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Step by Step: How to have a successful mulch installation

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Photo: Carl Bennett
Photo: Carl Bennett

Carl Bennett, owner of Happy’s Lawn Care & Landscaping in Asheville, N.C., shares the ins and outs of his mulch-laying process.

(Photo: Carl Bennett)

1. Choose the right mulch. There are plenty of mulches on the market, but Bennett says it’s crucial to utilize high-quality mulch that won’t harm plants. He recommends finding a local mulch yard that indicates exactly what is in its mulch.

Bennett prefers to use double-ground pine mulch for his projects. He says he’s found through trial and error that double-ground pine mulch breaks down the best and has the longest-lasting color. 

Customers also prefer it because it’s a natural mulch that acts as a soil conditioner as it breaks down over the season, he says.

“It will help to feed the plants, too,” Bennett says. “What happens when you use a hardwood is it gets mixed with the soil, and it will fight the plants for nitrogen because it’s trying to break down that wood in the soil.”

2. Prep the bed. Bennett says the No. 1 mistake contractors make during the mulch-laying process is lackluster bed preparation.

(Photo: Carl Bennett)

“If you don’t get all the weeds out of the bed to begin with, you’re going to have a lot of problems with them coming back up through,” he says. “Once you get a good 2 to 3 inches of mulch down, most of the seeds that might cause weeds to pop up come from the air blowing them into the beds.”

Happy’s doesn’t use a landscape liner for its mulch installations. Bennett says you don’t need liner if you prep the beds well enough. 

Another item on Bennett’s prep checklist is the removal of debris surrounding plants and trees in the bed. That includes old mulch that hasn’t broken down yet. 

3. Get your hands dirty. In Bennett’s eyes, the secret to Happy’s Lawn Care & Landscaping’s mulching process is his team spreads material into the bed by hand. This approach ensures an even distribution of the mulch, he says.

(Photo: Carl Bennett)

“When you shovel or pitchfork it in, some areas might have 4 inches while another only has 2,” he says. “It’s really important to lay out the proper 2 to 3 inches of mulch. When you’re down on the ground, it’s much easier to feather it out and ensure everything is even.”

Bennett recommends a depth of closer to 3 inches because it does a better job of keeping potential weeds out of the soil. 

Bennett says he commonly sees what he calls “volcanoes” or “ant hills” of mulch around plants and trees. Piled-up mulch on trees and plants is unhealthy because it can reduce airflow, he says.

“If there’s too much mulch around the tree, take it out and away,” Bennett says. “Keep about 1 inch around the base of the tree, and then as you go further away, you can bring it up to that 3-inch depth. That will help give you more airflow and serve as a buffer for potential diseases.”

The same rule is important under shrubs. Take the extra step of pruning to ensure the base of the shrub gets proper airflow.

4. Pay attention to detail. Bennett is admittedly picky about the edges of a mulch bed, with a preference for hand-spaded edges.

(Photo: Carl Bennett)

“We hand spade all of the beds because it ends up being neater than what a machine might do,” he says. “It creates a natural edging instead of hitting it with a string trimmer and laying out a plastic or metal edging.”

The hand-spading process allows for a more defined line, says Bennett. It also provides another chance to get a closer look at the bed after laying the mulch.

All photos by Carl Bennett.

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Rob DiFranco

Rob DiFranco is Landscape Management's associate editor. A 2018 graduate of Kent State University, DiFranco holds a bachelor's degree in journalism. Prior to Landscape Management, DiFranco was a reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio.

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