Problems With Over-MulchingTrees and Shrubs
ulching trees and shrubs is a recommendedcultural maintenance method with many ben-efits, yet it can literally kill plants if mulch isapplied improperly. A mountain of mulch, piled highagainst the tree trunk, does not kill a tree immediately—it results in a slow death. Over-mulching is a waste of mulch (and money!). It is a leading cause of death of azalea, rhododendron, dogwood, boxwood, mountainlaurel, hollies, cherry trees, ash, birch, linden, spruce, andmany other landscape plants.
Over-Mulching Can Kill
How does over-mulching kill trees and shrubs? The mostcommon causes are:
Suffocation of the tree roots is themost common cause of tree and shrub death from over-mulching. Repeated applications can contribute to wa-terlogged soil/root zone by slowing soil water loss viaevaporation. With water occupying most soil porespace,air content is mimimal and diffusion of oxygen is essen-tially blocked. Roots need oxygen for respiration. Whensoil oxygen levels drop below 10%, root growth declines.Once too many roots decline and die, the plant dies.When shallow rooted plants are planted in mounds of mulch, oxygen levels can begin to decline below plantneeds. This is especially common in the spring and thefall, which are critical periods for root growth, and duringother wet periods. Oxygen deprivation is also prevalentin soils that do not have good drainage.Symptoms may take several years to appear, dependingon the plant and the soil type. Symptoms include off-color, yellowing foliage (chlorosis), abnormally smallleaves,poor twig growth, and dieback of olderbranches. Unfortunately, by the time the symptoms arenoticed, it is generally too late to correct the problem. Atthis point, the plant is usually in a state of irreversibledecline, and will most likely die.
Inner bark death of aboveground root flares.
Innerbark (phloem) death comes from the piles of mulchplaced directly against the stems/trunks of trees andshrubs. The root flare stem and trunk tissue is quitedifferent from root tissue—it cannot survive a continu-ally moist environment, and must be able to breathethrough lenticels. When mulch is piled near trunks, gasexchange decreases, stressing and ultimately killing theinner bark (phloem) tissue. This also occurs when treesare planted too deep (the root flare is buried). Phloemdeath may also occur when pop-up sprinkler headscontinually saturate the mulch placed against theplant’s trunk.Once the inner bark dies, roots become malnourished andweakened, with a subsequent reduction in water andnutrient uptake. The entire health of the plant is thusaffected. If such wet conditions continue long enough,the phloem tissue may die, starving the roots since theythen receive none of the essential photosynthates pro-duced by the leaves.
Most fungal and bacterial diseases requiremoisture to spread and reproduce.Trunk diseases gaina foothold into the moist, decaying bark tissue under themulch. Once established, the disease organisms ulti-mately invade the inner bark, starving the plant, andfi-nally kill the plant. Often this scenerio is accompaniedby bark beetles and borers, that are also attracted tostressed plants, expedite the decline, and also allowentrance of other fungal pathogens into the plant.
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Deborah Smith-Fiola, Ocean County Agricultural Agent