Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Mulch Madness - How to Mulch Correctly, Why You Need Mulch & More

April 07, 2022 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 2 Episode 13
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Mulch Madness - How to Mulch Correctly, Why You Need Mulch & More
Show Notes Transcript

Tom Ford from Davey's Portland, Maine, office discusses why mulch is important, how to mulch correctly and the type of mulch he uses on his property, as well as his favorite trees in Maine. 

In this episode we cover:

  • Spring in Maine (0:48) (8:33)
  • Volcano mulching (1:20)
  • How far out to mulch (2:31)
  • Maples and roots (3:35)
  • Why it's important to mulch (4:05)
  • Compost (4:30)
  • Landscape fabric (5:52)
  • Dyed mulches (7:07)
  • Planting in Maine (7:53)
  • Tree growth in Maine (10:02)
  • How Tom got into arboriculture (10:46)
  • Working with clients (11:34)
  • Native trees Tom loves for the North (13:34)
  • What Tom loves about his job  (18:32)

To find your local Davey office, check out our find a local office page to search by zip code.

To learn more about mulching, check out our different blogs on Mulch.
To learn about the pros and cons of mulch versus rocks, read our blog, Landscaping Pros and Cons of Rocks vs. Mulch.

Connect with Davey Tree on social media:
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YouTube: The Davey Tree Expert Company
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Have topics you'd like us to cover on the podcast? Email us at We want to hear from you!

Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Companies Podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each week, our expert arborists, share advice on seasonal tree care, how to make your trees thrive, arborists’ favorite trees, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at The Talking Trees Podcast, we know trees are the answer.

I'm joined this week by Tom Ford. He's a sales arborist for the Davey Tree Expert Company in Portland, Maine. Tom, we were talking before we came on. Down here in Pittsburgh, it's about 25 degrees. What's it like up there in beautiful, sunny Maine?

Tom Ford: Well, it was about 15 this morning. Thanks for having me, Doug, and it's warmed up a little bit, so we're about at 30 degrees.

Doug: When does spring really hit its stride up there?

Tom: Honestly, it varies obviously from year to year, but probably beginning to mid-April. We hope that we're there, but you never know. [laughs]

Doug: In my opinion, there's no more beautiful area in the country than Maine. Been up there a couple of times, absolutely love it, but I don't know if I could handle the short season. We're going to talk today about mulch, a really important topic. I want to start right off with a problem we have down here that I want to see if you've got up there, and it's called volcano mulching. Lots of people do it down here and it's the worst thing for the trees. Do you see it up in Maine also?

Tom: I'm pretty sure I see that everywhere. [laughs].

Doug: All right.

Tom: Yes. Anywhere I've been in the country, for sure, yes.

Doug: Talk about why it is so bad, what it is and why it's so bad.

Tom: When planting young trees especially, and even older trees, we want to see the root flare of the trees. Piling up that mulch around the base of the tree actually restricts a lot of oxygen and air exchange. Roots have air exchange and people don't like to see roots on the surface. It worries them, but they're there for a reason. Tapering out that mulch just a little bit goes a long way. It really does.

Doug: Then how far out should the tree be mulched in general, or does it depend on the tree?

Tom: Yes, it depends on the tree. I think a two or three-foot ring around a tree is good as long as, like I said, if you have surface roots that are being run over by a mower every other day or twice a week, then you might want to extend that ring out a little bit more for sure.

Doug: Well, that's a good point actually when talking about mulch. That ring is a great way to keep the mower away from the tree. Because I know just from doing this podcast and talking to other arborists that that's a big problem where people are actually hitting the bottom of the tree with a mower. They're running over roots, like say if it's a maple or a pine with shallow roots. Keeping that mower away from the base of the tree is important, right?

Tom: Absolutely. The weeded whacker too.

Doug: Okay. Good point. A lot of times, I get questions about maples. You brought it up, that people don't like to see roots on the surface, but something like a maple, that's how it grows. That's just the way it should be.

Tom: Yes. Most tree root systems are less than 18 inches deep in the soil. A lot of it is a misconception. We think we have these giant taproots that go way down in the ground and it's not the case.

Doug: Talk a little bit about the benefits of mulch. Why are we mulching around the tree? Besides the keep the mower away, what are the other good things about having that mulch on the tree?

Tom: Mulch helps moisture. Like you said, it protects the base of the tree and the root system a little bit better. My opinion, at my house, I actually use a rough compost. It's very similar to mulch. It's getting harder to find really good mulch. A lot of it is ground up and dyed with colors and I use a heavy compost.

Doug: Yes, so that's interesting. That sounds like a great idea. Every time it rains, that compost is going to release nutrients. When you say heavy compost, what does that mean? Just the way that it's shredded or--?

Tom: Yes, yes, yes, exactly. Yes. It's more of a rough compost than-- You can get a real fine compost for planting flowers and flower beds and gardens and things like that, but a lot of compost now-- and they’re, like I said, it's almost like mulch. It's very coarse.

Doug: Just tell me how the trees react to that because from a guy who uses a lot of compost, that sounds like a great way to give trees what they need.

Tom: Yes. Like I said, at my house, that's what I do. Again, like you said, it keeps weeds down. It's not 100%. I try to stay away from landscape fabric. You can do it around the outskirts of your beds, but what we don't want to do is we don't want to heat root systems up extremely and keep too much moisture in there. We want plants and we want everything else to tell you when it needs water. Obviously, if we're in a drought situation, you got to water your plants.

Doug: You bring up a great point about landscape fabric because it seems like it'd be a great idea. Like, okay, we've put down this fabric, it breathes, it stops the weeds, but then you do have the issue of heating it up. Then after a couple of years, if you're putting mulch on top of it, weed seeds always get in there and I find that eventually, two, three, four seasons down the road, people are tearing out that landscape fabric.

Tom: Yes. Absolutely. There are some good products, like you said out there, that I put them out on the edges of the bed, maybe a planting bed just to avoid having to be on my knees all summer weeding.

Doug: Oh, I hear you. You also brought up something that I wanted to ask you about were dyed mulches. In my landscape, that's not for me. I want natural, but is there a scientific negative to the dyes or anything, or is it just something synthetic?

Tom: Yes, not really. Yes, I mean, it's synthetic. I'm sure some of that dye is going to be leaching or like you said, when it rains, getting a lot of water on there under the puddle. I'm sure some of that dye's going to leach out of that for sure. I don't know what the composition of the dye is, but I'd rather not have it on my plants.

Doug: Yes, it makes sense to me too. When do you guys start planting trees, or have you started already?

Tom: We haven't yet. Maine is, yes, we're probably two weeks out, I would say.

Doug: When you do plant trees in the spring, is mulch part of the deal?

Tom: It's always an option. Yes, we always give it as an option to clients. Some people like to do it themselves and, you know, so, yes.

Doug: Just school them on how to do it the right way. We don't want-

Tom: Right. Yes. Absolutely, yes.

Doug: -the bottom of that tree covered up, that's for sure. Tell me a little bit about working up in such a beautiful area. What are some of the first trees to leaf out and to flower?

Tom: Magnolia for sure is going to be our first flower, pretty much. Then we'll probably end up with crab apples and some of the ornamental trees. One of the latest trees we get is ash. A lot of times, people will call in the spring and think that that tree might be dead, but I'm like, "Just give it a little bit more time. It'll come out."

Doug: Up there, you're okay with the ashes. We've lost all our ashes down here due to emerald ash borer. Is it moving that way or is it too cold for the emerald ash borer?

Tom: No, it is, and we have it, and it's spotty in certain places, but it's been here for multiple years and so we're pretty worried about it.

Doug: Yes, it is seriously wiped out most of the trees here. Now we're waiting here down in Pittsburgh, in our region to see if these ashes will-- they've started to sprout up as little root sprouts and such and see if they can continue but only time will tell. I have to think that you've got the best summer of any place in the country. [laughs]

Tom: Yes, but it's the shortest one too, so-- [laughs]

Doug: How does that affect tree growth? I mean, when I talk to people like down in Atlanta, one of the things they say is people move there from the North and they're just so surprised at how fast the trees grow. Am I thinking the same thing? Up there, are the trees growing slower than they would down further South?

Tom: I think, yes. I'm sure they are, but we have-- I would say we have average growth on species every year, which is maybe 6 to 12 inches, I would say on average, depending on the species.

Doug: That doesn't sound too much different than me being down in the North Atlantic area, Mid-Atlantic area. Talk a little bit about how you got into this job, why this job is right for you.

Tom: I started in high school working for landscape companies and working with my brother doing odd projects. I loved to be outside doing that kind of work, love trees, love plants. Got a degree in horticulture and arboriculture and made it a career. Nothing like being outside every day.

Doug: That sounds pretty good, especially in Maine. I mean, during the nice warm parts of Maine, four weeks. [laughs].

Tom: Sure. [laughs].

Doug: Talk a little bit about the relationship with your customers, that part about it. I know you love being outside, I know you love helping them out, but I always love to talk to arborists about being able to come to a property and save a tree. Our trees, as homeowners, they mean so much to us. It's such a wonderful thing when an expert like you comes, and looks, and says, and I know it's not always this way, but comes and says, "I can save it. We can do this, we can do that, we can do this, and your tree's going to be okay."

Tom: Yes. Being a homeowner, our homes and our landscapes are so valuable. Yes, being able to meet with people, and discuss, and maybe even educate them a little bit, like we're talking about mulch today, most of it. It's a great thing to be able to do, and it's just like other professions. If I need a lawyer, I call a lawyer and get advice from them so it's enjoyable.

Doug: It’s funny, not everybody does that with their trees, and they should. I told the story, I think it was last week on the podcast where my team from Davey came and I had no idea that I had a big oak tree that was on the decline. It's right over the garage and he just said, "Hey, the thing's got to go." I was so relieved because he came to tell me that. Otherwise, one day I'm going to walk out there and my garage is gone. Like you said, it's a good point. When you need a lawyer, you call one. When you need a doctor, you call one. Somebody should be looking at your trees at least once a year, right?

Tom: For sure. Yes. It's an industry joke that our arborist necks are always a little sore because we're always looking up. Not everybody does that. [laughs]

Doug: I want to put you on the spot. I want to run through a couple trees that you might really love for planting up in the North there that might not get planted as much as you wish they would. Think about that, and we always say on The Talking Trees Podcast, right tree, right place, but are there any certain specific cultivars or types of tree that you really love, that when you find the right spot, you can tell a customer like, "You know what, this is cool,” and not everybody's growing it?

Tom: Yes. There's some specifics to that, and that is, we always want to try to plant native trees, but like you said, certain spots and people want interesting things. We have to be careful of hardiness zones, especially up here in the North, so that's an important. I do tend to see some plants being sold in certain places, and I would not recommend some of those.

Doug: That's got to drive you crazy. That's got to drive you crazy.

Tom: Yes, it does. Yes.

Doug: As an expert, and you see at a nursery or someplace where they're trying to sell this to the consumer, and you're thinking to yourself, "Boy, that's a real marginal for this area,” and I feel the same way, just like I feel so sorry for somebody who might put in a marginal tree. Then they think it's that they have a brown thumb or something when it doesn't make it.

Tom: Yes, exactly. Then we get called and ask us, “Why is this tree not surviving?” I'm like, “Well, it doesn't belong here.” I hate-- not pointing fingers, but a lot of that happens in some of the box stores, a lot of plants and I see in there, and they're not hardy here.

Doug: What native trees up there are we talking about?

Tom: Maple. I mean, maple is great. Maple is probably one of our staples. Obviously, white pine, we're the pine tree state. Those trees do get large, so like you said, it's important to place them in right plant for the right spot. If you got a great big backyard, that's great. There are some wonderful-- sugar maple is staple tree up in the northern tier here. There are some great varieties now that are doing really well. An ornamental tree that I like-- certain ornamental trees would prefer to have a protected spot, and this is one in particular that does, and it's called stewartia.

Doug: Yes, baby. That's my favorite.

Tom: It's one of my favorite. Yes, it's my favorite, yes. I don't have one yet in my yard because I have to find the right spot for it but, you know.

Doug: Oh, I'm glad you brought that up, and I'm glad you brought up sugar maples, because again, a lot of times when I talk to arborists, I expect to hear something, strange crazy tree. But boy, I'll tell you what, 90% of the arborists come up with sugar maple right off the bat because it's such a beautiful fall tree. Again finding the right spot for it to get to the right size, but just an absolute great tree, but then you bring up the stewartia. All right, I've talked about stewartia a couple times on the show. What is it about a stewartia that you like?

Tom: I actually like the form of the tree and I like the single stem form of the tree. It doesn't always come that way, which is fine, but I just think it has a wonderful flower and a great form, structure and form.

Doug: Hardiness up there, it's cool, everything's good?

Tom: Pretty good. Like I said, it does probably better in a protected location, maybe in a backyard and a corner of the fence or something like that. I wouldn't plan it roadside, but you know.

Doug: Right, and even down here it's the same thing. It's the same thing where you want this protected spot. I put one in three or four years ago, and last year was the first year it bloomed, and oh, man, I'm just telling you. I agree with you. The shape of the tree is amazing. I love the winter interest of it, but there's nothing like those flowers, kind of peony-like I guess would be my explanation. I don't know if that's right, but I love that tree and I feel lucky that it has-- I did find the right spot for it. Tell me a little bit before we're done here, we got one more question. What do you get out of this? What do you get out of this job? What's the best thing for you?

Tom: I get to work with a lot of amazing people, meet a lot of amazing people, and ultimately, trees are my passion. I love trees.

Doug: I can't do anything better than that. We're going to leave it right there, Tom. That is great stuff. I appreciate your time and schooling us on mulching and it's given us some ideas for trees. Enjoy your summer up there. It's going to get warm soon for both of us.

Tom: Yes, you too. Come on up, Doug.

Doug: All right. Thanks, Tom.

Tom: Take care.

Doug: I really would love to see Maine again, maybe this summer. Now get ready for next week's show as we start a two-part series kicking off with the best spring flowering trees for the Western US. Then the following week, we'll look at the eastern part of the country. I'm looking forward to seeing what the arborists come up with. Tune in every Thursday to The Talking Trees Podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. I'd love it if you'd subscribe to the podcast. Where else are you going to have this fun, right? As always, we'd like to remind you on The Talking Trees Podcast, trees are the answer.


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