What mulch is best?

magnolia grandiflora
Magnolia grandiflora

Or, how I discovered the magnolia tree and learned what to do with its leaves.

For years I grumbled about my neighbour using his leaf blower to push his fallen magnolia leaves onto our property. Grr. It would make me so mad. Then 2011 came along and the problem disappeared. That year marked a tipping point for this everlasting drought. Any plant that was barely surviving, like my neighbour’s magnolia tree, simply surrendered.

That fall a much louder than usual buzzing noise came from next door. The leaf blower was going to be stowed away for good. A small crew armed with chain saws relentlessly transformed his tree into firewood. Suddenly, the problem of dealing with an extra mountain of leaves seemed trivial.

His tree was enormous — a heritage tree of roughly the same size as the magnolia growing in our yard. They were probably planted around the same time and I started to worry that our tree might also be in peril.

Now, I have to admit something. Magnolia trees seemed like terribly exotic things when I first moved here. I didn’t even know what this tree was when I first saw it. Newb that I am when it comes to gardening in a subtropical climate I had to look it up on the internet.

“Ahhh. So THIS is one of those famous southern magnolia trees,” I said to myself. I mean like everyone else on the planet I had heard about them … probably from a gothic novel where people sit on porches and sip mint juleps in between suffering from the vapours (whatever THOSE are).

Next question: so, what kind of mulch is best for magnolia trees?

Most places recommended using straw or pine bark and I started to despair. Where was I going to get straw? I live in a city. Pine trees? They don’t grow anywhere near here. Besides, what the heck was I going to do with the small mountain of thick leathery magnolia leaves that take forever to compost?

Then one day (insert magical wand sound effect) I ran into a place (which I have since been unable to find) that gave a completely different answer. It said, the best mulch for a Magnolia grandiflora is: magnolia leaves!

I like that idea a lot. It seems reasonable that a native tree would probably prefer to recycle its own leaves. Plus, this means a whole lot less work. I used to spend hours and hours raking leaves, shredding them, putting them into the compost bin (where they needed to be watered and turned and then re-transported once they were broken down …. )

But is this just lazy wishful thinking? I’d love to hear what more experienced gardeners think.

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23 thoughts on “What mulch is best?

  1. No idea about this tree as I have never seen them in person…I would not know one if I fell over it. But it makes sense to have a tree be mulched by its own leaves…makes sense to me.

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  2. Late, I’m late, I apologize. The Hub and I went ’round and ’round about what he calls “composting in place”, which is his practice of letting smaller branches and all leaves trimmed (or naturally falling) stay in place around the bush or tree they came from. I never liked what I saw as the untidiness of it (years ago I had Aesthetic Standards!) but so long as it doesn’t get to the point of building piles against a trunk, I think The Hub has had it right all along. Mulching and composting happen all the time without human intervention. Or improvements.

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    1. What? No need to apologize. My goodness. Some fallen leaves are more decorative than others. If they were tiny red Japanese maple leavess I wouldn’t even wonder. Live oak is nice, too: all the same size and a nice colour. The magnolia leaves may work like that even though they are so big. They do have a nice colour and uniform shape. But the pecan leaves? No offence intended but they probably won’t win a beauty contest. This year I think I may use them to make leaf mold.

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  3. I have not raked my yard or used a blower for many years. In my garden you find 99% native plants and trees and I love it. Magnolia leaves, live oak leaves all are great for mulch. It takes a long time for them to decompose and the nutrients will slowly trickle into the ground without weeds getting in the way.

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    1. My dream is to eventually convert my whole property into something like what you have so your endorsement that leaving the leaves works is welcome. I love the way undisturbed soil smells and that’s what I want to smell when I step outside.

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            1. Wow. What a beautiful place. Congratulations! Thanks for sharing this. I knew about the wildlife habitat thing but the Forest Stewardship Program is new to me. How exciting. =D

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  4. makes sense to me that the leaf fall of the tree is best to decompose at the base and add back in to the vitality of the tree.
    I love magnolias …. sort of a gone with the wind extravagance about them. possums love them here ….
    Sandra

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  5. No expert here. I do add some leaves as compost material to my small garden where I grow tomatoes and basil and ??? whatever catches my fancy each year. I don’t bother with other plantings and mulches. The deer eat everything. Why bother fighting them.

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    1. I have heard of people with deer problems. =/ Sorry to hear it. Do you add some kind of nitrogen to go with the carbon? That is my other concern: that if I just leave the fresh leaves won’t that leach nitrogen as the leaves decompose?

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    1. I don’t mind doing the work if a plant needs it — but I do mind if it is unnecessary. And yeah — magnolias are sooo nice.

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  6. It absolutely makes sense. I think that as gardeners, we should always attempt to do the thing that is easiest. Because: 1) it’s less work for us–always a good thing 2) it’s generally what nature does–always a good thing. I think we’ve bought into the idea that we have to fix and augment EVERYTHING and as I age, I’m beginning to think there are some parts of our lives, like the garden, where it’s not required to “make work.” I allow all of my leaves to fall in my gardens. Additionally, I dump most of the other leaves, which fall in pathways, porch, etc., in the gardens. In time, they disappear into the fabric of the gardens. I don’t dump all that much into my compost. I have a sycamore, which has annoyingly large and thick leaves, that I shred with an attachment to my blower and I do shred some of my red oak leaves, as well, but not the majority.

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    1. I guess the magnolia tree has had thousands of years to get it right. I was thinking that because the leaves are so thick they would block the passage of water down but maybe it is the reverse: they will create a good seal to keep the water in the soil.

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