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We made mistakes mulching our first trees, but you can make less. Although we performed far-and-wide style research before buying trees, we still missed many critical tips which are shared in this post.
Tips such as:
- Pros & cons of each mulch type
- State of mulch material for tree age
- When to put compost under mulch for better results
- Exactly how we mulch young and mature fruit trees
More critical tips for mulching trees are found in this post: 3 Keys To Correctly Mulch Any Tree (What To and Not Do)
What is the best mulch for fruit trees?
The term “mulch” is a blanket for anything that can cover the surface of the soil for the purpose of (1) preventing weeds and (2) retaining moisture in the soil below.
Weed suppression allows young trees to establish with little to no competition in the roots. Moisture retention allows the roots to stay hydrated which is essential for growth.
These are just the basic benefits of mulching your fruit trees using any type of material. The tricky part is that some materials, while they provide the above benefits, can work against you in other ways. So the best choice of mulch for fruit trees lies in several considerations of how the medium impacts the tree.
The best mulch is a combination that meets all needs of the tree. Established trees grow well with any long-term fertility. Unestablished trees do best with a source of short-term fertility, such as finished compost, and with long-term fertility, such as wood chips, or straw, applied on top.
Fruit trees need short-term and long-term nourishment and soil protection. Organic mulches are always better than inorganic mulches since they build the soil over time.
Fruit trees are productive over the long term and require an ongoing source of nourishment. This means that moisture retention and weed suppression are not the only goals for mulching your fruit trees.
Below is a table that shows common mulch materials and the benefits they do and don’t provide a tree.
|Mulch type||Weed suppression||Moisture retention||Short term nourishment||Long term nourishment||Stable soil temps|
|Young brush mulch||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
This article was originally published on foodforestliving.com. If it is now published on any other site, it was done without permission from the copyright owner.
The focus of this post will be ensuring the health of young, freshly planted trees on a short- and long-term basis.
Young trees need:
- Weed suppression to eliminate competition so that roots can take over and establish in their area
- Moisture retention for an environment that facilitates growth for roots and other living microorganisms
- Short-term nourishment so they can grow and establish without the stress of deficiencies
- Long-term nourishment so they can continue to grow into productive and strong long-lasting trees
- Stable soil temperatures for an environment that is livable and functional for roots and microorganisms – it’s like earth for us! We thrive when the temperatures are not too cold nor too hot. It’s the same thing for soil critters.
First, we will get inorganic mulches out of the way and then discuss the pros and cons of several organic mulch types.
Is it better to put mulch or rocks around trees?
Rocks can appear pretty and are a popular choice for mulching trees as seen in many gorgeous landscapes. So the question is; what do you value more? This particular aesthetic or having strong and well-fed trees?
Organic mulch is better for trees than rocks or any other inorganic mulch. While inorganic mulches provide weed suppression, they don’t build soil. Any mulch type generally suppresses weeds and prevents evaporation, but only organic mulch builds soil and nourishes plants.
Rocks do have their benefits but are likely not the best choice available to you.
Is it good to put rocks around fruit trees?
Maybe you really do love rocks and want to use them for your trees. We love rocks too and even have tons where we live, but is the maintenance good for you or your tree?
Rocks around fruit trees are good for preventing weeds and evaporation, cooling the soil, and looking beautiful. Rocks are not good for building soil, nourishing trees, or for being low maintenance.
Due to the fact that rocks don’t provide trees enough nutritional value on their own means, they are a high-maintenance mulch for fruit trees.
Not only can some rocks be expensive to buy, but you’ll also need to move them off, apply compost to the base of your trees, and then put them all back when done. That labor feels worse than it sounds—especially because it’s unnecessary labor!
Organic mulches don’t need to be moved aside, but rather simply added to over top.
Disadvantages of other inorganic mulches
Other inorganic mulches that get used around trees are landscape fabrics or plastics. While they are a one-and-done-never-worry-about-weeds kind of mulch, they have no other beneficial qualities.
Landscape fabric and black plastic used as mulch are the worst options for your trees. The black color heats up the soil causing it to dry quicker while new water can’t get through to replenish the soil. These materials don’t nourish plants, and as they do degrade they pollute with plastics.
Heated soil becomes stressful for both plants and beneficial soil organisms. Stable soil temperatures come from any neutral material that covers the surface of the soil. While these fabrics can be covered by a neutral material to prevent heat problems the tree will not be nourished or watered well.
Plastic and plastic-based fabrics also pollute the air and soil while also blocking several elemental processes.
Weed suppression is one of the least important goals for growing healthy trees. Nourishment, water, and temperature stability are always higher priorities.
So it’s safe to conclude that inorganic sheet mulches are opposite to a good idea for growing healthy trees.
Can you put black wood mulch around fruit trees?
Black mulch and other dyed mulches are a widespread choice for several permanent landscapes. Healthy trees and especially fruit trees, however, do come with more than considerable disadvantages.
The disadvantages of black mulch include:
- Black mulch can heat the soil which disrupts soil life and creates plant stress
- Dyed mulch may be made from recycled wood sources
- The odd recycled wood sources may contain treated wood contaminants
- Cheap dyes contaminate the ground with harmful chemicals, but quality dyes are okay
So, how will you know what you have? I don’t know. Does the company selling it know for sure?
Black may be pretty but practical is sure to be prettier.
Are wood chips good mulch for trees? (yes and no)
While it may seem that wood chips are a classic no-brainer mulch that’s good for every tree, it turns out they aren’t the best option for young unestablished trees.
Fresh wood chips are good for established trees and other perennials growing in rich soil. Composted wood chips are better for unestablished trees or poor soil conditions. The state of fresh wood chips interacts with the soil differently in the short term and neglects the growth of young trees.
Woodchips are a long-term source of food for plants and unestablished trees require nourishment right away in the short term.
This was the mistake we made with our first fruit trees! We planted them in native soil and topped them with woodchips. Some of them we even topped with a wood chip mushroom bed!
The only fix we needed to make going forward was to apply compost to the surface of the native soil before applying woodchips. This ensures that the young trees have a source of nutrients during a critical stage of growth.
The mulch also feeds off of the compost in order to break down and eventually will provide longer-term nourishment. This is exactly the issue when mulch is applied directly to the native soil of an unestablished tree. Many vital tree roots will be sharing the nutrients with the mulch and primarily nitrogen will be most deficient.
Nitrogen is crucial for the vegetative growth of a tree which is in its early stages of establishment before fruit. Without adequate nutrients of all kinds, a young tree will be stressed and perform to a lesser degree than when its needs are met, especially at this stage.
Wood chips are a great tree mulch for established trees, but should be partnered with any form of finished organic compost.
What’s the best compost for fruit trees?
Since we’ve determined that compost is a good partner to mulch for unestablished fruit trees the best compost is a good question.
A mix of various organic materials is best for balance. Fruit trees thrive on high-nitrogen (N) composts that also contain fair amounts of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Aged manure from herbivores generally contains high amounts of N, and plant-based composts have more balance between NPK.
If you’re buying compost from a store any organic all-purpose mix will do, even manure if you prefer it as a source.
Related post: Mulch vs Compost vs Fertilizer (When to Use What)
Further down in the article, we explain the free sources of compost we’ve been making and using for our young fruit trees and how we layer it with mulch.
Compost should have mulch on top of it for a long-term source of nourishment and to prevent weeds from popping up and establishing ahead of your tree.
Is bark mulch good for fruit trees?
Bark mulch lasts longer than wood chips, even double the time, so it could pose the question of being a better choice.
Fruit trees benefit from a quicker turnaround time than bark mulch offers. Since bark mulch takes nearly double the time to decompose as wood chips, it’s that much longer before nutrients become available. Bark mulch is good for well-established or mature trees.
We could say that you need more compost to feed that bark mulch, but you really don’t want to be mounding any of these materials too high. You planted the tree at the specified depth for a reason. If you mountain up composts and mulches too high your tree’s roots won’t receive the air exchange they need.
Bark as mulch takes a very long time to break down which means during that whole period any tree would not receive any nourishment from it.
Since bark mulch is quite coarse, it would tie up a greater amount of nitrogen over a longer period and could cause stress to the tree in the short term.
For fruit trees, it’s a better general rule to use long-term mulches of smaller particle size so they break down on the quicker side of the scale—since nourishment is the goal.
Is cedar mulch good around fruit trees?
Everywhere you look is a different answer to this question. Some growers say they will never use cedar mulch for their fruit trees and others have written a whole post on why it’s the best possible option.
To answer this, I’ve decided it’s more helpful to address each claim and express logical thoughts on each of them rather than saying what “is” or “isn’t.”
- It’s widely agreed that cedar mulch deters pests such as termites, ants, and plenty of other insects including beneficial pollinators
If true, I would determine this to be a con for fruit trees since an inviting environment for pollinators would yield more fruit. If you have termite issues, however, using cedar mulch makes sense as a better choice over hardwood mulch.
- It’s also agreed that cedar mulch, like any wood-based mulch, retains moisture, stabilizes soil temperature, and suppresses weeds.
And if weed suppression isn’t enough apparently the properties of cedar take it a step further to inhibit the growth of weeds. All these qualities are a pro but not necessarily of greater value than what any other mulch can accomplish.
This publication (p. 244) supports the idea of weed prevention through the demonstration of allelopathy. They mention pine, eucalyptus, and acacia have demonstrated these effects with no mention of cedar. Regardless, even without the affects of alleloptahy weeds are physically suppressed by any mulch.
- Some say that cedar mulch acidifies the soil—which isn’t ideal for fruit trees—while many others say that it’s a myth. Is it?
Starting on page 243 under the title “Mulch Problems – Real and Perceived” (to find it quickly press Control+F and search “acid” then enter) You’ll see that there is only material that supports the side saying it’s a myth—that mulch has not resulted in acidified soil.
The idea is that the breakdown process ultimately neutralizes the pH of the medium. Neutrality is becoming more widely acknowledged through real results of soil not becoming acidic from mulch.
- Does wood mulch actually cause nitrogen deficiency in the soil? Will it affect your tree?
Because this is addressed in the publication cited above, I want to address it here as a confirmation of what was said earlier in the post. In the publication, they say it’s a myth that wood mulch robs nitrogen to the extent that it affects established trees with no mention of unestablished trees.
Based on the experience of many growers and ourselves it’s safe to conclude that it’s a good idea to partner compost with any wood mulch for unestablished trees. Because it’s true that nitrogen is required for carbon-heavy wood material to decompose.
Wood mulch ultimately feeds a tree in the long term, perfect for established trees with established layers of fertile soil. But unestablished trees without established layers of fertile soil need extra fertility to cover short-term needs.
Finally, we can consider the decomposition timeline.
Bark mulch and cedar mulch take longer than hardwood chips to break down. This post has a quick explanation of the difference between soft and hardwood and why most softwoods may take longer to break down than hardwood. Bark mulch is typically made from softwoods such as pine, fir, and spruce. Cedar is also a softwood.
Softwood mulch, such as cedar, is a suitable choice for established trees, but less ideal for unestablished trees.
Are pine needles good mulch for fruit trees?
Pine needles are often used to mulch trees where they are abundantly falling. But fruit trees don’t normally grow in coniferous forests so it’s a sensible question to wonder if pine needles are a good choice for fruit trees.
Pine needles are a beneficial mulch for fruit trees since they allow rain to fall through, suppress weeds, and supply nourishment. Several gardeners of vegetables, perennials, and fruit trees recommend using pine needles if available. Contrary to common belief, pine needles do not acidify the soil.
Several food grower’s we’ve spoken to in person and online have done plenty of experiments with pine needles and soil acidification. We’ve never met anyone who experienced a result of acidified soil from pine needle straw.
Windy areas are a good place to use pine needles (also known as pine straw) because they don’t have the surface area to be blown away by wind.
Fire prone areas should avoid using pine needles as mulch since they contain lots of sap. Sap burns quickly and enables fires to move fast. If you’ve ever burned pine wood, you’d understand the haste.
Pine needles are not the same as pine mulch. Pine mulch is made from the trunk of a pine tree, while pine needs are the needles of a pine tree.
Are grass clippings good mulch for fruit trees?
Most of us have a lawn of grass growing somewhere on site and it’s always a good idea to mulch with what you have. Grass clippings are known to compost well but to use than as mulch for fruit trees is something else.
Dried grass clippings are a suitable but short-term mulch for fruit trees. They offer a desirable nutrient ratio between nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for fruit trees. Dry the clippings before applying them as mulch to prevent matted clumps. Mats block the flow of water and air to the roots.
Moist matted clumps of grass can also harbor diseases and develop undesirable smells.
Clipped grass decomposes very quickly but trimmed lawns don’t have a shortage of supply.
If you’ve got no other use for your grass, use what you have. Just be sure to follow the rules and dry them first.
Is straw good mulch for fruit trees?
Straw is a popular mulch because it’s inexpensive to supply and readily available nearly anywhere. We used straw mulch for our fruit trees and our gourmet mushrooms love the stuff, but the rodents do too! Convenience, even for mulch material, hasn’t been the best choice.
Straw generally makes a good mulch, but for fruit trees, they are low in nutrients. If using straw mulch, it’s a good idea to lay compost made from a diverse mix of organic materials first. Be prepared to replenish the straw every 1-2 years and source it from a place that does not spray chemicals.
Home-grown straw won’t have chemicals if you don’t put them there! But if you don’t have space, be cautious about sourcing straw.
Many gardeners have been plagued with grazon-sprayed straw, mostly in the United States from what I’ve seen so far, and it’s destroyed their vegetable gardens and fruit trees for years to come. Grazon is an herbicide used by straw growers to keep herbaceous weeds from growing in their grasses.
Its use is not limited to the USA.
David the Good has experience dealing with grazon contamination.
This long-lasting herbicide can pass through digestive systems of livestock. Even well-composted manure can still contain grazon and harm your plants for years until soil organism break it down.
Luckily, not all straw or manure contains grazon, the trick is knowing for sure. It’s tough to truly know and trust the word of people who may or may not be aware of the issue themselves.
No problems have been presented with our “organic” grown Canadian rye straw. After seeing the devastation of others’ experience, we are extra cautious about importing fertility and 100% recommend making your own.
Are leaves good mulch for fruit trees?
Leaves are a commonly used as mulch in general, but does that mean they are good particularly for fruit trees?
Leaves are a natural occurring litter of overstory canopies where fruit trees desire to grow. Fruit trees even shed their own leaves too and provide mulch for themselves, so it all makes sense.
Leaves are an excellent mulch for fruit trees because they suppress weeds, stabilize soil temperatures, retain soil moisture, and can offer short- and long-term fertility. Shred whole leaves to feed young trees quickly. Next year, more leaves will fall for free to mulch your trees.
Free leaves can be found in endless quantities every autumn in most neighborhoods. City and town households rake their leaves into paper bags and leave them on the side of the road before the scheduled municipal pickup date.
The pickup schedule is easily found online via the website of the local area. Once you find the pickup date, drive around the neighborhood a couple of days before and pick up as many bags as you want.
Sometimes they come shredded, sometimes they’re whole, sometimes they look diseased, and sometimes they’re filled with all sorts of other organic material from potting mediums to kitchen scraps.
We recommend sticking to healthy-looking leaves either whole or shredded.
If you plan to do this every year it’s a good idea to get acquainted with homeowners who offer a good quantity of leaves each year, has healthy trees, and don’t apply pesticides to their yards.
Since leaves break down quicker than wood chips, for example, they are more costly in time and effort. But the need to replenish the leaves every year or two means lots of fertility for your tree.
Is living mulch a good idea for fruit trees?
Living mulch is becoming a popular choice for growers who grow with the intention to regenerate their own food systems. Whether it’s the best option for your tree depends on the life stage of the tree in question.
Living mulch is ideal for established trees. Unestablished trees are best mulched and deprived of competition. As young trees grow to maturity, a polyculture of beneficial plants can be added to the mulch base to attract pollinators, accumulate nutrients, and confuse the sensory visions of pests.
A living mulch is either a mono-cover crop or a mix of several plants called polycultures.
Polycultures are heavily used in food forests for the benefit of the overall system including its fruit trees.
Related post: How to Grow a Food Forest for Free and Cheap
Does young brush make good mulch?
Forest gardeners and orchardists are talking about it. Chipped or cut-up trimmings from pruning their trees and shrubs have been doing wonders for all the perennials.
Young wood chips can come from the green wood growth of a woody perennial, such as a tree or shrub.
It’s free, a product of action you’ll do anyways, and makes for less work!
It’s basically a form of “chop and drop,” and since you’ll be pruning plants anyways—leaving them as mulch spares you the need to clean up.
Is willow mulch good for fruit trees?
Willow mulch has been grown by gardeners of all kinds for a long time because it grows lots of mass, quickly. They’re also making a comeback with realized benefits!
Willows and poplars are showing “promising results” to boost the immune function of trees to save apples from scab. Willow and poplar wood contain salicylic acid which has been shown to prevent other diseases in several plants.
The Canadian Organic Growers are laying 5kg of willow mulch around their trees.
To grow your own source of willow look for the violet (S. daphnoides) and corkscrew (S. matsudana tortuosa) varieties.
Personal preferences and cost balance of mulches
Costs include the frequency of physical effort and time or money required to maintain and replenish mulch. The goal for fruit trees isn’t to reduce the cost of the mulch since the need to replenish mulch means your tree is getting fed.
Spending more money usually means you’re getting a long-lasting mulch that takes a longer time to break down. These are great for established and mature trees.
Increasing the physical and replacement-frequency cost of mulch is beneficial for young trees and fruit trees because faster degrading material means more nourishment.
Cost is work is growth. . . is results!
But don’t worry—the cost of growing healthy fruit trees is still low (compared to vegetables) even if it isn’t eliminated.
While it may seem that using inorganic mulch that doesn’t need replacement is a cost-savings—it isn’t. Especially for fruit trees! Inorganic mulches are the worst option because their cost is detrimental to the health of your trees and that’s a good way to be set back years of irreplaceable time.
The better mulches allow the soil food web to interact with it to build soil.
Tree health includes how and when the tree is fed by the chosen mulch medium.
How we mulch our young trees for success
We noticed a difference between the way we mulched all our young, freshly planted fruit trees.
- Some of them got planted in native soil with a topping of fresh wood chips and inoculated with mushrooms
- Some got planted in native soil, topped with compost, and then a wood chip covering
- And some got planted in imported fresh soil/compost, then topped with chopped-up green weeds, a paper sheet mulch, then woodchips on top
Who do you think grew the best, based on what you’ve read in this post?
It wasn’t #1.
Both #2 and #3 did better than #1, but haven’t shown much difference between the two of them so far.
Had these materials been applied to established trees, there would likely be little or less difference in performance.
Options #2 and #3 are the way we like to mulch fruit trees. If weeds are growing abundantly near the hole to plant the tree—we would pick option #3. If no weeds were nearby and we had a pile of fresh compost available we would pick option #2.
At the end of the day, all we can do is make the best of what we have available!
As soon as we grow our own willow, we will be using its mass for immunity-building mulch!
The best mulch is a combination of available or preferred materials that meet all the needs of the tree in question.
Established trees grow well with any type of mulch for a slow release of long-term fertility.
Unestablished and young trees do best with a source of short-term fertility, such as finished compost, with long-term fertility, such as wood chips, pine needles, or straw mulch, applied on top.
The best mulch also varies between tree types. Stone fruits, for example, naturally grow in deciduous (hardwood) forests and would prefer leaves and hardwood chips over coniferous materials.
Fruiting bushes such as blueberries, lingonberries, and cranberries, for example, would naturally grow under the canopy of coniferous forests and prefer the conditions that pine needles and other softwood materials create.
Finally, the best mulch is created by you on your property. Sustainable systems should be able to provide for themselves free of chemical contamination. Importing mulch material, and even compost carries many uncertain risks that if plagued by, outweigh the convenience of them.
We all want to prevent as many mistakes as possible and do research to learn from others and avoid them! I’d love to hear about what brought you to this post if you’d care to share in a comment.
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