The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Haphazard mulching of fruit trees

Haphazard mulch

What's the best way to manage the ground beneath your fruit trees?  If you ask ten people, you may get ten different answers, but the most widespread choice (at least in the backyard, if you can find enough mulch) is to smother out weeds using a well-rotted wood chip mulch so the tree roots don't have to compete with anyone else.  The forest gardening alternative is to use dynamic accumulators that bring up micronutrients from deep in the Using garden weeds as mulchsoil and make the minerals accessible to your trees (although this option can be problematic if your soil is less than stellar).  Over the last few years, I've stumbled across a third option that might work even better --- haphazard mulching.

A few years ago, I started dumping wheelbarrows full of garden weeds around a certain apple tree throughout the summer.  The reason behind my actions was pure laziness, but at least it killed three birds with one stone.  I'd accidentally let some perennial weeds pop up around the tree's roots, and the summer was too busy to take the time to root them out and mulch the tree properly, so I figured dropping some biomass on top would at least slow the competitors down (which it did).  Meanwhile, I was thinking ahead to the winter when I'd need to expand the tree's raised bed (an effort to keep the roots above high groundwater), and I figured garden weeds deposited around the edges of the tree's bed would slowly rot down and expand the planting mound.  My final reason was even simpler --- the tree was at the junction of two vegetable gardens, so this was an easy spot to drop off weeds rather than running them all the way to various compost piles.

Autumn forest garden

To my surprise, this apple tree took off and grew faster than any of my other apples.  Now, you have to take this data point with a grain of salt because no two apples in my garden are quite alike.  They're all different varieties, and each one is in a different microhabitat.  It's just as possible that this apple did well because it was located where the groundwater drains into the gully, so it was subirrigated during summer droughts.  But no matter why the apple was doing well, the haphazard mulching didn't seem to hurt.

Stump in gardenSo this year I tried the method around several more fruit trees.  I also used haphazard mulching to drown out weeds coming up through the brush pile (my equally lazy approach to hugelkultur around another apple tree), and around the stump that is adjacent to a third apple.

The haphazard mulch allows some weeds to keep growing, but slows them down so they don't seem to be competing with my trees.  It doesn't look as manicured as a well-managed wood chip mulch, but I'm more interested in results than in beauty.

At the moment, I consider haphazard mulching more of a hypothesis than a proven technique, but I'd be very curious to hear from anyone else who's given it a try.  And from others who've come up with equally easy solutions to managing the ground under their fruit trees.  What do you do?

Learn the basics of choosing and planting a fruit tree in The Weekend Homesteader.

This post is part of our 2012 Forest Garden lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I have woodchips. But I'm in an area where the tree trimmers have to pay to dump their loads so them dropping it at my place is a "freebie" for me. Saves them money too. I just have to haul/spread it.

My problem, and I would love if you'd cover it, is when/how best to remove suckers. I have one plum tree and I have to look up the root stock it's on but this particular root stock suckers like nobody's business. Also, if it's is that bad does anyone think it's worth replacing the tree? It's 5 years old and just now fruiting. My others have done much better. Thoughts?

Comment by c. Tue Sep 25 16:10:38 2012

C, I haven't had a tree that suckers too badly, so hopefully someone else will chime in with their experiences. When I see suckers, I try to pull them off when they're still soft, because that rips a bit into the trunk of the tree and removes the growing tip. Although it seems a bit scary to rip the suckers out, if you instead cut them, the growing tip is left and it tends to sprout back out lots of suckers from that spot. (This is related to the difference between thinning and heading cuts when pruning.)

That said, I often miss suckers until they've hardened up and aren't rippable, and cutting them off doesn't seem to cause too much trouble. It seems like cutting them for a few years makes the rootstock stop sprouting, so it might be worth just waiting a few more years.

Comment by anna Tue Sep 25 17:09:11 2012
Interesting question. Figuring a tree has as much or more of a root system below ground than it has tree above ground, I never thought mulching to decrease competiton was necessary after a tree passed the sapling stage. Even a small tree may have a root system extending out 10-20 ft. A quick search found this paper . It suggests mulching may or may not make a difference in growth response, depending on soil type for apple trees.
Comment by doc Tue Sep 25 17:20:56 2012

doc --- Interesting question. The Holistic Orchard cites one very telling study in which apple tree trunks grew up to 35% more and fruit yields were 15% higher if the trees were mulched vs. unmulched. I'm sure the differences are greater the worse your soil is, but since we're dealing with pretty bad soil where we put our fruit trees, mulch definitely seems worth the effort.

I've also read in another book (can't remember which one at the moment) that mulching keeps the soil warm enough for growth later into the fall, which basically extends the growing season, at least below ground. In addition, woody mulches promote the growth of soil fungi, which team up with plant roots and help them find micronutrients. So, it's possible that competition with weeds for soil nutrients isn't the only reason mulch helps.

Comment by anna Tue Sep 25 18:21:52 2012
Your mention of fungal action makes me wonder if the mulch itself is returning fertility to the soil by decomposition.
Comment by BeninMA Wed Sep 26 02:03:03 2012
BeninMA --- I think you're completely right. The additional soil nutrients and organic matter would be another positive that mulches bring to the table.
Comment by anna Wed Sep 26 13:21:29 2012

I do a similar thing to you, and it works for me. I just pile all my shrub prunings and weeds into one big pile, on the higher side (my block slopes) of my banana tree. Then pour a bucket of diluted urine onto it every day. The nitrogen balances the carbon to help decompostion. As well as irrigating the tree. I also have a large pile (7 cubic yards) of wood chips above my apple and fig trees. I spray water on this every day, as well as dilute urine. Decompostion of woodchip is directly proportional to how moist you keep it, I think. The fig tree roots actually start grow right up through the aged woodchips. I then spread the well aged woodchips down around the trees, and get another free pile of woodchips from the loppers. I agree mulch is absolutely essential on poor soil (like mine). I prefer to have zero root competition for my fruit trees, from any other plants at all.

Comment by John Wed Sep 26 19:47:04 2012
John --- Your method sounds great! I have to admit, I pour urine over my haphazard mulches too, which might be a large part of why they help the trees so much. :-)
Comment by anna Thu Sep 27 08:36:12 2012

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