9 Ways to Avoid the Worst Mulching Mistakes

Planting in mulch can help your garden grow, but your plants will be happier and healthier when you know the do's and don'ts for using mulch in the garden.

I was a new gardener planting my first vegetable patch years ago when a friend gave me some hay from his farm to use as mulch. Planting in mulch can really benefit your plants by keeping their roots cooler in hot spells, helping control weeds, and holding moisture in the soil. So I gladly accepted the hay and spread it around my peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, then sat back to watch things grow. Things grew all right: plenty of weeds! If only I'd known that I should have composted the hay first to kill the weed seeds in it, or chosen a different mulching material such as shredded leaves. Here's how you can avoid common mulching mistakes in your own garden.

person with gardening gloves holding mulch in their garden
ronstik/Getty Images

1. Don't Use Mulch Mixed with Soil

Mulch, compost, and soil are different things, says Greg Baka, a long-time gardener and the owner of Easy Digging tools. It's OK to mix compost into your topsoil to improve it, but let mulch lie on the surface. "Mulch mixed with soil damages the nutrient balance, and causes difficulties in digging and weeding," Baka explains. Jeff Gibson, landscape business manager for Ball Horticultural Company, adds that you should never use woody mulch as a soil amendment in containers or the ground because, "in the process of decaying, it binds up the available nitrogen that could be going to the plants you want to grow."

2. Keep Woody Mulches out of Your Vegetable Patch

Among your veggies, woody mulches like bark chips are not the best choice. "For a vegetable garden, cheap compost does a much better job of mulching than expensive decorative woody mulch. And it feeds the soil," says Baka. A layer of woody mulch also makes it harder to quickly hoe weeds from between your rows, Baka adds, noting that you have to remove it first, weed, and then put the mulch back.

3. Avoid Fresh Mulches

This was my novice mistake. Mulch materials such as shredded brush, manure, or hay from "pastures, hayfields, or street and highway right-of-ways may contain weed seeds," Baka says, as well as herbicide residues that can kill your plants. "Let fresh mulch sit a few months to leach out any residue and let weed seeds sprout and die," he advises. Composting it before use is even better.

4. Watch out for Creeping Plants

Plants that spread by creeping stems, particularly turf grasses such as Bermuda grass, are sometimes so vigorous that they'll grow right under mulch. Don't spread mulch on or near these plants if you can avoid it. Instead, Baka recommends keeping them in check with edging that runs above and below the ground, or you can dig a small trench along a bed so you can see runners trying to invade and remove them before they get into the mulch.

removing weed roots with hand spade
Jacob Fox

5. Get Rid of Weeds Before Mulching

While a good layer of mulch can smother small, young weeds, don't expect it to magically eliminate well-established weeds. It's better to remove any big weeds and patches of weeds before mulching over them, or they'll pop right through. Or, as noted in the previous tip, some may keep on spreading under your mulch.

6. Don't Use Too Much Mulch

Plant roots need oxygen to survive, and a very deep layer of mulch can limit the supply. Plus, fungi can become a problem when your mulch layer is too thick, points out Sam Schmitz, grounds supervisor and horticulturist for The Gardens at Ball. "Fungal mats can develop and actually repel the water you are trying to conserve by applying mulch to begin with. One inch of mulch is plenty and more economical."

7. Prevent Mulch from Touching Your House

When damp mulch touches your siding, it creates a path for termites and other pests to use to get to your home. Baka says it's fine to use mulch against a concrete wall, but keep it at least 6 inches away from any kind of wood or wooden structures.

8. Don't Make Mulch Volcanoes Around Trees

While mulching around trees is a good idea, mounding it up against the trunk is not. That's because it can keep the tree's root collar too damp and cause it to rot, warns Gibson from Ball, plus it can encourage insects to bore into the trunk and weaken it. Similar to keeping mulch from touching your house, leave a little space between your mulch and a tree's trunk. And don't pile mulch right up against other plants like shrubs and perennials, either, says Baka. Aim for at least a couple of inches of space between their stems and any mulch.

9. Avoid Using Dyed Mulch

If you use bagged mulch, Gibson says, "Read the label, as some mulches contain natural dyes, but others may be sprayed-on colorants full of toxins bad for pets and kids. They can leach into the soil and destroy beneficial microbes." He recommends using composted leaf mulch instead, which looks more natural and improves the soil. "Leaf litter provides overwintering habitat for butterflies and other beneficial insects, too. It's a natural, renewable resource people bag up and throw out, and then use wood mulch to cover those same beds! Be more Zen in the garden; leave it be. Nature knows what it's doing."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles