Mulch breaks down and needs restoring -- but don't pile it on

Backyard Q&A

October 13, 2002|By Dennis Bishop | Dennis Bishop,Special to the Sun

I generally mulch all of my plants in early spring, but by fall, much of it has broken down and it barely covers the ground. Should I mulch more than once a year?

Mulch can break down quickly during warm moist days of late spring and early summer, and leave plant roots exposed to the warm, drying sun of late summer and early fall. To avoid this, you should mulch again in late summer.

However, you should not have more than 1 to 3 inches of mulch on your plants at any one time. Trees and shrubs can often tolerate 3 inches of mulch, but flowerbeds should have no more than 1 to 2 inches. If you put 3 inches of mulch on your trees in spring, it will often break down to 2 inches by late summer. So, I would add 1 more inch to carry the plants through the fall.

Be sure to add only what is needed. I have seen beds that have been repeatedly mulched to depths of 8 to 10 inches. This is not healthy for plants.

We are looking for several small native flowering trees to plant in a shady area of our back yard. Should we plant a redbud or dogwood?

Redbud and dogwood are both great trees, and you might consider planting one or more of each. Their bloom periods overlap in most years, and they look beautiful together in flower. However, there are situations where one may be preferable to the other.

Dogwoods like well-drained soils with ample organic matter and are prone to a number of stress-related diseases. They require more care than redbuds. Therefore, if your soil is poor, or if you have little time to care for your trees, you will probably have more luck with redbuds.

Dogwoods are considered a true understory tree and will grow in more shade than redbuds. If you have a spot that is in full shade, I would try the dogwood. You can help keep your dogwoods healthy by occasionally watering them during dry spells, and by placing a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch over their roots.

Dennis Bishop is an urban horticulture educator for the Baltimore office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension. If you have a gardening or pest problem, you can call the Home and Garden Information Center hot line (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) at 800-342-2507. You can also e-mail questions, order publications and diagnose plant problems by visiting the Web site,


1. Older needles on evergreens will naturally yellow and drop at this time. There is no need for alarm as long as the remaining needles are green.

2.When planting bulbs in clumps and masses, dig the entire planting area with a shovel. This is often easier than digging one planting hole at a time with a trowel.

3. Rake up and destroy any diseased leaves that have fallen from fruit trees. This will help prevent the disease from infecting the tree again next spring.

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