Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

The Best Mulch for Fruit Trees + How and When to Mulch

By: Zac Friedman

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The best mulch for fruit trees is an organic mulch such as wood chips, bark, straw, compost, pine straw, grass clippings, or shredded leaves. The best mulches mimic the tree’s natural environment. Inorganic mulches can also be used.

Mulching benefits fruit trees in a number of ways. It can help to suppress weeds, regulate soil temperature, reduce erosion, and retain moisture. As the mulch degrades, it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil. This helps your trees grow stronger and healthier and increases yields. 

This guide outlines some of the best mulches for fruit trees and lists some benefits of each. I’ll also explain how and when to apply mulch to your fruit trees for best results.

The Best Mulch for Fruit Trees

The Best Mulches for Fruit Trees

1. Wood Chips 

Wood chips are probably the most commonly used type of mulch for fruit trees. There are lots of different types of wood chips to choose from including cedar mulch, hardwood mulches like hickory and oak, pine mulch, and recycled wood chips. 

There are a number of advantages of wood chips. Most importantly, they are long lasting. Cedar chips can last 3-5 years. Other varieties may last 2-3 years before they need a fresh layer. Wood chips are also beautiful.

An apple orchard

They have a nice natural look. They come in a range of colors.  Cedar chips have a nice reddish orange color. Hickory, oak, pine, and bark mulches come in various shades of brown. Wood mulches also come in various textures from large chunks to shredded wood.

Wood chips also stay in place pretty well. They don’t blow away like lighter mulches can. They can float away if you experience flooding. 

Of course, wood chips also suppress weeds, retain moisture, reduce erosion, and insulate the soil, just like other types of mulch. They add some nutrients to the soil as they degrade. 

Cedar mulch can be a good choice for fruit trees because it has some insect-repellant properties. Cedar contains natural oils that some pests don’t like. It can help keep termites and some types of ants away. Cypress mulch has many of the same properties. 

Cedar mulch

There are some drawbacks to wood chips. They don’t provide as many nutrients as other types of mulch. This is because they break down slowly.

Wood chips can also temporarily deplete the nitrogen in the soil. The microbes that break the mulch down need nitrogen to fuel their activity. Wood chips are low in nitrogen so the microbes use nitrogen from the surrounding soil. This temporarily removes nitrogen from the soil. After the mulch degrades and the microbes die off, this nitrogen is released back into the soil. This is an issue with all types of wood mulch. This only affects the soil surface as long as the mulch isn’t mixed in.

This is bad for fruit trees because they need nitrogen to grow. Particularly young trees. Without sufficient nitrogen, the leaves and branches won’t grow as fast or as healthy. The trees may also experience some stress. You can eliminate this problem by layering the wood chips on top of a more nutrient-rich mulch, like compost or manure. 

Some types of wood chips can increase the acidity of the soil (lower the soil pH). This is a problem with pine mulch. The acidity increase is usually pretty negligible but it could be an issue if your soil is already acidic or if you plant a specific type of tree that requires neutral or alkaline soil. Most fruit trees can tolerate some acidity but they prefer more neutral soil. 

2. Bark Mulch

Bark mulch is similar to wood mulch. It has pretty much the same benefits and drawbacks. Bark mulch is long-lasting. It also suppresses weeds, retains moisture, and helps regulate soil temperature. Bark mulch is also attractive. It has a nice dark brown color. Bark doesn’t provide many nutrients as it degrades. It can also deplete nitrogen and increase soil acidity, like wood. 

Bark mulches come in a range of different textures from large bark nuggets to smaller bark chips. Bark can also be ground into fine particles called bark dust. It is most commonly made from pine trees. It’s a popular choice because it’s affordable, long-lasting, and attractive. 

3. Compost

Compost

Compost contains important nutrients that fruit trees need including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It also helps keep the weeds down, helps retain moisture, and helps to insulate the tree’s roots. Another major benefit of compost is that you can make it for free with yard waste and kitchen waste. 

You can also use compost with other types of mulch. First, add a layer of 1-3 inches of compost then add a layer of wood chips or bark mulch on top. The compost adds nutrients and the wood chips add a nice aesthetic. 

4. Manure

Manure can also be a good mulch for fruit trees. It’s usually high in nitrogen but low in potassium and phosphorus. It also helps suppress weeds, retain moisture, and insulate the soil. Manure is also affordable and it’s available everywhere. You can buy it at any garden center. You can also layer manure with other mulches like wood chips. 

When you use manure, you should make sure that it has been composted first. Fresh manure can burn tree roots. This is because it contains ammonia. Fresh manure can also contain pathogens that can be harmful to you, your plants, and your pets. After it has been composted, manure is safe to use. The manure that you buy at your local garden center will have already been composted. 

5. Leaf Mold

Leaf mold is a type of compost made from leaves and a beneficial type of fungi. You can make your own leaf mold by collecting leaves, spraying them with water, and covering them with a tarp or putting them in a bag. After 1-2 years, you’ll have a nice crumbly leaf mulch.

When you make leaf mold, make sure the leaves are healthy. Don’t use diseased leaves or you could spread the disease to your trees. It’s also best not to use oak leaves because they take too long to break down. You can speed up the process by shredding the leaves first. 

Leaf mold is an excellent mulch for fruit trees because it contains valuable nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Leaf mold also helps improve soil texture by adding organic material. It feeds beneficial microorganisms in the soil. In addition, it helps retain moisture, insulate the soil, and reduce weeds. Leaf mold is also free to make. It’s a great way to use the leaves that fall from your fruit trees. 

6. Straw Mulch

A man carrying straw mulch in a wheelbarrow

Straw mulch can be a good choice for fruit trees. Probably the best thing about straw is that it’s cheap. This makes it a great choice if you have a large orchard of trees that you need to mulch. It’s also easy to spread by hand. You can just grab bundles of it and spread it around your trees.

There are several different types of straw available. Most straw is made from wheat, rye, or barley. Pine straw can also be a good option. This is mulch made from pine needles. Rice straw is also available. 

Over time, the straw will break down and add nutrients to the soil. It’s not as nutrient rich as other types of mulch, such as compost. Straw is also a good insulator. It will help keep your tree’s roots warmer in the winter. This is helpful if you live in an extremely cold climate. 

There are a few drawbacks to using straw mulch. First, it can attract pests. Rodents like to nest in the soft straw. Some rodents, such as voles, can chew on your fruit tree’s bark and cause damage. If you have a rodent problem, it’s best not to use straw. 

Another drawback is that straw can contain seeds. These can take resources away from your trees when they sprout. When buying straw, look for one that is seedless. This usually means it was harvested before it produced seeds. Most straw comes from alfalfa. 

Straw mulch also doesn’t last very long. You will have to add a fresh layer a couple of times every year.

7. Shredded Leaves

Shredded leaves can also be a great free compost. They can insulate the soil, suppress weeds, and retain moisture. They will provide some nutrients as they degrade. The best thing about shredded leaves is that they are free. They fall from your fruit trees every autumn.

Before applying leaves, use a leaf shredder or lawn mower to shred them. It’s important to shred the leaves before applying them. Don’t use whole leaves. They can block water and air from passing to the ground. They also take too long to degrade. Mold can also be a problem. 

8. Cover Crops (Living Mulch)

A cover crop is a crop that you plant around your fruit trees to cover the soil. They are also known as living mulch.

Cover crops help keep the weeds down, reduce erosion, prevent disease, and insulate the soil. You can also incorporate the cover crop into the soil to add nutrients. 

There are many different cover crops you can grow. Different types of grass and clover are common options. For help picking the best cover crop, check out this guide.

One drawback to cover crops is that they can attract pests, like rabbits. They can also be invasive in some regions. The cover crop can spread to areas that you don’t want it. 

A branch of an apple tree

9. Ramial Mulch

Ramial mulch is a type of wood mulch that is made from small and medium sized branches. Only branches that are under 2” thick are used. The branches are ground into chips and used as mulch.

These small branches are rich in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. These nutrients are found in the cambium or the living tissue of the branch. Young branches contain more nutrients than the tree trunks that are usually used to make wood chip mulch. The tree trunk contains more heartwood, which has fewer nutrients. 

You can buy ramial mulch. You can also use the branches that you prune from your fruit trees. To make your own ramial mulch, you’ll need a wood chipper. Ideally, the branches should be chipped into 1 inch chunks. You could cut small branches up by hand but it would be too time-consuming. When you make ramial mulch, be sure to only use healthy branches. Diseased branches can spread disease to your tree. 

There are a few drawbacks to using ramial mulch. It can deplete nitrogen, like any other wood mulch. It’s a good idea to layer some compost first to give the soil some extra nitrogen. It can also be expensive if you buy it. 

For more info, check out this guide to ramial mulch.

10. Willow Mulch

Willow mulch can be a good option for fruit trees because it contains salicylic acid. This is a plant hormone that is an active ingredient in aspirin. It may help improve your fruit trees’ immunity. This can help your tree defend itself against some diseases and pests. Willow mulch will also provide the same benefits as wood mulch and has the same drawbacks. 

11. Shredded Paper

Shredded paper can be a good mulch. Over time, it forms into a mat that helps keep the weeds down. It will also add some organic matter to your soil when it decomposes. 

One drawback of paper mulch is that it can blow away in the wind when it’s fresh. After it weathers a bit, it will stay in place. It’s also not the most attractive mulch.

You can make shredded paper mulch at home with waste paper. Just run it through a paper shredder. After it’s shredded, scatter it around your trees.

12. Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are another great free mulch option. They help keep the weeds down, retain moisture, and add nutrients as they degrade. Grass clippings are a great source of nitrogen.

Only use grass clippings if you’re sure they don’t contain any weeds. It’s also best to let the grass clippings dry before applying them.

For more info, check out my guide to mulching with grass clippings.

13. Rock Mulch

In some orchards, rock mulch such as gravel is used. This isn’t the best option for fruit tres but it does offer some benefits.

Rock mulch helps to prevent weeds and it can keep some pests away from your trees. It also lasts a long time because it is inorganic. The main drawback is that rock doesn’t provide any nutrients. 

14. Landscape Fabric

Landscape fabric isn’t really a mulch but it can serve some of the same purposes. It can help keep the weeds down and it can help retain moisture. It can also help keep certain pests away.

There are a few drawbacks to consider. Most importantly, landscape fabric won’t provide any nutrients for your fruit trees. If you put mulch on top of the landscape fabric, the nutrients won’t be able to make their way into the soil to the tree’s roots. 

A cherry tree branch

Mulches to Avoid

  • Dyed wood chips- Some wood chips are dyed different colors such as red, green, black, or yellow. The dyes can contain chemicals that will end up in your soil. It’s best to avoid these mulches.
  • Black Plastic Sheets- Black plastic sheeting does not allow enough water or air to pass through. It also blocks nutrients from getting to the soil. This can slow your tree’s growth.
  • Inorganic Mulches- Inorganic mulches, like rocks and rubber mulch, don’t add any nutrients to the soil. They can help keep the weeds down and insulate the soil but that’s about it. 
  • Recycled wood mulch or mulch made from waste wood- It’s best to avoid these mulches because you don’t know where they came from. They could contain pesticides or various chemical treatments.

Consider Layering Different Types of Mulch

You don’t have to use just one type of mulch. You can layer them. For example, maybe you like the look of wood chips but you’re worried about nitrogen depletion. You could add a layer of compost and then add a layer of wood chips on top. Maybe you don’t have enough ramial mulch for all of your trees. You could just use what you have and mix in some regular wood chips. Maybe you want to add some compost but you’re concerned about weeds. You could add a layer of bark mulch on top to help keep the weeds down. 

A wheelbarrow and a pile of wood mulch

How to Mulch Fruit Trees

  1. Remove all weeds and grass growing around your trees. You should weed out to the drip line. The drip line is the outermost circumference of the tree. It is the furthest point where water would drip off the tree onto the ground. This is where the feeder roots usually extend out to. They need plenty of water and nutrients. 
  2. Add some compost or manure (optional). To give your trees some extra nutrition, it’s a good idea to add a layer of compost or manure before adding mulch. 
  3. Spread the mulch around under your fruit tree. It should be 2-4 inches deep. Leave a gap around the trunk of the tree of around 6 inches. If the mulch touches the tree, it can rot the wood. This is called crown disease. This can potentially kill your tree. It also makes it easier for certain pests to infest your tree. Also, make sure the mulch isn’t too thick. If you apply the mulch too thick, air and water have a hard time passing through to the soil. It can also prevent moisture from evaporating, which can lead to root rot and other fungal diseases. 
  4. Water. After mulching water your trees thoroughly. When you’re done watering, stick your finger through the mulch to feel the soil underneath. It should be wet. If it’s not, your mulch may be blocking the water flow. You should check the moisture level once in a while to make sure your mulch isn’t blocking moisture or retaining too much moisture. 
  5. Apply more mulch when necessary. Keep an eye on your trees and apply fresh mulch after the first layer decays. Some types of mulch degrade faster than others. You might have to replace straw mulch a few times per season. Wood chips will last at least 1-2 years. 

How to Choose the Best Type of Mulch For Your Fruit Trees

Generally, you can use any type of mulch on any type of fruit tree. The best mulch really depends on where you live. Use whatever type of mulch is affordable and easy to access in your region. It’s also best to use a mulch that would exist in your tree’s natural environment.

Wood chips, ramial mulch, and compost can work well everywhere. If you’re on a tight budget, use a free type of mulch like shredded leaves, pine straw, grass clippings, or compost. 

When choosing mulch, you should also make sure that it wasn’t treated with any kind of pesticides, dyes, or other chemicals that could harm your trees. You want to use organic mulch. The mulch should also be free of seeds, disease, or fungus. 

You might also consider your soil’s pH level when choosing mulch. Some types of much can increase the acidity of the soil. You’ll want to avoid these mulches if you already have acidic soil. If you’re unsure, you can perform a soil test. Many counties offer free or low-cost soil testing. For acidic soil, hardwood mulch, such as mulch from oak trees, can work well.

Mulching Citrus Trees

An orange tree

Generally, it’s best not to mulch citrus trees. This is because they are more susceptible to root rot than other types of fruit trees.

There are benefits of mulching citrus trees. Mulch can reduce weeds, provide nutrients, and reduce erosion.

If you decide to mulch your citrus trees, leave a wide gap around the base of the tree. The gap should be at least 6 inches. This will reduce the likelihood of root damage.

When to Mulch Fruit Trees

You can mulch your fruit trees at any time of year. Many gardeners prefer to mulch in the spring or fall.

If you mulch in the spring, the rain will help the mulch settle. It will protect your trees all season long. It will also look nice all year.

I prefer to mulch in the early spring. It’s also a good idea to mulch young fruit trees after you plant them. 

Benefits of Mulching Your Fruit Trees

  • Suppresses weed growth- Mulch makes it harder for weeds to germinate. They also have a hard time growing through the mulch. It also prevents weed seeds that blow in or get dropped by birds from reaching the soil. This is important because weeds take resources away from your trees.
  • Mulch retains soil moisture- Mulch helps the soil around your fruit trees retain moisture longer by shading the soil from the sun and blocking the wind. This reduces evaporation. This helps keep your trees hydrated. It also helps with water conservation. You won’t have to water as often. You’ll save money on your water bill. This is also nice if you live in a hot and dry area that is susceptible to droughts.  
  • Mulch adds nutrients to the soil- As the mulch decomposes, it releases important nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into the soil. These nutrients help your trees grow. They will develop healthier leaves and fruits. Having access to plenty of nutrients will increase your tree’s yields. You also won’t have to fertilize as often. 
  • Mulch regulates soil temperature- Mulch shades the soil to keep it cooler during the summer. During the winter months, mulch creates a barrier between the soil and the snow and ice. This helps keep your tree’s roots warmer. Mulch also reduces the temperature swings between the day and night. This helps reduce stress on your tree’s roots. It can also slightly extend the growing season. 
  • Reduces soil erosion- Mulching blocks the impact of heavy rain on the soil. It also absorbs some water. This reduces the amount of soil and nutrients that get washed away during a heavy rainstorm. 
  • Mulch improves soil structure- As the mulch decomposes, it adds organic matter to the soil. You will see a layer of humus on top of the native soil. Soil with more organic matter can hold moisture better. It also contains more nutrients. The organic material improves soil fertility. 

Reasons Not to Mulch Fruit Trees

There aren’t really any negatives of mulching your fruit trees. It’s best not to leave bare soil.

If you have a pest problem in your yard, you will want to be careful about which type of mulch you use. Rodents can be drawn to straw mulch. Some types of wood mulch could be attractive to termites. If you have acidic soil you may not want to use pine mulch or pine straw because it can lower the pH of the soil. You may also not want to mulch if you grow citrus trees because they are more susceptible to root rot. 

A small homestead

My Experience

I have several types of fruit trees on my property including a plumb tree, an apple tree, a cherry tree, and a peach tree. I usually add a layer of compost and then mulch with wood chips. 

Personally, I like the look of wood chips. I also like that they are long-lasting. I usually only have to add a fresh mulch layer every other year. They may not be as nutrient-rich as other types of mulch but the low maintenance makes up for it. 

It’s always a good idea to mulch your fruit trees. Mulch helps suppress weeds, reduce erosion, insulate the soil, and retain moisture. Really, any type of organic mulch will work well for fruit trees. When buying mulch, make sure it comes from a reputable source so you don’t end up with mulch that has been treated, mulch that is diseased, or mulch that contains seeds. 

Do you mulch your fruit trees? Share your experience in the comments below!

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The Best Mulch for Fruit Trees

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