What's wrong with this picture?

May 09, 2010

Editor's note: Each Monday, The Herald-Mail will highlight an infrastructure issue or other problem and will try to find out what is being done to fix or improve the situation.

We will not tackle situations involving neighborhood or domestic disputes or consumer problems.

The problem: Tall mounds of mulch encircling the trunks of trees have become a common landscaping feature, but experts say this practice can harm or kill trees if not done properly.

A Boonsboro resident sent in a photo of a tree near her home in Schoolhouse Manor, a senior housing community in Boonsboro managed by the Housing Authority of Washington County, which shows a deep mulch pile touching the trunk of the tree.

"The county is not only paying for the excessive mulch, but the manpower to pile it against the trees and the cost to eventually replace the trees when they die," the resident wrote.


Annette Ipsan, horticulture educator with the University of Maryland Extension, confirmed that excessive mulch around trees can lead to rot, disease and problems with insects. Mulch around trees should be no more than 2 to 3 inches deep, and there should be a 1- to 2-inch barrier around the trunk with no mulch at all, she said.

Otherwise, the mulch makes the area around the trunk damp, which can cause the bark to rot, and also invites disease and can provide a pathway for insects to attack the tree, she said. Too much mulch can also prevent water from reaching the roots or cause the roots to grow into the mulch, where they will dry out, she said.

"It's a recipe for disaster for a tree," Ipsan said.

Who could fix it: Housing Authority of Washington County

What they say: Housing authority Executive Director Richard Willson said the housing authority's commissioners were surprised when a resident brought the matter to their attention last month.

"We are usually quite stingy with our treatments and the thought that we would put even 6 inches of mulch around a tree that we are maintaining was quite a surprise to us," Willson said.

He said maintenance staff reported that some of the housing authority's older trees have roots bulging from the ground, causing mulch piles that are only about 4 inches deep to appear higher.

Willson said officials directed the maintenance staff to consult the University of Maryland Extension for advice.

"We will follow what they tell us to do," he said.

Willson said the housing authority had not experienced any tree infestations or tree deaths.

--Compiled by Heather Keels

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Hagerstown MD 21740

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