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Mulch ado about nothing: The pros and cons of mulching, raking leaves

by Janet B. Carson November 19, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.
A thick layer of whole leaves can provide habitat for beneficial insects, but it also blocks air and sunlight, smothering a lawn and encouraging diseases. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)

To mulch, or not to mulch — that seems to be the question.

You will find advocates on both sides of the debate. Gardening is not an exact science, and you can find theories to support various arguments.

Some gardeners swear by the benefits of mulch. But some native plant or perennial gardeners don't advocate mulches because they prevent seeds that fall off the plants from receiving sunlight and germinating.

Some say one type of mulch is better than another.

Mulch is basically any material that is applied to the surface of the soil. There are organic mulches such as leaves, bark, pine needles, straw, pecan hulls and compost. Rocks and lava rock, sand, recycled rubber tires and even ground-up glass have been used as mulch.

Some gardeners put down a layer of newspaper or cardboard, or shredded paper, under their mulch; or they put landscape paper under their mulch to get extra weed protection. Other vegetable gardeners use black plastic mulch in the spring to warm up the soil; others put down a mulch of aluminum foil to reflect sunlight and ward off insects.

Planting ground-covers is using a living mulch.


Mulch has many benefits:

  • ◼️ Conserving soil moisture,
  • ◼️ Helping to discourage weeds,
  • ◼️ Moderating the soil temperature, and
  • ◼️ Preventing erosion.

When used around trees in the landscape, it prevents damage from mowers and other equipment.

In some cases, it just makes the garden look "finished" or more aesthetically appealing than bare soil.

The benefits of using an organic mulch is that as the mulch breaks down, it is adding organic matter to your soil, improving the soil along the way. But the sheer fact that it breaks down means you do have to reapply organic mulches more often.

Some non-gardeners who like the desert look put down a weed barrier and cover the entire yard in rocks with nothing green growing at all. Obviously, nothing to mow, but often not a very attractive landscape.


Mulching used to be something that even organic and nonorganic gardeners could agree on. It works on many levels, and mulching seemed to be an accepted method of gardening. Then about a decade ago, some landscapers started piling huge volcanoes of mulch around tree plantings, and a disadvantage came into the spotlight.

Volcano mulching is not beneficial for the trees is it used around. While it does protect the trees from string-trimmer or lawnmower damage, it builds up too much heat and moisture around the trunks, which can lead to decay, and it also serves as a nice bed-and-breakfast for rodents that can overwinter in the warm environment and then feed upon the stems.

The best practice is to put down a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch while leaving an air space next to the trunks or woody stems of your plants to prevent decay.

  photo  To rake or not to rake? Fallen leaves can smother lawn grass and prevent the seeds that fall from perennials from germinating. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)  NO RAKING?

Recently, there has been some new controversy about mulching. With leaves falling in earnest across our state, a slew of people concerned about the environment are advocating no raking, letting the leaves stay in place as a blanket of mulch.

They say that when you rake your leaves and/or shred them, you are destroying the habitat for butterflies and other insects. The recommendation is to stop raking and let your landscape become more natural. Some have even said it is healthier for your lawn to let the leaves stay all winter.

If you live in a landscape with one or two small trees, a light layer of leaves will not be a problem. But if you have a landscape full of trees, the thick layer of leaf mulch that will fall could smother out many lawn grasses and low-growing perennials if left in place all winter.

Just as with volcano mulching, if your leaf buildup is greater than 2-3 inches, the leaves will pack down and block sunlight to anything that needs it.

Many gardeners have used a thick layer of leaves to help kill grass when they start a garden. Adding layers of shredded leaves moderates soil temperature and so forth, and when worked into the soil, can enrich it. Whole leaves will also break down, but it takes a longer time.

There is room for both arguments about what to do with fallen leaves.


If you have sections in your yard where you can't grow grass because of shade, let the leaves lie where they fell and serve as your annual mulching. If you do have a lawn, then try to keep the leaf coverage to a minimum.

If you have some plants that might struggle to survive a colder than normal winter, a little extra mulch is a good thing — applied after they have gone dormant. If you pile on a heavy blanket of mulch before the plants are dormant, it can delay dormancy so they are still tender during harsh cold, and that will do more damage.

  photo  Increasingly available colored mulches are typically made by dyeing shredded scrap wood, pallets and demolition waste using iron-based or organic dyes. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)  BIG TENT

Adding to the mulch controversy are the colored mulches. Some gardeners adore the red mulch look, while others are appalled by colored mulches of any kind.

Think back to the '50s when white rock was the "in" mulch for a garden. Looks come and go, and each garden should be a reflection of the gardener.

Remember that it is not all or nothing. Gardening is a concept that has room for all. You might be a native plant gardener, a Japanese gardening enthusiast, an herb grower, a vegetable gardener or a perennial gardener. Don't get too hung up on all the rules — nothing is set in stone — except for all the rocks in our soil!

If you walk outside and get enjoyment from your yard, then you are doing something right.

Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.

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