Mulching fruit trees and shrubs for higher and better quality yields

What is mulch and mulching?

Mulch is a layer of material applied to the top of the area of soil. Mulch is, usually, used to converse moisture and improve the fertility and health of the soil. Some people also use mulching as a way to reduce weed growth as well as to enhance the visual appeal of the area. Mulch is usually but not exclusively organic in nature. It may be permanent (e.g. plastic sheeting or rubber) or temporary (e.g. bark chips or straw). It may be applied to bare soil, or only around existing plants.
Mulching is the placing of organic matter such as straw or wood chips on top of your garden soil. Mulches of manure or compost will be incorporated naturally into the soil by the activity of earthworms and other organisms. People apply this process both in commercial crop production and gardening, and when applying mulch correctly can dramatically improve soil productivity. Every gardener should mulch both their vegetable patch and their garden regularly because it is one of the simplest and most beneficial practices.

Horse chestnut dead leaves and conkers

Mulching is mimicking what nature does in forests.

What area around fruit trees and shrubs should be mulched?

If you are going to plant new nut or fruit trees or shrubs, you should mulch at least in the radius of 1 m (a bit more than 3 ft.). If your soil is poor and sandy, you might want to increase the radius to 1,5m (5ft.).
If you want to establish a survivalist forest garden in your bug-out location or any other place that will not often be visited, you might want to increase mulched diameter by another 90cm (or 3 ft).

How thick should mulch be?

To mulch a permanent planting of shrubs or trees, you should go deeper as that mulch will not need removing. However, plants that are replaced or dug and divided annually on a veggie garden or perennial border, a deeper mulch just gets in the way because it won’t all decompose in one season. Therefore, 6-inch-depth will be suitable for permanent plantings. With smaller, more ephemeral plantings you‘ll do with just two to three inches. In addition, with some plants that are creeping in nature (thyme, ajuga, etc.), a deep mulch will move and cover the plants, so you should go less deep. It really depends on what  you are growing to decide how thick the mulch should be.

What material could be used for mulching?

Organic mulch

There is a variety of materials that are used as mulch like grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, comfrey, kitchen scraps, sawdust, shredded bark, whole bark nuggets,  shells, wood chips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, wool, animal manure, etc. It can mat down, forming a barrier that blocks water and air flow between the soil and the atmosphere. Also, organic mulches can suck up water from the soil to the surface, which can dry out the soil. Please notice that mulch made with wood chips can contain or feed termites, so take care not to place mulch too close to houses or building that can be infected and damaged by those insects.

Please notice that mulch made with wood chips can contain or feed termites, so take care not to place mulch too close to houses or building that can be infected and damaged by those insects.

Plastic mulch

You can also make an inexpensive version of a glass house by using plastic mulch. Just place a thin plastic film over the ground, poking holes at required intervals for seeds to be planted in, or placing it directly over plants in the beginning stages of growth. It’s suitable to use in large-scale vegetable growing with millions of acres cultivated under plastic mulch worldwide each year.

Mineral mulch

The last one is a mineral mulch. It contains rock and gravel that may extend the growing season thanks to the heat retained by rocks in cooler climates. Dark color mineral mulch (like basalt) is especially useful for that purpose.

When should you mulch?

Mulching can be used throughout the year, but the best time to mulch your beds or borders is in late-winter or early spring. It will trap in moisture from wet weather and ensure beds don’t dry out quickly in the heat of summer. Some specific tips for each season:
In Spring, you might want to remove any heavy mulch. The soil will warm up quicker, and it will prevent the proliferation of parasites.
In Summer, you spread mulch on moist soil.
Mulching in fall also has the advantage of protecting herbaceous plants from the cold.

Permaculture mulching and mulch food forest forest garden

Mulching with straw is especially useful in the areas where esthetics is not that important.


How to apply mulch?

  • Before mulching, you have to make sure that the site is clear of weeds (you might want to mow them) and the soil is moist. It’s because mulching is not herbicide. It only prevents the growth of young weeds.
  • Spread a thick mulch layer (of about 3 inches). Don’t cover the separation point between the stem and roots of a plant.
  • You should begin by mulching seedlings at 1-2 inches, and then move up to 3 or more when the plant has developed. Benefits of mulching will occur at the earliest when you do this.
  • Don’t mulch during strong winds.
  • Don’t mulch on frozen ground.
  • Remember to water before and after you have set up the mulch.
  • In order to prevent plants from rotting, you should use light and airy materials for your mulch.
  • Remember to choose your mulching based on your plants and how long you want to protect them. In food forest, you might want to use mulch that will decompose for a long time (like wood chips).


What are the benefits of mulching?


Both organic and inorganic mulches have numerous benefits.

  • Moisture retention: Most plants need constant moisture for optimal growth. Mulch keeps the soil moist longer than uncovered dirt. It absorbs water from rainfall and irrigation. Mulch also slows the evaporation of moisture from the ground. The improved water retention will reduce the need for frequent irrigation, allowing you to space out the plant watering longer to reduce water consumption.
  • A layer of mulch also helps to slow erosion by preventing water from washing soil out of the garden.
  • Soil temperature control: Mulch acts as an insulating layer for the soil so the temperature of the ground changes more slowly. Mulch applied in the spring, or early summer keeps the soil cooler for longer. The mulching material absorbs some of the sun’s rays and delay the temperature increase of the soil. As the temperatures drop in the fall and winter, a layer of mulch allows the soil to retain heat. It allows plants to grow longer than they would and helps protects plants’ roots from harsh winter temperatures.
  • Soil nutrients: Organic mulch materials, such as wood chips or leaves, break down over time. The decomposing mulch adds nutrient-rich organic matter to the soil and improves nutrient availability by creating right conditions for beneficial microbes and other soil creatures. These nutrients feed the plants and organisms living in the planting area covered with mulch. The decomposed materials also improve the structure of the soil.
  • Weed suppression: While healthy plant growth limits some weed growth, a layer of mulch suppresses even more unwanted weed growth in your gardens and planting beds. Mulch prevents sunlight from reaching germinating weeds, so they are unable to develop. When weed seeds land on top of mulch, they aren’t able to root themselves deeply into the soil, so they are easier to remove even if they grow.

Mulch not only beautifies landscape with an attractive layer of material over bare soil, it also has several positive benefits, such as making garden maintenance easier while improving the health of your plants. Organic mulching materials, like pine needles, straw, wood chips, leaves and grass clippings, offer the greatest benefits.

Apple hawthorn permaculture plant guild

Mulching can improve yields of fruit from edible forest gardens. In the picture you can see hawthorn and apple guild.


What are possible cons of mulching?


  • Soil temperatures: Mulch can delay the soil freezing process by retaining heat in the soil if you add it too early in the fall. Furthermore, if applied too early in the spring, mulch can inhibit soil warming and delay root growth. In short, you have to wait until after a hard frost in the fall to apply winter mulch and after the last frost in spring to apply summer mulch.
  • Heat injury: Dark-colored mulches can absorb heat during the day and lose heat at night as surrounding air temperatures fall. Thus, it may sometimes injure succulent plant tissue.
  • Excessive moisture: Fine-textured mulch, such as peat moss, grass clippings, and sawdust, holds a lot of moisture. It should be only used in mixtures with other coarser materials.
  • Root color rot: Excessive mulch mounded around the base of a tree can cause decay of the vital tissue at the root collar.
  • Weed seeds: Some types of organic mulch (e.g., straw, hay, manure, and some leaf litter mold) may harbor weed seeds.
  • Mulch creates a barrier to oxygen and water: Plastic mulch or weed barriers prevent oxygen and water from penetrating the soil and should not be used on large areas unless they are porous. 

Have you been using mulch in your garden or farm? What is your experience?

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