“Mulch volcanoes” are a protective ring of mulch gone mad. Heaping cones of mulch packed around the trunk of trees and shrubs and pushed right up against the bark is deadly to the health of a tree or shrub. Bark is the tree’s outermost protective layer, and needs to be exposed to air. Moisture from constantly moist, piled up mulch softens bark causing it to be susceptible to several bad actors, including:
Wood-boring insects living in the mulch can tunnel through to the softened, partially-decomposing bark and gain easy-access to the greenwood or vascular tissues beneath the bark, introducing vectors of disease.
Diseases such as harmful fungal canker diseases (rots), bacterial attacks or virus diseases can more easily penetrate to the interior of the plant when the bark remains continually moist.
Critters such as mice and meadow voles can tunnel through the mulch and chew through the outer bark to reach the tasty living inner bark. This will cut off the flow of water up from the roots and nutrients down from the leaves, causing the plant to die.
Roots tend to migrate up toward the top of the mulch layer during rainy periods, only to dry out when summer drought sets in.
In times of drought, such a thick “volcano” of mulch a foot high can prevent rainfall or irrigation water from reaching the root system in an “umbrella” system, causing additional plant stress.
To rescue a tree from mulch death, go to this video on excavating a root collar:
The grass is starting to green up and bulbs are peeking through the soil and spring is around the corner. Gardening chores come fast and furious once warm weather hits and sometimes you don’t have time to fit all the tasks in. To jump-start your gardening year, you can hit the ground running early to get a head start. Late winter is my favorite time to get many of the spring jobs done or at least started, to lessen the springtime stress of overload.
Weeding-My top priority in late winter/early spring is keeping weeds under control. Cold weather weeds such as chickweed and mustard are much easier to hand weed when small. Plus, the weeds haven’t gone to seed yet to spread around. Adopt a policy of a little weeding often to reduce your weeding burden.
Soil Test-Everything starts with good soil. Many nurseries or extension offices offer soil testing services. Take advantage of these by finding out what nutrients your soil needs by submitting a soil sample.
Fertilize-Fertilize trees and ornamentals with a balanced granular fertilizer when the soil is dry. I use an old coffee can with a plastic lid with perforated holes to sprinkle the recommended amount around the plant and water in. If you are an organic gardener, apply a layer of compost around the plant.
Rake-Rake out loose leaves and debris from your gardening beds so that mulch can be applied evenly. Be sure to remove pockets of old leaves that get caught up in twiggy shrubs.
Mulch-Apply an organic mulch about 2 inches thick avoiding the base of trees and shrubs. This will help retain moisture during dry spells, reduce weeds, and improve soil structure. Don’t create mulch volcanoes around your trees as this can invite insect damage and disease.
Lawn-Rake out old thatch and remove weedy patches, seeding bare areas. Scratch the grass seed into the top layer so that seed has good contact with the soil. Spread a pre-emergent to stop weeds from germinating and a “Weed and Feed” to promote strong roots.
Prune-With leaves absent, you can easily see damaged and broken limbs that need to be removed. Renewal pruning to renovate older overgrown shrubs should be done now before they put on new growth. Cut back to the ground shrubs such as butterfly bush, spirea, hypericum, and hardy hibiscus. Knock Out Roses should be cut to about 10 inches high to keep these manageable.
Container Refresh-Remove the top 3-4 inches of old potting medium from your containers and replace with fresh compost and potting soil. Make sure the drainage holes aren’t clogged with old roots. I use a metal rod to punch through the fibrous roots.
Seed Starting-Start seeds of tomatoes/peppers/eggplants indoors for transplanting in the spring. Outdoors plant seeds of cold tolerant annuals such as snapdragons, larkspur, poppies, and nigella. See my post on Seed Starting for pointers.
Perennial Dividing-Now is the perfect time to split up and divide overgrown perennials such as iris and hosta and move them around. Waiting later in the season to divide a fully-grown plant can be cumbersome and hard work. Plus, the perennials have a longer time to root in to produce more prolific flowers. I like to divide when the first stems with leaves are emerging.
Tools-Clean rust and mud off your tools and oil and sharpen them. Organize your potting or tool shed so that you can find things in a hurry.
Compost-I always clean out my compost pile by spreading the rich loamy material around my ornamentals and in my vegetable garden. If you don’t have a compost pile, now is the time to start one. Using a length of snow fencing attached to metal stakes is the easiest way to start either a large or small one. A gate can even be created with a hinged portion of the snow fence.