A Love Affair Fizzles

I have been thinking about mulch rings- yet another sign I may be a garden geek. I have always been a fan of the mulch ring and its tidy, clean lines and added shaped and flow in the home landscape. For a while now though my love affair has been fizzling. As I walk around the neighborhood I see the same effect of curving lines and clean edges created by lush green (imagine that, color in the landscape!) ground cover.

Pachysandra is high on my list of ground covers to love. It thrives in the shade, making it well suited for under mature trees, and it does not climb! As much as I like the jungle feel of mature ivy cascading from a towering oak’s canopy (not), I prefer a ground cover that, gasp, stays on the ground. Of course there are many other plant options to choose from for sun or shade areas, but this is not a chat about ground cover- exactly.

Thomas Rainer, author of Grounded Design shares a great case against the mulch rings. And here is another radical discovery; in the woods, plants grow up to the base of trees and everything seems to do just fine. We were lured into the belief that mulch rings were needed to protect the roots from water hungry plants, like grasses. Secondly, we convinced ourselves that roots only grow as far as the tree’s drip line.

Photo from Grounded Design

As mature, educated gardeners we know that roots grow until they can grow no longer. If the soil allows them to expand, even beyond the tree’s trip line, they go for it! We also know that trees do not have one giant tap root that reaches far into the earth’s crust seeking out water; because we often see such a root on tree tip-ups in the woods (note sarcasm). Hmmmm, I am seeing a theme of studying the woodland landscape, AKA nature, for tips on what to do in our landscapes.

We know from simple observation that trees rely heavily on a network of small roots, located close to the surface. Which brings me to another reason to dump the mulch rings, edging. The best edging, I think, is made by deep cuts, dramatically differentiating the lawn from the mulch. I think you know where I am going here. The deep cuts are severing vital, life sustaining roots from the tree.

No mulch here!
So what is the need of the mulch ring? In some cases, where commercial grade mowers are used and it is not feasible to establish an attractive understory, mulch may be a better option than weeds and the dreaded tree trunk machine collisions. But I think this is few and far between.

For the rest of us, in our humble home landscapes, I see mulch as a thing of the past, out of fashion; much like Astroturf and carpeting on outdoor patio floors and steps.

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