Should I purchase Mulch OR Ground Covering Conifers??

ricksample(6)April 3, 2012

I went though a lot of trouble last year designing my beds, constantly changing the layout, conifers, etc. Well I finished redesigning most of it this spring and I'm very satisfied at how everything flows. I finally thought outside of the box... now I would like to do the same with what I'm considering for 2012.

This past winter I was able to save $600 towards mulch. This will not fill all of my beds, I would need around $1,800 to fill everything. I looked for free mulch both last year and so far this year, but came up short. I'm wanting to know if that $600 would be best spent on mulch or for me to pocket half and spend the other half on ground covering conifers. Mostly Junipers, maybe a few pines/spruces, and then just some plain evergreen ground covers to fill the space until my conifers got larger. Then once everything is larger, maybe toss some mulch between the plants to finish everything off. The one bed I have right now that is mulched is about about 40x30, it has (5) 1' tall conifers... so you can see what I my concern regarding mulch.

Pros to mulch: I won't have to mow inside the beds, keeps the weeds down.

Cons to mulch: Cost, have to replace every 4-5 years

Pros to ground covers: More cost effective, can be propagated/divided to fill in other beds.

Cons: May take awhile to fill in. Have to mow inside the beds.

Right now I have mulch around all my obstacles... deck, flagstone pathways, etc. These beds are completely filled with mulch. I have 8 beds that are not mulched. I just have roundup down to outline the shape. The conifers are all mulched. Right now I set my push mower on the lowest setting and scalp the grass. I only need to mow these beds twice a month, which takes about a half hour each time. So it isn't to bad. I'm not huge on putting roundup on the entire bed, I did last year to one of the beds and I spent more time going over that 1 bed with roundup than I did mowing the others.

Regarding the mulch: Another con is that it holds moisture in... well I have clay and that may not be a good thing. It rained a couple days ago, I tried digging in a mulched bed and it wasn't the best. I went over to the bed that has no mulch and the soil was fairly nice. This is because it had grass roots and stuff that broke up the clay and made it easier to work. the mulched bed has had mulch laying on top for a year which probably compacted it a little.

So I'm trying to look at it from both angles... what would be best for me both time/money/looks, and what would be best for my soil.

Sorry and thanks for reading such a large post =)

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Rick, I can't really speak to your main question, but it seems to me that a mulched bed will have less, not more compaction than unmulched. Bare soil takes the full force of raindrops, which is considerable. The presence of mulch breaks up that force quite a bit.

Also, as to holding moisture-yes and no. Initially, it sure does. But as that mulch breaks down into humus, it will slowly yield a soil with more air in it. So I guess it depends on when you're doing the checking.


    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 7:39PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

most ground covers.. actually come up about 3 inches.. then cover ground... part of the grafting process.. and part of the 'sticking' process ...

plant the plant.. and mulch right up to about one inch from the plant .. and let the plant grow on top of the mulch ..

otherwise.. you will be trying to figure out how to get grass and weeds out of the spreader ...

i dont have time to study your whole note right now ... will do that tomorrow ...

you really need to tour an arboretum ... to see how the pros do it ... or even knowledgeable amateurs..

you are welcome here any time. and hidden lakes is 10 minutes away ... all your questions.. would quickly clear ...


    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 8:17PM
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You have a point, maybe it's not really as compacted as I thought. Maybe it just stays wet because of the mulch. Not soaked wet by any means, just wet enough that you can't really work the soil. I think the non mulched sections are easier to work because of the deeper grass roots that allow air, worms, etc to work the soil better. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the soil with the grass just feels healthier and more workable.

Ken- I know I need to get out more =)... perhaps someday I'll be able to take a trip up. In the beds I have now, I do mulch the conifers I have. I keep at least a 2 foot circle of mulch around each plant. Then I keep roundup around that circle so I won't be weeding that mulch later. So each conifer will have a mulch ring around it. I was just thinking about holding off on mulching the entire bed and instead spend that money on spreading junipers, spreading pines/spruces, etc. After everything gets large enough that I can't get my mower between them, I can start to add mulch.

My main concern is spending thousands on mulch each year. I plant everything pretty far apart and have few spreading conifers. So the beds would need mulched every 3-4 years. I have all the beds created that I need more now, I don't think I'll add any more new ones until these ones are nearly completed. So from here on out, I can just purchase stuff to fill these beds.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 8:45PM
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I know where you are coming from. Prior to the 2010 ACS conifer convention here in Charlotte I put down 118 yards of mulch in my beds and still didn't finish them all. Hopefully as I get more plants, the amount of mulch required will decrease somewhat but for my yard to look its best, new mulch will continually have to be purchased. I have created a monster.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 10:32PM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.) begin with ground covers need their own space to get a hold on life so to say.

Succulent and Thyme ground covers especially. If you are planting in mulch you will need to clear away that stuff for a circumference of a foot or too. It's a continuing process of putting on growth and developing a root system as it expands. Growing on mulch i-2" deep will be a challenge for some others will do OK as they are growing from a central location and trail out out. Some of your Thyme's will do this. Veronica also.

Most ground covers, when established, are weed free.

Go to your local nursery and read the tag info. There are a lot of possibilities...100's of them. Pick and choose.


A good one for you. Veronica 'Blue Reflections'. I have had this one for 12 years.

Manus reptans. Very prolific. Fast grower.

Ajuga reptans

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 6:33AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

one thing you are forgetting ... is that your one foot plant ... will get larger.. and when it is 3 foot.. the mulch ring will be 5 foot.. but you wont need mulch under the canopy ...

does that make any sense ...

my point about visiting gardens.. was not to expand your WISH LIST .. but to observe how others handle the questions your are struggling with..

any local botanical garden professionally maintained .. will give you inspiration as to maintenance ...

i used to visit hidden lakes with the MI hosta club .... and after the club lunch one day.. i walked west.. instead of east.. and went thru a hedge row [sorta] ... and it was like the clouds parted.. and the angles sang.. and i saw the conifer collection ... and simply in seeing it.. i came to understand how to cover sand in sun .. mulch.. edge.. make island beds.. etc ...

another of your problems.. was how you went at it ... i would get a pile of mulch... and then build a bed ... i would kill the grass.. add the mulch .. and then plant in it ... and that bed.. would not need to be mulched again.. for 3 to 5 years ... you kinda laid out the whole yard.. and are now struggling with how to cover it all ... i know.. not much help in hind sight ...

soooo ... my best suggestion.. get out the lawn chair ... place it in the favored position .. and simply start with the closests beds.. and do them prime.. and move on out from there .... and then drink enough beer.. that you cant focus way out back.. where the mulch isnt prefect ...

on another level.. you are wanting your garden to look like daves ... w/in a few years.. when he has spent a decade or two.. perfecting his ... so go zen .. do what you can.. and enjoy the process ... no matter how long it takes ...


    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 8:04AM
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Dave - I didn't know this are Junipers the same way? Are they ok with being mulched? If I went the ground cover route, I could probably purchase half rare conifers and half at my local nursery. The good thing here is that they all can be multiplied every year to fill other beds.

Ken - That's kind of the point I was trying to make. Right now all my beds are filled with larger growing conifers that are spaced far apart. If for the next 5 years I just fill in the space with spreading junipers, some pines/spruces, some stuff from our local nursery, etc. When I go to add mulch, I'll need much less because everything has grown.

I'll admit my biggest weekeness is creating all of these beds at once. In my defense, I thought the 20 yards of mulch I had first ordered would go much farther. It barely covered 1 bed and cost me $600. That's not all so bad though, I was able to get all my beds outlined and all my larger conifers planted. The good news is that I don't have any more room for larger conifers and I'm not planning to create any more beds until these beds are more established. Now I'm able to focus more on covering the ground with either mulch or ground covers.

I'm not in a panic to get these beds covered... I enjoy them as they are right now. I'm just trying to figure if the money would be best spent on ground covers or mulch. You can easily see the bed shape because I mow it much lower than my other grass. It doesn't look like I just have a bunch of random plants in the middle of my yard with roundup outlining the bed.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 9:03AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

If for the next 5 years I just fill in the space with spreading junipers, some pines/spruces, some stuff from our local nursery, etc. When I go to add mulch, I'll need much less because everything has grown.

==>>> is what i said not getting thru ...

you have to mulch under spreaders.. or you will have a plethora of weeds inside the plant ....

no need to defend yourself ... you are making yourself very happy .. and that is all that is really important ..

we are just navel gazing .. after the fact ...


    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 9:52AM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)


If I remember right your project is very extensive. For me it would take years to complete.

Did you ever think you are trying to accomplish to much. Trying to organize and bring all these beds together at the same time. I would start with 1-2 beds and concentrate on them fully. Finish them completely. Cultivars ground covers and deciduous plants and whatever landscaping tweaks you want to include. A great learning principal. Pick a couple prominent islands/beds to finish. That will get all the naysayers off your back...give you a feel of accomplishment to be ready to move on to the next one as time and finances permit.

Again...The endeavor you are pursing is very expensive dollar wise. Don't get strung out with to large of a project. If you concentrate on 1 or 2 areas with success you will be pleased.

Prostrate junipers abound and will make a great carpet in selected areas of your beds. I use at least 10-15 cultivars. I can post a few if you like.

Or just Google them.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 10:02AM
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I thought the purpose of ground covers are to be an alternative to so much mulch? Lets say that if you have a 10'x10' Juniperus horizontalis "". After the mulch breaks down in 2-3 years under this plant, how are you going to remulch? I thought Junipers rooted as they go along in the soil. So they would need some type of a soil/plant contact. With them forming a solid mat as they go along, pending you keep the path they are headed in clear of anything (with roundup)... in theory they should keep the weeds out if you get Juipers or ground covers that create a thick mat.

Perhaps Junipers and other ground covers aren't as invasive as I thought? Just like if you have a 15' round Picea pungens 'Hoopsii'... I don't think I would keep mulch under the entire tree. The tree itself would be the weed barrier.

If the ground covers aren't invasive enough to keep the weeds down, I'll have to spend the money on mulch. But looking out my window at a 100x25' hardwood mulched bed with nothing more than 10 conifers that are 1' tall, 6" wide, isn't to eye pleasing. I was hoping that ground covers would do the trick, but it looks like I may be wrong.

Dave - This isn't something that I just want to get done, it's something I like doing. I'm ok if it takes many years to get my collection to look like yours. I'm happy with my design layout, very happy with my arrangement of taller conifers, now it is fill in time. I have stuff that is due in next week (more conifers + ground covering evergreens) I plan to start at my entrance and work my way back. I don't have enough to cover a lot of ground which is the purpose for this thread.

Just as an example: This photo needs conifers/less everything else. But you see the ground cover. That ground cover is evergreen, I don't think they could ever mulch it since it's so thick. I know that weeds won't grow through this. I'm thinking thick ground covers for the most part. Then of course I would like to add smaller ones a long with more hostas and such.

I just started this thread because of reading how people are using these thick ground covers in place of mulch or at least a long with some mulch. Not just this particular ground cover, many others as well.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 11:46AM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)


You have a it.

I have found out that one at a time works for me...not necessarily you.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 1:48PM
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whaas_5a(5A SE WI)

Hopefully I didn't miss it but one thing to keep in mind is the placement of groundcovers. You'll need to move freely in and out of the bed and around plants. In the example you show above you can still stand on the walk and maintain/prune the other plants.

As for weeds/grass in the groundcover, it just depends on the density and height of the groundcover. Look at Nate's post at Morton Arb. There is a large groundcover juniper that was weeds and grass growing throughout the plant.

With that said I only like groundcovers in small/narrow beds or upfront at the edge.

As for mulch there is always the free stuff but perhaps shop around and estalbish a repore with an owner that you intend to buy mulch from on a regular basis.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 2:41PM
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I think it'll come down to priorities. Like I've mentioned before, I have the design I like, as of next week all the conical conifers will be planted. The only thing left is to fill out the beds with smaller conifers/ground covers/evergreens/mulch/etc.

I think my best option is, like mentioned above, start at the begining of my garden & fill in. Work 1 bed at a time, get it done, move on.

I think I should take some of the money and purchase conifers/other plants to finish off bed 1 this spring. Then in the fall I can purchase enough mulch to fill this bed. It'll ease the pain a little. Dumping a couple hundred on mulch for each bed I finish is different than dumping $600 at a time for a bed that has only a couple conifers. Bed 1 is my largest bed... it's at the entryway to all my other beds which is why I would have to wait till fall for the mulch.

I can repeat this each year... just pick 1 or 2 beds each spring, fill them in, then later purchase enough mulch to fill the beds in.

Ken mentioned above about mulching first then planting. In my clay, I can't do that. I need the grass roots and stuff worked in with the soil to make it more workable. Plus I've always planted stuff, then added the mulch as the finishing touch.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 4:36PM
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ladylotus(Z3/4 ND)


I understand completely where you are coming from. I have very large gardens and spent a couple years mulching it all. Now they all need it again and I'm wondering if I will move forward with all that mulch again.

First, have you checked the following places for cheaper mulch, the city, any of the tree removing companies? I have a tree removing company that will come out and dump one of their large trucks of mulch for $42. You are right, it does not go far.

I did what you've come to the conclusion of. I worked one bed at a time, mulched it, planted it up and then moved on to another bed. I think that is a terrific plan, if it were me, I would not waste the amount of time it is going to take you to place ground covers in all your beds, it is GOING to be more work. They do still get weeds under the plants and especially because it takes 4 or 5 years to get any real growth on them.

Regarding your method of digging in your grass. I'm a little worried about that because you don't want grass to grow up through your conifers. Grass roots are pretty aggressive.

I have clay soil too, when I started I hoed my gardens and seriously broke hoes from the cement the rain created (this was before I learned about mulch). Here is a cheap suggestion for you. It may not look as nice but it was very cost effective for me and a great way to get started when I was still spending TONS of money on plants to fill in my large gardens...Take your grass clippings and use them as mulch. Put it on real thick and that will also mat down during rains and assist in weed control AND most importantly it provides wonderful tilth to your clay soil. Also, during the Fall, I collected tons and tons of leaves and placed a thick layer of them on my gardens too. I don't know about your area, but in town they people will rake or mow and place their bags of leaves and grass the curb, I would come buy (in the cover of darkness because I was a chicken) with a pickup and trailer fill it up and spread it on my gardens. People would tell me if they used weed killer it would kill my plants, I never lost one plant. Also, they say you should chop the leaves up but I did not do that it worked so well for me. Once you are no longer buying the number of plants you are now starting out, then you can concentrate on purchasing wood chips and come back around and place wood chips over your grass/leaves.

I think you are doing an awesome job making sure you know where all your beds will be, how they will meander around your yard. If I were you, I would just keep mowing the beds as you currently are until you get one bed at a time done and start using the free mulch you already have on your property :).

I think you are going to have one beautiful yard once everything grows. Keep moving along, I love how you are so forward thinking and asking those questions up front. I wish I had done that as I would have eliminated a LOT of mistakes.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 10:04PM
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Thanks! I haven't tried leaves yet, but I have tried pine needles and they work. I may gather some leaves come fall. The mulch won't be as bad now since I won't need to purchase as much at a time... just last week I wanted to get everything covered with mulch. Now I realize that I should complete 1 bed at a time. The good thing here is that I have all my more expensive must have conifers purcahsed for all my beds. Now everything I purchase, both conifers & other plants, will be a lot cheaper.

Some of the plants I have coming in next week that I can use in bed 1 include: Larix Pendula, Juniperus horizontalis 'Gold Strike', Heuchera Midnight Rose, Hosta Stained Glass, Ajuga Black Scallop, Delospermas, Sedum Angelina, grasses, plus I'll get a few more ground covering junipers, maybe another pine or two. All my beds will be mostly conifers, but the other plants can serve to take up the ground space until the conifers get larger. Plus the black plants will be good contrast against the yellows and greens. The grasses, hostas, etc will be a little more work than taking care of conifers, but I don't do anything to my current hostas other than at the end of the year I cut there leaves and toss them in the mulch bed. It's free fertilizer I guess =) I won't purchase anything that I have to deadhead constantly.

This should more than take care of this bed. I try to get stuff that is more drought tollerant. If I purchase something and later find out that it'll require more water, I'll just let it go. Clay soil holds more water, so it isn't all bad I guess.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 8:13AM
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I'm in the second year of addressing similar problems (trees planted with room to grow resulting in vast expanses of unsightly mulch). I have less experience than others here, but this is what I've been doing:

- I planted a bunch of pinus aristata seedlings in between all of my sexier conifers. Things look a lot less sparse and I like the look of Pinus Aristata. They grow slowly, so in 5 years when things start really filling in I'll have the option of transplanting them if I'd like rather than cutting them down. I got mine from U of Idaho, I believe.

-In the front of planting beds (from my normal sightlines from the house looking out) I've been growing lots of perennials from seed. Working from seed you can fill vast amounts of space for the cost of a single 3 gal sexy conifer. The wife is happy with all of the flowers.

-Since your view of a good part of the conifer beds is blocked by perennials for the time being (in the warm months anyway), anything you have around can serve as mulch. Grass clippings, leaves...whatever. It's not an eyesore if you can't see it.

-For early spring interest (after the snow melts but before the perennials get going) I sprinkled lots of bulbs around.

In 10 years the perennials, bulbs, and bristlecones will be overrun by conifers. I'll worry about that in 10 years.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 8:05AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

If the ground covers aren't invasive enough to keep the weeds down, I'll have to spend the money on mulch.

==>> in law school.. we would have called the word INVASIVE.. a term of art ... though i am sure you did not mean what you said above ...

mulch acts as a weed suppressor [among other things] ... by not allowing weed seed to touch soil .. most weed seed needs direct sun and soil contact to sprout ... so by denying contact with the soil.. they are suppressed ... and by covering what seed is there ... most is denied sprouting ..

so when your plant is big enough to not allow sun thru.. then itself will be a weed suppressor ... such as your hoopsi example ... [its really dark under a picea]

ground cover confers range in height and thickness ... i have some pines .. like albyns .. that will create the dense mat you are looking for.. in ten years or so ...

others like pancake do the same ...

but others in the juniper family.. though they cover ground.. do not 'cover it' .. completely ...

but do understand.. i am talking about the young plants .. more than the potential plant ... you can NOT plant a one gallon ground cover.. and leave a 6 foot circle of soil ... you know that.. so my point.. is that you need to mulch.. and maintain such.. until the plant starts creeping away ...


    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 9:16AM
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I understand now... I have the day off work so I'm spending the majority getting bed 1 ready for planting. Next week I have a shipment of conifers & perennials ground covers that I was going to use in multiple beds. I've decided to take a lot of those and move into bed 1. I'll still need to purchase a couple more from Conifer Kingdom to finish the space. Then as soon as I'm finished planting in the bed, I'll get the mulch ordered. This bed will be the first one completely finished. I will not need to add anything else to it, just let it fill in on it's own. This should really give me a sense of accomplishment. If I can get one bed finished, I think that will help and be my inspiration for the next bed and the one after that.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 9:50AM
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dcsteg(5 Shawnee, KS.)

"This should really give me a sense of accomplishment. If I can get one bed finished, I think that will help and be my inspiration for the next bed and the one after that".

Yep...and others will begin to see and understand what you are striving for once these beauties take hold.

A photo when you complete the 1st island?


    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 10:14AM
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Hey Rick, Your last comments sounded like your making adjustments in the right direction. I think when you finish one garden completely before you move on to the next you will feel the satisfaction of a job well done and not feel as if you are spread too thin. Id like to see you with a cold drink and a garden hose watering a nicely finished garden with your rocks, plants and mulch in place....and of course send in a photo...AL

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 10:32AM
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I will post some pics once completed. It will probably be another 3-4 weeks since my last shipment is due in at the beginning of may. No conifers, just some ornamental stuff to add the finishing touches.

Anyhow, Today I went to pickup some mulch at Home Depot and decided to get a couple things. I picked up Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa' on a standard and Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Mops'. Originally for these two spots I was going to place an order for Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Vokel's Upright' & Picea omorika 'Peve Tijn'. These two would have only been 3-6" tall, 3" pots. The two I picked up today were 2 & 3 gallon. Not only do I like these two better, they will give the bed an overall better appearance since these are two of my largest conifers.

The bright blue and yellow really caught my eye... when you put them next to one another they look great!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 7:31PM
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