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Should You Mulch Around Your Trees This Autumn?

autumn landscape with trees on background
With fall in the air, you may be thinking about landscape maintenance and, in particular, preparing your trees for the upcoming winter. Many homeowners choose to mulch around their trees in the fall, but is this practice really helpful?
Mulching can help keep the tree roots warm and moist throughout the winter and add valuable nutrients to the soil, but you need to follow some guidelines if you want fall mulching to do more good than harm.
Remove the Grass First
If you simply apply a layer of mulch on top of the grass, much of that grass will continue to grow, eventually popping up through the mulch. Not only does this look unsightly, but the grass then eats up all the nutrients in the mulch so the tree can't use them. Instead, you should remove the grass first.
To remove grass around your trees, use a shovel to uproot portions of the grass, digging about two inches deep to remove the grass roots as well as the above-ground shoots. Remove the grass in a wide donut shape around the tree trunk, being careful to avoid tree roots. Once the area is clear, lay down the mulch.
Rake Up Leaves First
You should also never put mulch down on top of fallen leaves. Some homeowners do this with the assumption that the leaves will break down and also leech nutrients into the soil. While this is true, the leaves could harbor fungi that cause tree diseases, like leaf scab. Covering these leaves in mulch keeps the fungi warm, encouraging it to replicate and re-infect the tree come spring.
Wait until most leaves have fallen from the tree before mulching, and rake all leaves out of the area to be mulched before you put the mulch down.
Water Your Tree Prior to Mulching
Once the grass is gone and you've raked up the leaves, you have one more step to take: water the tree. Water the tree thoroughly in the late fall after all of the leaves have fallen to help ensure healthy growth in the springtime.
Apply water in a donut shape around the tree. Make the donut as wide as the tree's longest branches reach. Water until the soil is moist to a depth of one foot. (You can use a soil probe to dig down and measure how moist your soil is at various depths.)
Leave Space Around Trunk
When the time comes to actually apply the mulch, make sure you leave a buffer zone between the tree trunk and the mulch layer — between 12 and 18 inches of space is ideal. If you push mulch up around the trunk, that mulch will keep the trunk too moist, especially when it snows. Excess moisture in the trunk can cause it to rot and decay.
Keep the Mulch Layer Relatively Thin
When you drive down the street, you may see some trees with big, thick layers of mulch around them. This is a situation in which you can have too much of a good thing. A thick layer of mulch will shed too much water, keeping your tree from getting the moisture it needs once spring arrives.
You should apply only three to four inches of mulch around your tree. If there is some mulch lingering from a previous application, either remove it and add a new four-inch layer, or make sure all of the mulch layers together do not have a depth of more than four inches.
Mulching around your trees in the fall has a lot of benefits. Follow the tips above to ensure your tree enjoys all of the benefits, but none of the drawbacks of fall mulch application. Contact T's Trees if you'd like to schedule additional autumn tree services.