Managing Grass and Weeds

You need to minimize competition for water and nutrients from weeds and grass growing adjacent to your trees. Two approaches commonly used in home fruit plantings are mulches and permanent sod.

When planting trees into a lawn, follow the planting steps described previously. In addition, remove the sod within 2 feet of the tree to prevent competition between the tree and grass. If you don't water your trees or if they otherwise fail to thrive, you may want to expand this cleared area as the tree grows. Keep grass mowed short near the trees.

Mulches have several advantages. In addition to suppressing weed growth, they can reduce moisture loss, helping to keep the soil evenly moist. As they

When planting into lawn, remove sod from within 2 feet of the tree.

decompose, they improve soil structure and release nutrients that the trees can take up and use. Mulches also cushion fruits that drop from the trees and reduce soil erosion.

Using mulches also has disadvantages, but if you recognize the drawbacks and deal with them, mulching is an excellent cultural practice. Mulches can carry in noxious weed seeds, be a fire hazard, and attract rodents. They may be expensive or difficult to obtain, and some people consider them unsightly.

In wet years or on poorly drained soils, mulches can hold excessive moisture, forcing growth that fails to harden off in the fall and resulting in winter injury or collar rot. When using mulch, it is difficult to judge how much nitrogen fertilizer to apply. If you use high-carbon materials, more fertilizer may be needed for the first few years. But as the mulch decays, less is required.

Although there are many different types of mulches, wood chips or bark mulch work best, in part because they are less attractive to voles, which can damage trees over the winter. Apply these mulches 4 inches deep, and they will settle into a mat less than half this thickness. For good weed control, add more mulch as it decomposes to maintain a 2- to 4-inch layer. The mulched area should extend from near the tree trunk to a point just beyond the spread of branches. To prevent tree injury by voles and other rodents, do not place mulches against the trunk of the tree, and place a hardware cloth ring around the trunk base. (See "Vertebrate Pest Control," page 9.)

A thick layer of mulch slows soil warming in the spring. This can delay flowering, which can be an advantage if your site is prone to late spring frosts.

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