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Mulch Madness!

It's officially spring, and after some brutal winter weeks in February here in Michigan, I couldn't be more excited for my snow piles to melt and get into the gardens! The first order of business on my schedule is to cut down my native perennials and burn some areas I didn't burn last spring. But, a nasty event is lurking just around the corner while the snowpack melts and plants emerge. Many gardeners are about to engage in a terrible activity – they are about to smother their gardens in another layer of mulch. To this activity, I say, please… "STOP THE MULCH MADNESS!"

Too much mulch and not enough plants in this 'before' picture

Year 2 after I re-planted with native cultivar 'The Blues' Little Bluestem

While a little mulch is a good thing, especially in the first year of a garden (and maybe the second), too much mulch is a terrible thing. It is likely contributing to your plants' decline and potentially their early demise.

"If you keep mulching to prevent weeds from growing between your plants, you don't have enough plants."

Nature's Cover

Most perennials should be planted at 1 foot on center or less. That means one perennial plant every 12" or less. Shrubs can usually be planted 2-3 feet apart, depending on their growth habit, and if you're recreating woodlands, you can plant trees every 10 feet apart. Your goal is to cover (and shade) ground with as much vegetation as possible. The more plants you use, the thicker the vegetative cover will be and the less sunlight will reach the ground, offering fewer opportunities for weeds to grow.

In the natural world, plants try and cover every single space of bare ground and usually figure out a way to occupy the same space. Plants do this by occupying different levels of roots underground, different vegetation heights above, and growing, blooming, and seeding at different times. The bottom line – plants like to grow as close together as possible.

Dense planting will eventually provide enough plant debris for self mulching. All you need to do is cut back your plants and leave the cuttings on the ground.

Don't fall into the trap of over-mulching. Stop the madness before it starts.


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