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Mulching FAQs for a Healthy Landscape


Your comprehensive guide to mulching in the Midwest

First impressions are powerful and landscaping mulch is a key strategy to make a positive first impression for any homeowner. The pride of owning your own home shines through in the way you take care of it — both inside and out. If you’ve spent time, energy and money landscaping around your home, adding mulch can create the added aesthetic value you need to keep your property looking beautiful and inviting. Mulching your garden, trees and landscape beds with leaves, wood chips or other organic matter also has a host of other benefits to care for your trees and plants. But there are pitfalls when it comes to mulching you will want to avoid. That’s why we’re offering up your most frequently asked mulching questions with answers from our RYAN Pros!

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RYAN Pros landscape with high-quality wood chip mulch, careful to pull the mulch back from plant stems and tree trunks.

Q: What IS Mulch, Anyway?

Mulch is simply any material that is spread on top of the soil as a protective layer. Mulching is a long-established horticulture practice that offers many aesthetic, plant-friendly, and time-saving benefits.

Mulch can include a full range of organic materials such as mulching with leaves, wood chips, bark, peat moss, conifer needles, hay, straw, nut shells, and more as well as inorganic materials like plastic and stone. 

Q: What Are The Benefits Of Mulching?

Once you read all of the benefits of mulching below, you’ll understand why our RYAN Pros are keen on making sure your landscape beds and trees are mulched twice a year! 

  • Maintains soil moisture by discouraging natural evaporation, reducing the need for watering.
  • Improves soil fertility, aeration and drainage, depending on the type of mulch you use.
  • Blocks the emergence of weed seedlings, helps control nutgrass and johnsongrass and makes any weeds that do pop up easier to pull or treat.
  • Helps with disease prevention for plants, preventing soil from splashing on plant leaves.
  • Helps prevent soil compaction from heavy rains, giving your plants looser soil for roots to thrive.
  • Keeps weed eaters and lawnmowers from damaging trees by getting too close.
  • Reduces soil erosion from runoff, keeping more water on your plants and trees.
  • Saves time from watering, weeding and fighting pest problems in and around your landscaping.
  • Mulching a garden, plants and trees protects them from the temperature swings common in the Midwest landscape. In the winter, mulch insulates the roots, crowns and stems from extremely low temperatures. In the summer, proper mulching helps keep the soil cooler.
  • Beautifies your home and landscape.

Q: Are There Different Types of Mulch?

Yes, landscaping mulch has many different varieties, based on the material its made of and can be classified into two categories — inorganic and organic. Both types offer some of the same benefits, but there are drawbacks associated with some types of mulch. Here’s a breakdown of the types of mulch available.

Q: What Is Inorganic Mulch?

Inorganic mulch is made of materials such as plastic, rock, and other non-plant materials that do not break down into the soil. Types of inorganic mulch include:

  • Plastic or Rubber As Mulch

Plastic is sometimes used for vegetable gardens or in landscape gardens where irrigation systems can be placed under the plastic. It can help keep weeds down and retain soil moisture. However, RYAN does not recommend plastic weed barriers as a landscape bed mulch as they create problems in the landscape by eliminating aeration and promoting anaerobic conditions. Plastic doesn’t allow moisture to filter through to your plants, it traps heat and it accumulates leaf-litter over time — providing an organic layer for weeds to germinate on top of the plastic.

  • Landscape Fabrics or Geotextiles As Mulch

Geotextiles, also called landscape fabrics, are fabric mulches of polypropylene or polyester. They have a few benefits that plastic barriers do not. Their permeable fabric lets air and water through to the soil beneath while discouraging broadleaf weeds from coming up. But geotextiles have some of the same drawbacks as black plastic. Similar to plastic barriers, fabric weed barriers can accumulate leaf-litter and provide an area for volunteer seedlings and weeds to germinate. When that happens, roots can grow right through the fabric making weeds difficult to pull and tearing the fabric. When exposed to light, they degrade over time, so to make them last longer, you have to cover them with a second mulch.

  • Gravel, Rock or Stone As Mulch

Gravel, volcanic rock or stone mulch is a commonly-used material in many landscapes. It can be appropriate in some areas especially those that require good drainage or beds with plants that like a little additional heat. Rock mulch can add color to the landscape. It is heavy and does not blow away, and there is less need to replenish it very often. It is best to underlay these mulches with landscape fabric to reduce movement of stones into the soil. However, it is very difficult to remove if you ever change your mind and it is difficult to maintain in an area with trees. Other disadvantages to rock mulch are expense, holds in heat, adds no organic matter to soil, and is difficult to keep free of leaves, twigs and other debris. 

Q: What Is Organic Mulch?

Organic mulch includes formerly living material such as mulching with leaves, wood chips, shredded bark, straw, compost, newspaper, sawdust and similar materials that will decompose into the soil. It will have to be replaced, but in the process, it will also improve your soil’s fertility and its organic content. Adding organic material makes the soil more crumbly, especially clay soils that pack and crust. The dryer and woodier the mulch, the slower it will decompose and the fewer nutrients it will give to the soil. It’s important to know the origin of organic mulch since these materials can contain viable weed seeds that could sprout and make more work for you. The most common types of organic mulch include: 

  • Wood Chips/Bark As Mulch

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Using a colored wood chip mix for your landscaping mulch can add beauty to your yard and make you the envy of the neighborhood!

Bark mulches are best used around trees, shrubs, and garden beds where you won’t be doing a lot of digging, like front walkways and foundation plantings. Wood chips are made from many different kinds of trees —  oftentimes pine, cypress, or hardwood logs. They are dyed in attractive colors and because of their weight won’t blow or wash away. They decompose more slowly and so don’t mix fully into the soil but they will last longer than other finer organic mulches. You can buy bags of decorative wood chips from your local garden center or some community waste collection sites offer chipped yard debris. You can also chip your real Christmas tree.

  • Shredded Leaves As Mulch

One of the most common questions our RYAN Pros get in the fall is, “Can I use Leaves For Mulch?” The short answer is, yes,  mulching with leaves is one great way to use leaves from your yard in the fall. While this type of mulch may not give you the attractive look that you want, mulching leaves and spreading them on your lawn or flower beds in the fall can actually help to replenish the ground with some very important nutrients. Best of all, using leaves for mulch is a natural way to dispose of leaves without creating trash — such as placing the leaves in a plastic bag. Be sure to fluff up any unshredded leaves as they can mat together and repel water in rainy areas. 

  • Newspaper As Mulch

An old standby, newspaper is becoming one of the most popular types of mulch. Shredded newspaper has been used for years to keep plant roots moist while shipping and now with most newspapers switching to organic dyes it’s safe to use as a landscape bed mulch. Layered sheets of newspaper have great moisture retention abilities and they act like other organic mulches as far as suppressing weeds and controlling soil temperatures. They are also great for smothering existing grass for new mulching areas around trees or new landscape beds. RYAN Pros use newspaper (eight sheets is a good number) underneath our wood chip mulch to help control those first weeds that might want to pop up. 

  • Compost As Mulch

You can make compost by combining food scraps, grass clippings, and other organic materials in specialized bins or tumblers to create one of the best home-made and weed-free mulching materials out there! It’s best to use it in a thin layer under another mulch to keep it moist and biologically active to give maximum benefit to your plants. 

 

Q: What Is The Best Landscaping Mulch To Use?

After decades of mulching gardens and yards throughout the Midwest, the Pros at Ryan Lawn & Tree have settled on a wood chip variety to use for most of their professional mulching requests. RYAN uses a chocolate-dyed double-ground hardwood mulch from a mixed wood chip variety for maximum soil and moisture retention. Plus, it looks beautiful in your yard from day one throughout the season!  Other types and colors of mulch can be special-ordered from RYAN if desired. When purchasing mulch, be sure to know where the mulch comes from. Cheap mulches may contain seeds from trees and other plants that can sprout and create weed problems. Also, mulch that hasn’t been aged can be toxic to plants due to the formation of organic acids during the decomposition process, and, if placed too close to tender stems, will harm or kill plants. Purchasing mulch from a reputable dealer who has monitored the decomposition process to achieve a high-quality, aged product will do a lot to ensure that your valuable plants will stay healthy. At Ryan Lawn & Tree, we purchase mulch in bulk from a reputable supplier so you know you’re getting the best price and best quality! 

Q: When Should I Add Mulch To My Landscape?

Apply mulch to landscape beds and gardens in early spring or in the fall. Mulch around trees may be applied every other year, or as needed, depending on how quickly it decomposes. In the spring, apply mulch after the soil has warmed or after the last chance of snow.  Heavy snow compaction can discolor mulch very quickly. In the fall, apply mulch once you have completed your bed clean up and cut back the perennials. 

Q: How Thick Should My Mulch Be?

The amount of mulch you need can vary, depending on your location, temperature and desired results. Below outlines RYAN’s recommendation for mulching in its Midwest locations of St. Louis, Tulsa, Kansas City, Wichita and Springfield.

    1. For new landscape beds — Layer landscaping mulch on new beds 3 to 4 inches thick to get it started. This makes a great barrier to stifle any weeds and keeps your landscape beds looking fresh.
    2. For existing landscape bedsLayer mulch over previously mulched areas 1 to 2 inches thick so it has a chance to decompose and break down like it should and get nutrients and organic matter into the soil. A too-thick layer can lead to plant rot, diseases, pests and rodents.
    3. For trees — The mulch ring should be 3 to 6 inches thick and can be placed all the way out to the drip line — the point where the outermost edge of leaves occurs. Be sure to keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk.
    4. Adjust for soil types if needed — If you’re gardening in slow-draining soil, you may want to reduce the thickness (1 to 2 inches); for fast-draining soils like sand, aim for 4 inches

Q: How Do I Apply Landscaping Mulch?

    1. Prepare area for mulching. Clean existing weeds from landscape beds, mow existing grass under trees or anywhere mulch will be placed as short as possible.
    2. Spray with an herbicide so the area is weed-free. Wait for product to dry!
    3. Place a layer of newspaper over the area to help suppress the growth of new weeds and grass. 
    4. Apply the proper amount of mulch to the area (see above for guidelines.)
    5. Pull mulch back 2 to 4 inches from perennial crowns, shrub stems and tree trunks to avoid stem and trunk rot.
    6. Water mulch after application. This keeps dry mulch from absorbing soil moisture (and stealing it from plant roots). And, it helps anchor lightweight mulches easily carried by wind.
    7. If you would rather skip all of the above steps, contact RYAN Lawn & Tree and get a free estimate on our mulching services. We’ll take care of the work and create a professionally-mulched landscape you can be proud of!

Q: How Much Landscaping Mulch Do I Need To Cover The Area?

When figuring how much mulch you need to cover the area, remember mulch is measured in cubic feet and can often be purchased bagged or bulk from garden centers. To figure out how many cubic feet you need, multiply your total area in feet by how deep you want your mulch in inches. For example, if your square footage is 624 and you want a 4-inch depth, multiply 624 by 4 to get 2496. Divide your answer by 324 (1 cubic yard of mulch will cover 324 square feet 1 inch deep) = 7.7 cubic yards of much needed. That means you would need 69.33 three-cubic-foot bags. There are also handy mulching calculators that can do the math for you! RYAN offers mulching services and can supply high-quality, bulk mulch delivered to your home and applied properly to your garden, landscape beds and trees. A RYAN Pro can visit your home to measure and determine the exact quantity of mulch you need and offer a no-obligation price quote

Q: Can I Use Plastic And Wood Chips Together For Mulch?

Wood Chips are sometimes used on top of a layer of geotextiles or plastic. While this may seem like a perfect mulching solution, the Pros at Ryan Lawn & Tree strongly caution against this practice. It’s true that the landscape fabric or plastic may give you more protection against weeds at first. However, the barrier prevents any enhancement from the organic mulch on top from entering the soil. And, when the mulch breaks down the weeds will start to grow in the mulch and through the landscape fabric. Pulling the weeds will tear the fabric making way for more weeds. 

Q: How Do You Maintain Landscaping Mulch?

The best way to maintain your freshly mulched garden landscape and trees is with a regular program of pre-emergent herbicide to control annual grasses and broadleaf weeds. A little weeding a few times per growing season should be all that is necessary.  Your newly mulched areas will provide a natural, beneficial environment for your shrubs, plants and trees. As time goes on other plants (volunteers) will germinate in this favorable growing environment. Also, birds, animals, and wind will transport seeds from trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, and weeds.  Each year a portion of your mulch will slowly decompose, providing more organic material for your trees and plants. Once a year or as needed, apply a fresh new chip layer of 1-2 inches over your existing mulch. Lawn care service companies like Ryan Lawn & Tree offer an excellent weed bed control program using professionally applied pre-emergent and spot spraying techniques two to three times a year. In addition, mulching your landscape beds twice a year in the appropriate thickness will keep your weeds at bay and give you a lawn you can be proud of.

Get A Mulching Price Quote From Your Lawn Care Service Pros!

Take the worry and work out of enjoying your lawn with a call to the Pros at Ryan Lawn and Tree! Whether you’re mulching a garden, landscaped area or trees, you’ll find the best mulch bargains when you buy in bulk from RYAN. Plus, we’ll prepare your lawn and landscape areas for mulching and provide a program that will keep your lawn and landscape looking best on the block!  Our employee-owned company is proud to offer lawn care services throughout the greater Kansas City area, as well as four other locations throughout the Midwest. Contact us at 855-216-2293 or fill out our online form to receive a mulching estimate today!