The Case Against Mulch Rings: A few reasons you should stop circling trees with mulch

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PLANTS & HORTICULTURE The Case Against Mulch Rings: A few reasons you should stop circling trees with mulch

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    Thomas Rainer

    It’s a common sight in the American landscape: trees skirted with a ring of mulch around their base that float in a sea of lawn.  Landscapers started the practice to prevent mowers and weed eaters from damaging tree trunks, and many arborists like the protection that mulch gives to the roots.   But listen up America:  these mulch rings have got to go.  The benefits of mulch rings have long been exaggerated, and they are just plain ugly.  Consider a few reasons for eliminating this practice.
    Rob Halpern

    And in the end, they do as much damage to the bark… where the mulch has been piled 3, 4, even 12″ !… as the stringtrimmer would have. (OK, that’s an exaggeration)

    mark foster

    Great article–especially the aesthetics of it, which is the LA’s forte.    Getting a better spec at intiial installation will mean less chance of it showing up later.   I take exception with the “not to hard to mow around the tree” comment, because it must be–I have seen a lot of string trimmer damage and bad mower aim, especially on younger trees when mulch rings are not used, We spec a much smaller mulch dish (about 3-4″ out) to give everyone a little slack.

    The picture which accompanied the article was telling a second story too.  The tree rings allow the eye not to see how far out of the ground the trees were planted.  If the ground was all lawn, you would notice a series of knobs with trees on top of them.  I see this a lot on projects which are heavily irrigated.  Just another way to hide imprecision and laziness during the design and install….not to mention totally un-green and wasteful.


    I agree they can be unsightly and even damaging to the tree, but I was also under the impression that in addition to providing some safety from the trimmers and mowers the rings allowed the tree loose medium around the ‘crown’ area where the trunk meets the root zone to breath as this is where the majority of gas exchange occurs. Also allowing the tree to sit slightly above grade for the same reasons.


    Additionally, in arid climates, like Colorado many landscapers use the tree ring to mound soil to retain irrigation water and allow for a more thorough soak upon planting–sometimes for as long as the first week or so until irrigation, turf, and mulch is fully installed and operational.

    Jordan Lockman

    Not an exaggeration. It is a bummer that the people doing the maintenance and installs do not have the basic knowledge to not pile mulch up the stem of the trees as much as a foot. This happened in front of my office last summer.


    I like the idea of using perennials around the trunks of trees along with mulch and a natural edge so the planting can get bigger over time. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing to me to see a tree with sod running right into the trunk. If we do perennials in the mulch ring that is a compromise between nature and having a lawn that we can use.

    Jason T. Radice

    On mature trees, mulch rings are purely maintenance/aesthetic. They absolutely make mowing “safer”. Have you actually seen the way commercial mowers work? I used to be on a mowing crew, and its GET IT DONE and move on. Most mowers employ non-skilled labor who could care less and don’t know a darn thing about trees. “Scar the bark? Who cares?” But more often than not, these same mowers are the ones putting in the mulch, meaning it is done incorrectly. The mulch should never touch the tree trunk, the tree should be planted with the crown just above surrounding soil level (trees are mostly planted waaaaaay to high), and the hole should be two times larger in diameter than they are usually dug (just big enough for the root-ball). Depth is also important, either the installer doesn’t put enough in, or way too much. Mulch should only be 3″-4″ in depth, and the “bowl” idea doesn’t really “hold any water” (hahaha, see what I did there? mulch is porous afterall). I’ve seen soil bowls, but then the tree sits in stagnent water. Can you say rot? Need water, use a gator bag. It is scary to see how landscapers plant stuff, especially on commercial jobs where they have to put in a hundred trees or so:

    1. Dig hole just big enough for root ball to fit. 2. Place unneeded tree stakes across hole. 3. Place tree still in burlap on tree stakes, allowing weight of root ball lowering into hole to raise stakes vertically. 3. Back fill (note the lack of burlap removal) 4. Cover with 18″ of mulch 5. Move on to next tree.

    IMHO, mulch rings are absolutely critical on new plantings for bark protection, moisture retention, and to prevent soil compaction around the roots. The decomposition also adds longer term nutritional benefits to some poor soils Being that a great deal of trees are planted improperly to begin with, often the muclh ring is the only thing keeping the tree alive (think mounded plantings) Once a properly planted tree matures and the roots extend into the surrounding soil (not just the root-ball fill), the ring is not really needed provided the maintenance is careful.

    Jordan Lockman

    The more I think about it the more I see well placed and maintained mulch rings as a best management practice. In the early years of a trees life anyway.

    Thomas J. Johnson

    While the image above creates a compelling case against mulch rings, it could just as easily read “The case against poor design”.

    Mulch rings have their place. As pointed out earlier, they protect the tree from mowers/trimmers and help retain moisture. I’ve mowed a lot of lawns with a 48″ Bunton mower and a straight-shaft trimmer. You can be as careful as you want but you will run into trees (and occasionally pool filter equipment but that’s another story) and the trimmer will take off bark. It’s unavoidable without a mulch ring. The ring also prevents that sensitive area from being compacted, week after week, from constant mowing. 

    Are there better alternatives? Sure, but they come with a price, in the form of increased cost (G.C. plants are more expensive than mulch) and maintenance. I should add an Astrix to that statement… The initial cost of ground cover will be offset by the need to replace mulch every year or two. Basically, for joe-home-owner who doesn’t want to work in his yard or pay for a modest maintenance program, mulch rings are the way to go… If you don’t mind pulling a few weeds and/or having a maintenance program there are more attractive “sustainable” alternatives.

    The image above looks goofy because there is just as much mulch ring surface area as there is turf. The turf looks like hell and none of the space is usable, unless you like sitting in mud or mulch… It would be better served to have the understory planted with a mass of ground cover (connecting the trees) and a naturalized shrubbery planting… less maintenance, less turf and more pleasant to look at… maybe you could get “way out there” and put a large stone or bench for people to sit on… crazy talk…

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I’m hitting the “Like” button on Tom’s response.


    While all of the arguements against tree rings are good, there is a time and a place for everything. The article is good because it makes the point of what needs to go into the decision of doing something rather than automatically doing it. But, reprogramming to automatically dismiss an idea would not be a good thing either. Some people may have gained a little insight into what should be going on as a thought process when determining to use a “mulch ring”, but I would hope that most people who are educated and practicing as landscape architects would not have any revelations from reading this article.

    Mike G

    I really like your website, but as one of those arborists I would agree that trees and ‘grass’ do not agree.  I have had to remove lots of trees for preventable design/installation/maintenance mistakes.  I also have hundreds of photos to prove it too.

    I agree on most of the posted comments on why mulch rings are necessary.

    On the matter of the compost tea issue.  This has been another debatable issue as well.  Much recent research kind of debunks the practice.  They work fairly well to stimulate biological activity in the soil and cycle essential nutrients like Nitrogen (org).  However they don’t replace the massive quantities of Carbon and Nitrogen (org.) lost when the leaves are removed from a site.  I haven’t seen any particular research on this but I would have to guess compost teas are as energy intensive to produce and administer and have a carbon footprint comparable to conventional fertilizers.  They may be both literal and figurative ‘Green Wash.’  I am skeptical, perhaps someone else has read otherwise. 

    Other preventable tree problems:…


    Pushing mulch is the biggest hustle in the landscape industry in the US. From Oregon to Maine it gets piled up layer on top of layer during the spring ritual. Just keep piling it on so that in 7 years or so a total landscape renovation is needed and the process can start all over again.


    The general public is so ignorant when it comes to the built landscape. On the “Gold Coast” of Long Island and in the Hamptons people will spend half a million dollars to “trick out their backyards” without the guidance of a landscape architect. Some contractors can pull off some incredible work without an LA, but most can’t. Most of the time they’ll produce disconnected pieces of expensive crap. It seems like most of the landscape contractors are only interested in selling more stuff and they have no concern for what a project looks like. And using sound horticultural practices to install material are you kidding me. I recently saw a landscape crew lifting an 8” caliper Northern Red Oak by its trunk.


    When will people learn? All they have to do is spend $7,000 to $8,000 on an LA. A good LA will save a client more than the fee for landscape architectural services by making sure they’re not paying for excess mulch, short cuts and poor installation practices.


    What really chaps my butt is how some of my client’s eyes glaze over when I try to explain why they don’t need 4 more inches of mulch up the trunk of the tree and why they don’t need to water everyday just because they have an automatic irrigation system. I mean really, what do I know?

    Thomas J. Johnson

    Reality is not exciting. Selling crap like you’re on a home and garden show, now that’s exciting… (my eyes glaze over).

    mark foster

    I love this site–where else can you get so passionate about mulch?! 

    Concerning tree rings, I think we are talking about a temorary condition (first few years) and a long term one.  A mulched tree ring may be necessary on a recently planted tree so you don’t come out and find the new tree listing at a 45 degree angle strangly in the direction of the 60 inch zero-turn mower which just went by.

    But long term with more mature trees? “Grass and trees don’t mix” is true if by grass you mean the monocultural toxic welfare lawns found in today’s “professionally treated” landscapes.  The “good” photo shown in the article was of mature trees with a naturalized mowed “lawn cover” of probably dozens of grass and low broadleaf types–probably not treated at all and certainly not to the extent the chemically maintained “perfect” lawns are.  But this is another issue….  

    The real point of this for me is that the perfect circle tree dish has become so inocuous that people don’t even notice it anymore–it has become a subconsiously accepted form in the landscape which we LA’s should not be satisfied with. 

    The whole mulch issue really pushes my buttons anyway–especially the oversized planting beds   They are cheaply installed “designs on the land” and an easy 2 dimensional trick for the lazy designer, which the client has to pay for in increased maintenance, not less. 


    So much for less is more.

    Madeline Ann Sutter

    I spent a number of years in intensive pro-bono work in little communities on the reforestation of the urban landscape.  Unbelievable what was out there!  One of the illustrations we still call the volcano method of mulching.  Lessons on how a tree grows, canopy, trunk, buttress flare, root system……….goes a long way.  But nothing like the street trees unearthed years later with adventitious roots growing out of their trunks.  Why did the tree do that?  To survive!  Then the site rots.  Really wasn’t a root site after all.  Takes place years, sometimes not all that many, after the contractor has long gone.

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