Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Should I Remove Old Mulch Before Adding New Mulch?

By: Zac Friedman

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You do not need to remove old mulch before replacing it with new mulch. You can simply replenish your mulch by adding a new layer on top. That said, there are some cases where you may want to remove the old mulch for best results. 

Mulching involves adding material over the top of your soil to conserve moisture, reduce weed growth, moderate temperature, protect plant roots, improve soil health, and enhance visual appeal. There are many different mulches. Mulch can be organic or inorganic. 

Organic mulches, such as wood chips, pine bark mulch, straw, pine needles, sawdust, manure, and compost, decompose over time. This enriches the soil with nutrients and encourages beneficial microbial activity. Inorganic mulches, like rocks, gravel, and landscape fabric, are more durable and control soil erosion effectively but they do not enhance the soil.

Proper mulching technique is important to avoid issues such as rot and pest infestation. In this guide, I will explain when you should remove old mulch and when you should leave it. I’ll also explain how you can tell when it’s time to add new mulch.

Should You Remove Old Mulch Before Adding a Fresh Layer?

Should You Remove Old Mulch Before Replacing it with New Mulch?

No. You don’t need to remove your old mulch before adding new mulch. You can simply add a new layer of mulch on top of old mulch. 

Leaving old mulch in place is beneficial for the soil quality and the plants. The existing mulch will continue to break down over time, adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Eventually, it will degrade away. 

The nutrients that it releases are essential for plant growth. They also encourage beneficial microorganisms in the soil. In addition, they help maintain soil structure and fertility. If the old mulch were to be removed, you would be discarding not only the material itself but also the nutrients that have yet to be fully released into the soil.

Keeping the old mulch layer and adding new mulch on top also saves time, money, and effort. Removing old mulch is labor-intensive. You would also have to find a way to dispose of it, which could potentially incur additional costs. 

Additionally, by not removing the old mulch, you avoid the unnecessary expenditure of purchasing excessive new mulch to fill the space. A thinner layer of new mulch is required to refresh the appearance and maintain the desired mulch depth, which reduces the amount of new material needed.

By simply adding a new layer of mulch over the old, you conserve resources and maintain a continuous supply of organic matter to your soil. This approach not only enhances the health of your garden or planting bed but also aligns with environmentally responsible gardening practices.

A pile of mulch and a wheelbarrow

How Often Should You Replace Mulch?

Exactly how often you have to replace mulch depends on a number of factors including the mulch type, the weather conditions, mulch color fading, the garden type, and your plant’s needs. 

Most organic mulches, such as wood chips, straw, or bark, typically need to be replaced or added to once a year or once every other year. Mulches made from a natural material decompose and thin out over time. Mulch can also blow away under high winds or float away in areas that flood due to heavy rains. Extreme temperatures can cause it to degrade quickly.

Many gardeners replace their mulch in the spring. This is the best time for new mulch. 

Some mulches last longer. For example, cedar mulch will often last 3-4 years or more. It decomposes slowly thanks to natural oils in the wood. Of course, inorganic mulches such as stones or rubber, last much longer because they do not degrade like organic materials. They may only require replenishment to maintain aesthetic value or cover gaps every few years.

A layer of pine bark mulch

How to Know When Your Mulch Needs to Be Replaced

To determine when mulch needs to be replaced or replenished, look for signs of decomposition, thinning, or compaction. Ideally, you want to maintain a depth of 2-3 inches of mulch. 

Organic mulch requires replenishment when it’s visibly deteriorating or when the layer falls below 2 inches in thickness. Faded color, soil exposure, and reduced weed suppression are indicators that it’s time for mulch replacement.

For inorganic mulch, such as rubber or stone, replacement is less frequent but may be necessary when it shifts, uncovers soil, gets mixed in with the soil, or appears sparse. 

It’s best to evaluating mulch condition annually during the spring or fall. Refreshing as is necessary for the mulch to continue providing weed suppression, soil moisture retention, and temperature regulation for plant health. 

A layer of mulch
This mulch might be getting a little thin

How Much New Mulch Should You Add?

When adding new mulch, check the depth of the existing layer. Ideally, the combined depth of the old and new mulch should not exceed 3-4 inches, depending on the type of mulch and the plants’ requirements. 

Generally, you want to maintain around 2 inches of mulch on flower beds and vegetable gardens and 3-4 inches of mulch around shrubs and mature trees. 

If the mulch depth is sufficient, you don’t need to add any. When the depth of the mulch drops down to around an inch, consider adding a fresh layer on top. 

You want to avoid adding too much mulch. Adding too much mulch can lead to several detrimental effects on plant health and soil conditions.

Over-mulching can suffocate plant roots by impeding air exchange and water infiltration. Excessive mulch depth can also cause roots to grow into the mulch layer, making them vulnerable to drying out or damage. Too much mulch against plant stems and tree trunks can create a moist environment conducive to rot and fungal diseases. An overly thick layer of mulch can also become a habitat for pests.

From a soil health perspective, an overly thick layer of mulch can lead to nitrogen deficiency, as the breakdown process of organic mulch can temporarily sequester soil nitrogen. 

Maintaining a 2 to 4 inch layer is essential for optimal plant growth, soil health, and effective garden and landscape maintenance.

How to Add Mulch to Existing Mulch

Before adding new mulch, there are a few simple steps you can take. First, it’s a good idea to break up any matted mulch layers to ensure proper water infiltration and air circulation. 

Some types of mulch can get compacted over time. This can be caused by foot traffic. When this happens, it becomes difficult for air and water to pass through. This can have a negative effect on your plant’s roots. 

To refresh the mulch, simply rake the surface of the old layer to disturb any compacted areas. You can also use a cultivator. This will refresh the old mulch so air and water can freely pass through.

Next, apply the new layer of mulch on top. When applying mulch, make sure it doesn’t come into direct contact with plant stems or tree trunks to prevent rot and pest issues. Also, make sure both the old and new layer of mulch don’t measure more than 4 inches in depth or you may notice some effects of overmulching. 

This method of layering new mulch over old saves labor and contributes to a healthier, more vibrant garden.

Mulch around a palm tree
Placing mulch around a palm tree like this is a great way to improve your home’s curb appeal

Be Careful Not to Overmulch

When applying new mulch over old, it’s easy to overmulch. When you add new mulch on top of last year’s mulch, the layers can add up. Over mulching can cause a number of issues for your garden.

When mulch exceeds 4 inches in  depth, it can obstruct the soil’s access to air and water. These two elements are vital to the development and survival of plant roots.

Over-mulching can lead to water-repelling off the surface. This situation forces water and nutrients to run off rather than seep down to plant roots, leading to drought-stressed plants despite seemingly adequate watering. When the mulch is matted, airflow is also limited. Plant roots need oxygen to grow.

The roots, struggling under the weight and suffocation, may grow upward into the mulch in search of air and moisture, leaving them vulnerable to the elements and pests.

In addition, the excessively thick mulch can become a haven for pests and diseases. The damp, sheltered environment it creates can encourage the proliferation of fungi. Pests, such as termites can also infest a thick layer of wood mulch. These can both cause damage to your plants. 

Furthermore, the decomposition process in an overly thick mulch layer can deplete the soil of nitrogen, a nutrient essential for plant growth. This is an issue with woody mulches. As the microorganisms breaking down the organic material, they consume nitrogen from the soil, rendering it temporarily unavailable to the plants. This can slow plant growth. This nitrogen is eventually released back into the soil as the microorganisms die off after the mulch is decomposed. 

When Should You Remove Old Mulch?

There are a few circumstances where it makes sense to remove old mulch before applying new: 

1. Diseased mulch

The presence of fungal diseases can necessitate the removal of old mulch. Fungi like artillery fungus can not only degrade the aesthetic appeal of the mulch but also pose a health risk to the plants.

If a fungal issue is diagnosed, the affected mulch should be removed and replaced with a fresh layer to prevent further spread.

2. Pest infestation

Pest infestation is another compelling reason to clear away old mulch. Insects and small rodents may find refuge in the mulch layer, particularly if it’s excessively thick.

If these pests begin to attack plant stems or roots, or if the infestation becomes widespread, it’s a good idea to remove the mulch to disrupt their habitat and prevent future issues.

3. Inorganic mulch

It might also make sense to remove old mulch if the mulch is inorganic. Inorganic mulch won’t break down over time. If you want to replace it with something else, you’ll have to remove it first.

For example, maybe you have stones on one of your flower beds. If you want to replace them with bark, you’ll have to remove them first. 

4. When mulch has compacted

Compaction can lead to negative consequences. A once-fluffy layer of wood mulch or leaves can press down into a dense mat, impeding the crucial flow of air and water to the soil beneath.

Such conditions can lead to plant roots suffering from a lack of oxygen, while water simply runs off rather than seeping into the soil, effectively nullifying the mulch’s purpose of moisture conservation.

You don’t always have to remove compacted mulch. Oftentimes, you can fluff it back up with a rake. Sometimes, it’s easier to just remove it and start over with fresh mulch.

5. When the mulch hasn’t been able to decompose properly

Sometimes, mulch degrades very slowly. Fungus can form a mat above the soil surface that slows down decomposition. Some types of mulch, such as cedar mulch, decompose very slowly. Or, maybe you over-mulched in the past. 

In these cases, it may be necessary to remove at least part of the old material before applying new mulch. 

6. To install or remove landscape fabric 

If you plan to install or remove landscape fabric from your garden, you will need to remove the old mulch on top of it first. 

Generally, it is not recommended to use landscape fabric under mulch. This is because it inhibits the natural integration of organic mulch into the soil as the mulch breaks down.

While landscape fabric is designed to act as a weed barrier to prevent weed seeds from germinating, it also creates a barrier that prevents beneficial organisms, like earthworms, from aerating the soil and transporting nutrients.

Over time, the fabric can also become clogged with sediment, reducing its permeability and leading to poor water and air circulation to the root zone of plants. As a result, the intended benefits of mulch and landscape fabric are compromised, which can lead to an unhealthy garden.

Pine bark mulch around a fern

How Much New Mulch Will You Need?

The amount of mulch needed for your garden depends on the space you intend to cover and the desired depth of the mulch. To cover your garden effectively, the standard recommendation is to aim for a mulch layer about 2-3 inches deep.

For a fresh mulch application over bare soil, you would typically require 1 cubic yard of mulch to cover 100 square feet to that recommended depth.

When adding to existing mulch, however, the quantity required reduces significantly. If your garden already has a layer of old mulch, assess its depth. Subtract the current depth from the desired final depth to determine how many additional inches are needed. You won’t need as much new mulch since you’re not starting from scratch. If you only need to add 1-2 inches of mulch, 1 cubic yard might cover 150-200 square feet. 

To calculate the volume of mulch you’ll need to purchase, multiply the area of your garden in square feet by the depth in inches you wish to add, then divide by 324. This figure gives you the total in cubic yards, which is how mulch is often sold. ​

What About Cover Crops?

Cover crops can be used in place of mulch. These are often used in the fall to cover the ground and provide protection during the winter months. Cover crops are sometimes referred to as ‘living mulch.’ 

Cover crops can help to improve soil structure, support microbial life, and add organic matter into the soil. They are great for soil amendment. There are a number of different crops that can be used. In the spring, when you’re ready to plant, you till the cover crop under. After planting, you can apply mulch if you choose.

For more info, check out this guide to cover crops.

Final Thoughts

The decision to remove old mulch before adding a new layer is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires assessing the condition of your current mulch and understanding the needs of your garden. 

If your mulch is compacted, infested, or harboring disease, it’s time to clear it away. However, in most cases, simply adding a new layer of mulch on top of the old mulch will suffice, saving you time and effort while continuing to protect and nourish your soil and plants. 

Remember to maintain the recommended mulch depth of 2-4 inches to prevent issues associated with over-mulching. By following these guidelines, you can keep your garden healthy and vibrant.

How often do you apply new mulch? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Should You Remove Old Mulch Before Adding a Fresh Layer?
How to Remove Old Mulch Before Adding a Fresh Layer

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