Mulching in the Dormant Season

Published June 19, 2019

If you’re like most landscape contractors, you did a double take when you read that. Who mulches in the fall and winter?

The answer may surprise you: More and more of your colleagues are changing their programs and mulching from mid-October through April, and they’re reaping the benefits. By moving this job to the cooler months, they’re realizing savings in time and labor; they’re expanding their season of activity; and they’re reducing damage to plants, as well as increasing weed suppression.

Plus—they’re making their clients happy. That means more renewed contracts and increased word-of-mouth referrals.

So how—and why—does this work? Let’s first take a look at current practices, and how these traditional routines leave room for improvement.

For years the accepted practice has been to mulch in the spring, when plants are emerging. Crews are out in force, but they may be stretched thin, so often the application of mulch takes a back seat to other, more urgent springtime tasks. Labor is intensified as workers are required to apply mulch strategically around new shoots, increasing the risk of damage to tender, young bulbs and perennials. And as ornamental plants are cropping up, so are the weeds.

Jobs such as spring prep, planting, mowing, weeding, hardscape installation—you name it—can call workers away from mulching, which leaves the task interrupted and garden beds looking unfinished. Once your crew is able to return, they may need to perform additional weeding before resuming the addition of mulch. This often is done during the hottest days of the year, when workers are stressed and the fresh—and heated—mulch can burn garden plants and turf.

When mulching is rescheduled to the cooler months, however, many of these risks are absent, and the benefits are increased.

Crews can be kept busy, and working more efficiently, when the fall and winter programs include mulching. Perennials have been cut back and leaves that have fallen can remain on the ground to be mulched over. This not only reduces fall clean-up, but it adds organic matter to the soil—and decreases your end-of-season dump fees. And it’s easier, and more efficient, to apply mulch uniformly on a dormant garden bed than to spread it around and between emerging plants.

This is the time when weeds die off or go dormant, so it’s an excellent time to apply a consistent mulch layer that will settle in and provide reliable suppression, greatly reducing the need for spring weed management. The risk of mulch breakdown is lessened in colder weather, and because very few winters offer season-long snow cover, fresh mulch will serve as sufficient protection for dormant ornamentals. It also provides that finished “wow” factor that customers crave.  

There’s so much to recommend switching up your routine and scheduling mulch application to the dormant season. Can you convince your customers to make the change? Explain to them that their gardens will be healthier, and will look good all year long. They’ll love it, and so will your bottom line.