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Tree Health, Wood Mulch and the Soil Environment

May 12, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 113

The Magic of Mulch

You will hear it said that there is as much of a tree below the ground as there is above. In some regards there is a truth to that. In fact most tree roots grow in the top 60cm of soil. The roots of a tree are essential to the health and stability of the tree. They draw up water and minerals and provide anchorage and storage for the tree.

Roots also have requirements of their own. Being below ground they lack the capacity for photosynthesis and therefore cannot produce their own carbohydrates that have to be transported down from the leaves via the phloem vessels just under the bark. They also respire, which means they need oxygen. The oxygen comes from the air and makes its way to the roots through pores in the soil which allow gaseous exchange through pores in the roots called lenticels and along channels in the wood called medullary rays (the prominent lines you can see in Oak timber). This is why you will rarely find tree roots below 60cm. The oxygen just doesn`t diffuse that far.

Tree roots also rely on certain types of micro organisms to help them with their job. The carbohydrates that are transported down from the crown don`t all get used by the tree. Some pour out into the soil where they are used by other organisms. In particular a type of fungus known as mycorrhizae are essential to the health of the tree. Mycorrhizae (meaning fungus roots) are a wide variety of fungi that have evolved alongside trees. Essentially they grow either into the trees roots (endomycorrhizae) or form sheaths outside (ectomycorrhizae) and they benefit from the tree`s carbohydrates whilst the tree benefits from their greater ability to take up minerals from the soil. Mycorrhizae are essential to the trees long term health. The area where tree, soil and microorganisms interact is known as the rhizosphere.


In the natural woodland environment trees will shed branches and leaves which are broken down by various saprophytic (dead eating) fungi, bacteria and animals. This increases the amount of organic material in the soil. Organic matter helps to stabilize soil Ph, increases the nutrient holding capacity of soil it also increases the water holding capacity of free draining soils (sand, chalk etc) and increases the draining capacity of soil prone to water logging (clay). In short it enhances soil texture and in the longer term, with the help of small animals, enhances the structure. The other result of having lots of little creatures moving around in the soil is they create channels for gaseous exchange.

Over millions of years trees have evolved alongside the creatures that live around them for mutual benefit.

In the garden environment soil can often be lacking organic matter. Foot traffic and vehicle traffic (mowers etc) cause soil compaction which crushes the channels in the soil that tree roots rely on for water and air to reach them. Fertilizers and pesticides interfere with nutrient levels and poison the tree. All this can make for a pretty tough environment for the tree to grow. Next to roads or driveways can be far worse. Soil compaction can be a significant problem and salt from winter gritting can cause serious issues for tree and soil organisms alike.

A simple organic remedy

Using mulched wood chip can significantly enhance the soil conditions over longer periods of time. It`s not the quick fix that fertilizer and mycorrhizal injection offer nor does it deal with compaction as quickly as using an air spade but in the long run it can provide significant benefits to trees, shrubs and general soil health. A layer of mulched wood chip spread over as much of the root crown as is possible and maintained at about 75mm deep will almost certainly improve the health of your trees in the long term

Won`t that encourage fungus into my garden?

A healthy tree should be able to resist parasitic fungi. Healthy soil will contain a wide variety of saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi which compete with opportunistic parasitic fungi like Honey Fungus. This is not a miracle cure, but the miracle cures rarely retain their miraculous status for very long. This is based on good soil science, trying to recreate the conditions that trees experience in the woods.

Ecoarborist Ltd are based in Stroud in Gloucestershire. We handle all aspects of tree care and health for more information please visit:

Source: EzineArticles
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