The BEST Mulch For Fruit Trees {And What NOT To Do}

What is the best mulch for fruit trees? And what should you never use in your fruit orchard?

An apple tree with branches sagging from the weight of so many ripe apples, the tree is not mulched, it is growing from green grass covered in fallen apples.

The best mulch for fruit frees will not just protect your soil, retain moisture, and suppress weeds — it can boost the immune system of your trees and help them fight off disease.

Whether you’re growing fruit trees as part of a permaculture food forest, in a traditional orchard, or even in pots — mulching them is crucial for the best success of your trees and fruit.

Mulch is actually one of those incredibly vital components of gardening that too many home gardeners ignore.

The Best Mulch For Fruit Trees

The best mulch for fruit trees — is more wood. You want wood chips, ramial chipped wood, and leaves — you want to mimic the environment that trees actually live in. Unlike your veggie garden, you want a fungal-dominant environment for fruit trees to thrive, and mulch is a big part of that process.

The best way to ensure the success of your fruit trees is to mimic the natural environment of a forest floor. In the woods, leaves, branches, and other organic material fall to the floor and this creates a beneficial organic mulch that provides incredible benefits to the growing trees.

It is a MYTH that wood chip mulches steal nitrogen from growing plants as the wood breaks down.

In reality, only the very top bit of the soil is affected, and this should not interfere with your fruit tree roots at all. As long as you’re not tilling the wood into your soil, it will not have any negative effects.

This is also true for your vegetable garden by the way — but that’s a whole other topic with more nuance.

And you should be adding some compost (like mushroom or a mixture) below the mulch layer for a newly planted tree anyways.

The type of tree does not matter — whether you’re planting apple trees, citrus trees, or something else.

Why Mulch Fruit Trees

Nature abhors bare soil and doesn’t keep it that way for long.

Aside from recreating a forest-floor environment for your trees, we mulch to help retain moisture and reduce the need for watering, to regulate the soil temperature, and to suppress unwanted weeds and plants from sprouting up.

Mulch will also gradually build up soil fertility as it composts.

This lets us determine what we want planted around our trees, if anything.

And it makes a BIG difference.

In field tests and experiments, mulched trees and bushes grow faster and are healthier which allow them to produce better fruit and more of it.

Young fruit trees are particularly given a boost at a vulnerable time when they’re just getting established.

In permaculture we may be planning a vine layer, a hedge/bush layer, and a herbaceous layer. We may add beneficial guilds.

But even if you’re not starting a permaculture food forest but rather a simpler orchard, many of these considerations and principles will apply to you, and they will help you in achieving your goals.

The best mulches for fruit trees will attract beneficial organisms and bacteria that will help take the soil from a bacterial-dominant one (great for your vegetable garden) and turn into the fungal-dominant soil that trees need to thrive.

A rectangular box full of freshly picked red and green apples.
The best mulch will help your tree thrive and produce the best fruits!

How To Mulch Fruit Trees (Step-By-Step)

The best mulch for fruit trees is just one part of the topic of planting a fruit tree properly. Let’s go through the steps and considerations.

Sheet Mulching

It’s a really good idea to sheet mulch the area where your fruit trees will be planted.

If you are not doing that, skip ahead to the next step.

Sheet mulching has three primary components: the weed suppression layer which smothers what is already growing there (grass and weeds), the planting medium, and then the actual mulch.

I discuss these topics in-depth in my article on how to lay mulch over grass to smother it, and in my article on mulches for an organic vegetable garden which discusses some of the materials we’ll be talking about here.

Related

I highly recommend a couple layers of overlapping cardboard or cardboard and newspaper as the smother and suppress layer.

We did just this in our annual raised garden bed build and you can read that article at that link.

But leaves also work fantastically well too, and in the autumn the suburbs will be full of people bagging up their leaves — yours to take for free.

Leaves need to be applied in a very thick layer where they will begin to matt as they decompose and age. Just do not shred them first unless you’re making leaf mould.

You can do this around a tree that has already been planted or you can do this ahead of time to prepare the area for eventual planting.

Add Compost

Once your fruit tree is planted and the ground around it is firmly tamped down — add a layer of compost on top.

You will want about 3 inches of compost spread out on top of the soil around the tree trunk, going out about 3-4 feet for best results.

Do this even if you are not sheet mulching.

The best compost for trees includes mushroom compost and worm castings or a mixture of the two.

If you only have manure, try to source or chicken or rabbit manures that have a higher NPK compared to other animals such as cow, horse, and sheep.

(And you can even use just compost as mulch too.)

Add Mulch Around Fruit Tree

Now it’s time to mulch around the fruit tree and you will want to do this properly.

Think of the mulch as looking like a fluffy donut ring around your tree that doesn’t touch the trunk.

The best mulch is probably shredded leaves (not whole leaves!) topped with wood chips.

If you have ramial chipped wood — add that into the wood chips as it’s a fantastic green manure and mulch for trees.

Ramial chipped wood might be the single BEST thing if you can get it or make it and I will discuss that more below.

The shredded leaf mulch layer should be 1-2 inches and the wood chip mulch should be another 2 inches. Feel free to add pine cones, twigs, etc.

You will ideally mulch up to 4 feet away from all sides of the trunk in a circle.

This will start the soil underneath into transforming into a fungal-dominant system that will make for the healthiest, happiest trees.

Avoid Volcano Mulching

Avoid the mulch volcano.

You do not want to pile your mulch up high around your tree trunk — like a volcano shape.

It’s not good for your tree or the roots.

Refresh Mulch

The best mulch for fruit trees takes a long time to break down.

Add more twigs, shredded leaves, and wood chips each fall or spring as you work in your orchard.

The beauty of trees like fruit trees is that, once planted, they require very little maintenance and upkeep — unlike an annual garden that involves regular attention.

As the season goes on and you accrue organic matter like pine needles, grass clippings, etc, you can add them to the base of the tree too.

A citrus tree in a terracotta pot covered with mulch.
A potted fruit tree should still be mulched.

Fruit Tree Mulch Options

I’ve described the best mulches for fruit trees, but let’s go through your options along with advantages and disadvantages. The type of mulch you have on hand may work or it may not.

Wood Chips

When people mention wood chips, they’re generally referring to the big truckloads you can get for free from your local arborists. This will typically be a mixture of hard and soft woods, randomly sized chunks, some branches, some bark, and occasionally logs.

It’s fantastic stuff and it’s readily available so it’s popular for good reason as the benefits of wood chips are numerous, especially for trees.

Be prepared to deal with the massive volumes that a full truck will deliver as this will be 20-30 yards of wood chips.

Ramial Mulch

As you prune your fruit and other trees, or if you can get your hands on these young branches from prunings, you wll find something relatively new that was previously under-studied and thus not well understood.

But this ramial chipped wood is likely one of the most perfect mulches for your fruit trees.

Those young tree branches left over from pruning are RICH in the nutrients fruit trees need in the “cambium” or what is the living tissue in the branches.

If you can cut these up into 1-inch pieces or put them through a wood chipper they will eventually decompose and the vast array of beneficial nurients will be released into the soil to eventually feed your trees.

This type of mulch is different from other wood chip mulches and most wood chips you buy or get are from older trees that do not contain this cambium.

And ramial chipped wood from something like willow branches has the incredible benefit of boosting the immune system of your trees due to the presence of salicylic acid (yes — a component of aspirin — and also a pore-cleaning facial product) which helps fruit trees fight pests and diseases!

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Straw & Hay Mulch

You can use straw as mulch and hay as well, but you need to find stuff that does not contain weed seeds.

I found that out the hard way in last year’s disappointing straw bale garden experiment.

If you wish to use straw as mulch — get chopped straw which will not have weeds and has the added bonus of being 99% dust-free.

And as for hay, getting older product that is no longer suitable for animal feed is cheaper and better.

Chopped straw is also called garden straw, and it’s what we use for our chicken coop deep litter method of management.

We also use it to mulch our strawberries and other raised garden beds.

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Cedar Mulch 

Cedar mulch looks great, smells fantastic, works as a mulch should and also contains cedar oil which can repel certain pests like some ants and even termites.

Pine Mulch

Pine mulch from chipped pine trees is generally not good to use around fruit trees because it can make the soil more acidic. Trees and fruit trees do not thrive in overly acidic soil but rather one that is fungal-dominated.

Hardwood Mulch

Hardwood mulch is made from hardwood trees and it breaks down much faster than something like cedar.

Shredded Paper

Surprisingly, shredded paper is not bad as a mulch option. If you have a ton of it at the office — bring it home. But you may want to put it under a layer of wood chips or at least wet it down thoroughly. Shredded paper matts together over time to form a layer that prevents weeds.

It’s low in nutrition but will still help suppress weeds.

Bark Mulch

Bark is made up of larger chunks of wood bark.  This type of mulch takes many years to break down and it may leave your tree roots too wet. It is not an ideal mulch and would work better if mixed with wood chips and similar.

Compost

Yes! compost can be used as a mulch itself!

A layer of mixed composts, including manure and mushroom compost will work to protect and nourish your fruit trees.

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Inorganic Mulches

Inorganic mulches are not recommended for fruit trees.

When we talk about inorganic mulches, we’re talking about landscape fabric, black plastic, clear plastic, gravel, river rock, pebbles, stones, crushed granite, and similar.

These mulches will not provide any nutritional benefits for your trees or soil and may actually keep them weak and less than optimal.

These mulches may leach unwanted stuff into your soil and tree roots.

Colored mulches you can buy from nurseries are also not recommended for the same reasons.

For all the information you need on mulching in your garden, check out my guide Benefits Of Mulch In Your Garden {Ultimate Guide To Mulching} for all the best resources and knowledge.

Final Thoughts

The kind of mulch you choose will have a great impact on your fruit trees. And you have many types of mulch to choose from.

The best option for fruit trees is wood mulches like wood chips, leaves and leaf mold, and ramial chipped wood. If you can get all of those organic materials — so much the better.

Remember that you can add better mulches and refresh them as the years of your fruit trees and orchard go on.

The best mulches retain moisture, regulate temperature, suppress weeds and unwanted plants, give back nutrients as they decompose, and even potentially boost the immune system of your fruit trees.

A tree (or bush) that is mulched will grow bigger faster and produce better fruit.

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