A mulched tree bed is edged with stone and brick

To Mulch, Or Not To Mulch? And Other Lawn Care Questions

Every summer, my husband and I have the same discussion.

He says: “You aren’t getting mulch this year, are you?”

I say: “Yes!”

He says: “You just mulched last year.”

I say: “No, I didn’t get mulch last year, I got it the year before.”

He then gives me a sideways glance.


Shredded Bark Mulch: Yes or No?

Mulch is a term that can be applied to a variety of materials. When I refer to mulch, I am talking about shredded bark mulch.

We have lived in our house for 19 years. When we moved in, the beds had been mulched and planted with red geraniums.. There was mulch under all of the trees in the three-quarter acre lot. It looked nice and neat. However, it was not a gardener’s yard.

I brought with me divisions from my former yard: iris, hosta, peonies, primroses, forget-me-not, foxglove, and on and on. I was certainly more interested in packing and settling my plants than I was in packing and settling my household!

I believed that I could reproduce my small yard in my new home. Only by experience did I learn the realities of scale. I would need a lot more plants.

If you have large flower beds, you aren’t going to plant one of this and one of that. You need multiples of plant types to achieve pleasing design. One of the most cost effective ways to get multiples is by division or self-sowing.

Ostrich ferns spreading in border to fill bare ground
Ostrich fern spreads by rhizomes (roots). I need to get at that spreading grass!

Mulch can interfere with these processes. After all, mulch is intended to suppress the sprouting of weeds. It’s going to work the same way with flower seeds.

We faced two competing considerations: mulch to control weeds and create the well-tended yard look, or not mulch to let nature fill in the beds with extensive plantings.

This flower border has filled in with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) covering the bare ground. The yarrow spreads by rhizome, the snow-in-summer by seed.
This flower border has filled in with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). The yarrow spreads by rhizome, the snow-in-summer by seed.

Compromise seems to have worked for us. We don’t mulch every year, but every other. During the second planting season, volunteers are allowed to grow, and spreading plants do their thing without push-back. The result is full flower beds and less bare gaps that need mulch.

Yes, weeds have been a problem. You have to take the bad with the good. But, we’ve also had surprise seedlings. Wild roses, wood ferns, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geraniums, holly bushes, and even a volunteer blue juniper, have adorned our flower beds, all by nature’s hand.

Wacky Weed Wacking

Besides mulching, we bought our first weed trimmer to help us maintain our yard. This tool is the one that I hate the most. It is temperamental, stalling inexplicably. The string is forever running out, falling out, or getting tangled. It is just heavy enough to cause muscle fatigue. I am often covered with grass and weed guts as I stomp around the yard looking for unmowed grass and overgrown weeds.

The trimmer tackles everything indiscriminately. That is the problem.

We’ve lost many, many trees around our home. Dutch elm disease and Emerald Ash Borer have taken their toll. In an attempt to preserve what we still have, I have stopped using the string trimmer around the trees. Unless you are extremely careful, and strong enough to control the trimmer absolutely, you can damage a tree’s vital layer, the vascular cambium, which lies just underneath the bark.

exposed tree root in lawn
Lawn mowers and trimmers can damage exposed tree roots.

You can use garden shears to hand trim long grass around the base of trees; or, you can cut out the lawn and mulch. My “no fuss” solution is to let the grass grow around the tree bases, like inverted grass skirts! I look at them with a romantic’s eyes, as feathered grasses gently stirring in the soft summer breeze.

I wonder if my neighbors see it that way.

Grass growing around a tree trunk is undisturbed
The tree is wearing a grass skirt!

How Deep Is Your Trough?

Speaking of grass, I had a neighbor who once observed, “Why does grass grow so vigorously where you don’t want it, and not so much where you do?

Grass grows into the edging of a tree border.
Grass is creeping into this tree border.

This brings up the question of edging your borders; because, the grass always creeps into the borders. Ask the experts, and you’ll be told to dig a deep trench around your borders, unless you intend to use a physical barrier like stone, brick, metal, wood, or plastic.

The preferable edging, stone or brick, is expensive. Metal and plastic are not very attractive and not long-lasting. Wood (think railroad ties) tends to encourage pests and limits you to linear borders.

Railroad ties as edging along the house
This railroad tie edging looks dated, and is full of bugs. Time for an update!

Since we have a lot of yard and large beds, I have been digging troughs. And I’m still digging. Once I get a bed done, the creep starts all over again.

A trough that is less than 2 inches deep edges the maple tree border. The exposed roots are protected from mower damage by the border.
A trough that is less than 2 inches deep edges the maple tree border. The exposed roots are protected from mower damage by the border.

My son cut out a 5 inch trench a few summers ago, at my direction.  It did keep the grass from creeping quickly into the bed. The new problem, though, was mowing the lawn. The mower would fall into the trench and cut the grass down to brown stubble.

I think that looked worse than the grass creep!

I could keep the mower away from the edge, but then I needed to lug around the dreaded string trimmer to cut the grass along the trench. Forget it!

Daylily foliage covers fading daffodil leaves, and edges the garden fence.
Daylily foliage covers fading daffodil leaves, and edges the garden fence.

I’ve gone back to a shallow edge, biennial mulching, and yearly digging. I’ve also started moving stone around some edges as my strength and budget allows. This seems to work for me.

Stone is used as edging around this flower border
Stone edges this flower border. I need to weed!
Border is edged half in stone and half with a trough
Stone edges the downhill side of this border.

How do you handle mulching, trimming, and edging?

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