Ministry of Controversy

Mulch Ado About Nothing

Spotted in Easton, MD:  a properly mulched street tree!  This is a sighting as rare as that of a Yeti – in fact, every other tree on that street sported the usual volcano of mulch heaped up against the tree’s trunk.    Why just the one triumph of good horticultural practice?   Perhaps there is just one town employee who has listened to the pleas to stop burying trees alive in shredded bark; perhaps the anomalous groundsman was disciplined after deviating from the norm.

tree mulch

Sighted in Easton — properly mulched tree

I was down in Easton, the center of  Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to visit Ruth Clausen, my horticultural mentor and co-author (with me) of Essential Perennials.  We were putting together a workshop on propagating perennials which we will teach at the Philadelphia Flower Show on March 3rd at 2 p.m., and visiting Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, MD, where we found the skunk cabbage already in bloom – if skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) enjoyed a more flattering common name it would be a garden fixture with its fascinating, early season flower and luxuriant foliage.  Skunk cabbage plants actually heat up in late winter, metabolizing nutrients stored in their roots to melt the surrounding surface soil so that they can poke up their precocious blossoms for the benefit of early pollinators — flies and other early insects find a warm refuge inside the hooded flowers.


“SKUNKCABBAGE-MOSS-400X575” by Sue Sweeney


As special as the flowers were, however, and the Arboretum’s fine specimens of native hollies and other trees, the real excitement of the visit was that street tree’s mulch.  It was spotted after a dinner with wine and was initially suspected to be an alcoholic apparition. Why is the urge to fatally smother tree trunks so universal in this country?  How did such a destructive practice become the norm?  More important, how do we stop it?

Posted by on February 7, 2015 at 9:17 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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8 responses to “Mulch Ado About Nothing”

  1. Susan says:

    Wow – sadly, a properly mulched tree IS about as uncommon a sight as seeing a giant panda in one’s back yard. I don’t know who started this trend, but I could cheerfully wring their necks. Not only is it bad horticultural practice for what should be very obvious reasons, it looks like crap as well. This is one reason that I have a general grudge against landscapers (whom I suspect, fairly or unfairly, of starting the “volcano mulch” trend as a subtle way of padding their bills) – they do bad stuff, and the home gardener pays for their sins.

  2. Wow, amazing! I never saw the “volcano syndrome” till I moved to Tennessee. It is so sad to see all these mini-estates in the hi-dollar end of Nashville with great landscaping ruined by all the trees with their Mini Mt. Fuji around them. Apparently not many landscapers read even the basic books about sound practices!

  3. Hilarious. Great article.

    • Bob says:

      Its not the name that keeps Skunk Cabbage from being a popular horticulture plant its the smell.

      Flies are attracted to it because it smells like rotting garbage when in bloom, hence the name “skunk” cabbage.

      • kermit says:

        Like other flowers which attract flies as pollinators, it also is colored rather like rotting flesh. Still pretty. If I planted it the neighbors would probably blame the smell – quite unfairly – on my compost piles.

  4. kermit says:

    I suspect it’s only one tree because it wasn’t the city employee who finished it. He or she buried all the trees similarly, but a resident of the apartment complex or the owner of a shop knelt down and saved the tree. She then looked sadly up and down the street at the others, but shook her head sadly as she realized once again that she couldn’t maintain the whole city by herself.

    Admit it – we’ve all done it.

  5. Vicky Shallow says:

    Carry a garden claw and attack the problem when you see it.