Ever wonder why a tree growing unattended in a forest can display the kind of health and longevity that puts your home garden—you know, the one in which you invest good amounts of both your precious time and money—to shame?
The answer, quite simply, is soil quality.
Roots of trees growing in a natural environment plunge into well-aerated, nutrient-dense soil. The roots of our flowers, fruits and veggies are likely planted in soil typical of urban landscapes. Limited amounts of organic matter and large fluctuations in temperature and moisture make it difficult for plants to survive.
Picture, for a moment, a forest floor. It's dirty, right? It's littered with bits of organic matter like fallen leaves and twigs, eroding rocks and decomposing critters. As these organic materials break down, the nutrients are taken up by the soil providing opportunities for root uptake and a happy, healthy tree. Turns out, this layer of loose, organic matter does much more than provide nutrients. It also helps maintain soil moisture and temperature, reduces the growth of weeds, improves soil structure and aeration and can inhibit certain plant diseases.
You can mimic this natural process at home by mulching. Sometimes referred to as composting in place, mulch is simply a 2 to 4-inch layer of organic and/or inorganic debris arranged around the base of other plants.
What can be used for mulch? When it comes to materials, you have several viable options, many of which you might already have around the yard. Unknowingly, you could be mistaking these valuable materials for waste.
Organic mulches: wood chips, leaves, straw, compost mixes, pine needles, grass clippings, bark.
Inorganic mulches: stone, lava rock, plastics and rubber.
If you don't have mulching materials handy straight away, don't be discouraged. Quality mulch can be cheap or free, especially if you're willing to do a little hauling. Cities, waste haulers, tree removal companies, wood chippers, universities with agriculture programs and even your neighbors are your best bets for free mulch.
If it is indeed a tree you are caring for, we highly suggest consulting your local arborist for best mulching and overall care practices. You can find your local expert on the international Society for Arboriculture website at isa-arbor.com.