Mulch Better Tree Care

by Dale Goodner

Each year “manna” rains down from heaven. In the form of little solar collectors…flattened out, and multi-colored. They decorate lawns as well as driveways. Like biblical manna, they contain nutrients that can be very beneficial. Too often they are bagged up and put out as “waste,” burned, or thrown into a gully.

Years ago we discovered the best solution to these accumulating nutrients wrapped in autumn leaves. It is easy, and is in your trees’ best interest. We rake our leaves back to the tree (or use a power mower to blow them back) forming a large leafy donut around the trunk. Ideally this leafy ring should extend to the drip line (furthermost reach of the branches). We are careful not to allow this leafy pile to touch the tree’s trunk. Then we tap the leaves down with a rake, soaking them with a hose so they don’t blow back all over the yard.

In winter the leaf pile mats down. In spring the leaves will change into a mulch bed around the tree. The grass, having died out, results in an instant mulch bed for possible native perennial plantings.

Leaves are an ideal mulch. They are abundant and free. Plus, trees have been accustomed to leaf mulch for millions of years. This has several very positive implications for the tree, besides conserving moisture and recycling nutrients. By eliminating grass, the tree doesn’t have to deal with the associated grass root toxins or compete with grass for nutrients and water. It is therefore less stressed. Mulch helps keep soil cooler, thus reducing stress on your tree. Studies have demonstrated that with a mulch bed, the fine root mass-produced by the tree can triple, making it more drought and disease resistant.

Seeds and twigs can simply be added to the mulch bed. By eliminating the need to mow at the base of the trunk, bark damage caused by mowers and trimmers is eliminated. Plus, mulch beds make the landscape far more colorful and interesting than just a monotonous expanse of lawn.

Shade tolerant native perennials are appropriate to plant beneath the tree, since they don’t require replanting each year, which would disturb tree roots. Annuals are less desirable, since they require planting each year. But if you really want annuals, consider placing shade-loving varieties in containers that sit on the mulch bed.

A good mix of native trees and perennials provides habitat for a wide variety of butterflies and moths, which in turn support native birds. This is a great way to enhance life in your yard.

Last but not least, avoid poisons such as Roundup, 3-in-1 Weed & Feed, fungicides, insecticides, spider sprays, etc. Trouble is, poisons are designed specifically to kill and they don’t know when to quit. They find their way into the food chain, into soils, into watersheds, and even into your home. Why needlessly jeopardize your own health along with a host of other critters?

When our kids were young, we’d take them to various parks, playgrounds, botanic gardens, etc. If we didn’t see dandelions, plantain, clovers, etc. in the lawn, this was an indicator that lawn toxins were in use. We would simply take the kids elsewhere. Their wellbeing was important to us…still is.

Find native plants for your area by searching the National Wildlife Federation’s website,, where you can find native plants by zip code. Another resource on native plants and insects is watching Doug Tallamy’s presentations on YouTube.


Dale and Mary Goodner are co-chairs of Wild Ones of Door County.

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