due to its varying climates and elevations.

Unique microclimates can be created at a specific site. Urban areas usually are slightly warmer than rural areas due to the heat island effect created by light reflection off of buildings, heat rising from sewers, and trapping of heat between large buildings. For example, trees planted close to pavement have warmer conditions in summer, than trees planted near turf, especially in the root zone, and have greater water needs. Trees and shrubs in this environment should receive, but rarely get supplemental irrigation compared to those same plants planted in the middle of a lawn or park area with cooler root areas and less heat stress to the tree.

Street trees compete with other plants and are subject to heat and drought stress
Street trees compete with other plants and are subject to heat and drought stress

So what does this mean for temperate woody plants?

High temperature stress is important for a number of reasons. The main effect is increased water use. However, water availability is often limited, especially in urban environments, leading to a net loss of moisture within the plant. Leaves loose water quicker through the stomates via transpiration as temperatures rise. The stomates then begin to close and the cooling effect of evapotranspiration is stopped.

Other physiological processes are impacted by high temperatures such as fewer carbohydrates available for plant growth and development, generation of plant pigments (red, purple and blue pigments) and defense used in protecting plants against insects and diseases. When plants with poor heat tolerance are grown in regions that routinely experience high summer day and night temperatures and insufficient moisture, plants will use many of their stored sugars during the evening hours and during the hottest part of the day. For many temperate woody plants, optimum temperatures for photosynthesis are below 86°F (30°C). Above this temperature, net photosynthesis declines with increasing temperatures. If this continues long term, plants can die, especially young plants that do not have many stored carbohydrate reserves and are under drought stress.

'Ames' Kalm's St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum 'Ames') is heat and drought tolerant
‘Ames’ Kalm’s St. Johnswort (Hypericum kalmianum ‘Ames’) is heat and drought tolerant

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a three season interest, heat and drought tolerant plant
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a three season interest, heat and drought tolerant plant

Purpleleaved ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius) are very drought and heat tolerant
Purpleleaved ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius) are very drought and heat tolerant

 

What can we do as gardeners?

Unfortunately, climate change is occurring at a fast rate and each decade is getting warmer and often drier than the preceding decade. Here’s what we can do as gardeners:

  • Select non-invasive, pest resistant, stress tolerant plants for your landscape
  • Non-drought or heat tolerant landscapes plants will require regular watering to sustain them
  • Use of soaker hoses or drip irrigation is better than overhead watering as the moisture is directly applied to the roots with less runoff
  • A plant is not truly drought tolerant until it has been established in the landscape for at least three years or more to allow for root growth, especially for trees
  • Some native and exotic plants can tolerate these changes, but some native species in natural areas may be lost if our climate continues to get warmer
  • Incorporate compost into the soil prior to planting new areas to improve moisture retention and aeration
  • Apply 2-4” of bark or wood chips to the top of the soil to retain soil moisture. Make sure the mulch does not touch the trunk of trees or base of shrubs. Excessive mulching (mulch volcanoes) can actually kill landscape plants by impeding air and moisture penetration and invite fungal diseases.
  • Cities need to avoid planting trees in tree pits (sidewalk cutouts), i.e. restrained planting areas in sidewalks along streets. These trees are under severe moisture, drainage and heat stress and do not live long. Planting areas that are wide and long work much better for tree health and longevity than planting in tree pits.

Laura Jull, Ph.D.

University of Florida study: Mulch reduces soil water loss to evaporation by 33%

I was just in Fargo for the North Dakota Urban and Community Forestry Association conference – our pantywaist -12 deg. F wasn’t cold enough – I wanted to experience some real winter. Dr. John Ball from South Dakota State University, whom I enjoy listening to, was also on the program. As an aside, if you are ever invited to speak at the same conference as John, DO NOT allow yourself to be scheduled after him. He is hilarious and you will sound like a boring moron by comparison. John is an excellent and entertaining speaker and I usually agree with 90+ % of what he says. In this case he was talking about mulch – a subject near and dear to my heart – and lead off by mentioning the recent study by Gilman et al. (2012) as a reason why we should be concerned about possible negative impacts of mulch.

Oh boy. Let’s go through this and see what the paper does and doesn’t say about mulch.

The study was done in collaboration with Richard Beeson, who is widely known for his work using weighing lysimeters to estimate water use by container-grown trees and shrubs. In this case lysimeters were used to measure water lost from containers filled with soil or container media (60% pine bark : 30 % peat: 10% sand) and then covered with pine bark mulch or left uncovered. The containers were watered and allowed to drain. Water loss due to evaporation (there were no trees in the containers) was measured for three days. For the first day after watering there was more evaporation from the containers filled with container substrate that were mulched than the containers that were not mulched. However, if you add up the evaporation over the entire 3 days there is no difference between mulched and non-mulched containers. This is not too surprising since the mulch and container media were largely the same thing – pine bark.

Now here’s the important part. If you look at evaporation for the soil-filled containers – which are the ones we really care about from a landscape perspective – total evaporation was 3L for non-mulched containers versus 2L for mulched. In other words, there was much greater water loss from soil when the pots where not mulched. A much better title for the article would have been, “Mulch reduces evaporation from soil by 33%”!

gilman pic

It’s easy to nit-pick articles but this isn’t pit-picking. There is only one table in this article and they got it wrong. For whatever reason people are prone to hysteria when it comes to tree care and I can already see this morphing into “Oh my God! Did you hear? Ed Gilman says if you mulch a tree you’re going to kill it!” A misinterpreted 3-day study has everyone criticizing mulch while ignoring a vast body of long-term studies.

For Mulch

Posted by Bert Cregg

Just a quick note up front that today’s post is a little data heavy, so if you’re still adjusting to this weekend’s time change; be advised.

A few weeks back Jim Urban wrote a post entitled ‘Against mulch’ on the Deep Root blog. The principle reasons he cited for his position were: 1) Mulch floats and can clog drains and releases “lots of phosphorus” as it breaks down, and 2) work by Gilman et al. that suggest that mulch does not reduce evapo-transpiration. We discussed the Gilman et al. paper ad nauseum here already so I’ll stick to the other points.

Most organic mulches float, it’s true. However, if mulch is repeatedly washing from a bed into a drain this suggests a problem with the design as much as anything. Second, I’m not sure what constitutes “lots of phosphorus”. Branch and stem tissue of hardwood trees is about 0.1% P. If we use just the bark as mulch, the P concentration is about 0.2 to 0.3%. Is that ‘lots of phosphorus”? I don’t know. I suppose if you put enough it down and allow it wash into a drain it could be.

So let’s stick to what we do know about landscape mulch. Linda has written the most comprehensive review of mulch out there and it demonstrates the benefits of mulch. Nevertheless I’d like to add some recent observations of my own to the discussion. These come from follow-up measurement on some studies that we have already published on shrubs and conifers. But I think our new data are important because they demonstrate the long-term benefits of much on tree and shrub growth.

2006 Conifer study. In 2006 we installed a trial to compare several different weed control strategies for newly planted conifers. Weed control, either by hand, Vis-pore mulch mats or 3” of coarse wood chips, dramatically increased tree survival.
swmrec mulch survival

After 8 growing seasons, trees that had the wood chip mulch or mulch mats had significantly greater caliper than trees that were not mulched.
swmrec mulch caliper

2004 shrub study. In another trial we compared the effect of various mulch types (wood chips, pine bark, hardwood bark) on growth of common landscape shrubs (golden globe arborvitae, Runyan yew, ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea, cranberrybush viburnum, and arrowwood viburnum). We re-measured heights of the shrubs study a couple of weeks ago (nine growing seasons after installation). To keep things simple here I’ve lumped the mulches together and simply compared mulched vs. un-mulched.

After nine years mulching increased height growth for all shrubs except the arborvitae.
mulch 2013 ht

Even more interesting is that the growth benefit of mulch extends beyond the establishment phase. If we start at age 4 and look at the relative growth rate for the past five years (i.e., growth increment for past 5 years / height at 4 years) we see that mulch continues to provide a growth advantage for all shrubs except the arbs.
mulch RGR

As I said at the outset, a little data heavy today but I think this is an import point. There is a lot of discussion these days about proper planting techniques but I think after-planting care often gets overlooked and mulching is an important part of that. That’s why I’m for much.