Mulch In Landscape

February 27, 2015

Using Mulch In Your Landscape

The more I work around my yard and garden, the more I'm convinced that mulching trees, shrubs and ornamental beds is the most important thing I do in my landscape throughout the year. That's why I have a pile of wood chip mulch at my place right now that is taller than I am... and I'm six foot!

During the growing season, mulch reduces the need to water because it helps prevent moisture from evaporating from the soil and it keeps the soil cooler which reduces injury to plant roots. It also prevents soil borne diseases from being splashed on the foliage when plants are actively growing and has also greatly reduced the time spent weeding in the flowerbeds. One other benefit is it protects trees and shrubs by eliminating the need to mow or use the weedeater right around them.

With all these benefits, it's hard to believe that now through early spring is when mulch may be most beneficial to plants. Mulch placed over plants last fall still has a lot of work to do to prevent injury to plants from extreme temperatures and winter drying.

Take time to check plants that were mulched late last fall. Add additional mulch if winter winds have blown away some of the mulch or the mulch settled due to the weight of snow from earlier snowfalls. Using a rake to fluff the mulch may be all that is needed.

Late winter is a critical time for mulch protection because we often have warm, sunny winter days that may cause plants to break dormancy or even begin growth. Temperatures often become quite cold again and these plants are then more likely to sustain damage. The insulation mulch provides, especially in the absence of snow cover, helps prevent plants from beginning growth too early.

On younger plants or those planted last fall, a mulch layer reduces freezing and thawing of the soil. This action may damage young roots and can uproot young plants that do not have well established root systems. The roots of plants are not as hardy as the crowns and stems. If roots are exposed during winter, they will either dry out and die, or be killed by cold temperatures.

A layer of mulch also maintains moisture in the soil around plants to reduce drying of plant tissues on warm, sunny and windy winter days. Mulch can be used around any ornamentals... I use it around all of mine... but it is especially important for tender perennials and plants planted last fall.

The ideal winter mulch is one that is coarse, like straw or wood chips. Coarse mulch is less likely to mat down over winter. For winter, a mulch layer can be up to eight to 12 inches deep. You will want to remove the excess mulch, to a layer about two to three inches deep, by the end of March.

Although not a mulch, rose cones often are used for winter protection on hybrid tea, floribunda and multiflora roses. It's a good idea to cut off the tops of the cones now so the plant can be ventilated on warm winter days. This year, we haven't had a lot of unusually warm days, but those become more likely as we move into March.

Roses beneath cones that are not ventilated could easily be killed by heat build up inside the cone. After cutting the top off of a rose cone, keep it. The top needs to be replaced, and held in place by a rock, on cold winter days. It only needs to be removed on warm winter days.

For more information on using mulch in you landscape, contact your local Nebraska Extension office.