Mulching a garden with red cedar woodchip mulch. Garden maintenence in Spring.

When to Mulch and When Not to Mulch

When to mulch? Excellent question! This is because timing is critical when it comes to applying mulch in your garden or landscape.

Mulching is the process of applying some type of organic compost on the soil surface to protect it and to enhance its condition for growing healthy plants.

Timing matters greatly because doing so too soon or too late has the potential to cause problems. So the big question we’ll answer here is, “When should I mulch?”

When to Mulch for Optimum Benefit

The time to mulch a garden in order to receive the optimum benefit depends on a couple of major factors. First, you need to consider the kinds of plants you plan to mulch. If you’re working with annuals, just do it when you plant them. But if you’re mulching perennials, you don’t want to apply it (mulch) when they’re waking out of dormancy. You should wait until they have either hardened or gone fully dormant.

Mulching in the Spring

Landscaping plants and mulchThe next factor to consider is the weather. Normally, the best time is when the soil is thawed and warming after the winter freeze. Typically, this will be from the middle of spring into late spring. Again, this will depend on spring rains and how quickly or slowly temperatures are climbing.

As you can see, being aware of when to mulch in the springtime is more than just waiting for the first warm spell. Mulching too soon will actually deter the ground’s warming process. And your soil depends on certain chemical and biological processes that occur during this stage. 

By the same token, mulching too late in the autumn can insulate the soil keeping your plants from properly entering dormancy. The dormancy period is necessary to help your plants come safely through the cold season.

Mulching in the Winter or Late Fall

As we head into the colder months of winter, the big question people often ask is, “Is this a good time to mulch or not to mulch?”  Although I’m sure you can find many varied opinions on this subject, most with a background in horticulture will tell you to mulch.

This does however come with a small warning. Winter mulching needs to be done after there is a heavy frost in the ground.  Mulching has a number of benefits, and most usually only think of those that occur in the summer.  These would include retaining moisture during our dry season and keeping the sun from baking the root systems of our treasured plants.

But what most don’t consider is that mulch helps regulate the soil temperatures in winter.  Although plants need a dormant season, here in the Midwest, our wildly fluctuating temperatures can have a detrimental effect on these tender plants.  Knowing when to mulch late in the year means waiting until we get a strong frost in the ground. This helps keep the ground frozen, which deters the plants from kicking into their growth mode prematurely.

It’s important to note that you should remove the old mulch gradually as the soil begins to warm in the spring. Your plants may experience a shock if you clear all the mulch away at once.

Final Thoughts

It’s best to not plan your mulching by the calendar. The truth is that the optimum time to mulch can come earlier or later in any given year. We’ve all seen spring seasons where it just rains and rains. And then it rains some more!  

A few seasons back, here at Lake of the Ozarks we were mulching into early summer due to late freezes and an extremely long wet season. Likewise, the best time to mulch can come sooner than you expect. So be flexible and use this guide to help!

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