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?

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. 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!

    • 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.

      • 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.

  3. 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.

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