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Here are some of the things you should do (or not do) when it comes to using mulch.

If you want to learn more about mulch, check out my Part 1 and 2 articles. Contact me with any questions or comments.


  • Use shredded leaves for mulch. They are FREE and available. Ask your neighbors for some if you don’t have any. They might look at you funny, but who cares. A mulching lawn mower will shred them nicely.
  • Replace mulch every year if it no longer keeps out weeds or looks like it has been mashed into the soil. This is a good idea at least until plants fill in and mulch isn’t needed.
  • Check mulch around your plants often. Water can wash mulch into areas too close to plants or wash it away completely or if too thick can cause mold or disease. Remove and replace if damaged.
  • Remove weeds and unwanted plants in the area before mulching. Use good old elbow grease, not chemicals or equipment as both can damage roots, stems, soil organisms and tree bark. This will save you lots of time weeding.
  • Use “green” or organic materials, shredded leaves, straw, shredded wood (double or triple shredded is great stuff) and newspaper (with natural dyes) which can be covered with a thin layer of another type of mulch.
  • Use special red plastic for tomato plants. Researchers at Clemson University found that red plastic mulch yielded a 20% increase in production. Be careful not to smother the plant or block moisture.
  • Keep the same type of mulch throughout your garden for a consistent look.
  • Buy certified mulch (seal on package) by the Mulch and Soil Council. This assures you the mulch is produced properly; labeling is correct and it will not contain harmful chemicals or insects. If you buy bulk, know the manufacturer, what he uses and how it is produced.
  • Update the look of your beds with good organic mulch. This can be placed over existing mulch but no more than 3-4 inches thick total

DON’T – Oh no!

  • Pile mulch up on trucks of trees, plant stems or on your foundation. Everything needs to have air and water and not be a highway for infection or insects. Just touching the tree or plant can suffocate it. Keep mulch back past the truck’s flare and a nice circle around other plants.
  • Put mulch a total of more than 4 inches deep. More than this will not allow air and water to penetrate • Use man-made mulch like plastic or rubber. Plastic smothers everything and looks awful. Rubber can cause allergic reactions and actually kill plants according to recent studies! I wouldn’t even recommend dyed or colored mulch, although many are supposedly made from “natural” dyes.
  • Mulch when you don’t know the location of your plants. In the north, many plants die down completely each winter, covering them may smother them.
  • Mulch plants that like it dry like lavender, irises, daylilies or coneflower; groundcovers such as sedum, thyme, Lamium or Aegeopodium (Bishop’s Weed); vines (most) or plants that attract slugs (Hosta).


  • Buy uncertified mulch or mulch you don’t know where it originates.
  • Use mulch that smells bad. There are several reasons for this and they are all bad (chemicals, too much moisture, additives, etc.) Organic mulches should smell woodsy, like recently cut wood or earthy.
  • Use stones or large chuck mulch. Stones with hurt your lawnmower, possibly wash away, never break down as fertilizer and entice neighborhood children to play with and throw it. Large chunk mulch breaks down very slowly and has a tendency to float away.

Sandie is a freelance writer and photographer. Her mother started her passion for gardening by "letting" her help her plant and water annuals, paint stepping stones and mow and edge the grass. Some of the "dirt" must have been absorbed. She consider herself to be a plant collector. Her garden had a plan, but it has been overrun by cool and not so cool plants. If they grow and bloom or look nice, they stay. That includes what many people might call weeds! Sandie calls them wildflowers or native plants. Check out her website at www.SandieParrott.com for more info. She currently writes garden articles and profiles of passionate gardeners for "the Michigan Gardener" and "the Herbarist" along with other non-gardening writing. 

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